Vienna’s Architectural Gems

December 28, 2015.  Our initial goal had been to pay an early-December visit to Vienna for its famed Christkindl Market, but various illnesses intruded on our plans.  So we rescheduled it as post-Christmas trip, and boy was that the best decision we’ve made in a long time.  Nobody celebrates New Year’s Eve like Vienna.  From waltzing in the street in your winter coat, to whirling around a ballroom in your formalwear, you’ll definitely “get your dance on” in this capital of Good Times and Great Food.  And of course, you can round out your revelry with incredible architecture, world-class museums, and divine classical music.

The snowstorm that hit just as we took off from Oslo should have been our first clue that the weather would prove interesting. Check out the artistic pattern of the snow.

Our visit began with a late-evening arrival in the midst of a fog so dense that I practically jumped out of my seat when the plane hit the tarmac.  The ground was completely indiscernible.  A collective gasp from the other passengers signaled that, like me, they all thought we were still descending through the impenetrable cloud layer.   Everyone rubbed their eyes a bit to make sure we were sitting on solid land, and I watched several Catholics cross themselves in thankfulness that we were still intact.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral hovers above the rooftops. It’s the city icon, as attested to by countless t-shirts, postcards, and shot glasses.

The wet woolliness continued during our short trip into the city, making our first sight of Vienna at night seem like a misty, water-colored mirage.  St. Stephen’s spire loomed out of the blank grayness, giving us the feeling that we’d stepped into some sort of stage set from a gothic thriller.  Both ethereally beautiful and a bit eerie, the church became our beacon in the fog and our navigational center point for our explorations.

The cozy lobby of Hotel Karntnerhof.
The cozy lobby of Hotel Karntnerhof.

After dumping our bags at the lovely Hotel Kärntnerhof, which possessed more than its fair share of old-world charm, we scurried back out into the murky evening.  An incredible display of Christmas lights managed to cut through the gloom and give the city a more festive air.  But we both felt the need for a cup of java with a generous side helping of sugar to lift our spirits and warm our fingers.

So we stopped at Aida, the first of many famous Viennese coffeehouses that we were to visit over the week.  An overwhelming drink menu and a display case bulging with foodie art greeted us.  Thankfully, the waitress gave us a quick tutorial in both coffee lingo and traditional desserts before we selected our final choices.  Walnut-and-raspberry cake for me and Esterhazy torte for Matthew, washed down with a melange (a kind of uber-fluffy cappuccino) and a brauner (regular coffee with steamed milk).

A quick nighttime tour of the city gave us the chance to catalog its many quaint squares, each presided over by noble statues and bordered by some fabulous shopping.  Who would’ve thought Vienna’s demographics could have supported an entire store devoted to nothing but luxury walking sticks?  Or for that matter, how about cuckoo clocks, tracht (folk costumes), or “Mozart’s Balls?” (The chocolate-covered nougat kind.)  But eventually we tired of window gazing and headed to Zu den Drei Hacken, a traditional Viennese weinstube (wine pub), where we partook of beef jelly with pickled onions and liver dumpling soup — much more delicious than they sound.

The next morning, we hopped aboard one of the cute antique streetcars to follow Rick Steves’s tram tour along the Ringstrasse (the once-Medieval-wall-now-boulevard that encircles the oldest part of the city).  Our verdict after our drive-by photo shooting?  No other way to say it, Vienna’s architecture is eye-popping.  I’d go so far as to say it rivals Paris in grandeur and scale, and it might just be my new favorite city.  (Of course, I seem to say that about every new city we visit.  Guess I’m fickle.)

The trolleys offer a cute-n-cheap way to get an overall view of the city layout and architectural eras.

From Gothic, to Beaux Arts, to Secessionist, to Modernist, every style is lavishly represented by immense and ornate structures that testify to the power this city once held under the rule of the Hapsburgs — the famously prolific and lantern-jawed family who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire (1452- 1740), the Austrian Empire (1804 – 1865), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1865 – 1918) … and also supplied rulers to Spain.

Matthew and I rapidly realized that in four days, there was no way we’d be able to check off everything on our “must see” list, so we tried to focus on a few highlights with the promise that we’d come back again for more.  Below are just a few of our greatest architectural hits, with photo galleries.

  1.  The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)
The Viennese scorningly dubbed the Opera, "the sunken Treasure chest," due to its massive, ornate exterior.
The Viennese scorningly dubbed the Opera, “the sunken treasure chest,” due to its curved, trunk-topped roof.

As expected for the world center of classical music, Vienna boasts a breathtaking opera house.  True, one of its two architects committed suicide just before his masterpiece was complete — because the public had already deemed it to be a clunky behemoth.  But I like to think that those folks were just spoiled for choice, living amongst so many gorgeous buildings.  At some point, though, the Viennese must’ve changed their minds about its appeal, because when the Allies bombed the building in an air raid at the end of WWII, the locals spent ten years restoring it to its former glory.

Only a few portions of the original gilded interior remained after Allied bombing.

And glorious it is, resembling a Neo-Renaissance jewelry box.  To get a gander at the rich interior, we joined one of the English guided tours that covered an amazing amount of territory and information in just an hour.  First, a visit backstage provided us with a fantastic overview of the incredible effort it takes to put on an opera — and made me consider the strange lengths we humans go to to entertain ourselves.  Then, a visit to the Royal Box and various smaller galleries gave the guide an opportunity to dish the gossip and ply us with operatic fun facts, such as:  During a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which lasts five hours, the principle singers lose about eight pounds.  Consequently, the piece is rarely performed in its entirety, and never performed two nights in row.

2.  St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) & St. Peter’s Church (Peterkirche)

The west facade of St. Stephens dates to the Romanesque church (1147), while the tallest pinnacle dates to 1433.
The west facade of St. Stephens (far left) is all that is left of the first Romanesque church (1147), while the tallest pinnacle dates to a Gothic expansion (1433) of the second Romanesque church.

So I’m fudging a bit with my architectural review by squeezing in two churches for the price of one.  The first is a moody, gothic marvel that broods over the city center, claiming a full acre of land with its massive footprint.  Built atop a 4th-century Roman cemetery, and cobbled together from the ruins of a Roman pagan temple and two previous Romanesque churches, St. Stephens may have a somewhat checkered architectural past.  But it also possesses considerable Medieval gravitas manifested in a gilded triptych altarpiece, a pulpit and organ supported by almost phantasmagoric tracery, and a string of stone saints that line the nave and adorn its pillars.

During World War II, locals built a brick bunker over the tomb of Frederick III (1415 - 1493) to protect it.
During World War II, locals built a brick bunker over the tomb of Frederick III to protect it.

Beyond its incredible architecture and art, the church has some serious social connections.  King Frederick III — the guy responsible for putting Vienna on the map of world-class cities — is buried in a huge marble tomb that occupies one wing of the cathedral.  And several famous classical musicians can count St. Stephen’s as their home church.  Joseph Haydn and his brothers were choir boys.  Mozart’s wedding, funeral, and the baptisms of two of his children were held here.  And Beethoven realized the extent of his deafness when he watched bats swarm out of the bell tower but couldn’t hear the bells ring.


St. Peter's sits tucked halfway down an alley off the main shopping drag of Graben (which means "trench" because it sits in the former ditch that once encircled the ancient Roman fort.)
St. Peter’s sits tucked halfway down an alley off the main shopping drag of Graben (which means “trench” because it sits in the former ditch that once encircled the ancient Roman fort.)

The second church — St. Peter’s — is a refined Baroque beauty that subtly beckons to passersby who are lucky enough to spot a glimpse of it.  (It’s nestled demurely between shopping arcades.)  Although it, too, has its feet planted in paganism, having been founded on the site of a Roman encampment, inside it celebrates Christianity in true Baroque form with emotionally riotous and gilded splendor.  While St. Stephen’s darkly arched interior encourages somber contemplation of the heavens and one’s sins, St. Peter’s exuberantly domed space inspires orgiastic reveries of paradise and punishment — which is somewhat fitting, considering that the church is now run by Opus Dei.  (Remember Silas, the self-flagellating follower of this sect in The Davinci Code?)

3.  Early Modernist Architecture

Seems like Matthew should be sporting a fedora and three-piece suit to keep up the film noir vibe of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank.
The noir ambience of the Postal Bank  makes an appropriate setting for modernist architect Adolph Loos’s essay “Ornament and Crime.”  Matthew really should be sporting a fedora and three-piece suit to pay homage to atmosphere.

While Vienna is perhaps most famous for its Secessionist (Art Nouveau) structures, it’s home to remarkable Modernist buildings that rank as some of the first to deviate from ornate historical styles.  The sleek Austrian Postal Savings Bank is a must-see, especially for an architect like Matthew.  Designed by Otto Wagner between 1904-12, it meets the definition of modern by exemplifying the marriage between form and function.  (Fussy non-functional ornamentation is verboten.)  Every structural detail expresses its purpose without decorative flourishes, yet the overall effect isn’t boring.  Fairly simple on the outside, the interior is an ode to glass, steel, and rivets.  It’s the perfect stark setting for a film noir.   Entering it, I felt like Matthew should begin addressing me as “doll,” while I straightened the seams in my stockings.

The interior of Loos’s loo definitely has a bit of that Arts-and-Crafts vibe to it, which was popularized in the U.S. by the Stickley brothers and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The next stops on our modernist pilgrimage were The American Bar, Manz’s Bookstore, and an underground public bathroom, all designed by Adolph Loos.  I’m not kidding about that last one.  Back around 1900, a local chemist wanted to demonstrate “the superior cleaning power” of his products, so he hired Loos (pronounced “loose”) to convert some old wine cellars into public toilets.  You can still take a leak in one of Loos’s loos for about 50 cents, where you’ll find a surprisingly Frank Lloyd Wright-ish space.  Loos’s other buildings are even more Modernist, clinging to his philosophy that “decoration is a crime.”  Funnily enough, Loos liked to say that the act of putting decoration on a building is like smearing excrement on a bathroom wall.   Wonder if he thought of the comparison after visiting his restrooms on a heavily touristed day?

Stay tuned tomorrow for our best museum moments and foodie favorites!



2 thoughts on “Vienna’s Architectural Gems”

  1. All I can say is WOW! Hello from Chicago. Glad to see you are having a fabulous time. We miss you at FlamencoChicago, but what can I say, there is no comparison. I enjoy your blogs posts tremendously. Always wishing you well. Regards, Sydney Iglitzen


    1. So glad to hear from you, Sydney! I miss you and the girls so much! Flamenco is not so easy to find here in Norway, what a surprise. I’m actually coming into Chicago this weekend for a conference week, so maybe we can grab lunch or dinner one night — let me know what you think. Hope you’re doing well!


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