Architecture in Vienna, A Guide for the Casual Traveler

Otto Wagner and More

Entrance to the Imperial Palace in Vienna guarded by grandiose statues of heroic figures
The Michaelertor, the entrance to the Imperial Palace in Vienna, is guarded by grandiose statues of heroic figures. Photo by Paul Beinssen/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Vienna, Austria, by the Danube River, has a mixture of architecture representing many periods and styles, ranging from elaborate Baroque monuments to a twentieth century rejection of high ornamentation. The history of Vienna, or Wien, is as rich and complicated as the architecture that portrays it. And every year, the city opens its doors to celebrate architecture with Open House Wien.

Being centrally located in Europe, the area was settled early on by both the Celts and then the Romans.

It has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna has been invaded both by marauding armies and medieval plagues. During the Second World War, it ceased to exist completely as it was enveloped by Nazi Germany. Yet today we still think of Vienna as the home of the Strauss waltz and the Freudian dream. The influence of Wiener Moderne or Vienna Modern architecture on the rest of the world was as profound as any other movement in history.

Visiting Vienna:

Perhaps the most iconic structure in all of Vienna is the Gothic St. Stephan's Cathedral. First begun as a Romanesque cathedral, its construction throughout the ages displays the influences of the day, from Gothic to Baroque all the way up to its patterned tile roof.

Wealthy aristocratic families like the Liechtensteins may have first brought the ornate Baroque style of architecture (1600-1830) to Vienna.

Their private summer home, the Garden Palais Liechtenstein from 1709, combines Italian villa-like details on the outside with ornate Baroque interiors. It is open to the public as an art museum. The Belvedere is another Baroque palace complex from this time period, the early 1700s. Designed by Italian-born architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745), Belvedere Palace and Gardens is popular eye-candy for the Danube River cruise-taker.

Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor from 1711 to 1740, is perhaps responsible for bringing Baroque architecture to the ruling class of Vienna. At the height of a Black Plague epidemic, he vowed to build a church to St. Charles Borromeo if the plague would leave his city. It did, and the magnificient Karlskirche (1737) was first designed by Baroque master architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach.  Baroque architecture reigned during the time of Charles' daughter, Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80), and her son Joseph II (1780-90). Architect Fischer von Erlach also designed and rebuilt a country hunting cottage into a summer royal getaway, the Baroque Schönbrunn Palace. Vienna's Imperial Winter Palace remained The Hofburg.

By the mid-1800s, the former city walls and military enforcements that protected the city center were demolished. In their place, Emperor Franz Joseph I launched a massive urban renewal, creating the Ringstrasse (Ring Boulevard) with monumental, historically-inspired neo-Gothic and neo-Baroque buildings. The term Ringstrassenstil is sometimes used to describe this mix of styles. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Renaissance Revival Vienna Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) were constructed during this time.

 Burgtheater, Europe's second oldest theater, was first housed in Hofburg Palace, before this "new" theater was built in 1888.

Modern Vienna:

The Viennese Secession movement at the turn of the 20th century launched a revolutionary spirit in architecture. Architect Otto Wagner combined traditional styles and Art Nouveau influences. Meanwhile, architect Adolf Loos established the stark, minimalist style we see at the The Goldman and Salatsch Building. Eyebrows raised when Loos built this modern structure across from the Imperial Palace in Vienna. The year: 1909. The Goldman and Salatsch Building marks an important transition in the world of architecture, as do these important buildings:

  • Church of St. Leopold
    A beautiful church designed especially for the mentally ill
  • Majolika Haus
    Otto Wagner distinctive tiled facade makes this apartment building desired property.
  • Stadtbahn
    Otto Wagner's rail stations and bridges
  • Villa I and Villa II, the homes of Austrian architect Otto Wagner

Today's Vienna is a showplace of architectural innovation. Twentieth century buildings include Hundertwasser-Haus, a brilliantly colored, unusually shaped building by Friedensreich Hunderwasser, and a controversial glass and steel structure, Haas Haus, by Pritzker Laureate Hans Hollein. Several teams of architects are converting the century-old Gasometer buildings into a massive urban complex with offices and shops—adaptive reuse on a grand scale.

In addition to the Gasometer project, Pritzker Laureate Jean Nouvel has designed housing units in Vienna, as have the Pritzker winners Herzog & de Meuron on Pilotengasse.  And that apartment house on the Spittelauer Lände? Another Pritzker Laureate, Zaha Hadid.

Vienna continues to make architecture in a big way.

Learn More: