Remains of an Empire: Habsburg History in Vienna

Shönbrunn Palace from across the front courtyard
Shönbrunn Palace from across the front courtyard

“And in this room where you’re now standing, Mozart as a young boy performed for the Empress of Austria.” It’s difficult to walk in Vienna without stepping all over history, nearly all of which has one thing in common: The Habsburg Family.

A dynasty of emperors who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire for 300 years, the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, and produced rulers throughout Europe and beyond. What surprised me the most, in fact, was how many countries were ruled by members of the House of Habsburg. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Maximillian, for example, was the Emperor of Mexico. Maria Leopoldina, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and Empress Maria Theresa, became Empress of Brazil through marriage.

Building upon building in Vienna continue to house the remains of the Habsburg family’s wealth and decadence, work and family life, scandals and secrets:

Shönbrunn Palace

The most grandiose of the Habsburgs’ Vienna homes is the imperial palace of Shönbrunn, a short bus ride away from downtown Vienna. An extensive yellow rococo-style building dating back to the late 17th century, it reminded me of the Residenz palace in Würzburg, Germany. The building itself was so beautiful that we saw no less than five wedding parties having professional pictures taken on its sweeping steps. Top-hatted horse and carriage drivers offered rides to visitors within the orderly front courtyard while meandering garden paths fanning out from the back provided scenic walks past fountains, hedges and fruit trees, Roman ruins, a domed pigeon aviary, and an outdoor concert stage.

Inside, there were so many rooms that some were simply named for their style of décor: the Walnut Room, the Porcelain Room, the Chinese Cabinets, the Bergyl Room (named for its artist), and so on. It was here in the Mirror Room where six-year-old Mozart played for Empress Maria Theresa. Mozart is speculated to have been retroactively painted into a work of art depicting the wedding celebration of Maria Theresa’s son, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and Isabella of Parma. At four years old his talents were unknown, yet he was subject to the old fashioned equivalent of being Photo-Shopped in as a guest after he became a renowned composer.


Imperial Apartments

The Imperial Apartments served as the Habsburgs’ city home and offices. Equally ornate, these faced a cobblestone courtyard in the center of downtown Vienna rather than the spacious palatial courtyard and sprawling gardens of Shönbrunn.

Sisi Museum

Adjacent to the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum expands on the life story of Empress Elizabeth of Austria (known by her nickname: Sisi) that was mentioned in both of the Habsburg homes. This year the museum celebrates its tenth anniversary of clarifying the empress’s obscure story and debunking some of the myths surrounding her less than happy life.

Sisi married Emperor Franz Joseph I, son of Archduke Franz Karl and Princess Sophie, at the age of sixteen. Franz Joseph is said to have been completely devoted to his wife, though her feelings remained “open to speculation.” One of the audio tours expanded on this with a quote from Sisi in which she described marriage as something a young girl is sold into at an early age, involving making a promise she doesn’t understand, and that she must live with for thirty or more years. Though she did not enjoy the court life that came with her title, she was able to live a largely independent life within the grand imperial homes and traveled extensively. Many quotes from her writing and poetry are displayed throughout the museum, describing a sense of sadness and a loss of freedom.

Throughout her life, Sisi was devoted to maintaining her attractive appearance through diet and exercise, health and beauty treatments, and a penchant for cutting-edge fashion and hairstyles. At a height of 5’8” she weighed little more than 100 pounds and had a famously tiny waist of around sixteen inches.

At the age of 60, Sisi was assassinated by an Italian anarchist while traveling in Geneva, Switzerland. The file with which she was stabbed is on display in the museum, along with many samples of her clothing and jewels.

Silver Collection

Less edgy but equally lavish is the neighboring Silver Collection, which goes on to showcase the Habsburgs’ chic tableware and other riches. One set of cutlery on display is still used for modern day state dinners. Among the more unique items are several mirrored centerpieces the length of a banquet table including candelabras for dramatic reflective lighting.

Amid the impressive table settings are fancily multi-folded cloth napkins. All meals at which the emperor was present – family dinners included – required that the napkins be folded in this style. The secret of the imperial napkin folding method is a tradition that has been passed down to a select few. Only two people in the world currently hold the secret.

There are even basins and ewers used during an annual foot washing ceremony wherein the Habsburgs humbled themselves to a carefully selected dozen of elderly poor, essentially likening themselves to Jesus who had washed the feet of his apostles. The ceremonial pieces are of course elegant, next to a coarse wooden tub where the lucky poor would have placed their feet.

Michaelerplatz by the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, Silver Collection, and Treasury
Michaelerplatz by the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, Silver Collection, and Treasury
Apartments/Museums courtyard
Apartments/Museums courtyard area

Kunsthistoriches Museum

The Habsburg’s possessions are not limited to their former homes and the museums mentioned above. The Kunsthistoriches Museum, an art museum that is a grand work of art in its own right, houses incredible collections that include those of the Habsburg family members. Viennese art crafted from gold, silver, ivory, ebony, amethyst, opal, aquamarine, rhinoceros tusk, and virtually any other material you can conceive of are on display on the first floor. Paintings by Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, French, and Italian painters line the walls on the next floor. Masterpieces by artists Raphael, Caravaggio, Breugel, Peter Paul Rubens, and many more are among the treasures here.

Main stair in the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Main stair in the Kunsthistorisches Museum


Last (of what we had time to visit on this trip) but certainly not least was a storehouse exhibiting some of the most valuable possessions of the House of Habsburg. Room after room of the treasury showcase coronation robes, scepters, crowns, and religious and knight order regalia. In addition to these garments are a number of unique treasures, including a larger than life “unicorn horn” (disappointingly actually an enormous narwhal’s horn). Among the Habsburgs’ most prized possessions are a tremendous amount of Catholic relics: a cloth imprinted with the face of Christ from the time of his death, a piece of the true cross, a tooth of St. John the Baptist, and on and on.

Unicorn horn?
Unicorn horn?


A separate museum we did not visit is dedicated to a collection of the Habsburg furniture. The sheer volume of possessions filling the palaces and museums, in addition to the buildings themselves testifies to the grand force that was once the House of Habsburg. Today their startling wealth and remarkable history hold a dominant role in the tourism and imaginations in Vienna.

4 thoughts on “Remains of an Empire: Habsburg History in Vienna

  1. I had to google narwhal to find out what that was. Never heard of it, but sea life is not my thing. An 8′ ivory tusk that grows on something the size of a bus sounds impressive to me!

  2. Thank you both! There was so much history to absorb and I tried to pick out the most interesting points (still many!). Yes, the narwhal is a very unusual sea creature – maybe the next best thing to a unicorn after all.

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