go to site It is tough to know where to begin with a place like Vienna, a city seemingly maintaining its historical appearance with rare exceptions. The tourist guides offer a never-ending list of attractions to see, including the splendiferous Schonbrunn and Hofburg Palaces, a number of museums, the Vienna Opera and, of course, Mozarthaus, the former home of the famed composer. Each of these is a must see, to be sure. But frequently on our journeys there is a lot to be gained from simply strolling up and down random streets and admiring the sometimes eclectic mix of architectural styles, even if you don’t know their names.
Perhaps the best place to start is Stephansplatz, a convenient umbrella term of so much beauty within a specific area of central Vienna. At the centre is the cathedral known as Stephansdom, reaching high into the sky and maintaining an elaborate texture on the main buildings and ornate spires all the way to the top. It’s a real pain in the neck, but not in the bad way! It’s just that it’s so tall and is located in a fairly enclosed area, so looking up to the top is a bit tricky and visitors run the risk of a crick in the neck doing so.
The interior of Stephansdom is an intense collection of statues, paintings and engravings, among many other art forms. I went inside on two consecutive days and couldn’t believe on the second day all that my eyes had missed on the first. Each way I looked I saw whole, isolated objects I hadn’t seen the day before. I mean, how is it possible to miss a whole painting of Jesus being crucified?
The cathedral is divided into multiple areas, most of which are accessible to the public with a general entry free. There is an additional fee to take an elevator to the top of one of the spires – which I didn’t do owing to vertigo – and another fee of 4.5 Euros to see the catacombs underneath. Guided tours are available in a variety of languages if visitors are looking for a little more in terms of direction, but these only cover the interior.
The catacombs tour was fascinating from the first descent into the bowels of Stephansdom. The guide gave a bilingual tour in German and English, with the latter being slightly funnier (unless the humour in German wasn’t deemed worth a laugh). The temperature dropped and the group was guided through an old chapel into a room with coffins reserved for archbishops dating back 300 years. The following room contained the remains of the first Hapsburg Emperor, as well as the internal organs of others minus the heart. We were next taken to a stone museum room highlighted by the one-ton ringer from a 21-ton bell. The group then descended further into more recently excavated areas, where the dead – which included 700 victims of the Bubonic Plague three centuries earlier – were buried at significantly less expense. The guide the chipped in with a very deadpan “But it’s safe for you to see now.” It is amazing to look into some of these rooms and pits where only bones or fragments are visible. Being buried anonymously in a mass grave is not a particularly comforting thought, but perhaps in those days folks were satisfied with their relatives being buried on holy ground, if nothing else. It is a wonderful, eerie walk, but taking photos is banned.
At the end of the tour, there are some rather steep steps leading back to the street level around the back of the cathedral. The horse-drawn carriages form a line there, waiting for tired tourist legs. A walk around the cathedral takes a good twenty minutes, as each side is unique in shapes, statues and paintings, among other features. Though I can’t report it, visitors to the top are apparently rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of city; I personally found the ground and underground levels to be amazing.
Moving south to Karlsplatz - approximately half an hour walk at average tourist speed – visitors will find Karlskirche, very close to the opera house. The building is another church in the Gothic style, with the faded green roof seen in quite a few classical Viennese religious structures. The cost to enter is minimal and the wow factor is simply not to be missed. The inside is, like Stephansdom, a combination of various art forms, including bronzes and elaborate ceiling paintings, all painstakingly restored. Some purists may argue that the building has been defaced by the installation of an elevator in the main room, as well as stairs leading further up to another panoramic view of the city, but that’s for each visitor to decide. I took a chance I’d beat the vertigo and savour the view for myself, taking the elevator as far as it went and then the ‘stairs’, a generous definition. About a third of the way up, though, vertigo struck and hard. A passing couple descending the stairs didn’t help at all as they talked about the swaying at the top. Cue legs to turn into jelly, the deep breaths to kick in and one hand to grasp firmly on the rail. It did not help that the so-called stairs were basically glorified scaffolding, although some may have felt safe on it. Needless to say, I beat an un-hasty retreat downstairs and then further down the elevator.
As I headed to the exit, eager to be outside, I noticed an art gallery in a side room up some stairs. The need for fresh air and terra firma meant I can only report its existence.
There is as much to see in Vienna on ground level – and below ground – as there is up high. Though my own touristy bravery (or stupidity, depending on perspective) was unable to conquer vertigo in this wonderful, old city, I leave it with no regrets.