One of the tallest and most impressive buildings in Vienna (that is not a modern office or apartment block) is the Rathaus. Its towers look down majestically onto a central square and park alongside Vienna’s Ringstrassen boulevard.
- 19th-century neo-gothic design
- Administrative headquarters of the city
- Looks good on photos (especially when lit up)
- See also: Rathausplatz square | Vienna sights
All those who meet German for the first time enjoy the thought of government offices being called rat houses. For the record, Rat means “advice,” “counsel” or indeed “council,” while the German for rat is Ratte.
Vienna’s Rathaus is the seat of the provincial and city government (Vienna is both a city and a state), housing hundreds of officials and notable institutions like the city library.
More important to the visitor, though, is the Rathausplatz in front of the building. This square hosts various important events throughout the year. The Rathausplatz is where you find Vienna’s Christkindlmarkt, for example.
The building itself opened in 1883, based on a neo-gothic design by Friedrich Schmidt, who was a resident architect at St.Stephen’s Cathedral. The new building formed part of the huge construction works that followed the removal of the city’s walled fortifications.
Schmidt was a decent architect, but also a cunning one. Consider the story of the Rathausmann, the name given to the armoured knight at the top of the Rathaus’s central tower.
Our friendly knight holds a long pole bearing the city flag. Without the statue, the Rathaus tower reaches just under 98m. With it, 103.3m.
Well, let’s first go back to 1854. Emperor Franz Joseph was sampling some fresh air with one of his adjutants when a tailor named János Libényi tried to kill him, apparently as revenge for the executions that followed Hungary’s failed 1848 revolution. (A fate then shared by Libényi himself after only managing to wound the Emperor.)
In an act of gratitude for Franz Joseph’s survival, thousands of generous subjects donated money to build the Votivkirche, a church completed in 1879 and located some 400m north of the Rathaus.
Allegedly, the Emperor decreed that no new secular building should exceed the height of this church, whose tallest towers reach 99m.
Which is why Schmidt capped the Rathaus tower at around 98m (good boy). And then popped the statue on top to get round the restriction (bad boy).
With this little trick, Schmidt ensured “his” Rathaus became Vienna’s second-tallest building after Stephansdom (St. Stephen’’s Cathedral).
The Rathaus has over 1500 rooms and 2000 windows, and the long facade often finds excellent use as a sight in its own right.
For many years, for example, a charity project put valuable works of modern art up in the windows facing the Rathausplatz, sponsored by large companies and with appropriate lighting. The result was a large and tasteful, real-life advent calendar.
Opposite the Rathaus, on the other side of the Ring, is Vienna’s Burgtheater state theatre. To see the view from the Burgtheater, take a peek at this webcam. Assuming there’s enough light, you’ll see the Rathausplatz in the foreground with the Rathaus behind at one end of the camera’s swing.
How to get to the Rathaus
Subway: The Rathaus has its own subway station on the opposite side to the park. Take the U2 line to the Rathaus station.
Tram/bus: the 1, D and 71 trams stop outside the Rathausplatz square (the stop is called Rathausplatz/Burgtheater).
To be honest, though, you’ll probably pass the building anyway as you cruise around the city.
Address: Rathaus, 1080 Wien