Ancient, glorious and shot-through with history, this Gothic pinnacle makes the skyline of central Vienna its own.
Commanding the heart of the Inner Stadt, St Stephen's Cathedral rises from the centre of Vienna like a ghostly reminder of the medieval city that once spread around it. With its frosted-white Gothic tower soaring 136 metres into the sky and its vibrant zigzag tiled roof featuring the Habsburg double-headed eagle, it's an unmistakeable icon of the capital. And with a history stretching back to Roman times, every brick, tile and statue has a tale to tell about this imperial city.
The story of St Stephen's traditionally starts with the Romanesque church built here in the 12th century. But recent diggings have shown that a Roman cemetery was sited here in the 4th century. The church was dedicated to St Stephen – the first Christian martyr – in 1147, but it was largely destroyed by a terrible fire in 1258. The western gate, and its two Romanesque windowed-towers, survived however.
The fabulous Gothic needle of the north tower was completed in 1443, and its white spire can be seen from most of Vienna. That made it an invaluable watch-tower during Vienna's two major sieges. Once blackened by pollution, recent restoration has seen its limestone returned to its pristine-white condition.
There is much to be seen inside St Stephen's too. The eye is drawn first to the marble Baroque High Altar, with its scene of the stoning of St Stephen. On the left side of it is the beautifully carved and gilded Wiener Neustädter Altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And to its right is the red marble tomb of the man who commissioned it – Emperor Frederick III – with its 240 finely sculpted statues.
Other highlights include the dark depths of the catacombs (home to 11,000 skeletons) and the Ducal Crypt, where 78 bronze urns contain remains of the Habsburg family. More spiritually uplifting, though, is the Maria Pötsch Icon. This weeping painting of the Madonna came from a Hungarian village. It hasn't wept since it arrived, but many believe that it once helped saved the city – and St Stephen's – from Turkish invasion.