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Vienna Travel guide

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Vienna lies in the north-eastern corner of Austria, between the foothills of the Alps and the Carpathians, where the Danube (German: Donau), Europe's second longest river, has cut its course through the mountains. The city is situated alongside the river, most of it on the right bank. The Vienna basin was a nodal point of ancient trade and military routes. It linked north and south along the "amber route" that ran southward from the Baltic and linked east and west along the Danube. Strategically, Vienna commands the surrounding regions, which include sections of Austria's border with Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

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Vienna is divided into 23 "Bezirke" (districts). At the core is district I, the Innere Stadt, which contains most of the city's famous structures. Surrounding the heart of the city is the Ringstrasse, or Ring, a circular road lined with grand buildings, monuments, and parks. Beyond the Ring are the inner suburbs (districts II-IX). The many palaces, churches, embassies, and other buildings in this area are elegant, though generally less imposing than those in district I. Leopoldstadt (district II) was the area allotted in 1622 to the Jews, who lived there until 1938. In this district is the famous 3,200-acre (1,295-hectare) Prater, formerly the hunting and riding preserve of the aristocracy, but since 1766 a public park whose amenities include a stadium, fairgrounds, racetracks, and many restaurants. Beyond another ring road, the Gürtel, lie the outer suburbs (districts X-XX), which are largely residential. Also beyond the Gürtel is the vast Central Cemetery, where many great musical figures and other famous Viennese are buried. Districts XXI and XXII lie on the far side of the Danube; district XXIII is at the southern edge of the city.

Prominently situated in the centre of Vienna is St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom), one of the chief Gothic buildings of Europe. It incorporates remnants of the original 12th-century Romanesque structure, which was destroyed by fire. Reconstruction began in the early 14th century and continued for a century and a half. The northern tower, never completed, was topped off with a Renaissance dome between 1556 and 1587. The cathedral was again burned and partly destroyed in World War II but has since been restored. The 20-ton bell, made from captured Turkish cannons in 1711, was recast and rehung with much ceremony.

Other Gothic churches include the Church of the Augustinians, the Church of Maria am Gestade, and the Church of the Friars Minor (officially the Snow Madonna Italian National Church), all dating from the 14th century. Vienna's oldest church is St. Ruprecht's. Dating from the 13th century with parts from the 11th century, it is believed to have originally been erected in 740. The Church of St. Peter, a Baroque structure thought to be standing on the site of a church founded by Charlemagne in 792, was built chiefly by the architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt in 1702-33. Other fine examples of Baroque art are the richly frescoed University Church (1627-31) and the Church of the Capuchins (1632), which contains the crypt of the Habsburg imperial family. The Church of the Scots (1155), together with a monastery for Scottish and Irish monks, was rebuilt in late Italian Renaissance style in 1638-48. The style of most of the finest secular buildings, such as the Harach and Kinsky palaces and the winter palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy, is Baroque, Vienna's leading architectural style in the 17th and 18th centuries. (see also Index: Baroque art) The vast complex of the Imperial Palace, the Hofburg (or Burg), lies along the Ringstrasse. It consists of a number of buildings of various periods and styles, enclosing several courtyards, the oldest part dating from the 13th century and the latest from the end of the 19th. The Hofburg abounds in magnificently appointed private and state apartments. It houses the imperial treasury of the Holy Roman and Austrian empires, the Austrian National Library, the Albertina and several other museums, and the Spanish Riding School. The state apartments in one wing of the Hofburg serve as the offices of Austria's president. Close by stands the Privy Court Chancery (1716-21), where the Congress of Vienna met after the Napoleonic Wars.

The other important buildings along the Ring are mainly mid-19th-century versions of earlier European styles. They include the Stock Exchange (Börse), in Neoclassical-Renaissance style, and the pseudo-Gothic Votive Church, built by Emperor Francis Joseph after he escaped an assassination attempt in 1853. Nearby is the University of Vienna, the oldest university in the German-speaking world, designed in the Italian Renaissance style. The university was founded in 1365, but its original buildings have disappeared. Another landmark is the City Hall (Rathaus), in neo-Flemish-Gothic with Renaissance touches, and facing it is the Burgtheater, in a mixture of neo-Italian-High Renaissance with Baroque indulgences. The Neoclassical Parliament building lies adjacent to the Palace of Justice, built in 16th-century German Renaissance style. The neo-Renaissance Natural History Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum stand in front of an exhibition centre, formerly the royal stables. Across the Ring from the museums is the Hofburg's last extension, the Neue Hofburg, and eastward is the magnificent Vienna State Opera House, built in 1861-69. Purporting to be French early Renaissance, the State Opera is actually a conglomeration of imitative architectural styles, of pinnacles, arcades, colonnades, and heroic statuary, yet it somehow achieves a serene and noble harmony.

On the eastern side of the Innere Stadt lies the City Park, rich in monuments. The Innere Stadt and its immediate neighbourhood are still, unlike the older parts of most European cities, the fashionable quarter, containing the government offices, embassies and legations, the principal hotels, and many other fine buildings. The Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Habsburgs, with its splendid rooms decorated in Rococo style and its great formal park, lies to the southwest in the suburb of Hietzing.

Another noble structure is the Belvedere, which is actually two Baroque palaces at either end of a terraced garden. Hildebrandt built it for the soldier and statesman Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Lower Belvedere (1714-16) was a summer garden palace, and the Upper (1721-24) was designed as a place of entertainment. Both now house museums of Austrian art. The Austrian State Treaty, which ended the four-power occupation of the country, was signed in the Upper Belvedere on May 15, 1955.

The Church of St. Charles, a vast structure dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, was erected just outside the city walls in 1716-39. This Baroque edifice is fronted by a severely classical porch of columns in ancient Roman style, and before it stand spirally decorated twin columns carved with scenes from the saint's life. A few streets away from the Church of St. Charles are the Theater an der Wien, built between 1789 and 1801. Mozart conducted the first performance of The Magic Flute in 1791 in the theatre's wooden predecessor, and Beethoven's Fidelio had its premiere in the newly constructed theatre in 1805. All of the celebrated operetta composers of the 19th century presented works on its stage. In 1962 the municipality bought the dilapidated house, restored it, and now operates it as an orchestra hall.

The Viennese are the product of centuries of cross-fertilization between mountain and plain, between the Balkan strain from one direction and the Germanic from the other. As the names in Vienna's telephone directory indicate, the ancestors of one Viennese in three have come from Bohemia, one in five from Hungary, one in seven from Poland, and one in eight from the Balkan Peninsula. Along with those whose families migrated from Germany and other parts of Austria, this mixture makes up the melting pot of Vienna.

Wienerisch, the Viennese speech and accent, reveals social levels and origins. It also demonstrates that the people of Vienna have in their time been governed by Romans, Italians, Spanish, French, Magyars, and Slavs and have absorbed Turkish and Yiddish words into their German tongue in a way that renders the original unrecognisable. Their speech is in many ways closer to that of their neighbours to the south and east than to the German north, and one of its functions is to announce, "we are different." If the people have any leaning toward pomposity, it is balanced by a habit of self-mockery, as expressed in their saying, "The situation is hopeless but not serious." The famed Gemütlichkeit (untranslatable but akin to "coziness" - I'd say more "atmosphere"), upon which the city's tourist trade thrives, is--like the nostalgia for wine, women, and song--part of a sentimental image of the Viennese.

Vienna is the undisputed cultural centre of Austria and one of the world capitals of music. Even the Salzburg and Bregenz festivals are dependent on Viennese orchestras, musicians, theatre directors, and actors. Operas, concerts, and theatrical performances have played a major part in Viennese life for centuries, and many world-famous composers lived and worked in the city. The famous Society of Friends of Music, founded in 1812, helps to ensure that Vienna remains a leading music centre. The Vienna Boys' Choir, founded in 1498 (Haydn and Schubert were its most famous boy members), sings on Sunday mornings at the mass in the Hofburg Chapel. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gives frequent Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning concerts and also performs during the week at the State Opera House. Altogether there are seven concert halls in Vienna. Among the highlights of the Viennese musical calendar are the annual gala performance of Johann Strauß's operetta Die Fledermaus on New Year's Eve and the New Year's concert of the Philharmonic, broadcast and televised throughout the world.

The Austrian federal government owns the two major opera houses, the State Opera and the People’s Opera, and the two leading theatres, the Burgtheater and the Academy Theatre, and their singers and actors enjoy respected civil servant status. The State Opera is one of the leading opera houses in the world, where Verdi and Wagner conducted and where Gustav Mahler was director. It opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. During World War II it was destroyed, and, after rebuilding, it reopened in 1955 with a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. The Burgtheater, founded in 1776, is one of the most highly regarded German-language theatres in Europe. In addition to several large theatres, Vienna has numerous small theatres, which provide a home for more avant-garde works.

Museums and libraries. Among the museums and historic buildings are the Albertina, with its immense collection of graphic arts, including engravings by Dürer and Rembrandt; the Kunsthistorisches Museum with the largest Bruegel collection outside The Netherlands; the Academy of Fine Arts, housing the superb Habsburg collection of old masters, especially rich in Flemish and Dutch paintings; the Imperial Treasury, with the imperial crown and the regalia of the Holy Roman emperors and the house of Habsburg; the museums of natural history, ethnology, military history, and technology; the Clock Museum; and the Museum of the City of Vienna, with its exhibits of Viennese history. The Roman excavations in the Hoher Market, converted into an underground museum; the catacombs of St. Stephen's Cathedral; the Imperial Vault in the Church of the Capuchins, burial place of the Habsburg emperors; and the exhibits and imperial apartments in the Schönbrunn Palace offer a historical dimension to the city's art treasures. The houses in which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Johann Strauss lived and worked are open to the public. The apartment that was Sigmund Freud's home and office for nearly 50 years is also a museum. In addition to its museums and historical sites, Vienna is notable for its libraries, including the National Library, the University Library, the City Library, and the libraries of the Natural History Museum and the Academy of Sciences. Coffeehouses and taverns.

The coffeehouse has been a Viennese institution for three centuries. According to legend, the first such establishment opened with an inventory of Turkish coffee beans, part of the booty from the Siege of Vienna in 1683. There are a variety of coffees and an assortment of supplements such as cream or brandy to choose from. The Viennese have turned the coffeehouse into a sort of second living room, where they not only drink their beverage and consume pastries but also read periodicals, play cards, and chat with friends. There were once famous literary and theatrical cafés where artists and famous personalities held court; still flourishing is the Café Demel, a true custodian of the past. Also peculiar to Vienna are the taverns in which is served the young, sour wine--Heuriger--of the previous year's local harvest. Some of the most famous taverns are in the outlying districts of Vienna, such as Grinzing, Nußdorf, and Sievering, and evergreen branches hung over the entrance identify them. The wine drinking is accompanied with music, usually played by a trio of instruments, including those such as a fiddle, accordion, guitar, or zither.

The architectural history of St. Stephen's begins in the 12th century, the oldest remaining parts date from the 13th century: the Giant Gate (Riesentor) and the Towers of the Heathens (Heidentürme), both Romanesque in style. Duke Rudolph IV of Habsburg, in 1359, laid the cornerstone of the Gothic nave with its two aisles. The South Tower (Südturm), 448 feet high, was completed in 1433 (the Viennese have given it the nickname Steffl, which also denotes the whole cathedral). After 1511, building in the Gothic style ceased; the unfinished North Tower (Nordturm), 224 feet high, was capped with a makeshift Renaissance spire in 1579. During the 18th century, the cathedral was decorated with Baroque altarpieces - the panel of the main altar shows the stoning of its namesake St. Stephen, the first martyr of Christendom.

St. Stephen's Cathedral, Austria's most eminent Gothic edifice, houses a wealth of art treasures, some of which can only be seen during a guided tour: the red-marble sepulchre of Emperor Frederick III, sculpted from 1467 to 1513 by Niclas Gerhaert van Leyden; the pulpit, a work from 1514-15 by Anton Pilgram (who put his own relief portrait underneath it as his signature); the Altarpiece of Wiener Neustadt (Wiener Neustädter Altar), a Gothic winged altar from 1447 - and the tomb of Prince Eugene of Savoy, dating from 1754.

In the North Tower, Austria's largest bell, known as the Boomer Bell (Pummerin), has found its home (there is an express elevator to the observation platform - skip this great view if you are afraid of heights!).

Next to the North Tower elevator is the entrance to the catacombs underneath the cathedral, an underground burial place which contains the mausoleum of the bishops, the tombs of Duke Rudolph the Founder and 14 other members of the Habsburg family, and 56 urns with the intestines of the Habsburgs buried between 1650 and the 19th century in the Imperial Burial Vault.

In the South Tower, the 343 steps of a tight spiral staircase lead up to the watchman's lookout 246 feet above street level; it was once used as a fire warden's station but now serves as an observation point.

Two monuments built by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and greatly esteemed by the Viennese--were thanksgiving offerings. One is the 69-foot Trinity Column, or Plague Column (Pestsäule), on the fashionable shopping boulevard the Graben, which commemorates the cessation of the plagues that struck the city in 1679 and 1713; the other, in more sober Baroque style, is Joseph's Fountain, a votive column and fountain in the Hoher Market, donated by Emperor Leopold I for the safe return from battle of Joseph I, his firstborn son and heir.

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