Austria’s history isn’t all Mozart and chocolate. The Habsburgs and Austrians added their blades or bullets to numerous historical conflicts, such as the Thirty Years and Napoleonic wars (not to mention two world wars).
Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Museum of Military History) tells the story…
- Gorgeous building and thoughtful displays of arms, uniforms, military memorabilia, and art
- Some items of extraordinary historical relevance
- WWI exhibit is quite an eye-opener for US/UK visitors
- A lot of info in English
- Adult tickets €7 or free with a Vienna Pass
- See also: Exhibit highlights | Vienna Museums
Inside the museum
You don’t have to be a fan of the military to get something out of the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum. It’s really a history museum with a focus on military matters, taking you on a chronological journey from the 17th century through to WWII and beyond.
At the beginning, the displays are full of colour, the glorification of victory, and the veneration of military commanders.
With time, though, the atmosphere changes, as mechanisation, industrialisation, the loss of individuality, and the brutality of war takes priority.
That transition is not explicit, but one you experience yourself as you walk through the galleries.
The museum building
Like so many Viennese museums, it pays to look up and around when wandering through the rooms and corridoors of the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum.
The building itself dates back to the mid-19th century, purpose built as a museum within a larger military complex known as the Arsenal.
Two rooms in particular almost outdo the exhibits.
Hall of Generals
Immediately inside the main entrance is a glorious vaulted hall with clusters of marble statues around a dozen columns.
Each statue is a famous military figure. As such, they represent almost a thousand years of Viennese and Habsburg military history.
All the stars are here, such as Archduke Charles, who inflicted the first defeat on Napoleon in many a year at the Battle of Aspern-Essling in 1809, or Prince Eugene of Savoy, who battered the Ottomans, French and Italians in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Hall of Glory
You go up the stairs, nodding approvingly at the outstanding architecture of the Hall of Generals, only to have your mind blown by the Hall of Glory: three vaulted halls with a giant central dome and more marble than you can shake a pike at.
45 (!) ceiling frescoes by Carl von Blass form a picture book of Austria’s military history, depicting numerous famous scenes and (victorious) battles.
The Heeresgeschichtliches museum does one of the best jobs in the city of providing information in English. Each section has a leaflet explaining the context, contents, and purpose of the room, plus a description of individual items of particular historical interest.
This approach frees up the museum to keep labels to a minimum in many areas, creating a very uncluttered environment to peruse the displays (apart from in the WWI section, for obvious reasons).
Some of the newer exhibits (like the WW1 section) have bilingual labels on individual items, too.
The galleries covering early military history are full of arms, uniforms, flags, paintings, and mementos of battle, as well as memorabilia associated with some of the famous military personalities of the time.
Later galleries include the weapons and machines of war, too, but also exhibits related to the wider context: propaganda, medicine, etc.
See the museum highlights article for details of the most impressive items.
All-in-all, it’s a fascinating journey that manages to combine some quite extraordinary historical items with a subtle touch of education and sociopolitical commentary.
Ticket & visitor information
At the time of writing, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum opens daily (except certain public holidays) from 9 am to 5 pm, with a standard adult ticket costing €7; a Vienna Pass gets you free entry (see my review). Check locally for the latest info.
A couple of extra visitor tips:
- There are audioguides, but they’re not necessary to enjoy the exhibits because of the leaflets.
- The entrance hall has free-standing coat racks, plus lockers you can use with a €1 or €2 coin.
- The shop sells mainly books on military history, uniforms, etc. (also in English) and military models. The same location has a café with drinks, snacks and meals.
- The correct order for doing the museum chronologically is to start upstairs (go left at the top of the stairway first, then doubleback afterwards to do the right side), then go back downstairs (turn left first, then doubleback across through the shop to the final exhibition halls).
How to get to the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum
The Arsenal is quite a large complex and a little out of the way. So wherever you land on public transport, you’ll need to walk a few minutes to get to the museum.
Tram/bus: Take the 69A bus to Arsenal, the D or O trams to Quartier Belvedere, or the 18 tram to Heinrich-Drimmel-Platz
Subway: You can take the U1 to Hauptbahnhof and walk, but I’ve given up trying to navigate out of that station. Sacrifice a goat and hope the Gods lead you to the correct exit
Car: There is some free parking directly in front of the museum (see the website below for details)
Address: Arsenal, Objekt 1, Ghegastraße, 1030 Vienna | Website