The Ring is a wide tree-lined boulevard that encircles the very center of the city. It’s about 6.5km long and possibly has a greater number of historical sights lining its edges than any other road in the world.
As a visitor, you might be forgiven for thinking the city planners designed the Ring as a tourist bus route – to save us all the trouble of getting out and actually walking to see the best that Vienna has to offer.
The reality is a touch different. The Ring was part of the vast changes to the Viennese cityscape that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century.
After the bloody and brutal end to the 1848 revolution, Vienna quickly entered a period of relative prosperity, reinstated as the administrative and cultural center of the vast Hapsburg empire presided over by Emperor Franz Joseph I.
In 1850, the city’s boundaries expanded to include outlying settlements and this threw up an immediate problem. What to do with the huge fortifications that formed the original city limits?
As the economy blossomed, the business community wanted to replace the walls and trenches with roads and real estate. That didn’t sit well with the military, who wanted to keep the fortifications as a necessary line of defence in case the underclasses got frisky again.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, it was the Emperor himself who finally decreed in 1857 that the city walls be torn down and the trenches filled. In their place, a boulevard to reflect the imperial grandeur of Vienna and its ruling dynasty.
The Emperor charged the authorities with building the roads and various national and municipal buildings. The rest of the area was thrown open to private initiative (the money for all the state buildings came from selling the land).
The first part of the road opened in 1865 and subsequent years saw the completion of numerous buildings of national, indeed international, renown.
Along the route you’ll find, for example, the Rathaus, Burgtheater, Parliament building, the Neue Burg and Burggarten, the Stadtpark, the State Opera House, the art and natural history museums, the Votivkirche, the Ringturm, the old Stock Exchange, the University, the Academies of Music and Art and more.
All these buildings, each famous in its own right, were completed between 1869 and 1888. And with them dozens of city residences for the rich and famous.
The scale of this accomplishment is quite extraordinary and could find no equivalent in today’s world. And yet the full plans for the Ring were never implemented in their entirety – the relative decline of Vienna’s power and influence, money problems and the end of the Hapsburgs saw to that.
Today, all the main buildings remain standing and in their original uses. Many – like the Opera and the Art History Museum – are among the world’s best in their fields. And the original residential buildings often serve as prestigious office space or homes for some of Vienna’s top five-star hotels.
To see the Ring in all its finery, simply hop on a tour bus or just take the special tourist tram that circles the Ring.
Tip: Take a trip during the day and another one at night. Once the sun goes down, the buildings light up, often spectacularly. And at Christmas, you get the added bonus of the seasonal displays and decorations.
In the eastern corner of the Ring, keep an eye out for the Ministry of Agriculture (or its equivalent – the name changes to fit the current political climate). The building was originally constructed as the Ministry of War. A brick and mortar example of swords into ploughshares!
Trivia: The Ring is not one continuous address. It actually consists of a series of Ring streets, the so-called Ringstrassen. These are Stubenring, Parkring, Schubertring, Kärtner Ring, Opernring, Burgring, Dr- Karl-Renner-Ring, Dr- Karl-Lueger-Ring, and Schottenring. Where the road follows the Danube canal in the northeast, it’s called the Franz-Josefs Kai.