the courtyard of Hofburg Palace near the doors to the Empress Sisi Museum
Hofburg Palace is a must see site in Vienna and one of the world's biggest and most lavish palace complexes. But what I liked best at the Hofburg was the Sisi Museum. It's a tiny museum dedicated to the fascinating life of Empress Sisi, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph.
The Hapsburgs lived at Hofburg Palace for centuries, until 1918. Honestly, I enjoyed touring Hofburg far more than Schönbrunn. Fewer tourists and all the historical intrigue and swirly Rococo glitter you could want.
There are three parts of Hofburg Palace that you can visit: the Sisi Museum, the Imperial Apartments, and the Silver Collection. If you want to see everything, it will take a half day.
The Sisi Museum opened in 2004. It's a chic cult-like museum dedicated to the fanatic fans of Empress Elisabeth. The museum shines a light on the "misunderstood" princess, whose tragic life resembles that of modern day Princess Diana and has been the subject of books and film.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, detail Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1865. There are actual diamond stars in her hair.
I'm not usually interested in celebrity cult figures. But, in this case, I find Sisi's story fascinating, a romantic novel almost. She was an intelligent and high strung woman, a poet, and inventor of both anorexia and the geographical cure -- her response to the soul sapping nature of life at the Hapsburg court in Vienna.
The Troubled Life of Empress Sisi
Sisi was a member of the Wittelsbach family, who ruled Bavaria at the time. Though she was a royal, she grew up footloose and fancy free in the countryside near Lake Starnberg. One of her best childhood friends was Mad King Ludwig, of Neuschwanstein Castle fame. Her father was a liberal who gave his children unbridled freedom.
a young Elisabeth
Though she was born free, that state of affairs cratered abruptly when Sisi was just 15. In 1853, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was looking for a wife. His domineering mother contacted Sisi's mother, who brought both her daughters to Austria for a visit.
Sisi's older sister Helene was the intended bride. But Franz Joseph had other ideas. One look at the beautiful Sisi, nicknamed the Rose of Bavaria, and he was instantly smitten. Franz and Sisi became betrothed. While Franz was doing cartwheels, an introverted Sisi was fraught with apprehension. She tellingly wrote "I love the emperor. If only he were not the emperor."
The pair married in a "dream wedding" in 1854. It's unclear how much of the fairytale was real. For his part, the staid Franz Joseph was infatuated with the exotic Sisi. In fact, throughout his life, he kept two portraits of Sisi, with her long hair tumbling down, in his study. They're on display in the Imperial Apartments. It's unclear whether Sisi ever loved him back though.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter (German, 1805-1873). Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1865.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter (German, 1805-1863). Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1864.
What is clear is that Sisi's unorthodox and informal upbringing didn't prepare her for the suffocating iron clad rules of the glum Hapsburg court. Her life was strictly monitored and controlled. Her stick-in-the-mud husband didn't help fix the problem either. He was a workaholic and mommy's boy who didn't like to rock the boat.
And his mommy, Archduchess Sophie, was a huge problem. She was hypercritical and overbearing. When Sisi had her first child, Sophie snatched her away. When Sisi had her second daughter, Gisela, Sisi put her foot down. But when Gisela was only 2, she died of dysentery, plunging Sisi into a profound depression. It lifted slightly when her son Rudolph was born the following year.
Sisi's Cult of Beauty
Sisi felt trapped in a gilded cage, much like Princess Diana or Marie Antoinette. But in the 19th century, no one at court cared much about female misery. Sisi was supposed to embrace public duty and service, not childishly avoid it. Shyness was unacceptable.
But Sisi couldn't reconcile herself to the situational exigencies. I can't say I blame her. As a balm against the nastiness, Sisi turned inward and developed some serious obsessions. They were likely an outlet and compensation for her anxiety. Or a rather unhealthy way to claw back some control over her regimented life.
From the outset, Sisi was renowned as Europe's most beautiful queen. The public was entranced with her looks. And she felt like she had to maintain them at all costs. As a result, she became, to some degree, rather vain and egotistical. She was as fixated on her beauty as the public was.
Sisi's exercise rings on display in the Imperial Apartments
She spent hours a day maintaining her ankle length hair, which she washed in eggs and cognac every two weeks. It seems incomprehensible to me. But at least she used the time to educate herself, learning Greek and Hungarian during the lengthy detangling and braiding sessions.
To fend off wrinkles, she used elaborate masks of strawberries, face mists, and slug cream moisturizer. She even wrapped raw veal around her face and took nightly olive oil baths. After age 30, she refused to permit photographs anymore. She covered her face with umbrellas and large fans when she went outside.
Tall and slim, Sisi also embraced the cult of size zero. To stay uber thin, Sisi followed strict protein diets and fasted. Sometimes she only ate milk, or eggs, or meat broth.
She also exercised for hours a day, escaping on horseback or 10 hour speed walks to maintain her tightly corseted 19 inch waist (gulp!). To the court's horror, Sisi also set up an exercise area in her apartments where she did calisthenics and gymnastics. Her fixation on diet and exercise surely was a form of anorexia.
George Raab, Portrait of Empress Elisabeth
In one of Sisi's poems, she bemoans her situation:
Oh, had I but never left the pathThat would have led me to freedomOh, that on the broad avenuesOf vanity I had never strayedI have awakened in a dungeonWith chains on my hands.
Brokering Peace With Hungary
After an uprising in 1848, Austria suppressed Hungary's constitutional rights. Sisi was fascinated with Hungary and sympathized with the Hungarian rebels. She was even rumored to have had an affair with the dashing Count Andrassy. In 1866, with the Prussians marching on Austria, Sisi decamped to Buda (now Budapest).
Thanks to Sisi's lobbying, Franz Joseph brokered a peace with Andrassy and formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1867, Sisi was crowned Queen of Hungary. The Hungarians gifted Sisi the Godollo Castle on the outskirts of Buda, where Sisi gave birth to her fourth and last child.
statue of Empress Elisabeth installed in 2018 on the Pest side of Budapest
a statue of Sisi greets you when you enter the Sisi Museum, a copy of the famous one on display in Matthias Church in Budapest
But after the Hungarian truce, Franz Joseph cut Sisi out of politics. Diplomacy wasn't ladylike, apparently. Trying to cut the corset of court life, a bohemian Sisi began traveling relentlessly as an elixir. She wanted to "travel the world until I'm gone and forgotten." At the age of 51, to her husband's horror, she got a tattoo of an anchor on her arm.
I myself use this method of compensation, which I dub the geographical cure. It's unclear whether it blotted out Sisi's life miseries, but she certainly enjoyed traveling. And she was at least free. Not free from tragedy, but free from the hated court with some measure of privacy and independence.
From this point, Sisi and Franz Joseph basically lived apart. To fill the void, he took up with a Burgtheater actress from Vienna. Sisi gave him her blessing, and the unhappy couple remained friends.
Elizabeth in mourning dress, Philip de László, 1899
More Tragedy and a Violent End
But Sisi's melancholic life was about to get even more tormented. From to 1888-92, Sisi lost her sister, her mother, her father, and her only son Rudolph.
Rudolph committed suicide in 1889, in a grisly double suicide pact with his girlfriend. Heartbroken, Sisi plunged into a deep depression, threatening suicide. As her spirits sunk, her wanderlust increased. She began traveling even more frantically, forever clad in black and often incognito.
Sisi's bedroom in the Imperial Apartments. If I had to sleep in the middle of a huge room, I'd take to traveling too.
In 1898, Sisi visited Geneva, where she was fatally stabbed by an Italian anarchist. At age 61, she died of blood loss. Sisi wasn't even his intended target. But he was hell bent on committing a royal murder and Sisi fit the bill. It was all "part of the war on the rich and the great."
Sisi's violent assassination caused a sensation in Europe. Though she had been a reluctant empress, Sisi was popular for preferring the common man to courtiers. She was also known for her charitable works, especially in Hungary. She would arrive at hospitals and charity wards unannounced, with only a lady-in-waiting.
Sisi was posthumously stylized into a radiant icon and blameless victim, though her life had really been turbulent, restless, and marked by tragedy and obsession. Coins were minted, commemorative images created, and statues sculpted. Now, Sisi is a magnet for Austrian and Hungarian tourism, a fate of which she likely wouldn't approve.
portraits of Franz Joseph and Empress Sisi by Winterhalter
Guide to the Empress Sisi Museum: What To See Inside
The Sisi Museum is a must see site in Vienna for art lovers. the brainchild of Rolf Langenfass, a famous set designer. It's a small but stylish museum. And the audio guide is excellent.
The museum explores the biographical facts of the empress’ life and personality. To its credit, the museum also examines the accuracy of the Sisi mythology. It doesn't just present her as a glamour puss who was eternally youthful. Her quirks, even her vanity and ego, are on display.
Through the exhibits, you get a sense of Sisi's daily life. On view are some of her most famous gowns, including replicas of the dresses worn on the eve of her wedding and her Hungarian coronation dress. Both gowns were created by Parisian couturier Charles Worth.
replica of the dress Sisi wore at the ball given in Munich, on the eve of her departure for her wedding
the gown Sisi wore for her coronation as queen of Hungary
Sisi gown and shoes. The belt around her waist looks like it would fit around my arm, it's so small
Items from Sisi's childhood include her harp, which she brought with her from Bavaria, a dress and shoes, a bust of 7 year old Elisabeth by Anton Fernkorn, and the engagement announcement.
You can also see items from Sisi's travels, including her 23 piece travel toiletries set, 63 piece medicine kit, and her special milk glass for fasting times. There's even a complete reconstruction of part of Sisi's luxurious imperial saloon car from her days of train travel. The saloon car was gifted to her from the Austrian railway companies.
Sisi's mourning wardrobe is also shown -- jewelry in onyx and jet and the black coat and hat with egret feathers. There's also the death mask of the murdered empress.
Sisi's milk glass, because you need a special glass if you're only drinking and not eating
Sisi's black mourning coat with egret feathers
Sisi's death mask
If you're a fan of Empress Sisi or interested in the Hapsburgs, the Sisi Museum should definitely be on your to do list for Vienna. It's a small intimate museum, unlike the other heavy weight museums of Vienna. If you want to see the Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg, you can buy a combo ticket.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Sisi Museum