It’s good to be the king. Well, in this case, it’s good to be the emperor. Or empress. Vienna served as the imperial capital of the Austrian Empire (later the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and was the seat of the Habsburg dynasty. This family had titles ranging from Duke/Duchess to Holy Roman Emperor, and everything between, from the thirteenth century until the abolishment of the dynasty in 1918 following World War One.
While the family had palaces everywhere (including one during a short stint in Mexico), Vienna was their home. During the winters, they stayed in the center of the city in the Hofburg Palace complex, a huge array of buildings and gardens. During the summer, they journeyed just outside the city to Schonbrunn Palace. Today, visitors to Vienna can – and should – visit both.
The Hofburg was originally built in the thirteenth century, and expanded pretty much constantly until the end of the empire. It is so large that today, in addition to housing several museums, the offices of the OSCE, the seat of the Austrian President, and other administrative offices, it also has nearly 5,000 residents living in the complex. It is truly dizzying, a literal maze of extraordinary architectural buildings, parks, courtyards, statues, and gardens.
While the grounds are free to wander, the buildings and museums have entrance fees (for the most part). One could easily spend a week seeing all elements of the Hofburg, but I will focus on a few. First, let’s talk about the palace itself – as in the most recently occupied residential wing – which is now home to the Sisi Museum.
Sisi, Empress Elisabeth, was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I, the longest serving Habsburg monarch, from 1848 until his death in 1916 at the age of 84. Sisi married at the age of fifteen, and from there, seemingly lived as challenging of a life as one can live when one has every wish granted. A woman of exceeding beauty (maintained through diligent exercise and hours of daily maintenance on her ankle-length hair), she despised court life, preferring to spend her time in the farthest reaches of the empire, where she wrote poetry that expressed escapism and regret.
Sisi was beloved in the empire, and her assassination in 1898 was just one of a series of truly devastating events in the life of Franz Joseph. (His only son committed suicide, his eldest daughter died at the age of two, and his later heir was assassinated which led to World War One.) The museum exists in three parts. One is the imperial silver and porcelain collection, which is overwhelming in size and scope, and requires more than a dozen rooms to show even part of. Second is a history of Sisi’s life, excerpts of her poetry, and some of her most iconic clothing. (After the suicide of her son Rudolph in 1889, she wore only black.) Finally are the imperial chambers, the offices and living quarters of both Sisi and Franz Joseph.
Across a gorgeous domed courtyard from the Sisi Museum is the Spanish Riding School, the oldest and most famous horse riding school in the world. Opened in 1572, it is named for Spanish horses, which at the time were considered the best in the world. However, over the years, unique stallions were bred. Known as the Lipizzaner horses, these are exclusively used in the school today, which still trains some of the best riders on the planet. A visit to the indoor arena, which was constructed in 1729, includes either a show or a morning training session. I see a training (which was generously sponsored by the school), and am amazed at the grace of both horses and riders as they practice a series of moves, one of which resembles a curtsy. Set to classical music, it is a sight to behold!
One other unique spot in the Hofburg complex is the butterfly pavilion. Built in 1989 in a portion of the imperial palm house greenhouses, it is hot, humid, and totally full of incredible butterflies. No, it’s not historic. But it is totally worth a visit.
If you are royalty, a single palace, even one as vast as the Hofburg, just will not suffice. In summer months, the court moved to what was then outside of Vienna, though today is well within the city, to Schonbrunn Palace. While a royal hunting lodge has existed here since the 16th century, Schonbrunn as we know it now was built by Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa was notable in several ways, beyond her building of Schonbrunn. First, she was the only woman to hold the title Empress in her own right. While she ruled the Habsburg lands during her husband Francis I’s tenure as Holy Roman Emperor, it was her claim that gained him power, not the other way around. And after his death in 1765, she continued to rule for another fifteen years. Secondly, she had a lot of children, sixteen to be exact (though only thirteen would survive), whom she married into other royal families to consolidate power. (The most famous of those is her daughter Maria Antonia, known in France as Marie Antoinette.) Thus Habsburgs ultimately had roots in every royal family in Europe.
Schonbrunn Palace itself is a 1,441 room Rococo structure, though only a few dozen rooms are part of even the “grand” tour. (I opt for the shorter Imperial Tour, which covers 20 rooms on an audio tour, after which I stroll the gardens.) Most commonly compared to Versailles, I find Schonbrunn to be less gaudy. Sure there is plenty of wealth, and more gold leaf than one really needs, but pastoral paintings and wood paneling are also present, as opposed to Versailles’ over the top show of riches. The tour traces the history of the palace, though it focuses by necessity on Franz Joseph I, as he was the last permanent imperial occupant.
The gardens are free to enter, although there are separate admissions for some of the structures, as well as the zoo (dating to the 1750s) and hedge maze. Perhaps the “crown” of Schonbrunn is Gloriette, a 1775 building atop a hill overlooking the palace. It is a twenty or so minute hike to get to the structure.
As the seat of one of the most vast and powerful European empires, Vienna is home to some pretty darn spectacular palaces. Visitors are lucky to be able to visit both the Hofburg and Schonbrunn, there to learn about and to experience the stories of Maria Theresa, Franz Joseph, Sisi, and the Habsburg dynasty.
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