However short your stay in Vienna, you'll want to come here, to visit one of the greatest art collections in the world, standing in the same class with those of the Louvre, the Prado, and the Vatican. This is no dry-as-dust museum illustrating the history of art, as its name might imply, but rather the collections of old-master paintings that reveal the royal taste and style of many members of the mighty House of Habsburg, which, during the 16th and 17th centuries, ruled over the greater part of the Western world. Today you can enjoy what this great ruling house assiduously (and in most cases, selectively) brought together through the centuries.
The museum is most famous for the largest collection of paintings under one roof by the Netherlandish 16th-century master Pieter Brueghel the Elder— many art historians say that seeing his sublime Hunters in the Snow is worth a trip to Vienna. Brueghel's depictions of peasant scenes, often set in magnificent landscapes, distill
the poetry and magic of the 16th century as few other paintings do. Room 10 is the Brueghel shrine—on its walls hang Children's Games, the Tower of Babel, the Peasant Wedding, the Nest-Robber, and eight other priceless canvases. There are also hundreds of other celebrated old-master paintings here. Even a cursory description would run on for pages. The large-scale works concentrated in the main galleries shouldn't distract you from the equal share of masterworks in the more intimate side wings.
The Flemish wing also includes Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion Triptych, Holbein's Portrait of Jane Seymour, Queen of England, a fine series of Rembrandt portraits, and Vermeer's peerless Allegory of the Art of Painting. The grand style of the 17th century is represented by Rubens's towering altarpieces and his Nude of Hélène Fourment. In the Italian wing are works by Titian, including his Portrait of Isabella d'Este, whose fiercely intelligent eyes make you realize why she was the first lady of the Renaissance, and Giorgione's The Three Philosophers, an enigmatic composition in uniquely radiant Venetian coloring. Other highlights include Raphael's Madonna in the Meadow, Correggio's Jupiter Embracing Io, Parmigianino's Cupid Cutting a Bow, Guercino's Return of the Prodigal Son, and Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary.
One level down is the remarkable, less-visited Kunstkammer, displaying priceless objects created for the Habsburg emperors. These include curiosities made of gold, silver, and crystal (including Cellini's famous salt cellar "La Saliera"), and more exotic materials, such as ivory, horn, and gemstones. In addition, there are rooms devoted to Egyptian antiquities, Greek and Roman art, sculpture (ranging from masterworks by Tilmann Riemenschneider to Italian Mannerist bronzes, which the Habsburgs collected by the roomful) and numerous other collections. When your feet are ready to call a sit-down strike, repair to a comfy armchair in the café on the museum's second floor.
One of the best times to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum is Thursday, when you can enjoy a sumptuous gourmet dinner (€44) in the cupola rotunda. Just across from the seating area, take a leisurely stroll through the almost-empty gallery chambers. Seating starts at 6:30 pm and the museum galleries close at 9 pm, so make sure you get your fill of art.