Exploring Vienna's Imperial Hofburg Palace: A Visitor's Guide
Vienna's Imperial Palace, the Hofburg, was for centuries the seat of the Habsburgs, rulers of Austria until the end of WWI. A great deal of European history was written here, in particular by Empress Maria and, for a while, the German Emperor (today, it's the official seat of the Austrian Head of State, the Federal President). The complex is particularly interesting as its major buildings reflect more than 700 years of architectural history; nearly every Austrian ruler since 1275 ordered additions or alterations. As a result, the Hofburg shows many different architectural styles, from Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque to Rococo, and a smattering of Classicism. Together with its many squares and gardens, the Hofburg occupies an area of some 59 acres and is in many ways a "city-within-a-city," comprising 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms. Visitors are given three choices when visiting this spectacular site - the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and Silver Collection - each of which can be toured individually or as part of an extended visit. The area around the Hofburg, along with some of its outlying buildings, houses a number of other attractions, including the Imperial Chapel (Burgkapelle), the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), the Austrian National Library, and the Spanish Riding School.
The Imperial Apartments
Of the rooms in the Hofburg accessible to the public, some of the most interesting can be found in the Franz Joseph Apartments, most of which remain unaltered. Highlights include the Dining Room, famous for its rich décor and Flemish artwork representing the heroic deeds of Hercules, and the Circle Room with its exquisite tapestries. A fascinating model of the Hofburg and its many buildings is in the Guard Room, while in the Large Audience Chamber - the waiting room for the Emperor's weekly audiences - the Bohemian crystal candelabrum is worth seeing. Also of interest here is a list of those in attendance on January 10th, 1910, while in the Study is a bust of Field-Marshal Radetzky, one of a select group permitted to appear unannounced before the Emperor (his sword is also on display).
Empress Elisabeth's Apartments include her sumptuous Living Room, widely regarded as the prettiest of the Hofburg's many rooms and serving both as a living room and bedroom. Another highlight is the Large Salon, home to a fine collection of Louis XIV furniture and a number of Sèvres porcelain vases, a collection of Romantic landscape paintings, and a marble statue of Napoleon's sister. Also worth a visit are Alexander's Apartments, named after Russia's Tsar Alexander I who stayed here during the Congress of Vienna (highlights include the busts of Emperor Charles I and his consort, Empress Zita).
The Sisi Museum
Dedicated to Empress Elisabeth (aka Sisi), the Sisi Museum offers a fascinating insight into the aristocracy of the 19th century. In the Hofburg's Stephan Apartments, highlights include more than 300 personal artifacts such as gloves, parasols, notes regarding her strict beauty regime, and the death mask made after her assassination (also of interest are the official records made at the time of this tragic event). Other fascinating artifacts include a copy of the dress she wore when moving to Austria from her native Munich as a 16-year-old in 1854, a copy of her coronation gown, and a replica of part of her imperial railway carriage. Also of note are a traveling medical chest and games case, along with her christening robes.
The Imperial Silver Collection
More than 7,000 items including ceremonial and everyday tableware from the Imperial Court are on display in the Silver Chamber, a must see when visiting the Hofburg. Among the many treasures in this spectacular collection are its fine 18th-century East Asian porcelain, the formal dinner services of Franz Joseph, a silver traveling service belonging to Empress Elisabeth Christine (wife of Charles VI), and the ten-meter-long Milanese centerpiece made of gilded bronze. Other highlights include the Meissen service from 1775, the 19th-century Viennese Empire service and, perhaps the most important part of the collection, the Ruby service used for Imperial grand occasions with its settings for 140 guests. Also, be sure to pop into the Court Kitchen for a look behind the scenes of the Imperial banquets. On display are original copper vessels, pans, and molds, along with old kettles and the warming dishes needed to feed the court's 5,000 members.
Touring the Hofburg Palace
A number of excellent English language guided tours of the Hofburg Palace are available, including the Sisi Museum and the Imperial Apartments (English language audio guides are included in the regular price of admission). Private tours of the Imperial Apartments can also be booked for individuals and groups, while those looking for a truly unique experience should consider one of the special evening or themed tours, including topics such as everyday imperial life, state banquets, and the life of Empress Sisi.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Hofburg Visit
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your visit to Vienna's Hofburg Palace:
- Dining: Café Hofburg serves coffees and light meals in the heart of the palace and in warmer months offers patio service.
- Off-season Specials: For those visiting during the quieter months of the year, special admission packages are available that include Viennese coffee and pastries at Café Hofburg, along with admission to the Silver Collection, Sisi Museum, and Imperial Apartments.
- Access: The Sisi Museum and the Imperial Apartments are wheelchair accessible. Discounted tickets are available for those with disabilities along with those providing assistance.
Getting to the Hofburg
- On Foot: The Hofburg lies within easy walking distance of Vienna's city center and its many tourist attractions.
- By Bus: The Hofburg is well served by city bus services (Routes 2A and 3A, alighting at Hofburg).
- By Tram: Vienna's tram services travel to the Hofburg regularly (Routes 1, 2, D, and J, alighting at Burgring).
- By U-Bahn (Subway): The nearest subway station is Herrengasse (Route U3).
- By Train: Vienna is well served by major rail routes from across Europe and Austria. The nearest stations are Westbahnhof and Meidling (connections via U-Bahn are required).
- By Road: As with most major European cities, much of Vienna's city center is designated as pedestrians only. If driving is a must, park on the city's outskirts and use public transit.
- Parking: No on-site public parking is available.
- Hofburg Palace, Michaelerkuppel, 1010 Vienna
The Hofburg complex houses numerous other excellent attractions worth visiting; most of them are run independently and require separate admission. A must-see is the Imperial Chapel (Burgkapelle), constructed in 1449 with later additions in Baroque and Gothic styles. Highlights of a visit include its rich interior, along with an opportunity to see the famous Vienna Boys' Choir and the State Opera Choir singing at Sunday Mass and religious holidays (pre-booking essential). The Collection of Arms and Armor is another Hofburg must-see and includes medieval helmets, royal armor and ceremonial swords, richly ornamented shields, and superb 16th-century Ottoman weapons, while the Collection of Old Musical Instruments in the New Palace (Neue Burg) contains unique Renaissance pieces such as antique clavichords, a table piano that belonged to Joseph Haydn, a grand piano presented to Beethoven, and a Viennese table piano at which Schubert composed.
The Hofburg complex also houses the Museum of Ethnology with its collection of more than 150,000 objects, including Benin bronzes dating back to the 15th century and the Mexican Collection with the headdress and feather shield of an Aztec priest. The Hofburg Treasury is also worth visiting and contains 21 rooms of Imperial regalia and relics, including coronation and chivalric insignia, badges of rank, secular and sacred treasures, and ornaments and mementos formerly owned by the Habsburgs.