Imperial is the first word that comes to mind when wandering the streets of Vienna. Over the past twenty-five years I have visited this European capital dozens of times and most recently with my family. My sister has lived here since graduating from college and over the years I have come to explore and love this city thanks in great part to visiting her and her family.
Last week was our latest trip to Vienna and we visited some of the old haunts, as well as some new places. The most important thing to know about Vienna is that despite a certain degree of “grumpiness”, especially from the older locals (and their mostly small and yappy dogs), it is one of the most child friendly cities I have ever visited. Abundance and ease of public transportation (especially for strollers), a seemingly unlimited number of playgrounds and interactive attractions that both entertain and educate make travelling to Vienna with kids a true pleasure.
A walk within the “Ring” (the heart of the city) is always “de rigueur” and allows you to see the impressive Hofburg palace and the towering Stephansdom among other main attractions. You can also choose to take the “yellow” tram that circumnavigates the city center and allows you to see the Rathaus (City Hall), Parliament, the University of Vienna, the Museum Quarter, the Votivkirche and the golden Strauss statue. There are many more things to see in the city center, but for a first timer this will give you and the kids plenty to do, especially on a shorter visit.
We found a delightful book for kids called “With the Travel King in Vienna” (there is a version in English) which our kids loved reading out loud while walking about and using as a guide to discover the city (it also has a “pocket” for keepsakes and ticket stubs). I am sure there are many other such guides that make it fun for the entire family to explore and discover the city.
We chose to start off with something familiar, also for the kids, so we walked through the Volksgarten towards the Hofburg palace and let the kids run around chasing the giant bubbles produced by a street artist and dance around to the accordion being played by a gentleman who kept tipping his hat whenever a coin was tossed into the case that lay open at his feet.
Walking through the Hofburg toward the heart of the city with the clatter of hooves from the horse drawn carriages shuttling tourists to and fro you may find yourself briefly transported back in time to a certainly more grandiose entrance of the imperial family to their palace. As you continue towards the cathedral you cannot help but to stop in at Demel along Kohlmarkt for a delicious slice of cake and a warming cup of coffee served with white gloves. Although you will find it full of tourists, there are also plenty of locals who meet there for a treat since Demel continues to deliver on the quality of its bakery. After reenergizing we continued onto the Graben, the very heart of the city where there is plenty of window-shopping to do while passing historic Viennese brands, as well as global luxury houses. Then, just around the corner, to meet us with its soaring spire was Stephansdom.
You will find that Vienna induces you to stroll, rather than walk with purpose, an odd trait for a European country considered more Northern than Southern. You tend to notice and enjoy things around you when walking this way and it is certainly true in Vienna.
Our first day ended wandering towards the U-bahn (the subway) station to get home. This allowed us to discover a few more nooks and crannies in the tight alleyways behind the cathedral. One place in particular stopped me in my tracks. Bücher 777 was closed, but in the dusk and softly lit from the inside, this bookstore emanated extreme coziness and I just wanted to grab a book and sink into one the armchairs to read in peace or even read to the kids sitting quietly on the floor gazing up to catch a glimpse of the illustrations as I read (although the second scenario is more of a fantasy than a probability). All in all, a great image to carry home and into the night.
Since February in most of the Northern Hemisphere is not the best of travel times, we opted to visit some indoor attractions with the kids that we had never seen before. The second morning of our visit presented itself with a slight drizzle, but luckily we had already decided to head off to a dinosaur exhibit set up in a stark, but very cool industrial space near the river. Although not extensive, it was the kind of exhibit the kids love and most of their time and energy was spent chasing each other around roaring like a T-Rex and reading descriptions of each dinosaur to fill out a treasure hunt sheet we had been given along with our tickets.
We had stayed later than we thought at the dinosaur exhibit and the kids were grumpy, chilled and hungry by the time we emerged. The plan was to get close to Maria Hilfe Strasse, one of the main shopping strips in Vienna, to do some more window-shopping (it was a Sunday and keep in mind that everything is closed in Vienna) and find a bite to eat. On the way, my sister and brother-in-law realized that we were quite close to Sälm Brau that, much to my pleasure, has an extensive list of their own brews on tap. We all warmed up and enjoyed some local fare inlcuding Stelze (roast pork shank, which I must have every time I visit), bratwurst, kartoffelsalat (potato salad), apfelsaft (apple juice) and, of course, beer. Lunch was just the thing to recharge and get us ready for our afternoon adventure in, of all places, an ex-bunker.
The Haus des Meeres (the aquarium of Vienna) is hosted brilliantly in a WWII flak tower that, it is said, was so difficult to dismantle after the war, it was turned into an aquarium in 1957 thanks to a group of scientists and members of the Viennese business community. We started from the top, where you get a stunning 360-degree view of the city, and worked our way down the various levels until we were back at the entrance that hosts a large pond full of giant goldfish with a sign inviting you to pet them. Needless to say, the kids loved it.
The kids at this point had worked up quite an appetite and as the families headed home, my brother-in-law and I detoured to pick up some up some Schnitzel for everybody because you can’t go to Vienna and not have some. The bonus, of course, was the twenty minute wait during which we were forced to sample what was on tap.
We started off the day visiting what my oldest son likes to call “the crooked house”. The Hundertwasserhaus always thrills my kids because of its colorfulness and absence of straight lines or corners. Even on a cloudy day it brings a smile to their faces as they touch the colorful tiles that pepper the building and run around the undulated sidewalk around it. We continued our walk through the city center stopping for a sweet snack at Aida with its vast selection of cakes and pastries before catching a tram to go and pick up the cousins at school. Then came the favorite part of the trip for our kids and the cousins because we headed over to Monki Park where kids can run around, scale walls, get lost in the maze of chutes and ladders, as well as play ping pong and mini golf. We have been to Vienna enough times that we longer have to see all the sites each time we go and Monki Park has become a treat within the treat for the kids, a way to “feel at home” away from home.
The next day we woke up to blustery weather and given the mix of sun and clouds we decided to make our way using the super efficient S-bahn and U-bahn, with a brief stop to see Karlskirche, to the Belvedere which is the “temple” of Austria’s Secessionist artists Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. This time around we did not go inside because the younger kids in the group would grown quickly bored of the wonderful exhibits inside. The gardens, though, provided a great place to let them loose and have them blow off some steam. We continued to wander back towards the city center and ended up visiting the Haus der Musik which we were told had several interactive exhibits. It was impressive. A great mix of history and educational features that entertained the kids and gave them some food for thought. Lots of questions on sound waves, instruments, composers and music in general. The last exhibit was by far the most entertaining and popular: the interactive Vienna Philharmonic that you conduct. The kids got a laugh out of one of the orchestra members stopping mid score to stand up and (from the giant screen) berate them for doing a terrible job conducting as they swung the conductor’s baton frantically to make the tempo unbearable. The kids were still giggling and talking about it on our way home.
There was not much time on our last day to sightsee and we spent the morning shopping for those things that we love about Vienna and cannot find back home, especially certain food items. We bought loaves and loaves of bread. All types of “whole-wheat” bread because the assortment is always staggering. Rye, pumpernickel, seeds, nuts; you name it. Then würstl in every which way: paprika, cheese filled, bacon wrapped and much more. Of course, the Sachertorte which you can find at the Hotel Sacher, if you want the original, but also at Demel, Aida, Oberlaa and, our personal favorite: Heindl. I would have filled an entire suitcase with beer, but, alas, it is the only thing I could not take with me (although at the airport I always grab a bottle of Williams pear brandy).
I also took some time to browse a few stationery stores. It may be the vicinity to Germany, but the pens and paper they have in Vienna are a stationery addict’s dream come true. There are also many design stores in Vienna that I could move into if allowed, given how well cured and selected the content.
We always leave Vienna with a heavy heart saying goodbye to family and friends, but also because each time we go there, we always feel at home.