Vienna is the capital of the Republic of Austria and by far the largest city in Austria with its population of more than 1.7 million. As you’d expect it’s Austria’s cultural, economic, and political centre. As the former home of the Habsburg court and its various empires, the city still has the trappings of the imperial capital it once was, and the historic city centre is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Michaelerplatz, outside grand entry to Hofburg Palace
The low-lying Danube plain in and around what is now Vienna has had a human population since at least the late Paleolithic: one of the city’s most famous artifacts, the 24,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, now in Vienna’s Natural History Museum, was found nearby. Vienna’s own recorded history began with the Romans, who founded it in the 1st Century CE as Vindobona, one of a line of Roman defensive outposts against Germanic tribes. Vindobona’s central garrison was on the site of what is now the Hoher Markt (the “High Market” due to its relative height over the Danube), and you can still see the excavations of its foundations there today.
Vienna hosted the Habsburg court for several centuries, first as the Imperial seat of the Holy Roman Empire, then the capital of the Austrian Empire, and later of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which finally fell in 1918 with the abdication of the last Emperor Karl I. The court tremendously influenced the culture that exists here even today: Vienna’s residents are often formal in manner, often showing courtliness, using polite forms of address, and dressing more formally than in other cities. They are considered to blend attitudes that are modern and progressive with those that are more traditional.
Statue in front of the Parliament
The empires also served to make Vienna a very metropolitan city at an early time, and especially so through the years of industrialization and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the 20th century. Imperial Austria and Austro-Hungary were multi-lingual, multi-ethnic empires and although the German-speakers normally played the dominant role in Vienna there has long been ethnic and lingual diversity in the city. Proof of Jews in the city dates back to the 10th century. After World War Two many of the city’s minorities had been exiled or killed and much of the city lay in ruin. When Austria was given sovereignty after the post World War Two occupation, it was eventually established that Austria was going the way of the West and not that of the Eastern Block. So the city became more isolated from its previous ties to its Slavic and Hungarian neighbours; the east of Austria was surrounded by the Iron Curtain. Vienna had gone from being the well established metropolitan city of Central Europe to the capital of a small, predominately German-speaking nation of states with strong regional identities.
Since the formation of the first Austrian Republic and the first mayoral election 1919 the Social-Democratic Party of Austria has had the majority of representatives on the common council and controlled the mayoral seat. During the early years, the socialist Red Vienna (“Rote Wien”) revolutionized the city, improving the extreme conditions that the industrial revolution and rapid urbanization had created. Most famously the city built many housing projects (housing estates or “Gemeindebauten”), and they also began to offer many social services and made improvements across the board in quality of life. The public housing that was built at that time is now famous for its distinctive style. To this day the city continues to build public housing and about a third of the city’s residents live in it, some 600,000 people! Obviously through this high percentage, the quality, and the integration of public housing across the city have kept it from becoming as stigmatized as in most cities. The Viennese are used to having the city government in their lives, and of course have a love-hate relationship with it. Vienna functions on its own as a federal state in the Austrian system (along with 8 other states) and the sense of local pride and home is more of being Viennese than being Austrian, many say.
Traditional Vienna is but one of the many façades of this city; the historic centre, a UNESCO world heritage site, is sometimes begrudgingly compared to an open-air museum. But Vienna is also a dynamic young city, famous for its (electronic) music scene with independent labels, cult-status underground record stores, a vibrant Monday through Sunday club scene, multitudes of street performers, and a government that seems overly obsessed with complicated paperwork. However, people are willing to go out of their way or bend the rules a little if they feel they can do someone a favour.