Are you dying to relive the moment James Bond and Kara ride through the magnificent gardens in The Living Daylights or Sophia Loren’s A Breath of Scandal? All you need to do is kill a day at the breathtakingly opulent Schönbrunn Palace in Austria’s capital, Vienna. It’s history and culture galore at this 1441 room Rococo regal palace, which is arguably the most popular attraction the city has to offer. A former summer royal residence, the palace and its gardens will leave you awestruck as they tell spell binding tales of the palates, lives and dreams of Hapsburg royalty.
Featuring prominently in UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage Sites, the baroque architecture and the exquisite décor of the Schönbrunn Palace makes it stand out as a major architectural marvel in the world today. The ownership of the palace was transferred from the Hapsburg dynasty to the Republic of Austria in 1918, marking the end of the Austrian monarchy. It was governed by a local government body called Schlosshauptmannschaft Schönbrunn until 1992. After that, the ownership was transferred to the Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur und Betriebsges, a government owned company.
The estate where the Schönbrunn today lies belonged to the manor of the monastery at Klosterneuburg in the 14th century. Then called the Katterburg, the estate fell in to the hands of the Holy Roman Hapsburg Emperor Maximillian II in 1569. The Emperor aimed at expanding the hunting grounds of the estate to facilitate the breeding of native game and fowl. His successor Rudolph II failed to do much for the estate besides the required maintenance.
It is believed that Emperor Mathias was hunting on the Katterburg estate in 1612 when he saw the Schöne Brunnen or ‘fair spring’ from which it later derived its name. His successor, Emperor Ferdinand II and wife Eleonora von Gonzaga explored their passion for hunting at this venue. After the Emperor’s death in 1637, Eleonora commissioned the building of a chateau de plaisance to house her art collection, hence renaming the Katterburg as Schönbrunn.
Emperor Leopold I had supremely talented architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach design the preliminary Schönbrunn project, the forerunner of the Schönbrunn Palace today.
The entire estate was renovated and redesigned post the Turkish occupation by architect Nicolaus Pacassi commissioned by Maria Theresia in 1743.
Post the downfall of the Austrian monarchy and the two world wars; the palace was the setting for important world events, one being the 1961 meeting between J.F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev.
As you enter the main gateway guarded by two large obelisks on either side, you will be led into the expansive courtyard adorned with two huge fountains. One of the fountains bears emblematic figures illustrating the Danube, the Inn and the Ems, the all-important rivers of the region. The other fountain consists of representative sculptures depicting Transylvania, Galicia and Lodomeria. You will see the main palace straight ahead and the Schönbrunn Court Theatre to your right.
Head to the garden for one of the best vantage points of the entire estate. Check out the Wagenburg or the Coach Room to feast your eyes on royal coaches, sledges and carriages. The Orangery is where vegetation was sheltered during harsh winters and inclement weather.
The main palace with its 175-metre breadth is a testament to symmetry and Baroque art. The Baroque ensemble is painted light yellow and ochre, a colour scheme that later became typically Austrian. Forty of the 1441 palace rooms are open to the public including the grand state apartments and the rooms of Franz-Josef and Elisabeth. Built to outshine the Versailles, the Rococo interior of the palace is unsurprisingly opulent. The Millionenzimmer Room is unrestrainedly extravagant. The round Chinese Cabinet where Empress Maria Theresia held meetings is caked with porcelain embellishments.
The transfer of ownership of the palace from the Austrian monarchy to the State was officially signed by Charles I in 1918 in the Blue Chinese Room decorated with blue Chinese patterns. The surprisingly dark Vieux-Laqcue room is where Maria Theresia spent her hours as a widow. The Spiegelsaal is where young Mozart and his sister performed before the King and Queen. The Rosa room is named after the artist who decorated the palace walls with landscape frescoes.
The gardens of the complex are as magnificent as the palace itself with the large sculpted garden, the Great Parterre stealing the show. Filled with sculptures, greenery, fountains and a maze, it was largely planned by Jean Trehet in 1695. Look out for Statue of Omphale, Artemisia II of Caria, Calliope, Brutus and Lucretia and other marvels of sculpture that adorn the garden.
Don’t miss the monumental Neptune Fountain in the Schönbrunn Garden credited to Austrian sculptor Franz Anton von Zauner in 1780. It portrays a mythical scene where Thetis requests Neptune to allow her son Achilles a safe voyage to Troy. Atop the Schönbrunn hill, you will see the Gloriette, a neoclassicist arcaded structure. The uphill climb is well worth it, for the Gloriette offers a fantastic panorama of the park, the palace and the city of Vienna.
If nature is what you crave, pay a visit to the Palmenhaus, a sort of greenhouse for an astonishing variety of plants. You’ll also find the world’s oldest zoo, the Tiergaten in the complex dating back to 1752. Here, you’ll find elephants, apes, hippos, koalas and other animals.
Other attractions to look out for include the mock Roman Ruin, the obelisk, a Botanic Garden, a Japanese Garden, a dovecote called the Taubenhaus, the Najadenbrunnen fountains and a dairy farm called the Meirei among other attractions.
If you get a bit peckish scouring this entire world in itself, fret not. There are plenty of restaurants to cater to your appetite within the estate itself. Some of them are the Café Restaurant Residenz and Court Backery, the Schonbrunner Schloßcafé, the Landtmann’s Parkcafé, Café Gloriette and Gasthaus Tirolergarten.