Grand design: the fountains in front of the Schönbrunn Palace
Grand design: the fountains in front of the Schönbrunn Palace

Imperial Vienna: Austria's capital marks 150 years of its famous Ringstrasse boulevard

There is a string of events on or around the Ringstrasse this year including the 60th Eurovision Song Contest

Hamish McRae
Friday 15 May 2015 12:30

Amere 150 years ago, on 1 May 1865, the youthful Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, officially opened Vienna's Ringstrasse, the broad, tree-lined boulevard that encircles the medieval core of the city. It was built on the land of the city walls which had repelled the Ottoman Empire's furthest advances into Europe in 1529, and again in 1683. But they were no longer needed by the relatively peaceful 19th century.

In the next 50 years, the Ringstrasse was fringed with a string of grand new buildings – the Parliament, City Hall, Vienna State Opera – while wealthy Viennese families built their magnificent homes along it. The tale of one such family, the Ephrussi, is told by Edmund de Waal in The Hare with Amber Eyes. In 1867 the Austrian Empire was constitutionally merged with the Kingdom of Hungary, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire becoming the second largest country in Europe by area after Russia.

But that golden period was shattered by the First World War, the conflict triggered by the assassination of Franz Joseph's nephew and prospective heir, Franz Ferdinand. The empire was disbanded after defeat in 1918, while Franz Joseph himself died in 1916, aged 86. We are left with the symbols of a great empire – the sprawling, overblown Schönbrunn Palace and the grand buildings of the Ringstrasse.

As you might expect, there is a string of events on or around the Ringstrasse this year. Of international interest will be the 60th Eurovision Song Contest, which starts on Monday, building up to the final next weekend. There is a plethora of events taking place. Conchita Wurst, last year's winner, will be singing with Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez and musicians of the State Opera orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic tomorrow afternoon.

This will be followed by Vienna Pride and Rainbow Parade, starting 16 June, and a week of jazz in July. Through July and August there will be a pop festival, a motorcycle weekend, and come September, the Global Champions Tour, billed as the world's most prestigious show-jumping series, with a gala performance by the Spanish Riding School in front of the City Hall. This year is the 450th anniversary of the school – home of the white Lipizzaners. Then, as the year closes, there are six weeks of street markets before Christmas.

As for the Ringstrasse itself, there are the conventional "sights", the grandest perhaps being the Parliament, but one should not miss former private palaces. I counted 13 of them, and several are open to the public. You get a better feel for late 19th-century self-confidence and wealth in the way private individuals displayed their money, than in the government buildings. The Ephrussi family, which once rivalled the Rothschilds, lost almost everything when the Nazis marched into Vienna in 1938, took their home and looted their art collection. The Hare with Amber Eyes, along with a handful of other small items, were hidden by a loyal servant.

Wealth and influence of the public sort are on display at the Schönbrunn Palace. Visitors have different reactions to it. Think Versailles, but it is less than a century since Schönbrunn became a similar anachronism. It does not have the swagger of Louis XIV's chateau but it has twice as many rooms. However, there is something sad about it. Anyone going on the tour will be struck by the contrast between the grand entertaining spaces and relatively modest living quarters. But, if you want to feel more uplifted, go instead to the gardens, entry to which is free. There is a grand pavilion, the Gloriette, on the hill at the back of the palace. Walk up it and look across the gardens to imagine the grand parties that took place there 150 years ago.

If Vienna is an imperial capital without an empire, it is also symbol of a new Europe. You are a long way east, beyond Prague, only an hour's drive from the Slovak and Hungarian borders, and not much further from the Czech Republic and Slovenia. And you are only four hours from Italy. The streets are full of cars and coaches from these neighbours making this a city full of young Europeans getting along, which is as it should be.

Getting there

Vienna is served by British Airways (0344 493 0787; and Austrian Airlines (0870 1 24 26 25; from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; from Gatwick and Jet2 (0800 408 1350 ; from Manchester.

Visiting there

Spanish Riding School, Michaelerplatz 1 (00 43 1 533 9031;

Vienna State Opera, Opernring 2 (00 43 1 5144 42250;

Vienna Parliament, Dr Karl Renner-Ring 3 (00 43 1 401 100;

Vienna City Hall, Friedrich-Schmidt-Platz 11 (00 43 1 52550;

Schönbrunn Palace, Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse 47 (00 43 1 81113239;

More information

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