I am a seagull, of no land,
I call no shore my home,
I am bound to no place,
I fly from wave to wave.
-North Sea songs 7, 1885; seen at the Hofburg Palace's Sisi exhibit
Vienna, Austria, is like a jewel box of magnificent architectural gems that deserve to be thoroughly fawned over. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination for the historic city center, the city is "rich in architectural ensembles, including Baroque castles and gardens, as well as the late-19th-century Ringstrasse lined with grand buildings, monuments and parks." Of course, there is a lot more to see in the city outside of the central ring, and I have listed a few of my favorite sights here. It's worth noting that this is a very expensive city to be a tourist in, with each attraction costing about $15 to enter (it just makes one appreciate the free Smithsonian zoos and museums of DC), but it is well worth the cost for what you experience in return.
No visit to Vienna is official without a stop at the Hofburg Palace, located within the UNSESCO World Heritage city center. Built in the 13th century, the palace has housed many powerful Austrian and European people, and it currently serves as the office and residence of the Austrian president. When I visited, there was a great exhibit on the fascinating life of Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi") of Austria. Apart from Sisi, I got to wander in room after room (after room) stuffed with gold pieces, fine china, silverware, and other decadent collections of fine royal living. Tickets were about $14 each.
2. Ring Tram
This quick little trip around the Vienna ring in a vintage tram is probably the best way to see the city's key architectural treasures. Tickets are about $10 each and the tour only takes 25 minutes. After doing the trolley tour, I walked the ring again and took pictures; thanks to the tour, it was nice to have a better understanding of what I was looking at.
Belvedere Palace, the magnificent early 18th century summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, is more of an art gallery than furnished historic residence, which disappointed me until I stumbled across Gustav Klimt's infamous painting The Kiss. Wow, never in my life did I imagine that I would ever stand so close to the authentic masterpiece, but I did! In fact, the Belvedere boasts the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, so I also got to see Judith. Tickets were about $15 per person.
Completed in 1985, the Hundertwasser Haus is one of the city's newer architectural gems. Personally, it's not really my style but I do like how the building 1) prioritizes access to nature, 2) adds interest and uniqueness to a neighborhood, and 3) demonstrates that it required no special permits, financing, or construction timeline. The apartments are individually-owned (I imagine) and therefore sadly aren't open for public viewing, so visitors are welcome to walk around outside of the building and visit the very 1980s Hundertwasser Village (a little touristy, if you ask me). There is a museum on site that charges admission, but I didn't get a chance to visit it.
More on the building from the website:
The grass and forest areas of the house amount to more than 100 per cent of the ground plan. What was taken away from nature by the construction of the building was restored on the roofs. The living, uneven floor in the public areas of the buildings amounts to a rediscovery of human dignity, which was taken from people in an urban development of flat surfaces. The mosaics on the walls, in the stairways and in the corridors were created by the workers along with the tiles in the kitchens and in the bathrooms, which were laid irregularly to avoid the grid system. It is the first house where the window right is granted to the tenant as a part of the lease agreement. With this house Hundertwasser proved that a more human architecture in harmony with nature is possible within the regular construction time, within the financial budget of a public project, and within the current building laws without any special permits.
5. Schönbrunner Schlosspark: Schönbrunn Palace & Schönbrunn Zoo
Schönbrunn, the pièce de résistance of Vienna.
On a cold, rainy day, I took the train three miles southwest of Vienna's ring to Schönbrunner Schlosspark, home of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens. With so many beautiful buildings and restaurants to explore, this visit could easily be a day trip. To visit both the palace and the zoo, I purchased a "winter pass" ticket for a hefty $30.
The circa-1745 summer imperial residence Schönbrunn Palace was so incredibly extravagant that it must rival Versailles. It's a shame that no photos were allowed, although there is a great virtual tour of the palace online. My ticket let me tour 40 sumptuous rooms, including the Vieux Laque Room with its "black lacquer panels from the imperial manufactory in Peking (Beijing) [and] probably carried out to designs by the architect Isidor Canevale." Simply amazing.
As for Schönbrunn Zoo, when I say this I know I sound like the guy who says he "reads Playboy for the articles," but I really was most interested in seeing the buildings and not the captive animals. Come on, this is the world's oldest zoo! It opened in 1752 and is situated next to a palace, so it can't not be good. Well, maybe it was the rainy day, or thought of living in a cramped cage on display, but the animals seemed downright sad. (Don't even get me started on the elephant exhibit, I had to stop myself from calling PETA.) I don't think zoos are good spaces for these beautiful creatures; I believe they need to be in their real (and private) habitats. But I digress. The zoo layout was very organized with a few elegant yet modest buildings for the animals. Newer, more spacious exhibits, have been added over time and there are quite a few projects underway. Overall, I wasn't as impressed with the zoo as I was with the palace, but sad animals may have clouded my architectural judgement.