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St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

St. Stephen's Cathedral Vienna Stephansdom

ABOVE: Tiled roof of the Stephansdom (St. Stephen's).

Vienna is a city where important buildings are more common than fast-food restaurants. With monuments like Sch�nbrunn, the Staatsoper, and the Spanish Riding School dotting the urban landscape, it's hard to pick a favorite building--unless, like me, you rank cathedrals high on your list of favorite places, in which case the Stephansdom is an attraction you won't want to miss.

The Stephansdom, or St. Stephen's Cathedral, is an island of Gothic magnificence in a sea of Baroque and 19th Century architecture. Most of the church dates back to the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries, with the Romanesque "Giant's Doorway" on the west fa�ade dating back to the early 1200s. The Hochturm or south tower, at 450 feet or 137 meters, is roughly the height of a 45-story office building--yet it was built more than 600 years ago, half a millenium before the invention of the modern skyscraper.

(Note: The Cathedral was severely damaged in a fire caused by Allied bombing in 1945, but it's impossible for the untrained eye to distinguish restoration work from the original.)

What to see

Rather than describe the Stephansdom's attractions in detail, I'll point you to Viennese Web sites about the cathedral (see page 2). You'll want to explore the interior, of course, but also allow time for:

The towers. The north tower has an elevator and stairs; the Hochturm requires a climb of 246 feet (75 meters) up a spiral staircase to the observation platform. The views from the top are worth the ascent, and you'll also be able to see the colorful rooftop of glazed tiles (see photo) at close range.

The Catacombs. Take the guided tour below ground, and you'll see the usual assortment of sarcophagi holding the bones of dead rulers, archbishops, and other personages. Somewhat stranger are the bronze containers where kidneys, livers, etc. of Habsburg emperors were interred in what might be called an undertaker's waste dump. Finally, you'll explore the catacombs where the bones of more than 15,000 Viennese have been stacked like kindling since the 1700s.

When to visit

St. Stephen's is open daily for tours and worship. The Vienna Tourist Board's Stephansdom page (link on next page) has current schedules of masses, guided tours, and tower visits.

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