I’m not sure what I loved most about Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The art itself – paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer – the museum’s lavishly beautiful architecture or the way the art was displayed. As we walked from room to room, I kept thinking that this was what an art museum should look like. Colorful, impeccable and welcoming. It was interesting to me that although the entry was overwhelmingly grand and palatial, the galleries were warm and inviting. I wanted to pull up one of the blue velvet banquette-style sofas and stay awhile.
Herb and I had spent our first night on board the Crystal Mozart, docked at Vienna’s river boat pier along the Danube. We had signed up for two tours – all tours were included with this river cruise – picking places we hadn’t visited on our own. For the afternoon, the selection was easy – Schönbrunn Palace, outside the city and a place where transportation was definitely needed. For the morning, we selected Kunsthistorisches, back in the familiar territory of Vienna’s city center.
Opened in 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I, Kunsthistorisches showcases the collection that belonged to the Habsburgs. Translated from the German as “art histories,” it’s also known as the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. The building sits across from the Museum of Natural History on Maria-Theresien-Platz, the square connecting the Ringstrasse with Vienna’s Museumsquartier.
Our Vienna-based guide Irene was a wonder of information about the museum, its art and history. She began by leading us up the grand staircase and then stopping a few minutes at key paintings as we walked through the galleries. From the Italian Renaissance to Northern European art, paintings were showcased on colorfully painted walls, each room different from the next. Rich greens, lilacs, reds and blues seemed perfectly curated as backdrops to the extensive collection.
Our final stop at Kunsthistorisches was Kunstkammer, the gallery of art objects where the museum’s prized sculpture – Benvenuto Cellini’s salt cellar, the Saliera – is housed. Sculpted by hand from rolled gold, the Saliera features gods of the earth and sea sitting on a base of ebony with ivory bearings to roll it around. A boat for the salt floats next to the sea god, and a temple for peppercorns stand by the earth goddess. Irene told the story of how the Saliera was stolen from the museum and later recovered unharmed, buried in a lead box in a forest. The piece is valued at $60 million.
Crowds were starting to thin by mid-afternoon as we arrived at the entrance to Schönbrunn Palace. The Habsburg’s summer estate lays claim to being Austria’s most popular tourist attraction, and visiting early or late in the day seems to offer the best window for avoiding a mad rush. It’s a sprawling, Versailles-like sight, with 1,441 rooms and gardens that stretch into the landscape. And with a name that roughly translates to beautiful fountain, you know you’re sure to find a few of those on the property.
With time to wander on our own before the tour began, Herb and I headed around the palace, where a monument called Gloriette stands atop a distant hill, with flowers and fountains decorating the grounds below. We walked down beautiful tree-lined paths that seemed more like grand avenues than palace walkways. We peeked into pavilions and vine-covered archways. Herb and I were having such a great time exploring the grounds that the thought crossed our minds to skip the tour and spend the entire time outside!
Imperial Carriage Museum
Our tour centered around the Imperial Carriage Museum and the Imperial Apartments. For me, the interior rooms were a continuation of what we had learned about the Habsburgs in the Hofburg Imperial Palace tour. And as was the case with the Hofburg Palace, interior photography was not allowed.
The sun was hanging low in the sky as we drove back to Vienna and the Danube dock. As excited as I was to begin our river cruise, I was feeling a little melancholy about leaving this city. Vienna is one of those places that gets under your skin in the best possible way, and even after three days, I knew we had only scratched the surface.
Near the dock, our bus passed the Prater’s Giant Ferris Wheel, one of the city’s most recognizable symbols. Made famous in the Orson Wells’ classic The Third Man and more recently in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the Giant Ferris Wheel has been a fixture of the city since 1897.
I grabbed my camera and snapped a quick photo as we drove by…a parting shot before moving on.