Whether in Graz, Innsbruck or Vienna, you encounter the legacy of Austria’s imperial past wherever you go in this country - but nowhere, of course, in such concentration as in the country’s capital, where you can sense this grand imperial atmosphere even when visiting one of the city’s many historic coffee houses. The entire city centre is filled with traces of the imperial dynasty. The Augustinian Church on Josefsplatz was the venue for numerous Habsburg weddings, while the Imperial Crypt, beneath the Capuchin Church, served as the final resting place for the members of the House of Habsburg. Most visitors, however, are foremost attracted to the many magnificent palaces, such as the Baroque Schönbrunn Palace, which contains no fewer than 1,441 rooms. Some 1.5 million visitors are drawn to the splendid salons and living quarters of the imperial family each year, but the elaborately laid-out grounds alone would be worth a visit. And the park attracts not only holiday guests. Many Viennese also enjoy strolling through the gardens up to the elegant colonnade known as the Gloriette, where a coffee house offers stupendous views across the city, or spending a few hours at the world’s oldest zoo. The palace grounds are also where the annual summer concert of the Wiener Philharmoniker is held - an experience made unforgettable by the superb music and the sublime backdrop provided by the illuminated palace. And admission is free!
Imperial apartments can also be visited at the primary residence of the Habsburgs, Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Particularly interesting insights into day-to-day imperial life are offered by the palace silver collection. The Habsburgs’ lavish dining culture alone illustrates what enormous expense was involved in running an imperial household of up to 5,000 people. The Sisi Museum, on the other hand, gives visitors a glimpse into the private life of the famous Empress Elisabeth. In addition to her dressing and exercise room, visitors can also view a reconstruction of the dress she wore on the eve of her wedding, her dressing gown and her death mask. These are all silent witnesses to a life that was ended tragically and violently with her assassination in 1898 - circumstances that undoubtedly contributed considerably to the “Sisi Myth”.
Considerably livelier is the ambience on the terraces of the former festival palace Schloss Hof, near the Danube River, when the Baroque festivals held there transport the extravagant joie de vivre of that epoch to the present day. The opulent palace was originally built by the Habsburgs as a “princely reward” for Prince Eugene of Savoy to show their appreciation for his victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Zenta in 1697. After years of decay and ruin, the palace was renovated at the turn of the millennium and restored to its original splendour.
Equally well preserved is the Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl, where the nobility spent their summers. As soon as the weather grew warm in Vienna, the Habsburgs escaped to the Salzkammergut - and everyone who could afford it followed their example. It all began in 1828 when the physician of the royal but childless couple Archduke Francis Charles and Princess Sophie of Bavaria advised them to visit the spa at the resort town to “take the waters”. The princess subsequently succeeded in bearing a child, who – as Emperor Francis Joseph – was himself to spend many summers at the Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl with his wife, Elisabeth. Today the Villa is open to the public and still retains the nineteenth-century ambience that was enjoyed by the emperor and his family. Even back in those days the Zauner bakery, an “Imperial and Royal Purveyor to the Court”, was pampering noble palates with its delectable cakes, and still today a visit to Bad Ischl would be unthinkable without a stopover at “Zauner”.
The Habsburgs established themselves in Tirol as well, but rather for political reasons than for relaxation and recreation. Emperor Maximilian I chose Innsbruck, the “Capital of the Alps”, as his residence because it was the ideal base for expanding his empire into what is now Western Europe. Today the legendary “Golden Roof” serves as a reminder of his reign. This loggia-like projection on the building’s second floor afforded a perfect view of the city’s main square and quickly became the symbol of Innsbruck. Maximilian’s Mausoleum, in the Hofkirche, is still considered one of the most important pieces of Renaissance in Central Europe. More of an insider’s tip is the Herzogshof in Graz, where the Habsburgs conducted their official business as sovereign princes of Styria. The building’s entire façade - over 220 square metres - was covered with murals on Greek-Roman mythological themes by the Baroque painter Johann Mayer. Whatever one might think of the Habsburgs, they certainly had exquisite taste, and one does not have to be a fan of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to take pleasure in their many cultural treasures.