Originally designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in 1696 and altered considerably for Maria Theresa 40 years later, Schönbrunn Palace, the huge Habsburg summer residence, lies within the city limits, just a few metro stops west of Karlsplatz on the U4. Bus trips to Schönbrunn offered by the city's tour operators cost several times what you'd pay if you traveled by subway; the one advantage is that they get you there with a bit less effort. Travel independently if you want time to wander through the grounds, which are open dawn to dusk.
The most impressive approach to the palace and its gardens is through the front gate, set on Schönbrunner Schloss-Strasse halfway between the Schönbrunn and Hietzing metro stations. The vast main courtyard is ruled by a formal design of impeccable order and rigorous symmetry: wing nods at wing, facade mirrors facade, and every part stylistically complements every other. The courtyard, however, turns out to be a mere appetizer; the feast
lies beyond. The breathtaking view that unfolds on the other side of the palace is one of the finest set pieces in all Europe and one of the supreme achievements of baroque planning. Formal Allées (promenades) shoot off diagonally, the one on the right toward the zoo, the one on the left toward a rock-mounted obelisk and a fine false Roman ruin. But these, and the woods beyond, are merely a frame for the composition in the center: the sculpted marble fountain; the carefully planted screen of trees behind; the sudden, almost vertical rise of the grass-covered hill beyond, with the Gloriette a fitting crown.
Within the palace, the state salons are quite up to the splendor of the gardens, but note the contrast between these chambers and the far more modest rooms in which the rulers—particularly Franz Josef—lived and spent most of their time. Of the 1,441 rooms, 40 are open to the public on the regular tour, of which two are of special note: the Hall of Mirrors, where the six-year-old Mozart performed for Empress Maria Theresa in 1762 (and where he met seven-year-old Marie Antoinette, developing a little crush on her), and the Grand Gallery, where the Congress of Vienna (1815) danced at night after carving up Napoléon's collapsed empire during the day. Ask about viewing the ground-floor living quarters (Berglzimmer), where the walls are painted with palm trees, exotic animals, and tropical views.
As you go through the palace, glance occasionally out the windows; you'll be rewarded by a better impression of the formal gardens, punctuated by hedgerows and fountains. These window vistas were enjoyed by rulers from Maria Theresa and Napoléon to Franz Josef.