One of the (many) joys of Vienna is finding little places to stand in and feel like you travelled back in time. One such place is Michaelerplatz, the historic city-centre square at one end of the Hofburg palace complex.
- Home to the Loos House, roman excavations, the Michaelertrakt, St. Michael’s church, and more
- Usually hosts a little Christmas market, too
- Excellent location for nighttime photos of the Hofburg
- Undergoing greening and refurbishment
- See also:
The buildings & their history
(An unusual sight: no people)
As I write (summer 2023), construction workers mix with tourists on Michaelerplatz: the city has started a refurbishment project that will see, for example, trees and drinking fountains added to the square.
Not the first time Michaelerplatz has seen changes: the square feels like it’s been witnessing Vienna’s evolution for centuries. And it has. Sort of. You can find Roman excavations at its centre, for example.
For most of its life, though, this piece of land looked like a crossroads: the more open design first came about in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Stand on Michaelerplatz, and historic houses, churches, and gateways from 1220 through to the early 1900s surround you. Numerous horse-drawn carriages enhance the timeless feeling; the square provides parking space for the traditional city fiakers.
But what are all these impressive-looking buildings?
A wing of the Hofburg
(The domed entrance to the Habsburg residence)
This entrance and side tract (the so-called Michaelertrakt) were part of a decades-long intermittent and ever-changing building project which began back in the 1700s. One goal was to create a single curved facade to face the centre of town.
The photo below shows how the square looked sometime in the second half of the 19th century, before the final conversion to an unbroken front:
(Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
You can spot the standalone building (the old court theater from the 1740s) that made way in the early 1890s for today’s continuous Hofburg facade.
The huge domed entrance forms the main feature of this part of the palace complex (with the famous Spanish Riding School inside). Four huge statues of Hercules flank the opening. It all looks rather lovely when lit up at night, especially during one of the seasonal markets:
(The palais lies between Herrengasse and Schauflergasse)
Face the Hofburg entrance on Michaelerplatz and look right to find Palais Herberstein, named for its original owner: Count Herberstein.
First built in the late 1890s, the palais has not escaped architectural change over the years. (It used to have a dome, for example.)
As you might imagine, the rather prestigious location means much public interest in the occupants of the building.
This interest also stems from the residual fame of Café Griensteidl, a notable coffee house located in the building ripped down to make way for the new palais.
That café became a favoured haunt of artists, actors, politicians, and writers in 19th-century Vienna. The Griensteidl name even enjoyed a revival many decades later, with a same-named successor café in Palais Herberstein until 2017.
(The Loos House is on the left, the Großes Michaelerhaus on the right)
Continue clockwise around Michaelerplatz to see the Loos House.
The house contrasts vividly with the other buildings on the square thanks to its sleek, relatively unadorned design.
Those qualities proved quite contentious when architect Adolf Loos built the place back in 1912 for the tailors Goldman und Salatsch.
Apparently, the less architecturally adventurous among the Viennese (which included Emperor Franz Joseph) did not take kindly to the design, though the Loos House now counts as an iconic example of Viennese Modernism.
(The Großes Michaelerhaus on the left, Michaelerkirche church on the right)
The Loos House is number 3 on Michaelerplatz and number 4 (across the Kohlmarkt road that leads away from the square directly opposite the Michaelertrakt) is the Großes Michaelerhaus, built around 1710.
If you’d stood outside the house around 270 years ago, you might have heard a young lad tinkling on the piano. Haydn found refuge here for a few years after being expelled from the cathedral choir. A plaque on the wall facing the square commemorates his stay.
(Bits of the tower are from the 1300s)
The Michaelerkirche church adjoins the Großes Michaelerhaus as you continue your turn around the square.
This late Romanesque / early Gothic church makes all its neighbours seem like newcomers, since significant parts date back to the early 13th century.
The lower levels of the thin tower you can see in the photo above are from the 14th century, and the bell inside has been ringing for around 500 years. (Obviously built to last, not like those fancy modern bells from the 1600s.)
The Salvatorians run today’s church, which welcomes visitors and offers tours of, for example, the crypts.
(Spot the Starbucks)
The other side of the church (Michaelerplatz 6) is the Kleines Michaelerhaus, built in the 1730s on top of the former church cemetery.
A Starbucks (bottom right in the photo) makes a relatively modern addition to the Michaelerplatz cityscape, but this US import actually continues a long gastronomic tradition. The Kleines Michaelerhaus housed a Bierhaus (ale house) from around 1749 all the way through to 1973.
(The square has a long history)
Which brings us finally to the excavations slap bang in the middle of the square.
The open plot reveals the remains of various buildings from Vienna’s past, including leftovers from the Roman settlement of Vindobona. The crossroads here connected a trade route with a road linking forts along Rome’s Danube border with the German tribes.
An archaeological project accompanied the renovation and redesign of the Michaelerplatz square itself in 1990/1991, with the open excavations left as a monument to Vienna’s history.
Incidentally, the new construction project will apparently modify the excavation area to only leave the Roman remains visible.
Address: Michaelerplatz, 1010 Vienna