The visual image most closely associated with historical Vienna is Stephansdom, seat of the city’s bishop. The cathedral and surrounding square mark the figurative center of town and are an obligatory stop for the informed visitor.
The cathedral has accompanied Vienna through much of its history, with the initial foundation stone dating back to 1137. The original church is no more — a victim of fire — but the current incarnation has its origins in 1263. The main entrance door, for example, dates back to this time.
Over the centuries, various towers, extensions and decoration were added. They all amazingly survived the aerial bombings of WWII, only to suffer mindless vandalism by its own people. Looters set fire to nearby buildings in April 1945 to cover their tracks, and the fire spread to Stephansdom and destroyed large parts of the building.
Despite the deprivations of the post-war period, the city and community repaired all the damage within just a few years.
For the casual observer, the most striking part of the cathedral is the main tower, which rises over 136m, and the tiled roof with its many colors. The doors are open from 6am (7am on Sundays and public holidays) to 10pm, so you can look inside and enjoy the reverential atmosphere you get in all great cathedrals.
Do note, however, that it’s a working church; there are numerous services held every day, including a mass in English at 7pm on Saturdays. As a result, parts of the building may be inaccessible to the casual visitor if a service is going on.
To get an appreciation of the full richness of the place, you can take one of the guided tours (which are also available in English). A tour is also the only way to see the cathedral’s catacombs, home to around 11,000 corpses.
During working hours, you can climb the 343 steps to the top of the taller South Tower.
The Stephansdom is also home to the famous and enormous Pummerin bell, which weighs 21,283 kg. The original bell shattered in the 1945 fire, but you can see the new one if you take the trip up the North Tower.
It only rings on special occasions (like Easter or the death of a Pope). Indeed, most of Austria holds its collective breath at 11.59pm on December 31st, and waits for the Pummerin to ring in the New Year.
To get there, use the U1 or U2 subways, getting out at Stephansplatz. Or take a 1A, 2A or 3A bus (the stop is also called Stephansplatz). Once you get off the bus or leave the subway station, you can’t miss the cathedral. It’s the giant church-like building right in front of you!
Tip: In the summer months, the cathedral square is often filled with musicians and other performance artists. It’s a nice place to hang out in a street cafe or with an ice cream and watch the world go by.
Address: Stephansdom, Stephansplatz, 1010 Vienna.