Vienna’s historic and spiritual city center may be Stephansplatz with its famous cathedral, but its actual pulsating heart is more likely Karlsplatz – a major traffic and public transit hub, some of the city’s most beloved cultural institutions line that square as well as schools, museums and a large park, drawing in commuters and tourists. Straddling the 1st district and the Naschmarkt, it’s as central as it gets.
Despite the many historical landmarks, the square itself is fairly young, created during the regulation of the Wienfluss (Vienna River) that saw the stretch between Stadtpark and Naschmarkt paved over (1894-1904). Officially named after the Karlskirche in 1899, it is younger by nearly 200 years.
It’s an area that has always been lively. In Roman times, a wooden bridge over the Wien connected to the road leading to Italy (today’s Wiedner Hauptstraße), and throughout the ages, it was a bustling neighborhood just outside Kärntnertor gate that catered to travelers. During the Middle Ages, taverns and inns thrived here as well as several hospitals that were funded by watermills and breweries on the river.
During the two Turkish sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683) the area saw fierce fighting as invaders tried to undermine and breach the city; as a result, modern glacis and ramparts were built and a large strip of no-man’s-land left unobstructed. Toward the end of the 18th century, the space was used for recreation – willows and acacias were planted on the riverbanks, and from 1780 on, the original Naschmarkt flourished on the south side before moving to its current location in 1902. Once the plan was hatched to raze the city’s defenses and replace them with the Ringstraße, the area became prime real estate. Many iconic buildings were erected and the square began to take shape after the river disappeared.
Today, Karlsplatz is one of the city’s busiest intersections as well as the central hub of the U-Bahn system, going five stories below ground with three of Vienna’s five (soon to be six) subway lines meeting at Karlsplatz station. Its central location has also attracted less savory groups: During postwar reconstruction, Karlsplatz hosted the city’s largest black market, and from the 1980s to mid-2000s, drug dealers and addicts loitered around the station and neighboring park. Today, it’s known mostly for cultural festivals, including a popular Christmas market during the Advent season.
A River Runs Under It
Its namesake, the Karlskirche, dominates the south side of the square; completed in 1739, it’s a prize example of baroque architecture, commissioned by Emperor Karl VI to fulfill a pledge he made during the plague epidemic of 1713. Architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach took cues from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and Trajan’s column in Rome, creating an instantly recognizable oval dome and twin columns that make it Vienna’s most prominent church after Stephansdom. Facing Resselpark, it’s flanked by two major institutions – the Wien Museum to its left (currently undergoing renovation) and the historic main building of Vienna’s Technical University to its right. Within the park are a charming little café with classic Viennese cuisine and several sculptures and monuments, including Brahms and inventors like Josef Madersperger (the sewing machine), Siegfried Marcus (automotive pioneer) and Ressel himself, who developed the first functional ship’s propeller.
On the north side, you’ll find the Musikverein, erected by the influential Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Vienna Society of the Friends of Music) in the neoclassical style, its excellent acoustics and ornate auditoriums have made it one of the premier performance venues in the world since it opened in 1870. From its Goldener Saal, resonating like a huge drum suspended over hollow cellars, its annual New Year’s concert is broadcast the world over. Right next to it is the Künstlerhaus, the exhibition space of the oldest artist’s collective in the country, the Gesellschaft Bildende Künstler Österreichs (Society of Austrian Fine Artists). A major voice within Austrian culture, the society has fallen on hard times recently, selling off the majority stake in the building in 2016 to help pay for much-needed renovations; once completed in March 2020, they will share the premises with the Albertina’s modern art collection. In addition, the Künstlerhaus is also home to the Stadtkino im Künstlerhaus, an arthouse cinema built in the 1940s adorned with allegorical paintings by Rudolf Eisenmenger and Rudolf Holzinger, while the right side houses the experimental theater brut – although its fate is currently unclear.
Cabbage Heads & Vienna Modernism
Over on the west side by Naschmarkt, the Secession beckons with its iconic gilded dome, lovingly nicknamed Krauthappel (cabbage head) by locals. Built by artists who seceded from the perceived reactionary aesthetics of the Künstlerhaus (hence the name), the Vienna Secessionists counted luminaries like Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Oskar Kokoschka among its members, and it remains committed to showing contemporary art to this day.
With so much culture, it shouldn’t be surprising that local artists needed a hangout, and the nearby Café Museum was happy to oblige. Opened in 1899, it was modernist architect Adolf Loos’ first major project, whose minimalist decor caused a scandal at the time. The cultural elite of the city, however, loved it. It quickly became a second living room to the Secessionists and writers like Franz Werfel, Karl Kraus and Robert Musil, as well as musicians Alban Berg and Franz Léhar and designer Otto Wagner, remaining popular even after Josef Hoffmann’s student Josef Zotti reworked the interior. A faithful restoration of Loos’ design in 2003 led to a brief closure as the public no longer cared for his elegant but chilly vision, but it reopened in 2010 as a reworked version of Zotti’s softer, more cozy style. This time, the update was a resounding success and Café Museum has been going strong ever since, holding monthly readings in its now century-long literary tradition.
Across the street, the legacy of the restaurant Heuer am Karlsplatz is considerably younger, but no less artistic: it’s a remnant of the original Kunsthalle, an enormous art space in a mango-colored container that dominated the Karlsplatz for nearly a decade in the 1990s. Considered an eyesore by many, it was taken down in 2001 when it moved to the Museumsquartier and replaced with a much smaller glass pavilion housing a gallery – and Heuer, which has remained a draw with its regional, organic fare ever since.
Stadtbahn and Opernpassage
Back in the dead center of Karlsplatz you’ll see one of the most charming examples of Jugendstil architecture – the twin Otto Wagner Pavillions. Built as stations for the Stadtbahn (the U-Bahn’s predecessor), Wagner’s pair of identical platform entries emulates the curves of the nearby Karlskirche, which he considered Vienna’s prettiest building. Now decommissioned, one has a small museum to its creator while the other houses a café and the Club U, a popular discotheque that connects directly into the enormous Karlsplatz station.
Also connected to the subway is the Opernpassage, a 1950s-era underpass full of boutiques opened shortly before Austria was reestablished after WWII; highly modern at the time, it was considered a mark of progress, especially as it was so close to the Staatsoper, which reopened the same year.
One of the most famous stages in the world, the city’s opera house is among the most beloved institutions in the country, calling the Vienna philharmonic its in-house orchestra and hosting the annual Opernball, the highlight of the season. While public opinion was largely negative when it opened in 1869, the Viennese gradually took a shine to it over the years thanks to the countless legends who performed there, including Gustav Mahler, who was director for a decade from 1897 to 1907. Vital to the national identity, the Staatsoper even hosted the commemoration ceremony for the centennial of the republic last year.
Unsurprisingly, the section of the Ring near the opera is one of the priciest, beginning with the adjacent Ringstraßen-Galerien, a luxury mall that also houses offices and condominiums. Opened in 1993, about half of it was built from scratch while the other is in the Palais Corso, which was fully remodeled behind its protected façade. Other buildings were converted much earlier: the famous Hotel Imperial was originally built for Duke Phillip von Württemberg but refitted as a hotel for the World Fair of 1873, earning a reputation as Vienna’s finest hotel, which it has held ever since, welcoming world leaders and celebrities for over a century. Even if you’re not royalty, you can enjoy its café, which has champagne brunches on Sundays and is famous for inventing the Imperial Torte, which they ship worldwide.
Just like the city itself, however, Karlsplatz is changing: The concept for the refurbished Wien Museum (planned completion: 2022) includes a large plaza in front, which planners hope will turn the square into a communal space similar to the Museumsquartier and liven up the area. Because in Vienna, all roads – and subway lines, trams, buses and bike paths – lead to Karlsplatz, one way or the other.