A walk through the Imperial Palace, called the Hofburg, brings you back to the days when Vienna was the capital of a mighty empire. You can still find in Viennese shops vintage postcards and prints that show the revered and bewhiskered Emperor Franz Josef leaving his Hofburg palace for a drive in his carriage. Today you can walk in his footsteps, gaze at the old tin bath the emperor kept under his simple iron bedstead, marvel at his bejeweled christening robe, and, along the way, feast your eyes on great works of art, impressive armor, and some of the finest baroque interiors in Europe.
Until 1918 the Hofburg was the home of the Habsburgs, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now it is a vast smorgasbord of sightseeing attractions including the Imperial Apartments, two imperial treasuries, six museums, the National Library, and the famous Winter Riding School. One of the latest Hofburg attractions is a museum devoted to "Sisi," the beloved Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef, whose beauty was the talk of Europe and whose tragic assassination (the murder weapon is one of the various exhibits) was mourned by all. The entire complex takes a minimum of a full day to explore in detail.
If your time is limited (or if you want to save most of the interior sightseeing for a rainy day), omit all the museums except for the Imperial Apartments and the Schatzkammer. An excellent multilingual, full-color booklet, describing the palace in detail, is for sale at most ticket counters within the complex; it gives a complete list of attractions and maps out the palace's complicated ground plan and building history wing by wing.
Vienna took its imperial role seriously, as evidenced by the sprawling Hofburg complex, which is still today the seat of government. While the buildings cover a considerable area, the treasures lie within, discreet. Franz Josef was beneficent—witness the broad Ringstrasse he ordained and the panoply of museums and public buildings it hosts. With few exceptions (Vienna City Hall and the Votive Church), rooflines are on an even level, creating an ensemble effect that helps integrate the palace complex and its parks into the urban landscape without overwhelming it. Diplomats still bustle in and out of high-level international meetings along the elegant halls. Horse-drawn carriages still traverse the Ring and the roadway that cuts through the complex. Ignore the cars and tour buses, and you can easily imagine yourself in a Vienna of a hundred or more years ago.
Architecturally, the Hofburg—like St. Stephen's—is far from refined. It grew up over a period of 700 years (its earliest mention in court documents is from 1279, at the very beginning of Habsburg rule), and its spasmodic, haphazard growth kept it from attaining a unified identity. But many individual buildings are fine, and the National Library is a tour de force. Want to see it all without breaking the the bank? A €23.50 Sisi Ticket includes admission to the Kaiserappartements, the Silberkammer, and the Schönbrunn Palace.