The once imperial city of Vienna, often described as Europe’s cultural capital, is steeped in history and a wealth of experiences for the cultural traveller. With an impressive musical legacy (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler are among the celebrated composers who lived and worked here), many fascinating museums and art galleries, extravagant architecture and, of course, a legendary café culture, a visit to Vienna is a must. We asked our tour leader and Mozart specialist Dr Tom Ford to take us through his 10 top things to make the time for when visiting Vienna…
1. Visit the Mozart House
Not surprisingly, I always make a pilgrimage to this wonderful building. Formerly known as ‘The Figaro House’ because he composed his great masterpiece there, Mozart lived in this building for a few years in the 1780s and it remains the only of his ten Viennese residences still in existence.
2. Attend the Wiener Staatsoper
Without a doubt one of the most spectacular opera houses in the world. As well as the stunning interior, the building claims an incredible lineage of musicians, counting Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Hebert von Karajan among its many acclaimed former Artistic Directors. The famed Wiener Philharmoniker is made up of musicians from the Staatsoper, so you can be assured of high standards at almost any performance.
3. Wander through Zentralfriedhof
In a city teeming with musical history, the Zentralfriedhof (Central cemetery) contains as much as anywhere. As one of the world’s largest cemeteries, there’s no shortage of famous names buried there including writers Johann Nestroy and Franz Werfel, and composers Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg and half a dozen Strausses!
4. Wander through St Marx Cemetery
Much like the above, there is plenty to be discovered at the beguiling St Marx cemetery. The cemetery was only in operation for a few decades and is the site of Mozart’s unknown burial plot. Walking through the rows of graves, it’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Mozart’s Vienna.
5. Walk around the Ringstraße
In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph decreed the demolition of the ancient city wall, allowing the city to appear more welcoming. In its place, a series of cultural landmarks were built – including the Staatsoper, Burgtheater and University, making the less-than-hour walk on the ‘ring road’ a pleasant journey around Vienna’s city.
6. Visit Schönbrunn Palace
The summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy, Schönbrunn was intended to rival the size and splendour of Versailles, however fell short because of funds. Nonetheless, the palace showcases Habsburg opulence and is a lasting testament to the power of one of Europe’s longest dynasties.
7. Retreat to Baden bei Wien
Technically not in Vienna but within a short car ride, this gorgeous spa town has been the favoured summer destination for Viennese for centuries, with Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert writing some of their greatest works there. Perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
8. Compare Stephansdom and Karlskirche
The two towering religious buildings in Vienna are St Stephan’s Cathedral and St Charles Church, and yet they couldn’t be more different. The former is located right in the heart of the old city, and its Gothic style dominates all around it. The latter, however, was designed in the Baroque style – decadent in design and allowing more natural light to resonate. Visit either and you may be fortunate to hear the organist or choir practising.
9. Discover the Kaisergruft
Hiding beneath a tiny Capuchin Church in the old city centre is the Imperial Crypt, where the sarcophagi of almost 150 Habsburg royals dating back to the seventeenth century are located. The modest exterior of the Capuchin Church counters the historical splendours laying below and is a must for anyone interested in royal history.
10. Enjoy coffee and cake at Cafe Schwarzenberg
What is a visit to Vienna without indulging in the sweeter things it has to offer! The cafe culture in Vienna is legendary and no place makes you feel like a 19th-century Viennese socialite like Cafe Schwarzenberg. Situated along the Ringstraße, your imagination will roam while sipping your coffee, as you can almost picture Mahler scurrying along to opera rehearsals…
Dr Tom Ford
Holds a PhD in history and has written extensively on classical music. Tom is currently PR and media manager (classics / jazz) for Universal Music Australia.