As my vacation in Austria was coming to an end, I marched up the side of a mountain in Salzburg and gazed out at this winning city, easily spotting the beautiful buildings I had already seen and a couple that still remained to be visited. I had already spent some time in Vienna, relishing that city’s architectural treasures, and poking around the countryside to find even more delights among the green valleys, dramatic mountains, and happy cows. Salzburg was my final stop before heading to Budapest, and its inventory of remarkable buildings was as deep as those that had preceded it in a country that continually impressed me. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom, Vienna)
Dedicated to the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen’s Cathedral owes its existence today to a Nazi. Captain Gerhard Klinkicht disobeyed the orders of his superior officer to “leave it in debris and ashes” as the Germans retreated toward the end of World War II. Most likely, he was awed by the cathedral and couldn’t bear to destroy something so beautiful that had been around for hundreds of years. This iconic building has more than a handful of highlights to explore in between the nearly two dozen services it holds every week. The massive tower with the soaring spire punctures the sky at 446’ tall—not too shabby for a structure that took 65 years to build and was completed in 1433. Even older are the twin Roman Towers, which derived their name from the rubble of ancient Roman structures that stood here and were used in their construction. Inside, the tremendous interior features a gorgeous pulpit—a Gothic masterpiece with highly detailed relief portraits of St. Ambrose, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Jerome. There are multiple altars and chapels, tombs and crypts, and statues and architectural flourishes to discover, and once I had soaked in as many as possible, I climbed the 343 stairs in the south tower for a close-up view of the cathedral’s newest and perhaps most arresting feature—a steep 364’-long roof covered with 230,000 glazed tiles. Part of the roof is a hypnotizing herringbone pattern in green, blue, yellow, and black tiles; another part utilizes the same colors in diamonds laid around two eagles, one with the coat of arms of the city of Vienna, the other with that of the Republic of Austria. The year 1950 underlines both eagles—the year in which this roof was completed following a major fire five years earlier. It’s hard to overstate the beauty of this cathedral, and I imagine that the three million people who visit it annually would be equally hard pressed to conjure up any adjective that does it justice.
#2 City Hall (Rathaus, Vienna)
If I were one of the more than 2,000 people who work in the Vienna City Hall, the head office of the city’s municipal administration, I’d probably be pretty happy to go to work every day. Completed in 1883, this neo-Gothic confection fronts the Rathauspark, from which I enjoyed unimpeded views of the fanciful façade. Above flowerboxes filled with red geraniums, an almost uninterrupted row of Gothic windows, each featuring a triangular arrangement of three quatrefoil windows in the top third, runs the entire width of the building. Above them, standing atop the balustrade, about 25 statues of Habsburg notables keep watch over the city. That leads up to the steep roof pierced by small triangular windows and the four steeples, two on each side of the main central tower, which, at just over 321’ tall, would not seem at all inappropriate atop a Gothic cathedral, what with its four clock faces and wedding-cake frills. It’s all topped by the Rathausmann, an 11’-tall iron standard-bearer forged from melted-down Russian kopecks.
#3 Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom, Salzburg)
Standing in the Domplatz and staring up at the Salzburg Cathedral, it was difficult for me to imagine that, in October 1944, this magnificent building lie in ruins. It wasn’t the first time, however, and given that its history goes back to 774, that’s no surprise. That was the year the first cathedral rose. Since then, fires and demolition have erased the cathedral in 842, 1167, and 1598. The cornerstone for the present cathedral was placed in 1614, and from that rose the current building, a Baroque masterpiece that was mostly completed by 1628. After a single bomb plunged through the dome in 1944 during World War II and practically destroyed it, the cathedral was largely rebuilt by 1959. The main entrance garners all the attention; the other three sides, of dark gray stone, are fairly plain. On either side of the gabled central section of bright marble, twin domed towers were added by 1655 and hold two clocks, bells from 1628, and the second-largest bell in Austria (weighing more than 31,000 pounds). The north tower still houses an old oven used for baking communion bread. Four large sculptures of the diocese’s and cathedral’s patrons greet visitors passing through the three bronze doors: saints Rupert, Virgilius, Peter, and Paul. Above them, along a balustrade, stand statues of the Four Evangelists, while the pediment above them features those of Christ, Moses, and Elijah as well as the coats of arms of the cathedral’s builders in a bit of vainglory. Inside, at 465’ long and 180’ high at the crossing of the nave and transepts under the central dome, the cathedral can seat 900 worshippers. The elegant Baroque interior is tempered by the abundance of white in the pilasters, arches, soffets, balconies, and brackets. Murals and frescoes on the ceiling, in the side chapels, and in the dome and pendentives add panels of color with some bold reds and oranges, while the painting of the Resurrection of Christ behind the altar is much more subdued. For those who aren’t all about the art and architecture, the cathedral is also a magnet for pilgrims, who come for the relics of saints Vincent, Ursula, Martin of Tours, Rupert, Vergilius, Gereon, Chuniald, Gislar, Hermes, Chrysanthus, and Daria, and for music lovers, who are delighted to find the bronze baptismal font where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Mohr (of “Silent Night” fame) were baptized.
#4 Holy Trinity Church (Dreifaltigkeitskirche, Salzburg)
Inspired by the Church of St. Agnes in Rome, Holy Trinity Church fronts a grassy square from which I took in the church’s beauty. Newer than Salzburg Cathedral, and without its history of destruction, this church was mostly completed by 1702, with additions later on, like the twin belfries on either side of the curved main entrance. At first glance, you may mistake it for a palace, as two long wings spread out from the entrance—home to the seminary. But the details soon reveal its true purpose, such as the four figures in front of the impressive dome and its fine lantern representing Faith, Hope, Love, and Divine Wisdom. Inside, impressive sculptural groups of angels can be found at all the altars. But the star of the show is the dome fresco, Coronation of the Virgin, a whirling scene of activity as the Holy Trinity crowns Mary with the help of archangel Michael and a host of angels, saints, prophets, and popes amid concentric banks of clouds. A Holy Spirit dove is centered at the top of the lantern. If you are so inclined, you can make a permanent record of your visit here by signing the Anliegenbuch, the Book of Concerns. Jot down your worries or your wishes (although you may have one or two fewer of these after visiting here), and they may very well be addressed during a church service that week.
#5 Votive Church (Votivkirche, Vienna)
When an assassination attempt on Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph failed in 1853, his brother, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, didn’t just say a prayer of thanks. He decided to build an entire church instead. Twenty-three years of construction later, the Votive Church was consecrated in 1879. The church of white sandstone is a neo-Gothic beauty that, when I was there, was largely blackened by decades of pollution and acid rain. Nevertheless, the two partially cleaned, soaring towers and gorgeous spires, rose window, flying buttresses, and roof with a gray diamond pattern in mosaic captured my attention. Inside, the baldacchino on the main altar, with its gables and pinnacles, looks like a smaller version of the church itself. Given the relatively short span of time from groundbreaking to consecration, the entire building maintains an unmistakable uniformity of style, from the columns to the arches to the finer details. And when you learn that it was designed by architect Heinrich von Ferstel when he was only 26 years old, it instantly becomes even more impressive. Under the hexagonal pulpit, you’ll find a sculpture of the man himself, forever at home in his brilliant accomplishment.
- Abbey of the Holy Cross (Stift Heiligenkreuz, 1739, Heiligenkreuz)
- Vienna State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper, 1869, Vienna)
- St. Charles Church (Karlskirche, 1737, Vienna)
- Collegiate Church (Kollegienkirche, 1707, Salzburg)
- Museum of Art History (Kunsthistoriches Museum, 1891, Vienna)
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