March 21, 2019 – Touring palaces is not high on my list of favorite things to do when traveling, no matter where on the planet. But castles are practically synonymous with Vienna, so I was very glad and grateful that my wife made going to the summer home of the Habsburg royal family a priority on a recent (January, 2019) trip to Vienna. Anticipating a mundane walk-through of dreary old rooms, I was instead delighted to be deeply immersed in European history.
After all, the Habsburg dynasty and rule held sway in Austria for 600 years, ending only a century ago on November 11, 1918 at the close of World War I. The Habsburgs contributed mightily to making Europe rich and powerful.
The U4 subway line took only 15 minutes to reach the palace stop from the Vienna Opera House (Karlsplatz) on the Ring (central Vienna). Even the 1898 Schönbrunn subway station itself is part of history, an Art Nouveau gem designed by famed architect Otto Wagner.
At 1441 rooms, Schloß Schönbrunn (the symbol “ß” is double-s in German, not to be confused with capital B) is monstrous and not very attractive from the outside. But the overnight snowfall did what snow does: It made everything look prettier, even that homely pile.
The so-called “Grand” walking tour covered forty of the most important palace rooms and took about two hours to complete at a leisurely pace. At €18 (about $21), it wasn’t cheap, but was in my opinion well worth the investment of time and money.
The tour included an easy-to-use digital audio device keyed to each room and was better, I think, than a tour guide. Each room’s description was thorough and fascinating and could be repeated by the device.
We were aghast at the sheer grandeur of every one of the forty spaces, not to mention the building’s history. In one small salon was where six year old Mozart performed for the first time in Vienna for the royal family in 1762. His piano playing was so well-received and complimented by the empress that Mozart reportedly leapt into her lap and kissed her.
Two centuries after Mozart’s Viennese debut performance, President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev met in 1961 for the first time in the palace’s 40 meter by 10 meter grand ballroom, a trial balloon to thaw the Cold War (the effort failed, notwithstanding the opulent venue).
Opting for a self-guided tour meant we could linger or hurry through each room as we liked. I think the experience was enhanced by the time of year. Snowy, cold mid-winter isn’t exactly high tourist season, though several large Chinese tour groups with guides swooshed through.
Leaving the building, we traipsed through snow slush and mud to the rear for a quick look at the garden. Not much to gawk at in late January, but reportedly gorgeous in season.
After riding back on the U Bahn train to the Vienna Ring (CBD), we found the famous 1880 coffee house, Cafe Sperl, for a late light lunch. The Sperl is furnished exactly the way it was when opened in 1880. It has always been a favorite spot of Viennese royalty and politicians and civic leaders. I enjoyed the place for its understated elegant ambiance and history, but thought its bill of fare unimaginative and pricy.
Austria’s part in starting World War I was reputedly concocted over Sperl coffee by two royal dukes. I can’t say that we planned anything quite that dreadful at the Sperl as we sampled offerings of baked chicken and cream of pumpkin soup.
As the afternoon faded, my wife took me on an extended walking tour on the back streets and alleys surrounding St. Stephen’s cathedral. Passing the church, we got a good view of the omnipresent Habsburg symbol, the double-headed eagle, embedded into the roof.
My feet hurt by then from the day’s walking, and I groused about going with her, but once again, I was happy that I did and later thanked my wife for dragging me along. The little streets were full of well-known and obscure Viennese history, and I was captivated by it all.
The main pedestrian-only platz (above) that goes on for close to a mile. Reminded me fondly of famed Marienplatz in Munich.
We compressed as much as possible into our short 5-day visit, but we didn’t want to leave. Neither did our son after a month in residence performing with his college symphony orchestra.
I couldn’t help contrasting Vienna with another fascinating place, Hong Kong. Always in frenetic renewal, Hong Kong is different every time I go there, while Vienna changes slowly and in small increments, like recently adding e-scooters. The two cities couldn’t be more different in superficial appearance, the old and the new. Yet just beneath Vienna’s serene look of staid permanence lies a vibrant young and modern lifestyle as exciting and interesting as any on earth. We can hardly wait to go back.