With the dismantling of the defensive walls around Vienna during the mid-nineteenth century, wide open space became available right near the city center, which created the opportunity to build a grand boulevard, the Ringstraße.
By the end of the nineteenth century, when the Ringstraße was completed, it was lined with grand buildings that housed political and cultural institutions. The boulevard is still as impressive now as it was during the twilight years of the Habsburg Empire, although heavy traffic has made it less enjoyable to walk.
Fortunately it is well-connected to the U-Bahn, the city’s underground, and all the major landmarks along the Ringstraße are within walking distance of a subway station.
In the early nineteenth century, at a time when most European cities had already demolished their medieval walls, Vienna was still encircled by a large defensive wall, fortified with bastions and surrounded by glacis.
Even as the treat of an Ottoman invasion had subsided, the conservative military leaders continued to consider the walls strategically important, and numerous plans to modernize and expand the city were never realized. Napoleon had already shown the walls were unable to stop a modern invading army when he occupied Vienna in 1805 and again in 1809, when he even demolished parts of the fortifications.
Finally, in December 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I decided to demolish the fortifications and create a prestigious boulevard to replace the glacis. The project was ambitious and intended to transform Vienna in a modern city on par with Berlin or Paris.
The emperor’s decision marked the start of a project of epic proportions. Franz Joseph himself contributed with his vision of a Kaiserforum, which resulted in the construction of the Neue Burg, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Naturhistorisches Museum. Some concessions were made to appease the military: the Ringstraße was made wide enough to allow for troop maneuvers and the first buildings erected along the boulevard were barracks; this would allow the military to easily crush rebellions of the poor proletarians living in the suburbs.
But it was a time when the Habsburg dynasty started to lose its iron grip on the country and many new buildings symbolized this evolution, in particular the Parlament, a parliamentary building designed in a classical Greek style, a reference to Greece as the cradle of modern democracy.
Construction of the Ringstraße was officially completed in 1880, and in a short span of less than twenty-five years, the area had been transformed from a virtual wasteland into a magnificent boulevard lined with monumental landmark buildings.
The Ringstraße, also known simply as the Ring, is a five km long (3 mi) horseshoe-shaped boulevard, which starts and ends at the Danube canal. Together with the canal, the street completely encircles the historic center of Vienna. Here the atmosphere completely changes. Narrow irregular streets are replaced with wide open areas and monumental buildings.
The Ringstraße is divided into sections, all of which have a different name, starting in the north with the Schottenring and ending counter-clockwise at the Stubenring in the northeast.
Sights along the Ringstraße
The first monumental building near the Ringstraße is the Rossauer Kaserne, a large red brick barracks built between 1865 and 1869. Together with the Arsenal and the now former imperial barracks at the Stubenring, it was built to suppress any potential revolt.
The most important building along the Schottenring is the Börse, the former stock exchange building. Danish architect Theophil Hansen created this brick building in 1877. He used a Neo-Renaissance style, as the Renaissance period market the development of the modern banking system.
At the end of the Schottenring, bordering Sigmund Freud Park, stands the Votivkirche, a large Neo-Gothic church designed by Heinrich von Ferstel. Construction of the church started already in 1856, even before the decision was made to demolish the city wall.
Dr. Karl Rennerring and Dr. Karl Luegerring
This section of the Ring is named for two Viennese mayors and, appropriately enough, this is also where Vienna’s city hall – the Rathaus – was built. The Neo-Gothic building, with a cathedral-like tower, is set back from the Ringstraße. In front of the Rathaus lies Rathauspark, one of several parks that line the Ring. To the north, the park is bordered by the main university building, another creation of Heinrich von Ferstel. Influenced by his travel through Italy, he now opted for an Italian Renaissance design.
One of the most imposing buildings on the Ringstraße is the Parlament, situated to the south of the Rathauspark. The parliament was built in Greek Revival style, with a monumental classical front and decorated with statues, reliefs and sculpture groups. A large fountain at the foot of the building shows a statue of the Greek goddess Pallas Athene on top of a tall pedestal.
Opposite the Rathaus is the Burgtheater, a beautiful building that opened in 1888 as the new Royal Theater. It was designed by Karl Hasenauer and Gottfried Semper and was decorated with ceiling paintings by Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch.
To the south of the theater is the Volksgarten, a park that was created in 1820 – 1823 after Napoleon had demolished a section of the fortifications around the Hofburg. At the center of the Volksgarten stands a replica of the ancient Temple of Hephaestus. The original is located at the Ancient Agora of Athens in Greece.
One last noteworthy building near this section of the Ring is the Justizpalast, a Neo-Renaissance building designed by Alexander Wielemans von Monteforte. Its atrium is covered by a magnificent glass vault.
Continuing counter-clockwise along the Ringstraße brings you to the Burgring. Here Franz Joseph planned his Kaiserforum, an expansion of the imperial palace, the Hofburg. The center of the Kaiserforum was Heldenplatz, which lies just north of the Burgring. Only one of two planned wings of the Neue Burg (new castle) now border the Heldenplatz. Today the wing is home to a collection of museums.
To the south of the Burgring lies Maria-Theresien-Platz. The two mirroring buildings that flank the square were built to display the imperial collections of art and other objects. The magnificent buildings of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Naturhistorisches Museum were designed by Gottfried Semper in a Neo-Renaissance style, with monumental marble columns and grand staircases. To the southeast of Maria-Theresien-Platz you’ll find the former royal stables, now a museum complex known as MuseumsQuartier.
As its name suggests, this section of the Ringstraße is named for the Staatsoper (State Opera House). It was designed in an Italianate Renaissance style by Eduard van der Nüll and August Siccardsburg and is defined by its beautiful loggia.
Ever since the creation of the Ringstraße, this area has always been the most crowded. Here the Ring intersects with Kärntner Strasse, a popular shopping street that leads straight to Stephansplatz, the heart of the old town.
To the north, the Opernring is bordered by the Burggarten, which was created in the early nineteenth century as a private garden for the imperial family.
Here the Ringstraße takes a back seat to the Karlsplatz to the south, which attracted all the landmark buildings, most notably the magnificent Karlskirche. The Kärntner Ring brings you to Schwarzenbergplatz, a large square named after one of Austria’s many historical war heroes, Prince Karl Philipp of Schwarzenberg.
Schubertring and Parkring
A short section of the Ringstraße known as Schubertring – named after Austrian composer Franz Schubert – connects Schwarzenbergplatz with the Parkring. Here the Stadtpark was created between 1858 and 1862. The park, laid out in English landscape style, is the largest park along the Ringstraße. The most popular sight in the park is a rather flamboyant statue of Johann Strauss Jr.
The final section of the Ringstraße is the Stubenring, which ends at the Donaukanal. The first building at the Stubenring is the Museum für Angewandte Kunst or MAK, yet another creation of Heinrich von Ferstel. The brick building in Neo-Renaissance style was built between 1867 and 1871.
The monumental buildings at the end of the Stubenring were built in 1912 as the offices for the Kriegsministerium, the Ministry of War. The bombastic, Neo-Baroque design was a creation of Ludwig Baumann. In front of the complex stands an equestrian statue of Josef Wenzel Radetzky, an Austrian general who was the inspiration for Johann Strauss Sr.’s famous Radetzky March.
Also of interest here is the Postsparkasse, built in 1906 after a design by Otto Wagner. Wagner is known for his many Jugendstil buildings in Vienna, but here he created a modernist building avant la lettre. The bright, glass-covered atrium is worth a visit.