As promised, this week I’ll cover some non-museum, non-palace Vienna attractions, of which there are many. If you missed last week’s coverage of museums and palaces, you can find it here.
One of Vienna’s most famous institutions is the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule), home of the Lipizzaner horses. You may know them as “those white horses who dance.” To see the Lipizzaners, you have two options: attend an evening show or attend morning practice. Like most evening theater events, ticket prices range from mid-two figures to low-three figures. We didn’t really have time to fit in an evening performance, so we decided to attend morning practice instead, which has the additional benefit of costing only €15 per person. But if I had it to do over again, I would definitely do the performance instead of practice.
Morning practice was, in a word, boring. But let me start at the beginning. Tickets are not sold in advance. The morning on which you want to attend practice, which begins at 10:00, you go to the Box Office at the Riding School and buy tickets. We showed up just after 9:00, expecting to buy our tickets, then go grab a quick pastry and tea before the practice started. WRONG. We had no trouble buying our tickets—there was only a short line when we showed up. But there were already people lining up in anticipation of the arena doors opening shortly before 10:00. So we decided we better just wait in line there in order to get good seats. At that point, we were about the 10th and 11th people waiting.
Within a few minutes, the line to buy tickets was wrapped throughout the gift shop and out the door. So first lesson: don’t show up later than 9:15 am to buy tickets. Seeing those of us already waiting in line for the arena, all the new ticket-buyers began lining up as well. And I don’t mean “lining up” as we use the term in the U.S. I mean “milling about with no sense of order or propriety whatsoever” as they use the term in Europe. I swear, one of my biggest pet peeves about Europe is their inability to form a simple line. The mass of people was completely out of control. By the time they actually opened the doors to the arena, so many people had pushed their way in front of us, that we were easily the 100th and 101st people through the doors. Second lesson: be an asshole.
Once we finally got into the arena and found seats, we discovered that we had to lean out over the balustrade in order to really see anything happening down below. It’s an oval-shaped dirt arena surrounded by theater chairs in a stadium-style configuration. Behind the seats are platforms where spectators can stand, and every one of those spots filled up. They even sell standing-room-only tickets for the evening performances. Third lesson: you do NOT want to stand. I don’t know how you could possibly see anything at all.
When the horses finally showed up, they came out in a group of six. They were lovely to look at, but unless you are totally obsessed with horses (which I am not), it gets old really fast. The riders mostly just cantered the horses around the field. At one point, one rider encouraged his horse up onto his hind quarters and did a little hop. But that was it. In the 90 minutes we were there, we saw that little hop about three times. All the rest was just walking and cantering. BO-RING! Morning exercise lasts for two hours, with different riders bringing out different horses. Fourth lesson: don’t plan to stay for the entire two hours. You will not miss anything if you leave after 30 or 60 minutes. Also, no photos are allowed inside the arena, so that’s lame.
Now that I’ve spent upwards of 600 words bitching about how lame the Lipizzaner practice was, allow me to share some things I *did* like. Cathedrals! I never met a cathedral I didn’t like, and I can’t visit a European city without touring a cathedral or five. We visited two in Vienna: Karlskirche and Stephansdom.
Karlskirche (Charles’s Church) is a Baroque church built between 1716 and 1737. It was commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in honor of his patron saint, Charles Borromeo. Karlskirche is located in Karlsplatz, where there was a Christmas market, conveniently enough. The church itself is somewhat small, and under renovation in some places. They have an alarmingly rickety elevator that you can take up into the dome to get a closer look at the frescoes (photos below). The elevator only gets you part of the way there. You have to climb quite a few steps to the top. If you’re afraid of heights, like I am, it’s a little nerve-wracking to be up in the dome. But it’s pretty cool to see the artwork up close. Admission to the church is €8 per person.
Stephansdom (Steven’s Dome) is much larger and grander than Karlskirche. They offer guided tours (including in English) or an audio-guide option. In addition to the church itself there’s a museum of sorts on the upper level—they call it The Treasure (which just makes me think, my preciousssss). There are also catacombs, which have limited access and are very popular. At the start of your visit, check the board near the entrance to the catacombs for details as to when the next group will be allowed in so you don’t miss your window. You can buy tickets individually for the cathedral, the catacombs and the Treasure, or you can buy an all-inclusive ticket for €17.90 per person. The audio-guide is included, and I found it to be a good value.
Another one of my favorite things to do when visiting a new city is to ride their Ferris Wheel. It’s a great way to get the lay of the land. We ride the Ferris Wheel in the Tuileries Garden every time we go to Paris; we rode the London Eye in London; so it made sense to ride the Giant Ferris Wheel in Vienna (Wiener Riesenrad). The Giant Ferris Wheel is more like the London Eye than the type of Ferris Wheel you would ride at a town carnival. It has enclosed pods (cabins, really) that hold about a dozen people at a time, unlike a regular Ferris Wheel car that is open-air and holds only two people seated side-by-side.
One noteworthy fact about Vienna’s wheel is that you can reserve an entire pod for a romantic dinner. We saw two different couples in private pods. Each time the pod comes back around to the ground level, waitstaff bring in your next course or serve the wine or what-have-you. It causes some delay for the other passengers, because the private pods have to stay at ground level longer than it typically would take to unload and reload a multi-passenger pod. All things considered though, it’s a pretty neat idea.
We rode the Giant Ferris Wheel at night, because I like to look at the city lights. Vienna is not quite as impressive as Paris or London. The London Eye is on the south bank of the River Thames, so you can see all of London stretched out, from Parliament just across the river all the way to the Tower of London. And in Paris, you can of course see the Eiffel Tower, which is my favorite Paris landmark, I don’t care if it’s cliché. But there just isn’t as much to see in Vienna. The Ferris Wheel is located in a sort of amusement park (the Prater), so there were a few other rides to look at, but the park wasn’t that crowded because it was a Monday night in December. (Be aware: there were actually two Ferris Wheels in the vicinity. The Giant Ferris Wheel is closer to the Ubahn station. It’s there year-round. I’m not sure what the other Ferris Wheel is all about, but it looked kind of sketchy.)
Next to the box office there’s an interesting museum about the history of the Giant Ferris Wheel and Vienna more generally. I definitely recommend taking a walk through that before riding the wheel. The €9.50 ticket price includes the museum and the wheel. The Giant Ferris Wheel was originally built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I; it burned down in 1944 but was rebuilt and put back into operation in 1947. It’s one of the oldest operating Ferris Wheels in the world and has been featured in numerous films, including the James Bond movie The Living Daylights.
Speaking of movies, if you saw the most recent Mission: Impossible, you might remember Tom Cruise wreaking havoc inside and on the roof of the Vienna Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper). It’s distinctive green roof stands out among the rooftops of Vienna. We had tickets to see an opera, so we didn’t do the official Opera House tour, but the €7.50 tour admission price is certainly a lot cheaper than opera tickets, so I recommend that if opera’s not your thing. The inside of the Opera House is quite opulent, as you would expect, with many chandeliers and impressive artwork. The opera we saw, La Cenerentola, was a little weird. It’s a version of Cinderella, composed in the early 1800s. I had never been to an opera before, so I have no frame of reference. I didn’t feel that the performances were spectacular, and the characters seemed more like caricatures than people. But maybe all opera is like that.
A note about the Vienna Card. All of the Austrian cities we visited provided the opportunity to buy a branded card that gives you discounted ticket prices to a number of attractions, discounts in certain shops and restaurants, and allows for free rides on the local public transit system. The cards can be purchased for 48-hour or 72-hour time periods. The clock starts ticking the first time you punch the card to get into the Ubahn system. The 48-hour Vienna card option was €18.90, and the 72-hour version was €21.90. I calculated that it would save us each about €10 on admission to the various attractions we wanted to see. I wasn’t sure how much use we would make of the Ubahn because I knew we were planning to walk most places, so I decided not to get Vienna Cards. As it turns out, we spent around €12 per person on the Ubahn over three days, so it would have made sense to get the Vienna Card, but juuuuust barely.
That’s it for my Austria coverage. Now that I’ve written about where to eat, where to stay, and what to do in Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck, I’m finally out of information to share! I’ll leave you with a few more photos from the attractions covered in this post.