On the Trail of the Habsburgs
These places, from Vienna to Innsbruck, are steeped in tradition and regal elegance. Get a fascinating insight into Imperial Austria.
Ruling Austria for almost 650 years until 1918, the Habsburgs were one of Europe's most influential dynasties. During their centuries-long reign over Europe, they not only proved to be passionate builders, but also keen travellers - a fact that manifests itself in the diversity of Imperial structures all across Austria. They were art patrons, and constructed elaborate castles, palaces, and villas. Some were especially keen collectors, accumulating a wealth of treasures for their private properties. The succession has left rich and ever-lasting traces on the country that still shape the Austria of today. Let us take you on a voyage of Imperial discovery through the country.
The Museum of Bad Ischl
In 1853, Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth celebrated their engagement at the former "Hotel Austria", a place that now houses the Museum of Bad Ischl. Come here to learn about how the town developed over the centuries, and in particular how the area's extraction of salt saw it emerge as a spa resort and Imperial summer residence.
The Imperial Villa
The Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl is where the nobility spent their summers. As soon as the weather grew warm in Vienna, the Habsburgs escaped to the Salzkammergut lake region, and everyone who could afford it followed their example. It all began in 1828 when the physician of the childless couple Archduke Francis Charles and Princess Sophie of Bavaria advised them to visit the resort town's spa to “take the waters”. The princess finally succeeded in bearing a child, who ended up spending many summers as an adult 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 the Emperor and his family enjoyed. Back in those days, the Zauner bakery, an “Imperial and Royal Purveyor to the Court”, pampered noble palates with its delectable cakes. Even today, a visit to Bad Ischl would be unthinkable without a stop at Zauner.
Vienna and its Surrounds
Around the City
The legacy of Austria’s Imperial past can be found wherever you go; however, nowhere is it more prominent than in the country’s capital. Here you can sense this grand Imperial atmosphere all around you, even when stopping at one of the city’s many historic coffee houses.
Drop by the Imperial Treasury of Viennato to view the spoils of the Habsburgs' wealth and power, or take a look at the Augustinian Church on Josefsplatz, the venue for numerous Habsburg weddings. For something unconventional, visit the Imperial Crypt beneath the Capuchin Church which served as the final resting place for the members of the House of Habsburg. Admire the Imperial Michaelertor before going to the Spanish Riding School, which has been the “Haute École” of equestrian art in the Renaissance tradition for over 450 years. The performances at the Winter Riding School, built by the Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, are a thrilling experience for young and old, with the noble horses seemingly defying gravity.
Many visitors are attracted to Vienna's magnificent palaces, like the Baroque Schönbrunn Palace, which contains no fewer than 1,441 rooms. Its Mirrors Room, where the polished surfaces, wooden panelling, and mirrors create the illusion of increased space, was the setting for the very first concert given by six-year-old Mozart for Empress Maria Theresia in October 1762. According to history, the young boy sprang onto the Empress's lap and gave her a kiss. The elaborately laid-out grounds are also not to be missed. Stroll through the palace grounds (the superb setting for the Wiener Philharmonic's annual summer concert against the backdrop of the illuminated palace) up to the elegant colonnade known as the Gloriette, where a coffee house offers stupendous views across the city. You can even spend a few hours at the world’s oldest zoo.
Imperial apartments can be visited at the Habsburgs' primary residence, Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. The palace's silver collection offers particularly interesting insights into day-to-day Imperial life. 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.
Lainz Game Reserve and the Hermes Villa
Lainz Game Reserve, part of the Vienna Woods, was an Imperial hunting ground, and still forms a habitat for wild boar and other game. The Hermes Villa within the reserve was a gift from Emperor Franz Joseph to his wife Elisabeth. Lavishly furnished, the villa is seen as a shining example of Late-Romantic architecture, and currently hosts one of Vienna's city museums.
The Baroque chateau complex of the Belvedere Palace was built in the 18th century by order of the Austrian commander Prince Eugène of Savoy, and consists of the Upper and the Lower Belvedere and an extensive garden. The Upper Belvedere boasts the awe-inspiring Marble Hall, the Sala Terrena, and the monumental staircase. It also houses a permanent exhibition of artworks stretching from the Middle Ages and the Baroque period, up to the present date. The Lower Belvedere also has beautiful rooms, such as the Grotesken Hall, the Marble Gallery, and the Golden Room. It served as the residence of Prince Eugène, and housed a collection of paintings and antiques, and a library.
The Viennese Ringstraße
Emperor Franz Joseph decreed the construction of the Ringstraße in 1875, which is considered by many to be the most beautiful boulevard in the world. This is on account of the architectural masterpieces that can be seen along the way: The Vienna State Opera, Hofburg, Natural History Museum, Parliament, City Hall, the Burgtheater, University of Vienna, and the Votive Church - to name just a few - are flanked by beautiful palaces, parks, and gardens.
The Brand-New Weltmuseum Wien
The Weltmuseum in Vienna opened its doors on 25th October 2017 with an extensive collection from different parts of the world. The city is benefitting from yet another unique cultural attraction, as the collection takes you on a voyage of discovery through all seven continents. Thanks to the Habsburgs' love of collecting artefacts, much of the valuables on display come directly from Vienna.
Go to Laxenburg Castle to experience the quiet aura of an Imperial park. Breathe in the regal atmosphere, stroll through the grand Castle Park, and take the ferry across to pay a trip to the romantic Franzensburg Castle. It's the birthplace and baptism site of Archduke Rudolf, crown prince of Austria. The Persian Shah Nasreddin’s stay here in 1873 during the Vienna World Exhibition made headlines.
The Schloss Hof formed the hunting lodge of Prince Eugène of Savoy in the first half of the 18th century. This sumptuous castle, with its magnificent terrace garden (one of Europe's most beautiful Baroque gardens) was gifted by the Habsburgs as a thank you for assisting in the victory over the Turkish besiegers. In 1755, Empress Maria Theresia acquired the complex, gifting it to her husband, Emperor Franz Stephan. Baroque parties are still held on the terraces in honour of Prince Eugène.
The Benedictine Melk Abbey is situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube. Take a tour which starts off in the Imperial Rooms to explore the intimidating structure. This gem of Baroque architecture provided Habsburg Emperors with lodgings appropriate to their stature. Visit the Marble Hall to admire Paul Troger’s ceiling fresco of Pallas Athena, painted in 1731. In this masterpiece the goddess protects the ruler with wisdom and strength.
Salzburg has only been a part of Austria since 1816, and therefore forewent much of the Habsburgs' influence. It was independently ruled by the Prince Archbishops as the world's second-largest church state after the Vatican. Emperor Francis I promised a fatherly government, on equal footing with the splendour of the Prince Archbishops in Salzburg’s Domquartier. The tour of this cathedral-museum complex reveals historic superlatives; St Peter's Monastery, for example, is the oldest monastery in the German-speaking world. The aroma of coffee on the terrace in front of the organ loft perfectly complements the views of the Residenzplatz and creates a leisurely ambience.
Hall Mint Museum
Hall Mint Museum in Hall-Wattens looks back on a glorious history as a Habsburg coin metropolis. It was here in 1486 that the first silver coin was minted, and in 1567, Emperor Maximilian II commissioned a coin for the first time. When Empress Maria Theresia was in power soon after, more than 17 million famous 'Maria Theresa talers' were created and used as currency throughout the Empire and beyond. A visit to the museum offers a glimpse into the world of coins and 500 years of European coin history. Come here to view the oldest taler, or the largest silver taler in the world, the latter of which contains more than 20 kg (44 lbs) of silver. Climb to the top of the Mint Tower to be treated to unforgettable views of the medieval town hall, and the imposing backdrop of the Karwendel mountains, which formed the favourite hunting ground of the Habsburg princes.
Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595) collected innumerable special objects throughout his life. Many of these, including paintings, weapons, and objets d'art from around the world can now be admired in a permanent exhibition at Schloss Ambras in the south of Innsbruck.
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 architecture in Central Europe.
After Emperor Franz Joseph I and Sisi's wedding ceremony in May 1854, the newlyweds took the train from Vienna to Mürzzuschlag for two reasons: to attend the opening of the Semmering Railway, and also to spend their honeymoon in Styria. Emperor Franz Joseph often travelled by train for his stay in the Imperial hunting lodge in Mürzsteg. In the SÜDBAHN Museum in Mürzzuschlag you can see, among other things, the Emperor's original travel set, complete with his pipe, pipe stopper, cigarette cutter, writing spring, and blotter. You can relax in the Imperial Cafe with coffee and cake or Triester beer.
The Herzogshof in Graz is where the Habsburgs conducted their official business as sovereign princes of Styria. The building’s entire façade - over 220 square meters (2,300 square feet) - was covered with murals on Greco-Roman mythological themes by the Baroque painter Johann Mayer. Whatever one might think of the Habsburgs, they certainly had exquisite taste, and you don't need to be a fan of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to take pleasure in their many cultural treasures.
The Burg in Graz
Today Graz is known as an avant-garde city, but its beauty was also appreciated in the past by the Habsburgs, which is why they made it into one of their many residences. One of the most important heirlooms from the Habsburg times is the Burg in Graz. The construction of this castle began under the emperor Friedrich III and was expanded under Emperor Maximilian I. During this time, one of the most important staircases, the famous double spiral staircase, was also created.
The Styrian Armoury
This permanent collection accommodates the world's largest original armoury from the late Middle Ages and early modern times. It houses an astonishing 32,000 objects that have been collected over the centuries.
Kaiser Karl VI commissioned Halbturn Palace, Burgenland's most important Baroque building, in the early 18th century to be used as a hunting and summer residence. He appointed Lucas von Hildebrandt, one of the most famous architects of his time, who was responsible for the construction of Vienna's Belvedere Palace. You can hear all about the building's extensive history on a tour through the village of Halbturn, the castle park, and former horse stables.
Schloss Esterhazy is one of the most beautiful Baroque palaces in Central Europe, and it offers up an impressive insight into the glorious life of the Esterházy princes. The famous Haydn Hall is one of the palace's highlights, and is still viewed today as one of the best concert halls in the world. Other outstanding features are the former royal family's dining room, the luxurious mirror room, and the small Chinese salon. The castle also has its own vineyard.
The Landhaus in Klagenfurt
One of Carinthia's most important relics of the Habsburg period is the Landhaus in Klagenfurt. It was built in 1574 to replace the old castle that was destroyed by a fire. Today, this architectural masterpiece forms the seat of the Carinthian state government. Its large armoury is a real highlight, with 665 weapons from the Carinthian states, and a wall and ceiling painting by Josef Ferdinand Fromiller which depicts the inauguration of Emperor Karl VI in Klagenfurt.
When the notion of a summer holiday became popular in Austria, the Habsburgs and other members of the imperial court began to build summer villas in Millstatt. Around twenty of these historic buildings that started springing up in the second half of the 19th century can still be seen today. You can walk down the Millstatt Villa Route, taking in its yellow facades, green painted shutters, cozy bay windows, and cheerful turrets to get a taste of years gone by. For the real experience, stay in some of these beautiful places on your trip.
Art History Museum Vienna
Franzensburg, Laxenburg Castle
Imperial palace in ViennaVienna
The Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl
Pas de Deux at the Spanish Riding School
Esterhazy Palace, Burgenland
Ambras CastleTyrol, Austria