Just like with other Germanic words, “Schönbrunn” can be literally translated to English and means “beautiful fountain”, a reference reportedly uttered by Emperor Matthias while passing by the fountain in 1619 while hunting.
In those days was this area, located circa 6 kilometres from the city centre, considered a countryside, therefore many aristocrats came here to relax and indulge in some hunting.
Trying to be the copy of the Palace of Versailles, Schönbrunn Palace was built in its current form on the peak of Austria’s Baroque glory over the course of several decades in the 18th century.
Austria’s mother of the nation, Empress Maria Theresia was the first who decided to make this former hunting chalet the summer residence of the Habsburgs. It was first modified in 1737 by Josef Emanuel Fischer von Erlach and again in 1744 by Nikolaus Pacassi. The formal gardens were originally laid out in 1705–06 by Jean-Nicolas Jadot de Ville-Issey and from 1765 were redesigned by Ferdinand von Hohenberg. Schönbrunn Tiergarten, perhaps the oldest zoo in Europe, was founded within the grounds in 1752.
Therefore this palace comes with all the bits and pieces a Baroque palace should have: pretty facades, formal gardens, amaze, an orangerie green house, a zoo, botanical gardens, facilities for carriages and for entertaining guests at state balls, state apartments and representative halls. The entire park complex, open to the public since 1918, covers more than 2 square kilometres.
While only 40 of the Schönbrunn Palace’s 1,441 rooms are open to the public, they are enough to provide visitors with a sense of its magnificence. Only accessible as part of a tour, the rooms on display include a number in the palace’s West Wing, home to the sumptuous Apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth (or Sisi).
Richly furnished in 19th-century style, the rooms include the Emperor’s Audience Chamber and the Walnut Room, named after its rich walnut paneling from 1766, a highlight of which is the candelabra carved out of wood and covered in gold. Another highlight is Franz Joseph’s Bedroom with the simple soldier’s bed in which the Emperor died on November 21st, 1916, after a reign of 68 years. Also of note here is Empress Elisabeth’s Salon with its pastel portraits of her children by Jean-Etienne Liotard.
Of the apartments once occupied by Maria Theresa, some of the most attractive are the Bergl Rooms, the richly furnished Garden Apartments with their exotic decorative styles and including works by Johann Bergl. Other highlights include Marie Antoinette’s Room (Napoleon famously stayed here) with its celebrated portrait of Francis I displaying the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece; the Nursery with its portrait of Marie Antoinette; the Yellow Room with its white marble clock, a gift from Napoleon III to Franz Joseph I; and the Breakfast Room with its fine floral paintings thought be the work of the Empress’ daughters. Also of note are the Great Gallery, once home to glittering Imperial banquets under ornate ceiling paintings; the Million Room, Maria Theresa’s private salon, paneled with precious rosewood, ornamented with gilt carvings, and home to some 260 Indian and Persian miniatures; and the Hall of Mirrors with its crystal mirrors in gilded Rococo frames.
There are plenty of tours offered, combining exploring the city centre with Schönbrunn, however, in my opinion is the best choice to tour the city centre by yourself for free (many audioguides are available for free on the internet, like izi.travel app, which provides detailed maps with very elaborate audioguide about each place on the map – only in Vienna I found about 9 tours all around the town (I tried three of them)). And then just come here and buy a classic tour around the chambers, without any expensive guides since even those can be found anywhere for free – you just have to know what to look for.
However, I prefer gardens more than the palace (that says a lot since I’m a passionate architecture lover). They’re way less crowded than the interiors and have a lot of secrets! Someplace it’s only you and the animals around. They kinda remind me of Versailles although those in Versailles are larger and hide more intimate corners.
Between the “landmarks” you’ve definitely already heard about or at least saw on some kind of social media re:
- Gloriette – it was built as a belvedere around 100 years after the main palace and stands on top of a hill overlooking the baroque gardens, the palace and Vienna. There is an observation terrace on the flat roof, which can be used between April and November. Inside is a café/patisserie/breakfast point with, surprisingly, very good coffee and even better view.
left – view from the Gloriette, right – view at the Gloriette
- ZOO – one of Europe’s best zoos, Schönbrunn Zoo is one of the best attractions if you visit Vienna with kids. It’s situated between the palace and Gloriette on the right side. It’s huge and breathtaking, therefore also a little bit expensive, but as for a one-time experience it’s amazing. I was there when I was about 11 (I had a thing for ZOOs and visited every single one within 600 kilometres from my hometown), and I remember liking this one the most. However, this time I didn’t visit it – I found 20 euros too much for my current financial state, huh.
- For additional old world grandeur with a warm feeling head to the Palm house. The gigantic glass iron construction goes back to the late 19th century, and is the largest of its kind on the European continent. You will likely know Mediterranean, Tropical and Northern vegetation, but it’s nice to imagine the Habsburgs getting all excited about it. Clearly, the best time to visit the Palmenhaus is when it’s cold outside. This one is not for free, it’s part of those tours you can buy at the entrance.
- Originally known as the Ruin of Carthage, the Roman Ruin is a set of follies designed by the architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg and erected as an entirely new architectural feature in 1778. Fully integrated into its parkland surroundings, this architectural ensemble should be understood as a picturesque horticultural feature and not simply as a ruin, which due to lack of maintenance it had increasingly grown to resemble prior to its recent restoration. The fashion for picturesque ruins that became widespread with the rise of the Romantic movement soon after the middle of the 18th century symbolized both the decline of once great powers and the preservation of the remains of a heroic past.
- Erected at the same time not far from the Roman Ruin, the Obelisk Fountain was intended to complete the iconographic program of the park at Schönbrunn as a symbol of stability and permanence. The Roman Ruin consists of a rectangular pool enclosed by a massive arch with lateral walls, evoking the impression of an ancient edifice slowly crumbling into the ground. In the pool in front of the ruin is a seemingly haphazard arrangement of stone fragments supporting a figural group which symbolizes the rivers Vltava and Elbe.
the glorious palace
All in all, I think the best way to enjoy this magnificient complex is by simple walking around with your eyes wide open – I find those gardens the true architectural gem rather than the Baroque palace. I really loved this place and I recommend every one of you to visit it at least once in your life.
However, if I was supposed to choose between Schönbrunn and Versailles, I’d go for Versailles without any doubts, I like that feeling of secrecy between those neverending tall hedges in Versailles’ gardens.
but I mean….the trees aren’t bad here nonetheless
And finally, how to get there?
From the centre, the U4 subway takes you to the palace and there are two relevant subway stations, however the one named simply “Schönbrunn” is the closer to the entrance gate than the other one, which is used more by locals who go for a run there.
Also trams 10 and 60, and bus 10A all have a stop called “Schloss Schönbrunn”, which is situated right opposite the main entrance. If the latter is not obvious (it should be), look for the huge gateway flanked by two giant marble columns topped by golden eagles.
Another option is to drive to the free car park intended for zoo visitors at the rear of the park area (Seckendorff-Gudent-Weg 1). That’s likely to have space unless it’s a weekend, holiday, or a particularly fine day. But I’d recommend you to leave your car behind, the public transport is cheaper and more ecological, so why not?
I’d like to ask you: Which do you like more? Gardens of Schönbrunn or Versailles? I’m very curious!
Have a great day!