Upon arriving at the Hotel Imperial, it would be nearly impossible to believe that one was anywhere else in the world but in Vienna. An impeccably liveried doorman offers a chipper Grüß Gott and refuses to allow handling of one’s own luggage, and gestures to the slow-moving automated revolving door lined with glassed in succulents which deposit guests into the polished lobby which seems to draw the eyes upward and the breath out.

An Elisabeth Suite at the Hotel Imperial Vienna. Elisabeth Suites come with Butler service, Imperial Torte Petit Fours, a fruit bowl, and BULGARI bath amenities.
The Elisabeth Suite. Photo: Author

With an arrival as grand as this, it’s overwhelmingly evident that you’re not just in a European capital—you’re in an Imperial capital—in a former home of one of the continent’s crowned heads. The Imperial was originally constructed in 1865 for Duke Philipp of Württemberg and his wife Archduchess Marie-Thérèse of Techen as a private palace, in what were then pastoral lands outside the old city of Vienna, which were fast developing into the Ringstraße (ring road) that is familiar to city visitors today. Only a few years after moving in, the Duke became incensed with the development surrounding his property, including the concert hall Musikverein, and moved out. The property was purchased by a German developer and reopened as the Hotel Imperial in 1873.

From its very inception, the hotel named for the empire had association with the head of it. The writings and letters of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria make frequent mention of the hotel, as he used to visit the dignitaries and heads of state that would take up residence in the hotel. It is also said that the Imperial Torte, developed in the hotel’s Café Imperial and named for the Emperor, was one of his particular favorites. The hotel continues to serve the Imperial Torte in the café, and it’s also available for online ordering and shipping worldwide.

Just beyond the lobby, with its front desk clerks that seem to immediately memorize each guest’s appearances to they can be greeted by name on sight, and the tailcoated concierges who render assistance in Vienna’s famously stuffy-yet-gracious manner is the Fürstenstiege, or ceremonial staircase which leads directly to the Belle Etàge (first floor) apartments which were once the private residence of the Duke. These are the most coveted rooms in the hotel—just as the favored rooms at the time of the building’s construction were on the first floor, just above the maw of the city, while higher floors were for household staff.

Even after elevators were later installed they were considered primarily a staff convenience, for the most important residents would never have more than a single flight of stairs to climb. When the building was originally constructed, the lobby was actually a carriage entrance, where carriages could pull right up to the stairs. As Vienna can be quite cold in the winter, the walls of the staircase are not made of marble, which would result in a freezing climb, but of stucco lustro, which retains heat far better.

Upon reaching the Belle Etàge, with anterooms and sitting areas in the halls (which might explain why Austrian German uses what translates closer to “anteroom” to describe what other German speakers might call “corridors” or “hallways”) adorned with imposing painted portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth (affectionately called “Sisi”) and towering potted orchids, one might be forgiven for refusing to believe they were in the corridor of a hotel. After all, the balcony from one of the suites fronting the building on this level was where Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom once waved to revelers, and the Royal Suite, also on this level, was where King Kalākaua of the then-Kingdom of Hawai’i delighted the Imperial Court and the city of Vienna with his traveling Hula troupe.

In one of the anterooms is a large floor-to-ceiling map of Vienna, which those familiar with the city will note is upside down. Upon entering the city after conquering it in 1806, Napoleon requested a map in his usual habit of requiring that North be at the top of the map, but he was provided with an upside down map in the hopes that it would confuse the occupying force.

There are plenty of rooms and suites to choose from. Even standard rooms have chandeliers and antique-style furniture, modern electronics and a minibar and marble bathrooms with Molton Brown bath products. Suites include butler service and have upgrades to BVLGARI bath products (and someone also seems to arrive every few hours with another pot of fresh flowers for the room).

The 1873 HalleNSalon is named for the hotel’s opening year, and the fact that the room has history both as a hotel hall and a salon, and now functions as a soaring two-story bar where live music can be enjoyed in the evenings. The bartender notably didn’t even flinch when a jetlagged guest just off an overnight flight ordered a martini at nine in the morning, and the drink was presented with a silver tray of small edibles.

Café Imperial, which opens early and stays open late into the evening, just underwent a refresh and expansion which was closely overseen by the local historical society (the ceiling, for example, was considered a historic landmark which couldn’t be altered). The breakfast buffet is lavish, with champagne, eggs to order, cold cuts and cheese, pastries and breakfast breads, and even several varieties of the Imperial Torte on offer, in addition to traditional Viennese coffee house offerings. Viennese cuisine and other desserts are available throughout the remainder of the day served by the smart-liveried, omnipresent staff.

Immediately across from Café Imperial is the hotel’s newest dining outlet, Restaurant Opus, which was awarded a Michelin star under the direction of sous chef Stefan Speiser and his team. Chef Speiser is an authority on Austrian vegetables, and often gains inspiration during his commute to work as the farmland surrounding the city changes plantings with the seasons.

For those on short trips, the location of the hotel is worth the room rate, for it’s across the street from Vienna Philharmonic performances at Musikverein, a block from the famous Austrian State Opera house (where performances are projected on a screen outside for free viewing), just as close to the baroque styled Karlskirche church and Karlsplatz (park), the Naschmarkt (literally, Nosh Market, where vendors offer samples which frequently seem to be olives), Café Sperl and a host of other Viennese coffee houses, the city’s historic center, and is a short train ride away from the Imperial grandeur of Schönbrunn Palace.

With over 140 years to perfect their craft in hospitality, the staff at the Hotel Imperial has succeeded in this endeavor in spades. This stunning hotel is luxurious elegance that is welcoming and accessible, international, yet distinctly Austrian and unforgettably Viennese, historic, yet modern, and at it’s very heart, profoundly charming from the first welcome to the final auf wiedersehen.

Check out more photos from a recent stay at the Hotel Imperial on the author’s Instagram.

Accommodations were provided by Hotel Imperial in preparation for this story.