One royal name pops up more than most as you wander around Vienna: Emperor Franz Joseph. So here’s your quick primer on why this is…
- One of the longest-serving monarchs in history (reigning 1848 to 1916)
- Driving force behind numerous important buildings in Vienna
- Married to the iconic Sisi (Empress Elisabeth)
- Famous inhabitant of the Schönbrunn and Hofburg palaces
- Fan of various traditional Viennese dishes still eaten today
- See also: The Habsburgs for visitors
Who was Franz Joseph?
(Emperor Franz Joseph. Image courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art)
This extended period of rule gave him ample opportunity to stamp his mark on Vienna (the empire’s de facto capital).
Inevitably, plenty happened during Franz Joseph’s reign. For example, he only came to power because his uncle abdicated in the wake of the 1848 revolutions that affected much of Europe. And he died with his realm embroiled in World War I.
(Franz Joseph’s nephew and successor, Karl I, failed to enjoy quite the same longevity; the end of WWI also saw the demise of the Habsburg monarchy and the creation of a republic.)
Franz Joseph’s rule included a fair bit of conflict. He lost the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, and nationalist tendencies in the different lands of the monarchy caused him plenty of sleepless nights. These problems led, for example, to increased autonomy for Hungary and the reorganisation of the Austrian empire as Austria-Hungary in 1867.
But long periods of relative peace and stability also allowed the growth of the arts, science, and industry. The likes of Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner came to prominence during this time (not that Franz Joseph was necessarily a fan of all the modernist developments).
Why is Franz Joseph important?
Obviously Franz Joseph stuck around for a significant part of Vienna’s recent history. But he also has close associations with various sights and experiences favoured by visitors to the city.
(The famous Riesenrad)
Many of Vienna’s iconic sights went up during Franz Joseph’s time in charge. They built the Riesenrad giant Ferris wheel, for example, in honour of the 50th anniversary of his coronation.
Most importantly, Franz Joseph gave his stamp of approval to the monumental developments of the late 1800s, when Vienna took down its city walls and opened up the surrounding space for construction.
This period is when the State Opera House, Rathaus, Kunsthistorisches Museum, and many other popular tourist attractions appeared along the wide boulevard (the Ringstrassen) that replaced the fortifications.
As such, Franz Joseph was (in)directly responsible for much of what you might consider the trademark Vienna historical cityscape.
Schönbrunn and Hofburg
(Part of the Hofburg winter palace complex)
The two main Habsburg homes in Vienna – Schönbrunn Palace and the Hofburg complex – existed long before Franz Joseph popped into the world. However, a visit to either institution takes you through numerous rooms used by the Emperor and his wife, complete with original decor and furnishings from that particular era.
Sisi and family tragedies
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Kaiserin Elisabeth, undated. Photo courtesy of and © Belvedere, Wien. Reproduced with permission under the terms of Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo by Áment Gellért)
You might argue that Franz Joseph’s biggest contribution to Viennese history and tourism was to marry the 16-year-old Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie of Bavaria in 1854.
Empress Elisabeth (known as Sisi) has become more of an icon than her husband, thanks to her fairytale-like ascension and beauty, but also through her struggles against court life and various personality issues.
So we have, for example, a Sisi museum in Vienna, a Sisi exhibition and various other Sisi locations. And her story gives those imperial rooms in the palaces far greater importance than they might otherwise have earned.
Sisi died at the hands of an assassin in 1898, one of several personal tragedies to strike Franz Joseph. The Mexicans executed his brother, Maximilian, in 1867. His only son committed suicide in 1889. And the assassination of his heir, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo famously triggered World War I.
(Kaiserschmarren – a popular Austrian dessert much loved by Franz Joseph)
Finally, we should also give a nod of acknowledgement to Franz Joseph for the popularity of various traditional Viennese dishes you might sample during a visit.
Allegedly, Franz Joseph’s culinary preferences explain why such delights as Tafelspitz (boiled beef), Gugelhupf (a kind of marble cake) and Kaiserschmarren (shredded pancake) still feature in family kitchens and restaurant menus here.
P.S. To learn more about the Habsburgs in general, check this guide.