The Viennese can be a tad formal at times: strings of titles, hand kissing, fancy dress. But when you’ve had the Hofburg down the street for some 750 years, it can gradually make an impression.
With 16 wings, over 2,600 rooms, the former seat of imperial power and winter residence of the Habsburgs is a city unto itself. With the demise of the empire in 1918 freeing up much of the space in and around the palace, government offices and cultural institutions moved in, granting new purpose to the complex and fully integrating it into the fabric of Vienna city life.
First mentioned in 1279, the Hofburg was originally a castle and part of the city’s fortifications. As the fortunes of the House of Habsburg waxed, so did
the palace, expanded to fit the administration of a growing empire. With new wings simply added in the style of their respective times, it’s a grand hodgepodge – unlike the graceful integrity of the summer palace Schönbrunn. And there’s lots to see, a legacy of over six centuries of arts patronage,
such as the Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) of crown jewels and imperial regalia and the magnificent National Library with over seven million books, some dating to the 4th century. There are two lovely churches, the intimate Hofburg Kapelle, home of the Vienna Boys Choir, and the 14th century Augustinerkirche, site of the weddings of the future Empress Maria Theresia and later of Franz Josef I with the legendary “Sissi” – where every week full masses by Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn or Haydn are performed by a full choir and orchestra.
Then just next door is the Albertina, a major collection of drawings and prints by old masters as well as impressionist and early 20th century art, and underneath, the Austrian Film Museum, with regular screenings and retrospectives from their massive archive. And on the corner, the all-hours Wurstelstand Bitzinger serves up juicy sausages for hungry denizens of the night. Across the Burgring from Heldenplatz are the twin museums KHM and NHM, housing notable works and artefacts of the imperial art and natural history collections.
On across the square, the former court stables were repurposed in 2001 as the irresistible Museumsquartier, a huge high-culture playground with a focus on contemporary developments. Check out the Café Leopold, a trendy bar inside and above the Leopold Museum, which houses the world’s largest Schiele collection; and Subotron, a shrine/store dedicated to “antique” video games and geek culture. Beside offering quirky collector’s items like Mexican lucha libre masks, Tetris-block ice trays and vintage games and gizmos, they also regularly host events on digital gaming theory and practice.
No Sleep till Gumpendorf
Then on across Mariahilfer Straße, Vienna’s popular shopping mile, numerous bars, cafés and restaurants beckon. Top Kino, an arthouse cinema, bar and café, is a popular hangout for alternative food and films, and If Dogs Run Free serves antique cocktail recipes in a trendy environment. Right next door, Café Phil caters to off-beat literati and cinephiles with vintage furniture and shelves of film-related books for browsing and sale space. Across the street, the iconic Café Sperl radiates old world charm, featured in films like David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and Richard Linklater’s classic romantic chestnut Before Sunrise.
The emperor’s backyard
Heading back, restaurant Burgring 1 is popular with both hipsters and the business crowd, offering contemporary Austrian classics in a stripped down, bare-brick environment. Toward the opera, Said the Butcher to the Cow turns hipster appeal up to eleven, serving artisanal cheesecake, burgers and gin tonics amid irony-laden historical photos.
Crossing to the Burggarten, the palace’s formally private lawns are now swarmed by student and citizen soaking in the warmth. Its centerpiece is the Palmenhaus, an art noveau glass house where imperials used to unwind. Now a classy restaurant and broad terrace from which to see and be seen, the adjoining tropical butterfly garden has about 500 beauties, fluttering free amid the greenery.
On the other side of the palace complex is the Volksgarten (people’s garden), with a magnificent rose garden, a faux Greek temple and a large memorial to the ever-popular Empress Elisabeth. It is also a buzzing nightlife spot, with the Volksgarten Club, Säulenhalle and “Lindy Hop” central, the Pavillion.
The empire is long gone, but the Hofburg remains the nerve center and, in more ways than one are, the heart of Austria.
Points of Interest near Hofburg
Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM)/ Naturhistorisches Museum (NHM)
1., Maria-Theresien-Platz (both)
NHM daily ex. Tuesdays, 09:00-18:30, Wednesdays 09:00-21:00
KHM Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-18:00, Thursdays 10:00-21:00