The Hofburg Palace, with a statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

Outside the gate to the Hofburg Palace in Michaelerplatz in central Vienna, the Austrian capital's tourist side is on display. There's the entrance to the Hofburg Palace, heavy with ornate detail, and a series of statues depicting Hercules subduing various fearsome-looking creatures. There's the busker with a violin playing Pachelbel's Canon in D, the sound mingling with the clack of hooves and clank of carriage wheels on cobblestones from the omnipresent fiakers (traditional horse-drawn buggies).

And then there is Mozart - or rather, a ticket-seller costumed in his likeness - standing by the gate, resplendent in a white wig and brocade jacket, munching on a stick of beef jerky, a can of Red Bull in the other hand.

Few cities parade their past - or at least, a part of it - so proudly as Vienna. Well over five million tourists visit the Austrian capital each year and, as our tour guide - the indefatigable Gerhard Strassgschwandtner - tells us, a large number of them are drawn by its imperial splendour dating from its 600-plus years at the centre of the mighty Hapsburg empire. A history buff who has been a licensed tour guide in his home city since the mid-1990s, Gerhard knows he and many of his colleagues owe their living in large part to their city's former rulers. "Thank God for the Hapsburgs," he says with a laugh.

But while Vienna may prize its imperial history as a treasure and a tourism draw, as a city it's no museum piece. There's an energy, a sense of people going about their everyday lives amid the monuments - the knowledge of how to blend the old and the new, coupled with an appreciation of the layers of history and their interplay.

The Hofburg Palace, right in the centre of Vienna, is no exception. The epicentre of the powerful Hapsburg dynasty from the 13th century until the fall of the empire in 1918, it has grown gradually over the centuries, with new buildings added as the power of the Hapsburg dynasty and its empire grew.

Thus, the palace has grown from a relatively humble castle to an extravagant, meandering complex. Wandering through it today is an overwhelming experience - the Hapsburgs were not inclined to miss an opportunity to adorn a building with eagles, or lions, or crowns, or whatever bit of imperial imagery they could conjure up. Indeed, standing at the heart of the palace in Heldenplatz contemplating the towering columns of the Neue Burg, I feel quite tiny and insignificant.

This was the point, of course - everything about this place was designed to impress and convey the impression of strength - but the Neue Burg is also evidence of how history caught up with the Hapsburgs. It was the last section of the palace to be built and was planned as part of a much bigger extension. World War I and the subsequent abolition of the monarchy in 1918 meant it was never completed. Later, Neue Burg's balcony would be infamous as the spot from which Hitler delivered a triumphant address upon arriving in Vienna after the Anschluss of 1938.

Most of what the modern-day visitor sees here dates from the Baroque era and later, including the time of the Hapsburg's most famous ruler, Maria Theresa. Sovereign for four decades from 1740, Maria Theresa was the only female ruler of the Hapsburg dominions. A great reformer, she sparked an Austrian golden age by centralising control to Vienna, reforming the army and economy, and introducing compulsory education. (She was also a strict Catholic who showed scant tolerance for members of other faiths.) Maria Theresa had 16 children, 10 of whom made it to adulthood, and became so tremendously fat in her latter years that she had trouble walking. By Gerhard's reckoning "she was not friendly - she would not have a cup of coffee with us" but if she was a little grumpy after all of that, you could hardly blame her.

Until the 1860s the Hofburg was surrounded by walls and a wide expanse of grass, but Franz Joseph - Maria Theresa's great-great-grandson and the second-last Hapsburg emperor - decided to replace these with the elegant boulevard that now encircles the city centre, known as the Ringstrasse.

This was a huge development, utilising the labour of thousands of workers from around the empire, and, Gerhard says, meant central Vienna was a construction site for much of the mid-to-late 19th century. Many impressive palaces and apartments were built on the new boulevard along with public buildings, including the State Opera, Parliament, City Hall, Burgtheater and the stock exchange. Their melange of historical architectural references - everything from the forums of Ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedrals of France - came to be known as the Ringstrasse style.

The following morning, we visit a place where the overlaying of successive histories is even more apparent - the Winter Palace, built as the home of Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the great military commanders of his age. Designed for Eugene in the Baroque style in the late 17th century, the palace was subsequently enlarged twice, growing as Eugene's fortunes and influence rose. It was the Ministry of Finance offices from the late 18th century and was opened to the public only late last year.

Eugene is an interesting character. Born in 1663 in Paris, he was brought up for a career in the church but set his heart on a military life. Rejected by the French army on account of his physical weakness and small stature, he defected to the Austrians. In Vienna, Eugene rapidly distinguished himself, rising through the ranks of the military, winning battle after battle as a commander and eventually becoming an adviser to the emperors Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles VI (Maria Theresa's father). As his success and influence grew, so did his wealth - having arrived in Vienna with only 25 guilders to his name, he left an estate worth one million times that when he died in 1736.

While Eugene's public achievements are well documented, his private life is mysterious, thanks in no small part to the fact all his personal papers were destroyed on his orders after his death. Said to be physically unattractive, he never married. Rumoured to have been gay, he did have a long relationship with a woman, Countess Eleonora Batthyany-Strattmann, towards the end of his life, but whether she was his mistress or merely offered chaste companionship is unclear. A great patron of the arts, Eugene apparently owned some 15,000 books.

We are shown around the palace by curator Dr Georg Lechner. He points out fresco paintings which have been uncovered during the restoration project, having been painted over in the early 20th century, and the secret doors hidden in the walls which lead to water closets and, in one instance, a hidden chapel.

The first exhibition at the palace, which is on until April, focuses on Eugene but there are plans to show modern works against the Baroque backdrop in the future. The contrast between the historical and the cutting edge should, Dr Lechner hopes, create an interesting frisson.

I end my stay in Vienna the following day with a visit to the Leopold Museum, one of the numerous museums and galleries in the MuseumsQuartier complex, housed in the former stables of the Hofburg Palace. The historic buildings are centred on a large square, where people gather to sit and chat, and are supplemented by a number of modern additions, including the sleek box of the Leopold and the starkly modern Mumok, Vienna's museum of modern art.

The most popular of the MuseumsQuartier attractions, the Leopold is based around a private collection of modern Austrian art which was acquired by the State in 1994. It provides a fantastic overview of the city's decadent glory days when the Ringstrasse development was newly completed and Vienna was one of the most important urban centres in the world.

This was a time when the city's music and art worlds were flourishing, and the museum has an extensive collection of works by two of Austria's most famous artists of the period - Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. On the upper floor, a series of displays introduces some key themes related to early 20th century Vienna - art inspired by psychoanalysis, Art Nouveau artworks and furnishings, plus a room dedicated to the architecture of the era. In the latter, there's a huge window overlooking the skyline, plus a black-and-white video of a tram ride through the city shot in 1906. The clothes are different but it's striking how little has changed in the intervening years.

With its mix of splendid old buildings and sleek new architecture, the MuseumsQuartier seems to exemplify the Viennese approach to its heritage - an appreciation for the past with an eye on the future. And the ways that idea might translate into real life are as varied as the city itself, from the architectural mix of the Ringstrasse and the layers of history of the Hofburg - or even a man, dressed as Mozart, slurping an energy drink.

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of the Vienna Tourism Board.

FACT FILE

Hotel Sans Souci is a boutique luxury hotel across from MuseumsQuartier. Rooms are from €244 ($370) per night. sanssouci-wien.com

For more information on visiting Vienna, see vienna.info.

The West Australian

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