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Visiting Vienna means taking a trip to an unforgettable part of Europe: wonderful coffee shops, a painstakingly-preserved historic center, theaters, museums, concerts, cultural events, beautiful parks and sporting events. Today, just as it has always been, the Austrian capital is an important crossroads of political and cultural life in Europe. In addition to being the seat of important international organizations such as OPEC, the IAEA and the UN, its historic center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The story of Vienna, or Vindobona as it was known by the Celts, began nearly two thousand years ago in AD 100, when the Romans built a military camp to protect the nearby city of Carnutum. However, Vienna was not destined to be a military camp and it wasn't long before that proved to be so: by the twelfth century, it had become the second largest city in the Kingdom of Germany, after Cologne.
But there was a precise date for Vienna's change of pace, written in the history books as 1278. In that year, Rudolf of Habsburg defeated the Turk Ottokar, establishing Habsburg rule over Vienna and the whole of Austria, a rule that would continue until 1918. Vienna rose to the rank of European city, the first of its kind, and thanks to the Habsburg dynasty, its art and culture began to flourish. Amongst the many descendants of the Habsburgs, two have had a lasting impact on Vienna. These men were Maximilian I, who saw the city promoted to the rank of Kaiserstadt, in other words the first city of the German Empire and the States of the House of Habsburg, and Franz Joseph who, in his 68-year reign, revolutionized the urbanization of the city.
Franz Joseph, who ascended the throne at just 18 years old, tore down the walls that had already been partly destroyed by Napoleon and built the monumental Ringstrasse, the road that surrounds the city and is still today its main artery. In 1879, a great parade took place on the Ringstrasse to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor and his wife Elisabeth, better known as Princess Sissi.
As if that wasn't enough, since the Middle Ages Vienna has carved itself an important role in terms of musical excellence. Over the course of the subsequent centuries, thanks to Habsburg cultural policy, it also played a fundamental role in European musical culture, so much so that the city has earned the nickname City of Musicians. To understand why, you only need to mention some of the musicians that the city has been home to over the course of its history: from Antonio Vivaldi to Gioacchino Rossini, from Strauss to Brahms, from Liszt to Ludwig van Beethoven and finally its most illustrious resident, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Today, Mozart is a symbol of the city, and in 1890, a confectioner from Salzburg even dedicated a sweet to Mozart, Mozartkugeln (Mozart chocolate balls).
Today the city is simply wonderful, a must-see among European capitals. Each of Vienna's 23 districts is well worth a visit, starting of course with the first, the Inner Stadt. This is the old city, where you can find a lot of the city's history and attractions. You can't miss a visit to St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom), which is home to one of the largest organs in Europe: 4 manuals, 125 stops and 10,000 pipes! But also worth a visit are the Hofburg (the first royal residence), the Burgtheater, the Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera), Maria-Theresien-Platz and finally Schönbrunn Palace. The Palace and its Belvedere are the most visited tourist attraction in Vienna and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Princess Sissi's beloved imperial country residence).
But one of the city's most engaging and characteristic places is the Naschmarkt, in other words, the biggest and most famous open-air market in Vienna. Established in the sixteenth century, when the only trade was in bottles of milk, the market now attracts thousands of people during the week to its 120 stalls selling every type of food, and then literally transforms on Saturday for the customary flea market. If instead you want to see how creativity and imagination can transform a gray and unassuming popular neighborhood, then look no further than Hundertwasserhaus. Here, the namesake architect, Herr Hundertwasser, wanted to instill cheerfulness and a zest for life in the inhabitants of 50 homes with his eccentric and colorful decorations. Alternatively, if the city has tired you out, head over to the Danube for an invigorating stroll (or swim, depending on the season). Or you could visit the Vienna Woods, the Wienerwald; with their 1250 square kilometers of woodland, vineyards and villages, you will forget that you're in the city and turn to more rural thoughts.
Of course, all this culture could not fail to deliver on the most noble of arts: gastronomy. Allow yourself to be won over by local flavors such as Tafelspitz (beef boiled in broth) or Frittatensuppe (omelet cut into small strips and served in broth), and don't miss the deliciously famous Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal cutlet). If you can manage another bite, then try the delightful Sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam) or a mouth-watering portion of classic Apfelstrudel (apple strudel).