The Ring is the popular name given to a series of wide tree-lined boulevards that encircle almost the entire 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.
- Route mimics the location of the old city fortifications and defences
- Flanked by many of Vienna’s top sights
- Great for bikes and pedestrians, too
- See also: Ring sightseeing tram
What can you see?
(The Ring temporarily closed to traffic for a parade)
Along the Ring you’ll find, for example:
- The Rathaus (town hall with its huge square and park)
- The Burgtheater (national theatre)
- The Hellenic-style Parliament building
- The Neue Burg (a palace wing housing, for example, the Weltmuseum)
- Lovely parks, such as the Burggarten, Volksgarten and Stadtpark (with its famous Strauss statue)
- The Staatsoper (one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses)
- The Kunsthistorisches Museum (paintings by old masters and other art collections)
- The Naturhistorisches Museum (all thing natural history)
- The MAK museum (applied arts museum)
- The Votivkirche (neogothic church)
- The Ringturm “skyscraper”
- The Donaukanal (a channel of the Danube)
- The old Stock Exchange, the University of Vienna, the Academies of Music and Art, and more…
Most of the buildings went up between 1869 and 1888 as part of a giant urban construction project. The initiative combined municipal and imperial works with new city residences for successful business owners and the nobility.
The 19th-century construction dates often come as a surprise, since everything looks much older. People sometimes confuse the Votivkirche, for example, with a medieval cathedral. We can thank the prevailing architectural approach to such things at the time: historicism.
(The Ring Tram sightseeing service)
You might prefer to take a turn of the Ring after dusk. Once the sun goes down, the buildings light up, often spectacularly. And at Christmas, you have the added bonus of the seasonal displays and decorations.
So how did this great boulevard and its wealth of historic buildings come about?
Origins of the Ring
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.
As mentioned above, the Ring formed 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 as the administrative and cultural center of the vast Habsburg empire presided over by Emperor Franz Joseph I.
The city’s boundaries soon expanded to include outlying settlements, and this threw up an immediate problem: what to do with the huge fortifications and clear ground (glacis) that formed the original city limits.
(Some of the old city fortifications)
As the economy blossomed, the business community sought to replace the walls, trenches and open space with roads and real estate. That didn’t sit well with the military, who wanted to keep the fortifications and glacis as a necessary line of defence in case the underclasses got frisky again.
After much debate, the Emperor himself took an executive decision in 1857 and decreed that the city walls be torn down, the trenches filled, and the glacis opened up for development.
The idea was to create a new boulevard around the old town that reflected 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 initiatives (much of the money for all the state buildings came from selling the land).
The first part of the Ring opened in 1865 and subsequent years saw the completion of all those museums, political institutions, and other buildings of national, indeed international, renown.
(The State Opera house in the late 19th century. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
The scale of this accomplishment seems quite extraordinary when you consider the number of townhouses and monumental constructions that went up. And yet they never implemented the full plan for the Ring, thanks to the relative decline of Vienna’s power and influence, money issues, and the end of the Habsburgs.
Finally, a couple of bits of trivia for you.
- As mentioned right at the start, the Ring 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, Universitätsring, and Schottenring.
(And where the road follows the Danube canal in the northeast, it’s called Franz-Josefs Kai.)
- The Ringstraßen play a starring role in the movie, Before Sunrise. One of the more notable conversations between Jesse and Céline takes place in a tram travelling some four stops around the Ring.