Late in 1857 Emperor Franz Josef issued a decree announcing the most ambitious piece of urban redevelopment Vienna had ever seen. The inner city's centuries-old walls were to be torn down, and the glacis—the wide expanse of open field that acted as a protective buffer between inner city and abutting villages—was to be filled in. A wide, tree-lined, circular boulevard was to be constructed in the open field, and an imposing collection of new buildings reflecting Vienna's status as the political, economic, and cultural heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be erected. During the 50 years of building that followed, many factors combined to produce the Ringstrasse as it now stands, but the most important was the gradual rise of liberalism after the failed Revolution of 1848. By the latter half of the Ringstrasse era, support for constitutional government, democracy, and equality—all the concepts that liberalism traditionally equates with progress—was steadily increasing. As the Ringstrasse went up, it became the definitive symbol of this liberal progress; as Carl E. Schorske put it in his Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, it celebrated "the triumph of constitutional Recht (right) over imperial Macht (might), of secular culture over religious faith. Not palaces, garrisons, and churches, but centers of constitutional government and higher culture dominated the Ring."
As an ensemble, the collection is astonishing in its architectural presumption: it is nothing less than an attempt to assimilate and summarize the entire architectural history of Europe. The centerpiece of Ringstrasse is Heldenplatz, the huge square in front of the Hofburg. Emperor Franz Josef had two monumental museums built as an extension of Heldenplatz: the Kunsthistorisches Museum (filled with centuries of art) and Naturhistorisches Museum (focusing on natural history). Vienna’s most cutting-edge art complex lies just beyond the two sandstone giants. The MuseumsQuartier is made up of several galleries showing art ranging from Expressionist to modern art to avant-garde. There's even a breathtaking museum for children. Hipsters flock to the cafés and restaurants in and around the former 18th-century riding stables.
When you exit MuseumsQuartier, walk up Burggasse to Spittelberggasse, where you will find the Spittelberg Quarter and its Baroque and Biedermeier buildings. Emperor Josef II supposedly frequented the neighborhood's "houses of pleasure." A plaque at the Witwe Bolte restaurant on Gutenberggasse reminds strollers that his majesty was thrown out of one establishment during a clandestine visit.