Fabulous Vienna! I feel lucky to have visited Vienna – the cosmopolitan capital city of Austria – three times. It’s a city with great museums, architecture and plenty of history to keep you busy – all in a walkable historic core. Knowing some friends and family were going to visit, I did a series on my Instagram account Travelknowing to show some photos and tidbits I wanted to share that didn’t make it into my other posts on Vienna. Enjoy exploring Vienna!
No matter how you arrive in Vienna you’re first destination is most likely Stephansplatz, the historic square smack in the center of Vienna with the symbol of the city, with the beautiful gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral at it’s heart.
Stock im Eisen – Stick in Irons
Have you ever passed by something many times and not really noticed it? With all the hustle and bustle going on in Stephansplatz you wouldn’t be the only one who walked right by this old dried-up tree trunk encased in glass.
If you look closely you’ll see hundreds of nails in this centuries old wood, held together with straps of iron and closed with a iron band and padlock, earning it the name Stock im Eisen, or Stick in Irons.
In medieval times the tree used to be outside the city and on their way out of town to become journeymen, each locksmith apprentice would hammer a nail in the tree for good luck. A statue in a niche above the entrance door of the building depicts the scene of this craft guild custom.
Don’t miss this fascinating piece of Vienna history!
St. Stephens Cathedral – Stephansdom
I was fascinated by the Romanesque facade of the 14th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral – In ancient times Vienna was known as Vindobona, a Roman garrison town. A pagan temple was on the site where St. Stephen’s is today and some of those ancient stones and statues are incorporated into the Cathedral.
The two octagonal towers are called the heathen towers because they were built with some recycled Roman stones flipped over to hide the pagan inscriptions, and in the facade are niches with statues from Roman times. I was crazy about those intriguing statues in the niches!
Inside St. Stephens
Inside the magnificent gothic Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) is a huge space more than a football field long and nine stories tall, with 77 life size stone statues adorning the columns all the way to the altar and a fascinating Gothic pulpit on the left.
You can see the gated off nave through the wrought iron bars for free any time it’s open, but to see everything in this interesting Cathedral, get an all inclusive ticket to go up both towers, into the central space, the treasury, and cool creepy crypt.
St. Stephen’s Pulpit
A masterpiece of carving, just like the rest of St. Stephen’s the Gothic pulpit is crammed full of fascinating details. There are 4 marvelous stone carvings circling the top depicting the four church fathers in different stages of life…and peeking out of a window beneath the stairs is a stone self-portrait of the sculptor himself!
There’s symbolism galore on top of the handrail, with the struggle between lizards (animals of light) and toads (animals of darkness). Fortunately there’s a small poodle dog at the top to prevent any evil from ascending to the pulpit. A poodle? Yep, the protector dog does look like a poodle, or maybe a Labradoodle …Fascinating details!
Nearly a quarter-million roof tiles were replaced with new ones from the same source after the destruction of the roof in 1945.
What happened to the roof? St. Stephens had been only slightly damaged by allied bombing, but on April 12 1945 – the day that Soviet Forces entered Vienna – civilian looters lit fires in nearby buildings and sparks were carried by wind to the cathedral. The roof caught fire and collapsed.
If you get a chance, get a ticket to the elevator to the North tower to see a gargoyle eye view of this most interesting Cathedral roof ever – and outstanding views all over Vienna!
From the other tower – the one without an elevator – you can look down on the majestic buildings in Stock-im-Eisen-Platz and the start of the beautiful and famous Graben street.
In ancient times, the Graben was a moat around one side of the Roman garrison called Vindobona – and a street we walked many times in Vienna.
Stellar views from St. Stephen’s south tower but there isn’t an elevator to this tower, with about 340 steps you’ll get some exercise for these views!
Strolling down the Graben (that used to be the moat!) you run across a huge marble column filled with swirling clouds and angels and topped with the figure of the Trinity. This Plague Column commemorates the gratitude of the city when their prayers were answered and the great plague of 1679 finally ended.
Emperor Leopold I, who vowed to erect a mercy column if the plague would end, is among the figures about halfway up – but the most interesting figures are at the base of the column in the front where you see Lady Faith and a cherub throwing an old naked hag, representing the plague, into the abyss.
This baroque monument became the model for other plague columns throughout Austria, and I’ve seen a few but this is definitely Tops!
Historic Art Nouveau Anker Clock in Hoher Markt
Not far from St. Stephen’s is Hoher Markt square, one of the oldest in Vienna and what used to be the center of the Roman garrison of Vindobona.
Every day just before noon you’ll see a crowd standing – all eyes directed upward to the historic art nouveau Anker Clock bridging the space between the two buildings of the Anker Insurance Company.
Historic copper figures from Vienna’s history enter the central space each hour of the day, but at noon all 12 parade slowly by – each figure accompanied by a different song on the Anker Clock organ.
Across from the Anker Clock are interesting Roman Ruins underneath the square – if you like ancient Roman history, pop into this museum for free on a Sunday!
Trompe l’oeil Ceiling in the Jesuit Church
Near the Old University, not far from St. Stephen’s, is the Jesuit’s Church with it’s flamboyant baroque interior and it’s magnificent dome…or is really a dome?
The dome above is trompe l’oeil, or quadratura, a trick of illusionist perspective painting – the ceiling above is flat! When you enter you’d swear this was a dome, but walk to the altar and then look back and you’ll see the trick. Have you seen an illusionist ceiling before?
Down from St. Stephen’s toward the Donaukanal is the interesting medieval Griechengasse (Greek Street), a lane so narrow stone columns were placed at the base of the buildings to protect them from damage by wagon wheels.
At the end of this tiny lane is Griechenbeisl – the oldest tavern in Vienna. Drop in to see the Turkish cannonballs stuck in the walls in the entry hall! You can’t miss the tavern, just look up for the woodcarved sign of a bagpiper which commemorates a legend about Der liebe Augustin (dear old Augustine) the bagpiper.
Postal Savings Bank
Taking up an entire city block, the famous Austrian Postal Savings Bank (Österreichische Postsparkasse) was designed by Otto Wagner, the biggest name in Judenstil (Austrian Art Nouveau) in Vienna and built between 1904-1906.
This atrium-like main hall is one of his most famous masterpieces, filled with natural light from the curved frosted glass skylight ceiling and even a glass tile floor to allow the natural light to illuminate the floor below. The decoration was kept to a simple and elegant minimum using glass and polished steel.
It escaped any damage from WWII and is still in it’s original state! Fabulous Judenstil!
The facade of the famous Austrian Postal Savings bank is completely covered in square marble plates attached to the structure with mortar and iron bolts with ornamental aluminum caps, adding a decorative pattern to the facade.
The design was intentionally simple to convey a sense of a strong impenetrable bank where the customer’s money was safe, but more than that – maintenance and cleaning is easy and inexpensive. It’s definitely severe and austere, not my favorite style, but what terrific modernist form and function in 1904!
The wonderful Hundertwasser Museum mirrors the quirky architectural style of the famous Hundertwasserhaus Apartment building. What’s a Hundertwasser? Not what, but who – Friedensreich Hundertwasser was one of the most important Austrian artists of the 20th century.
If you love intense and radiant colors you’ll love his art! Visit the museum first to appreciate why he’s famous, and then the apartment building he designed a few blocks away.
A visit to the Hundertwasser museum is an immersion into Hundertwasser style – wavy, undulating floors, a noticeable lack of straight lines, and intense bold beautiful color!
I was head over heals for his paintings, but also here are his printed graphics, tapestries, and fascinating models of his green architectural designs.
Did you know there is a Synagogue in Vienna that survived WWII?
Because only Catholic places of worship were permitted to be on major streets, the beautiful City Temple was built in the inner courtyard of a block of buildings. Built in 1825-26 by Josef Kornausel, the most eminent architect of the Vienna Bierdermeier era, it survived because the Nazis couldn’t burn it down without destroying all the buildings in the entire block.
Still a functioning synagogue today, a guided tour is given Monday-Thursday a couple of times a day in both English and German. If you’re interested in the history of Vienna’s Jewish Community you won’t want to miss seeing this beautiful synagogue!
Albrecht Fountain Below the Albertina Museum…and next to Bitzingers!
The wonderful allegorical figures of Danubius the river god, and Vindobona, the personification of Vienna, in this 1869 fountain outside of the Albertina Museum.
Most often you’ll see visitors sitting on the edge of the now dry fountain, injoying the lively scene and…one of the many types of wurst from my favorite Würstelstand, Bitzinger’s, which is right next to this fountain!
Imposing and imperial, the enormous Neue Burg (New Palace) is a wing of the Hofburg Palace complex started in 1881 but never finished. Today the impressive palace has 3 different fascinating collections inside, Arms and Armor, Historic Musical Instruments, and Ephesos Museum of antiquities.
If you want to visit a museum without crowds this is the place, and it gets better – the same entrance ticket here gets you into the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum! A chilling bit of history when you look at the balcony of the Neue Burg – that’s where Hitler announced the annexation of Austria to 200,000 cheering crowds in 1938.
The magnificent Belvedere Palace was the home of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a kind of runty French aristocrat who decided on a military career at 19…and boy what a career it was!
After rejection from serving in the French army, he moved to Austria and became one of the most successful commanders in modern European history rising to the highest offices at the Habsburg Imperial court in Vienna.
Today the beautiful baroque palace is home to the greatest collection of Austrian art dating from the middle ages to present, including the largest Gustav Klimt collection.
If you love Klimt’s work a visit here is a must!
Café Central – my Favorite Viennese Coffee House
A visit to a traditional Viennese coffeehouse is a must in Vienna, and my all time favorite is Café Central.
So who’s this guy sitting there at the entrance? That’s a statue of Peter Altenberg, a writer and poet and one of the long list of late 19th century poets and philosophers who got together over coffee and cake in this beautiful coffeehouse in the Palais Ferstel.
Altenberg did most of his writing at coffeehouses, and Café Central was where he spent most of his time and even had his mail delivered! Beautiful decor and excellent espresso (and cake!) – Don’t miss it!
Exploring Vienna Wrap-up: A final photo in Vienna and a view of famous Graben Street, you can clearly see the curve of this street that in ancient times was the trench (graben) around the Roman encampment Vindobona.
There’s a lot to explore in Vienna – fabulous museums and Imperial treasures, wonderful art and architecture plus fascinating history, and almost everything you want to see in a wonderful walkable pedestrian center. Is a fourth time visiting Vienna in the picture for me? I certainly hope so!