Schonbrunn Palace & Gardens – Belvedere Palace Fine Art Gallery & Garden – St. Stephens Cathedral Catacombs & North Tower – Stephensplatz (Wein & Co. and Krah, Krah)
Vienna is basically tailor made for tourism. Everything that would probably be very high on your itinerary is very easy to get to and ninety percent of it is centralized between two subway stations. We decided to go off a little bit further from the city center to the hunting lodge that belonged to the Hapsburgs called Schonbrunn. This was a whole 5 stops from our hotel.
Aside from being impossible to pronounce correctly with a human tongue Schonbrunn is a quaint estate that only has 1,411 rooms, many of which have played significant roles in the history of Austria and the surrounding areas. The President of the United States has conducted negotiations there and Schonbrunn was also where the royal family ceded control to the Austrian republic. We did the “Grand tour” which covered less than ten percent of the rooms and was the biggest tour they offered. It took us the better part of the morning to navigate the tour, explore the gigantic garden and walk the hill to the glass and marble monument opposite Schonbrunn called The Glorietta. In terms of size Schonbrunn is similar to Versailles. The other thing it has in common with Versailles is being choked with tourists and very large crowds. We arrived at the palace right as it opened, bought tickets and walked right in. As we were leaving we noticed huge lines forming with gigantic crowds that would more than likely have soured the experience. I dubbed this place the Schnitzel Palace.
Our next stop was also a bit off the main path but just as popular with tourists and that is the private collection of art on display at the Belvedere Palace. The Belvedere was built as a summer palace for Prince Eugene of Savoy who was a brilliant general but “short and very ugly” according to the Belvedere guide. Prince Eugene beat the Ottman Turks in a series of decisive victories and as a thank you the Belvedere was built. Upon the Prince’s death he did not leave a legally binding will and the estate went to his niece Victoria at the decree of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Victoria was not thrilled and tried to liquidate the estate but due to some marital problems she was having the estate ended of in hands of Maria Theresa who was a great patron of the arts. Maria Theresa established the Belvedere as the first public art gallery in Vienna which also made the Belvedere one of the first public art galleries in the world.
The Belvedere consists of two sections, the upper palace contains the art gallery the lower contains preserved apartments and state rooms. Since we had seen 40 of those at Schonbrunn we stuck to the upper palace and it still took us all afternoon. The Belvedere is a fantastic collection of art ranging from Gothic to Modern Expressionism and is incredibly well laid out. The highlight for us was a retrospective of Gustav Klimt the 150th anniversary of this death. Klimt is famous for the painting “The Lovers” and truly breaking the mold of the turn of the century art scene particularly in eastern Europe. The exhibit was phenomenal and was a complete retrospective with all of his most famous pieces, sketches, notebooks, works by contemporaries and friends, childhood work by Klimt and his brothers and even love letters that he wrote to his many nude models. Obviously no photos were allowed but a point and shoot camera would not have captured the elegance of Klimt’s work.
Feeling a little “museum-ed out” we headed to St. Stephens where on our third try we were able to climb the 343 stairs (136m) to get to the top of the South tower and get a good solid view of Vienna from from above. We had stopped in twice before once it was too late the other time it was raining so elected not to do the climb. After our walk through the doors the third time we felt like regular members at St. Stephens. We managed to make it on time for a tour of the catacombs beneath St. Stephens which included a look at a casket from the middle of the 15th century, a collection of jars filled with the organs of the Hapsburg family and an ossuary that was filled with victims from the bubonic plague. Neat.
Finally with most of the museums closed for the day we spent the evening at a wine bar doing some Austrian wine tasting and learning about Austrian wines and then headed down to a place called “Krah, Krah” (a real schnitzel palace) for our last traditional Austrian meal of beef goulash and schnitzel. The next day we were off to Cesky Krumlov and a drive in the Czech Republic.