No place screams monarchy like Schönbrunn Palace. In 1742, Empress Maria Theresa chose it as her summer residence, and it was the primary residence of the Austrian Emperor from 1804 until the end of the First World War. It is the largest palace in Austria and one of the most significant and most visited cultural heritage sites in the country. The palace and the 160-hectare Baroque palace park that surrounds it have been on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List since 1996. The Schönbrunn Palace complex also includes the oldest existing zoo in the world, Tiergarten Schönbrunn.
On the ground floor are the private apartments of the imperial family, known as the “Bergl Rooms,” comprising the Gisela, Goëss and Crown Prince apartments. In the 19th century, Empress Elisabeth (“Sissi”) named them after her children (Gisela of Austria and Crown Prince Rudolf), as well as her Mistress of the Robes, Countess von Goëss. Numerous frescoes by Johann Baptist Wenzel Bergl decorate the walls and ceilings of the apartments, which have been open to the public since 2008. Schönbrunn Palace, which is often used for ceremonial purposes, is also home to the Mirrors Room, where six-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is reported to have given his first concert in front of Empress Maria Theresa and her court.
Among the other attractions of Schönbrunn Palace are the White-and-Gold Rooms; the “Blue Staircase;” the Billiard Room, decorated in Rococo stucco; the “Great Gallery,” the more than 40-metre long hall was used by the imperial couple for formal receptions; the Hall of Ceremonies; the former Study of Emperor Franz I; the “Vieux Laque Room;” the “Napoleon Room,” from the period of French occupation between 1805 and 1809; the Porcelain Room; the Millions Room; the Miniatures Room; the Gobelin Salon; the “Red Salon” and the Palace Theatre, which serves today as the rehearsal stage for the Max Reinhardt Seminar. Since 2002, the “Schönbrunn Children’s Museum,” in the west wing of the palace, offers young visitors the opportunity to learn about the imperial era by dressing up as “imperial children” and experiencing what everyday life was like for the imperial family during the Baroque period.
Schönbrunn Palace has also been the setting of several international films, including the three Sissi films with Romy Schneider (1955), A Breath of Scandal with Sophia Loren (1960), Armour of God with Jackie Chan (1986), the James Bond film The Living Daylights (1987) and the Hollywood epic Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst (2006).
Schönbrunn gets its name from the “fair spring” – a well house built by the court gardener Adrian van Steckhoven. This spring supplied the drinking water for the imperial court and was transported to the Hofburg daily.
After the end of the Second World War, the British occupying forces used Schönbrunn Palace as their headquarters, since the neighbouring districts Vienna 12 (Meidling) and Vienna 13 (Hietzing) belonged to the British sector. In 1948, certain sections of the palace were reopened to the public.
Even after the end of the monarchy in 1918, Schönbrunn Palace continued to be the spectacular setting for state events: Austrian Federal President Adolf Schärf hosted a gala dinner in 1961 on the occasion of the summit meeting between US President J.F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. The summit meeting was specifically held in Austria, which had been neutral since the State Treaty of 1955, with the intent of lowering tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Fun fact: The famous yellow walls of Schönbrunn Palace are not yellow by accident. “Schönbrunn yellow,” also known as “Habsburg yellow” or “imperial yellow,” had been the colour of all official buildings in Austria-Hungary since around 1780 – upon the express order of Emperor Joseph II.