The summer playground of the Habsburg emperors features landscaped gardens, beautiful ruins, an imperial zoo and a Baroque palace where Rococo runs riot.
The Hofburg Palace, in central Vienna, may have been the imperial showcase for the capital. But the imperial family's summer home of choice was the Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn). It may be a little smaller – with a mere 1,400 rooms – but it certainly had the location. When first built, it sat in the rolling fields beyond the city, in its own vast island of formal gardens and idyllic parkland.
That endless open space, landscaped to perfection, remains popular to this day: Schönbrunn Palace is the most visited of all of Vienna's multi-faceted attractions. The palace started out as a hunting park for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, when he bought the land in 1569. But it wasn't until the reign of Empress Maria Theresa in the 1750s that the Baroque masterpiece seen today was finally completed.
Forty of its rooms are open to the public now, and they demonstrate the power and wealth of the Habsburg rulers. Most of the rooms are decorated in fine Rococo-lacquer, traced with copious amounts of gold-leaf. The finest Bohemian crystal chandeliers hang from rooms like the Round Chinese Room and the Hall of Mirrors, where a six-year-old boy named Mozart once gave a concert.
Much of the attraction here lies outside of such palatial splendour. The Schlosspark, as the parklands are called, stretch over 120 hectares. Close to the palace, they include formal French-style gardens and immense ponds, and further out, landscaped woodlands. The dominating feature of the gardens is the Gloriette, a glowing-white “temple” built on a hill rising south of the palace. Today, this houses a café and offers great views back over Vienna.
The Schlosspark is also home to the Schönbrunn Zoo, which claims to be the oldest-running zoo in the world. It started out as an Imperial menagerie in 1752, but is now a zoo that is well-respected for its conservation efforts – and its Giant Pandas. And there's more – a fabulous 19th-century Palm House, Roman ruins, the Neptune Fountain and a 300-year old hedge maze. More than enough to keep the most energetic emperor busy all summer long.