The first thing to say about Vienna is that the number of attractions and things to do and see is huge! The city has so many historic buildings, palaces and museums that you could spend weeks here and still only see a fraction of them. So, we did what any responsible parent would do when faced with an overwhelming choice of possible options: we let the children decide! And this actually turned out to be an interesting and revealing exercise because, firstly, what they picked was nothing like what we would’ve chosen, and secondly, they came up with two places that really got us thinking and debating about the world in which we live.
The first of these was Vienna Zoo, which is in the grounds of the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace and is one of Vienna‘s top attractions. It was built in 1752 and is the oldest zoo in the world. Whilst you get to see the animals here up close, including lions and panda bears, we all felt uncomfortable about the small and cramped conditions in which many of them were kept. Earlier in the trip, and as part of the girls schooling, we had had a debate about whether zoos were a good thing or not and it was interesting to re-visit all of the arguments we had discussed then in light of what we saw at Vienna Zoo.
Tour of the United Nations
The other thing we did that really got us talking about the world in which we live was touring the United Nations. Every weekday the United Nations Information Service run tours in English and German where you get to look around inside the UN, see into one of the conference rooms and also to learn about the structure and work of this important organisation. For all of us, this was our favourite thing we did in the city. (Separate post to come on this one).
Prater Amusement Park and Giant Ferris Wheel
Prater Park is almost an institution in Vienna. A park has been open here since 1766 and is one of the favourite places for tourists and locals to have fun and thrills in the city. Needless to say, it was high on the girls’ list of essential sights in Vienna and we spent a fun afternoon trying out some of its tamer rides!
We started by going on the giant Ferris wheel, the Wiener Riesenrad, which gave us great views down over the park itself and across to the centre of Vienna. It was built in 1897 by a British engineer, Walter Basset, who also built similar wheels for Chicago, London, Blackpool and Paris.
After that we tried out the dodgems, got soaked on the log flume and the girls tried out water zorbing. A lot of the other rides and roller coasters had us holding our breath just watching them as they rose high into the air or turned their passengers upside down and round about in terrifying ways. One of the Prater’s newest landmarks is the Praterturm which, at 117 metres, is the highest flying swing in the world. I was tempted to go on it, but as we got closer to it and I could see just how high and fast it was, I decided it wasn’t for me!
The House of Music (Haus dear Musik)
We also visited the House of Music, which wasn’t one of the girls’ choices, but we felt that as part of their education they should learn something about the musical history of Vienna and the composers associated with the city, so we added it to our itinerary.
On its website the museum advertises itself as “an interactive sound museum which provides a new approach to music on a playful as well as scientific level.” Reviews I had read also suggested that it was a great, hands-on and fun museum for families, so it seemed like the perfect choice.
The museum is housed in a building that was once the former residence of Otto Nicolai, one of the founders of the famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It is arranged on 4 floors, each with its own music- or sound-related theme. The first floor was dedicated to the history of the Vienna Philharmonic itself. The second floor was called the Sonosphere and was all about how we hear, how sound is created and the features of sound waves. The third floor was all about the great composers, including Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and Mahler. And the fourth floor was almost entirely given over to an installation called virto|stage in which you stand in front of various huge screens and create unique music and opera with your own movements and gestures.
Looking round the museum was like having a science, history and music lesson all in one and some parts of it were great fun (see our highlights below), but sadly a huge amount of it was very dense, overly technical and wordy and not very accessible or appealing for children.
Climbing the Musical Staircase
The first fun thing you reach upon entering the museum is a musical staircase and the girls really enjoyed running up and down it making music on the giant black and white stairs as they went.
Playing the Waltz Dice Game
Apparently the idea for this game was taken from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself, who liked to play with dice to introduce an element of chance into his composing. The idea was that you threw the red and blue dice and whatever numbers the blue dice landed on would determine the notes played by the cello and the red one the flute. It was fun to watch the notes appear on the screen in front of us and hear our unique waltz played back to us. If only real composing was so simple!
Turning our names to music with Namadeus
When giving piano lessons to a girl named Franziska, Mozart apparently assigned a musical note to every letter of the alphabet so that he could put her name to music and here you can do the same with your own name. You simply typed your name into the computer and listened to your own personal composition.
Conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
This was such a fun exhibit! You got to choose one of six pieces of music (Blue Danube waltz, Anne Polka, A Little Night Music, Hungarian Dance No. 5, The Cancan or the Radetzky March) and then took up the baton, stood on the podium and conducted. It was all a bit of fun and the results were hilarious! If you moved the baton more quickly, the orchestra speeded up. Slow it down and they did too. If you made larger movements, they would get louder, smaller movements and they would get softer. And then at some point in each piece, the orchestra would stop and one of their number would stand up and speak to you directly, chiding you for the clumsy way you were conducting, or suggesting that you try again and this time, “focus, please.” It really was very funny.
The rest of our time in Vienna was spent seeing and admiring some of its beautiful architecture and grand buildings, including one of its most well known landmarks, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. We also ventured further out of the centre to see the unusual Hundertwasserhaus.
This quirky building was designed by Austrian artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and now draws visitors from all over the world. With its colourful façade and playful architectural features, it is reminiscent of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, but unlike Gaudi’s work, the Hundertwasser house looked as though it hadn’t been very well looked after since it was built. In particular, the outside of the building was very dirty and in need of re-painting. It was a shame because it was no doubt a striking and vibrantly colourful place when it was first completed.
Despite the fact that it is showing signs of age, it is incredible to think that this was a public housing project. This means that Hundertwasser didn’t have a limitless budget and his concept took no more time to construct than a regular apartment building. Yet he managed to produce somewhere colourful and interesting with plenty of green spaces and fluid, natural lines. I would be interested to know how its residents feel about living there today. Apparently they have the right to decorate the area around the windows entirely to their own taste.
Opposite is the Hundertwasser Village with a village square, bar and shops that is also open for visitors to look around.
To sum up our experience of Vienna:
We had an enjoyable time in Vienna, but it isn’t somewhere I would hurry back to. We have now been to six capital cities on this trip and it has been interesting to compare them all. I’m not exactly sure why Vienna didn’t score highly for any of us, but it didn’t. What we have come to learn and appreciate though is that so many factors affect your experience and enjoyment of a day out: how you feel that day, what the weather is like, how busy it is, whether you enjoy the sights or attractions you pick out of the hundreds on offer, how easy it is to get around etc etc. Sometimes everything comes together and makes the day perfect. And sometimes it doesn’t. Vienna was unfortunately one that didn’t for us.
Maybe it was the fact that our visit to the zoo made us question their very existence (and there was nothing like seeing it first hand to have both an intellectual and emotional reaction to what we saw). Maybe it was because it felt so busy everywhere with traffic and pedestrians and we have come to prefer our cities in a smaller, more manageable, form (like Ljubljana and Bratislava). Maybe it was because, aside from the main highlights, and although some of it was very interesting, the House of Music was darn hard work and didn’t really give us what we wanted. Perhaps it was because the main square and cathedral area were totally chaotic with most of the square and streets around having been ripped up to be re-paved. Or that the Hundertwasserhaus was dirty and no-where near as colourful as it appeared in the many photographs we saw online before we went (maybe they were taken years ago or maybe some photo editing has been going on). Probably it was a combination of all of these.
We also found getting around the city on public transport to be harder because Google maps didn’t work properly here, which was very frustrating. Instead of a list of bus, metro or tram options like we usually find in a city, all Google maps gave us was the walking route and estimates for Uber and my taxi. In place of the public transport details there was a message saying “These results may be incomplete – not all transport operators in this area have provided their info.” This is the first city where we have had this happen and it made it a lot harder to find our way around, especially when using buses or trams. It makes you realise how easy life is when you have tools like Google maps!
Another surprise was that both the 4G and mobile phone signals were very poor and quite random, so when we were using our mobile phones to do research on the go, the signal kept dropping out on us and our phones would say ‘no service’ for long periods of time. Vienna was also the first city in a while where people have pushed past us on escalators or getting on and off the metro, rushing to get to their destination. I can’t tell you how much this stood out to us after months and months in places where no-one seems to be in a hurry.
On the positive side, we enjoyed the tour of the United Nations immensely and learnt so much whilst we were there. We also had great fun at Prater Park, at least until a very rough session on the dodgems put both girls off going on them again!
What about you? Has anyone else been to Vienna? What was your experience? We would love to know. Please leave us your feedback in the comments section below. Your email address will not be published and you don’t need to give your full name.