Vienna's soaring centerpiece, this beloved cathedral enshrines the heart of the city—although when first built in the 12th century it stood outside the city walls. Vienna can thank a period of hard times for the Catholic Church for the cathedral's distinctive silhouette. Originally the structure was to have had matching 445-foot-high spires, a standard design of the era, but funds ran out, and the north tower to this day remains a happy reminder of what gloriously is not. The lack of symmetry creates an imbalance that makes the cathedral instantly identifiable from its profile alone. Like the Staatsoper and some other major buildings, it was very heavily damaged in World War II but reconstruction loans have been utilized to restore the cathedral's former beauty. Decades of pollution have blackened the exterior, which is being painstakingly cleaned using only brushes and water, so as not to destroy the façade with chemicals.

It's difficult now to tell what was original and what parts of the walls and vaults were reconstructed. No matter: its history-rich atmosphere is dear to all Viennese. That noted, St. Stephen's has a fierce presence that is blatantly un-Viennese. It's a stylistic jumble ranging from 13th-century Romanesque to 15th-century Gothic. Like the exterior, St. Stephen's interior lacks the soaring unity of Europe's greatest Gothic cathedrals, much of its decoration dating from the later baroque era.

The wealth of decorative sculpture in St. Stephen's can be overwhelming to the layman, so if you want to explore the cathedral in detail, buy the admirably complete English-language booklet describing the works, sold in the small room marked "Dom Shop." One particularly masterly work should be seen by everyone: the stone pulpit attached to the second freestanding pier on the left of the central nave, carved by Anton Pilgram between 1510 and 1550. The delicacy of its decoration would in itself set the pulpit apart, but even more intriguing are its five sculpted figures. Carved around the outside of the pulpit proper are the four Church Fathers (from left to right: St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Jerome, and St. Ambrose), and each is given an individual personality so sharply etched as to suggest satire, perhaps of living models. There is no satire suggested by the fifth figure, however; below the pulpit's stairs Pilgram sculpted a fine self-portrait, showing himself peering out a half-open window. Note the toads, lizards, and other creatures climbing the spiral rail alongside the steps up to the pulpit.

As you stroll through the aisles, remember that many notable events occurred here, including Mozart's marriage in 1782 and his funeral in December 1791. The funeral service was conducted in a small chapel beneath the Heidenturm, to the left of the cathedral's main doorway. The funeral bier on which his casket was placed stands in the Crucifix Chapel, which marks the entrance to the crypt and can be reached from outside the church. His body rested at a spot not far from the open-air pulpit—near the apse, at the other end of the cathedral—named after the monk St. John Capistrano who, in 1450, preached from it to rouse the people to fight the invading Turks. Continuing around the cathedral exterior, at the apse you'll find a centuries-old sculpted torso of the Man of Sorrows, known irreverently as Our Lord of the Toothache because of its agonized expression. Inside, nearly every corner has something to savor: the Marienchor (Virgin's Choir) has the Tomb of Rudolph IV, the Wiener Neustadt altar is a masterpiece of woodcarving; and the catacombs, where the internal organs of the Habsburgs rest.

The bird's-eye views from the cathedral's beloved Alter Steffl (Old Stephen Tower) will be a highlight for some. The south tower is 450 feet high and was built between 1359 and 1433. The climb up the 343 steps is rewarded with vistas that extend to the rising slopes of the Wienerwald. The north steeple houses the big Pummerin bell and a lookout terrace (access by elevator). For a special treat, take the 90-minute Saturday-evening tour including a roof walk.


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