“Making music, dancing, the theatre, conversation, proper and urbane deportment, these were cultivated here as particular arts. It was not the military, nor the political, nor the commercial, that was predominant in the life of the individual and of the masses.”
– Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday.
Despite their geographical proximity, Vienna stands in enormous contrast to Prague and Budapest. As we crossed the border between the Czech Republic and Austria and as the sun dipped below the verdant landscape, barren fields and Soviet-like countryside terraformed into modern highways and a distinctly Western European atmosphere. Bland concrete buildings were gradually replaced by ornate facades.
Vienna is renowned for its classical architecture, in particular surrounding the Ringstrasse, which encircles the city centre. The Historicist buildings were modelled on idealised versions of Greek and Roman architectural styles, but adapted to the function and aesthetic of the day. No finer example can be found than the Austrian Parliament, which mimics Hellenistic architecture. This was because the Greeks were the forefathers of democracy, and the head architect Theophil Hansen sought to emulate the ideals of the purest democratic form, a stylistic choice which is reminiscent of Plato’s theory of Forms.
The influence of the wealthy Habsburgs attracted artists and composers of the 18th and 19th centuries to Vienna during the heyday of the classical period. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Strauss Jr. were associated with the city at different times. The Vienna Philharmonic is considered one of the finest orchestras, and the Musikvererin one of the best acoustically designed concert halls in the world. Vienna also has an outstanding operatic tradition, and is home to the Staatsoper and Volksoper, two of the most well-known opera companies in the world. Be aware that the opera season spans from September to June, roughly matching that of the school year, and those who wish to visit the opera houses should visit Vienna during this time. Yet another famous feature of Vienna is its grand balls. Each year, more than 450 balls take place in Vienna, mostly during winter, spanning the New Year. While these formal occasions may sound daunting, most are open to the public, and uptight classical music has increasingly given way to contemporary music, making these events more accessible than ever before.
The Austrian capital is filled to the brim with fine art, which is often housed in sumptuous palaces and galleries, some of which are concentrated around the MuseumsQuartier, a square hugging the Ringstrasse in the city centre. The city is also home to the world-famous Academy of Fine Arts, which has trained well-known artists since the 1600s. Besides the vibrant fine arts scene, Vienna is also host to budding modern and street artists. Artists such as ROA and Blu have left their marks on Viennese murals, and museums such as MAK and MUMOK exhibit the latest in contemporary art.
The legacy of the Habsburgs permeates the city. For centuries, the Habsburgs and their sprawling family tree reigned not only over much of Central Europe, but also Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and even the Americas. Their influence was largely exerted through a combination of intermarriages, exploration, and conquests. Their story, far too extensive to recount here, came to an end with the abdication of Emperor Charles I at the end of the First World War. Much of the Habsburgs’ legacy takes the form of classical art, music, and architecture; in many ways, the Hofburg, Schönbrunn, and Belvedere Palaces, their ornate and gilded chambers, and the furniture and artwork contained therein, still loom large over the city. Perhaps most pertinent to modern life, however, is the latter Habsburgs’ push for a unified Europe, contributing to the formation and consolidation of the European Union.