Monumental, Magnificent: Vienna's famous Ringstrasse.
Vienna's historic core, the first district, was hemmed in by high fortress-like walls until the mid 19th century. Franz Josef gave orders to raze the walls and in their stead build a boulevard worthy of a multi-national empire with 60 million inhabitants. Within 50 years this glorious avenue, lined with prestigious cultural and administrative buildings, was complete and Vienna turned from being a medieval city to a modern metropolis. Although called a ring it's more like a horseshoe beginning and ending at Franz Josef Kai on the Danube Canal. A true show-case of public and private palaces, parks, monuments and museums, here more than anywhere else can the imperial importance of Vienna's past be witnessed.
One man in particular left his mark more than any other. Danish born architect, Theophil von Hansen, is responsible for some of the Ringstrasse's finest gems. My favourites are his Parliament, Börse (stock exchange), Musikverein (golden hall) and Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Art). Locally this mix of styles became known as “Ringstrassenstil”. These Neo-Renaissance Historicism styled facades are an ultimate display of overwhelming grandeur, being completed just before the downfall of the House of Hapsburg only a few years later. The term Historicism (grand finale of classic architectural styles) is generally used for the Ringstrassen buildings in Vienna, and in this context refers more to architecture than to philosophy.
A journey round the 3-mile Ring, either on foot or on public transport, or both, should not be missed. I suggest a walk during the day – maybe stopping for coffee at Cafe Schottentor – and a ride on the tram in the evening when illuminations change the appearance of many of the buildings. Trams 1 & 2 share stations at Opera/Karlsplatz and Schwedenplatz. To enjoy the best views, my advice is to take tram number 1 from Schwedenplatz to Opera/Karlsplatz and change onto tram number 2 to Schwedenplatz (this means travelling anti-clockwise). The Vienna public transport authority does employ a yellow tram that circles the Ring for tourists. I am not a fan of this expensive ride, although for the less adventurous traveller the trip may seem easier. Beware: the commentary is not in sync with the buildings as the tram passes them by.
Buildings worthy of notice: Opera, Kunst & Naturhistorisches Museums, Parliament, Burgtheater, Rathaus, Universität, Votivkirche, Börse, Urania, Postsparkasse, MAK and Stadtpark (home to a number of musicians monuments). Some, like the Musikverein or Akademie der Bildenden Künste, are slightly set back from the Ring and should be seen on foot. That's the advantage of using public transport, you can leave the tram to have a closer look. Most of the above mentioned buildings have a stop in front or near by. Although three-lane traffic can be heavy sometimes, pavements are generously wide and, apart from crazy cyclists, make for a pleasant stroll. I only briefly mentioned the Franz Josef Kai: this is the least charming part of the circle but is rapidly becoming an interesting part of the city, with modern architecture and leisure areas along side the Danube Canal.