Ah, you’re in for a treat. The Schönbrunn palace tours take you through a collection of rooms full of priceless furnishings and decor, and all with a story to tell of Habsburg and European history.
As mentioned on the palace tour advice page, the tours come in two Habsburgian flavours: Imperial and Grand.
The Imperial Tour takes you through 22 rooms. The Grand Tour takes you through the exact same route as the Imperial Tour, then on through a further 18 rooms.
It all begins in chambers most closely associated with Emperor Franz Joseph (1830 – 1916) and his wife Elisabeth (the famous “Sisi”), then moves into those with a deeper connection to Empress Maria Theresa (1717 – 1780).
Assume a vast quantity of rococo furniture, silk wall hangings, historic portraits, gilt chandeliers, and a whole host of other items that once felt the touch or the admiring eye of an Emperor or Empress (or a maid or footman).
Here’s what impressed me most on my trip round…
The Imperial Palace Tour
(Schönbrunn Palace, Walnut room © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. – Alexander Eugen Koller)
- I love exhibits that connect the past and present. One of the monumental paintings in the Billiard Room, for example, shows the Schönbrunn gardens, Neptune Fountain and Gloriette as they looked around 150 years ago – little has changed!
- Look for the stunning wall panelling in the Walnut Room (watch out for walls and floors throughout the tour). You’ll be surprised to hear that this wood panelling is made of…walnut.
- You might say the desk in Franz Joseph’s study was essentially the administrative centre of a mighty empire. And we now shuffle past it, the empire just a memory. A salutary lesson on transience.
(Check out the imperial smoking pipes, which would do admirable service as props on the set of Lord of the Rings.)
- The bed in Franz Joseph’s Bedroom (where he died) struck me as surprisingly nondescript, reflecting the disciplined life he led. His lavatory was quite plain, too. Yes, the tour takes you to places where even the Emperor had to be alone.
- Much has been written about Empress Elisabeth’s beauty regime. The set of scales in her Dressing Room felt particularly poignant when you consider her obsession with her weight.
- Look for the clock in the Salon of Empress Elisabeth. The clockface at its rear is reversed, so you can read the time accurately in the mirror behind it.
(NB: The Imperial apartments in the Hofburg palace also feature a set of rooms used by Franz Joseph and Elisabeth.)
- The Marie Antoinette Room served as a dining room and the table was laid out for a meal on our visit. We marvelled at the remarkable napkins shaped using the unique imperial fold. Only two people at a time ever know the required folding technique.
(I suspect the crockery and glassware isn’t dishwasher safe, either.)
- Portraits of Empress Maria Theresa’s children hang in the Balcony Room and, if I’m honest, I’d accuse the court painter of only having one face he could paint. Either that or the children were uncannily similar.
- The Mirrors Room is a feast of mirrors set between white and gold Rococo walls and ceilings. Close your eyes and imagine the tones of a piano played by a surprisingly-competent six year old: Mozart probably gave his first performance to the Empress Maria Theresa in this very room.
(Archduke Joseph presents the six-year-old Mozart to the Emperor and Empress at Schönbrunn in 1762. Photo courtesy of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek – Austrian National Library)
- The Great Gallery seems like something out of a Disney film. Measuring over 40m by 10m, it features two huge gilt chandeliers with space on each for 70 candles. The room positively invites you to slip into a wig and something impractical and dance across the floor while hoping to catch the eye of some Archduke or Archduchess.
The ceiling frescoes include Maria Theresa and her husband surrounded by various figures giving human form to royal virtues and crown lands. Something to consider when you next redecorate your kitchen.
Incidentally, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met in the Great Gallery in 1961 at the height of the cold war. The meeting followed the shooting down of a US spy plane by the soviets.
- Two East Asian Cabinets flank a room off to one side of the Great Gallery. Exquisite patterned floors and lacquer panels caught my eye; the gilt frames peel off to create stands for a variety of priceless Chinese and Japanese porcelain.
- Our Imperial Tour ended in the Hall of Ceremonies. Take some time to get a look at the paintings. They show incredibly-detailed scenes from the marriage of the future Emperor Joseph II (Maria Theresa’s son) to Isabella of Parma, a Bourbon princess.
Those pictures gave us a real insight into imperial grandeur at the time. And into Mozart’s fame; even though he wasn’t at the wedding, you’ll still find him in a painting (you need to pass through on to the Grand Tour, I think, to get up close, though).
In the Hall of Ceremonies, you’ll be siphoned off through an exit into the gift shop. The Grand Tour, however, allows you to continue into some equally remarkable rooms.