Where can you find an abbey, aristocratic palaces, a court, an 18th-century pharmacy and even a contemporary art museum all within a stone’s throw of each other? Answer: the Freyung.
- Historical square in Vienna’s centre
- Originally attached to the neighbouring abbey
- Home to some of the city’s most famous landmarks and buildings
- See also: Am Hof square | Michaelerplatz square
History and buildings
I call the Freyung a square, but it’s more of a misshaped open space that has shrunk and grown through the centuries. The name echoes a time when the adjoining 12th-century Schottenstift abbey enjoyed immunity from the interference of the city (Frey = Frei = free).
Like many such spaces, the Freyung has a long history as a marketplace that goes back through the centuries. The tradition continues today in the form of a weekly farmers market, but particularly in the popular Altwiener Christmas and Easter events.
Unsurprisingly, the surrounding buildings include a number of historical treasures. Let’s go through them one by one…
The first address at number 1 sets an elegant tone: a pale green façade marks one end of Palais Hardegg, built for the same-named count in the middle of the 19th century. The townhouse extends away from the Freyung down toward Herrengasse, where it backs onto Palais Ferstl.
The Hardeggs kept rooms in the building, but the idea was always to rent out space to tenants. As such, the palais offers an early example of the switch from purely private palatial residences to those built with an eye for their commercial value.
If history had taken a different turn, something quite different might have stood on this site. A bank planned a refurbishment around 1919 which would have included a huge tower block. Some might have called it ugly, others a triumph of modernist architecture. Fortunately, we shall never know.
The Ferstel Passage leads from the Freyung through to Herrengasse and forms part of Palais Ferstel. The lighted passageway makes a lovely impression: a kind of renaissance-style double row of upmarket stores and boutiques.
They completed the wider palais in 1860, though no aristocrat moved in. This was the new home of the national bank and stock market. Despite the rather important owner, the building’s enduring fame came from another occupant on the ground floor: the currency of exchange in Café Central was ideas, news and gossip, rather than money and shares.
To catch the full glory of the main building (and reach today’s Café Central), pop through the passage and turn left down Herrengasse.
The next building (at number 3) is the oldest of the palais triumvirate on this side of the Freyung. The baroque Palais Harrach appeared at the end of the 17th century, providing a Viennese home to one of the leading court officials of the time: Count Harrach. This house also extends back to Herrengasse.
The location suffered twice from collateral damage. Once in 1683, when a spreading fire from nearby destroyed Palais Harrach’s predecessor. And once in 1944 at the hands of indiscriminate WWII bombing.
Now we get to probably the best-looking of the various palais buildings lining the Freyung.
Palais Kinsky (sometimes Daun-Kinsky) proved a suitable outlet for a conquering hero (Count Daun) to spend his hard-won war gains on. Built in the early 18th century, the palais still counts among the very best of Vienna’s Baroque architecture.
(If you want to add an aristocratic touch to your wedding proceedings, the location now serves as a prestigious venue.)
OK, time for a breather. The building at number 5 is not a palais and has no notable claim to fame that I know of; just a “simple” apartment house constructed in the 1880s.
Not that the location lacks historical pedigree. Back in the 15th century, for example, the butchers had their guild house here.
Abbey and church
Crossing over the street to the square proper takes you to the southern edge of the Schottenstift abbey complex, first established in the 12th century.
The part you can see from the Freyung is from the 19th century, I believe. The composer Franz Liszt lived within the buildings surrounding the first courtyard beyond (look for the plaque inside).
To the right of the entrance is the abbey shop, which leads through to the Schottenstift Museum with its collection of art and ecclesiastical artifacts: look for the famous 15th-century altar panels. And to the right of that is the Schottenkirche church, first consecrated in 1200 (!) but now a Baroque masterpiece inside.
Follow the outside wall of the church to pass the embedded memorial to Heinrich II. Jasomirgott, the first Duke of Austria and Schottenstift’s founder. And a little further on (at Freyung 6A) you have the abbey’s public guesthouse and entrance to a chapel that still features some of the original Romanesque church.
The top figure represents Austria itself, while the figures lower down represent the four major rivers of the empire at the time:
- The Elbe (mostly now in modern-day Germany)
- The Vistula (modern-day Poland’s longest river)
- The Danube (the only one that still runs through Austria)
- The Po (modern-day Italy’s longest river)
The standalone building at number 7 went up in the early 1770s and was always intended as an apartment block for rental, even if the neighbouring abbey made use of its premises for their own needs in the early years.
Surprisingly, this building was likely the first on the site, which previously served as the abbey’s cemetery. (So if you hear wailing at night, it might be a tourist who forgot the address of their hotel, or it might be something else entirely.)
Known as the chest-of-drawers house (because of its design) or priory house (because the rooms of the Schottenstift prior extended into the building), the building’s ground floor now houses the “Schottenapotheke”.
The pharmacy began life on the Freyung in 1782 and moved here around 1837. Its neighbour sells teas, medicinal herbs and similar: the Mag. KOTTAS Kräuterhaus first opened here in 1795.
Constitutional Court & Art Museum
Our final address on the Freyung (at number 8) is a surly toddler in comparison to its older colleagues, though the site itself has a rich history.
The current building appeared in the early 20th century and now houses two important institutions: Austria’s Verfassungsgerichtshof (Constitutional Court) and the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien (a contemporary public art gallery).
Previous houses at this location included the premises of the pharmacy now at No. 7, but also buildings with such delicious names as (my translation) “to the red man” or “by the painful mother”. The 1721 uprising of journeymen shoemakers (!) apparently started in an inn here, too.
How to get to the Freyung
The square is just a few minutes walk from the pedestrianised streets of the old town or across from the Rathausplatz square where so many of Vienna’s big events take place.
Subway: take the U2 line to Schottentor or the U3 line to Herrengasse
Tram/bus: the old town bus line 1A stops at Teinfaltstraße on the Freyung. The tram stop at Rathausplatz/Burgtheater is close by, too (reached by lines 1, D and 71)
Address: Freyung, 1010 Vienna