Vienna With Kids

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6 years
8 years
10 years
12 years
2008-09-01 to 2008-09-22

All of Vienna had turned out to welcome us; or so it seemed. The idyllic ride into the city along the Danube cycle-way was packed with people: sunbathers, kids with kites, and mile after mile of festival lining the river. I’ve heard that in Vienna the people waltz through life... when we arrived they were not waltzing. The whole city pulsed with the techno-heartbeat that we’ve come to associate as the theme song of Eastern Europe. (I know, Austria is technically Western Europe... but just barely!) Gabe put it nicely when he rolled up a hill past me and grinned: “Mom! Wherever we go, that’s where the party’s at!” He was quoting a song the boys like. True enough.

NaschmarktAfter four days, the Donau Insel Fest has ended and techno has given way to the waltz; and what a waltz it is. Vienna is a serious contender for our favorite city in Europe, so far. I could tell you about:

  • The architecture (it’s lovely)
  • The people (they are the kindest we’ve encountered so far and they all seem to speak English (we’ve even been invited for dinner)
  • The city itself (excellent city planning with cyclists in mind)
  • The museums (to quote our new friend Scott, “There are museums and then there are MUSEUMS. Vienna has a LOT of the latter.”)
  • The children could go on and on about the Prater (a huge green space dotted with playgrounds and Vienna’s famous ferris wheel and these quaint little diesel trains called “Lilliput Bahn”)
  • Or the “eis salons” (ice cream and gelato cafes)
  • Then there's  fabulous Naschmarkt where they tried their first cheese stuffed olives and falafel yesterday. (Hannah says to tell you that, “Falafel is not awful.”)

But none of those things would convey the essence of the city. I know it sounds totally corny, but it really is as if the music of the spirits of Strauss and Mozart and Beethoven permeate the air in Vienna and transform an ordinary, bustling capital city into something etherial and above the madding crowd. I can’t do it justice, you’ll just have to come here. 

When you do, plan to stay at least a week and don't rush. Each of the highlights below deserve their own day and you can spend a bit of ecah day on the Prater, letting the little ones run off their energy. 


The Schonbrunn Palace

The summer home to the illustrious Hapsburgs, emperors of Austria for more than six centuries, is truly a wonder to behold. If we were unsure of just what "Rococo architecture" meant before we visited, you can be sure we have a firm grasp now. The palace is beyond enormous, and we "only" toured forty of the rooms that were on the first floor.

Schonnbrunn PalaceIn the height of its glory it was home to 1500 people, over a thousand of whom were servants in some capacity. The gardens are immense. Exactly what you'd imagine as the best of fairy tale gardening: complete with a huge fountain, white Greek figures dotting the allees, and three, count them, THREE mazes. The kids were lost for quite some time and were baffled by Daddy's ability to walk straight to the center and straight back out. He never told his secret. The Schonbrunn is also home to the Tiergarten, the oldest zoo in the world, which we did not visit, we’d hoped to go back with friends, but we got rained out! We took a train ride through the grounds and even got to watch the making of authentic Austrian apple strudel... we sampled it of course! 

Hannah was delighted to stand in the very room where Mozart gave his first concert: for the Empress, when he was just six years old.

"Only six! He must have been a GENIUS, Dad!" Or budding violinist mused.

"The word is 'prodigy,' and yes, he was!"

The weight of history was heavy in the room containing the desk where the last Emperor of Austria signed away his kingdom the day before the Republic of Austria was declared and he moved his family into exile. Can you imagine being the man to sign on the line and do away with more than six centuries of your family's livelihood and give away your home and everything in it? We couldn't either. This part isn't such distant history: the empire ended in 1918, and the last Empress, Zita, died in exile just 24 years ago, in 1989.

Make sure you don't miss the apple streudel demonstration, it's yummy as well as educational!


The Natural History Museum

Natural History MuseumThis is a truly fabulous museum! It was opened in 1889 to house the collections of the Hapsburg Family. It has artifacts that trace the history of the world from its beginnings. It has wonderful collections of fossils, including enormous dinosaur skeletons  as well as stuffed specimens of more recent birds and animals from all over the world. Cave exhibits join archeological discoveries from all over Europe, including the famous Venus of Willendorf! There are live exhibits of reptiles and fish and insects which will keep budding entomologists busy for hours. Then there are cases full of gem stones, and more.

The guide book was wrong about the Natural History Museum. It gave a weak description that left us wondering if the kids would really like it. We are SO glad we followed our hearts and gave it a try, as it was our kids' favourite outing in Vienna. Friends went with us and all ten kids gave this museum a hearty “two thumbs up!”

**Please note that it is closed on Tuesdays.


The Albertina

An art museum housed in one of the old Hapsburg palaces is a lovely way to while away a long afternoon. We went to see an exclusive exhibit of Van Gogh’s work: specifically a large collection of his early drawings, and then the transition of his work toward his final, and most famous, impressionistic style. The bottom floor housed a special showing of Monet and Picasso with a sprinkling of Chagall and some of their contemporaries. 

The Van Gogh exhibit was special because of the sheer volume of pieces. Many of them have not been exhibited before and, according to the docent, will not be re-exhibited for at least fifty years because the pigments in the inks and the papers themselves are deteriorating in the light.  It was wonderful to walk through room after room of the master’s work. His pen and ink drawings were often precursors to paintings he produced later. You could almost see him working on developing form and technique for certain trees or facial features. In contrast with his famous impressionist paintings, which were a riot of color, his early works are dark drawings, many of them almost sad in their feeling. My favorite piece was Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait, the one in which he’s wearing a straw hat. It was the one on all of the posters advertising the exhibit as well. I was surprised to find it quite small, and unimpressive compared to some of his larger, brighter works. He painted it on simple cardboard, unaware that so many years later he would hang on a wall and watch the public file by his works. I couldn’t quite decide if I was looking at him, or if he was looking at me and scrutinizing me with his blue green eyes.

We discovered something about Ezra in the process: He really likes the impressionist period. He’s the kid I normally have to placate with promises of ice cream or threats of hog tying by the second hour in an art museum. Not this time. He literally dragged me from room to room and forced me to stand in front of every painting while he “guessed it.”

“Mom, I guess that this one has flowers in the front, the red things, there are mountains and trees in the back, behind the house.”

“What house, Ez... I don’t see a house.”

“The purple thingy Mom, it’s the roof of a house!” Sure enough, he was right.

“This one is a pond. The water is real dirty and muddy and those are froggy pads with flowers.” (one of Monet’s famous water lily paintings).

On and on he went, for hour after hour. Who knew we had a six year old art critic in the family? Upon entering the Russian Modern Art room he declared, “Mom, we’re only going to guess the important ones in here.” He was not a fan. It just goes to show that no matter how much I study my kids and think I know them, I don’t. There is more to unwrap, day by day, and I’m sure I’ll never guess all of the interesting quirks they have built into them. Elisha, who I’d figured for the art lover, took it all in without saying a word.


The Naschmarkt

NaschmarktThis market dates from the 16th Century and is where you want to eat lunches most days! It's a kilometer and a half long and absolutely overflowing with fruits and vegetables, cheeses, vinegars, olives, wines, and more. Some of the best little street style ethnic restaurants can be found around the margins and it's a great place to have a fresh, inexpensive meal in a place that's plenty "family friendly." 

Our kids loved sampling the "bites" that the vendors offered and examining the delicacies that were new to use like jackfruit and fresh squid ink pasta! We made it a morning stop and loaded up on fresh bread, peppers, fruit and cheese to carry along as an impromptu picnic later in the day. 

On Saturdays the market gets even bigger as a flea market adds to the fun!


The Playgrounds of Vienna

There are so many and they are diverse enough to take up a month of Sundays… maybe two months! The children made it their personal mission to “field test” as many of these as possible. It seems that the city was laid out with the needs of children in mind, as it is unusual to go more than a kilometer without encountering some sort of green space with a play structure at it’s center. 

PlaygroundWe visited one that was designed around exploring physics, with apparatus for learning about pulleys, water diversion and pedal power.  Another, which we affectionately named the “carp park” is a huge artificial beach space designed for the very young. Ankle deep splash pools with sandy bottoms are set between suspension bridges, working windmill water pumps and a hand pulled rope ferry for crossing the knee-deep lagoon. Why did we call it the “carp park?” Because of the big fish face sculpture at the center of the lagoon, which squirts water out of it’s mouth, of course! 

The children’s favorite was the “world park” which has a section for each continent. Although a bit stereotypical in its depiction (the Americas are represented with tipis and buffalo) the children absolutely loved it. At its center is a huge spongy earth map, on which we played a game of “contact geography.” It goes something like this:  “Quick!  Run home!” The kids race for the eastern coast of North America. “Now find where we’ll be for Christmas!” They jostle for position over North Africa. “Find Uncle Josh!” They clamber over one another to stand over the west coast of Canada… and so on. Geography is a contact sport!

Trust me when I say that this is just the tip of the iceberg and the barest highlights of Vienna. When we rolled in we planned to be there for three days; we stayed three weeks. You should allow several days for just walking and looking at the art and architecture of the buildings. Splurge and see an opera, or an orchestral performance. Eat Wiener schnitzel, and if it's summer, spend an afternoon swimming in the Danube and lounging in the sun with the locals. I dare you not to fall in love with Vienna!

Schonnbrunn Palace
Schonnbrunn Palace Playground
Schonnbrunn Palace Maze
Natural History Museum
Venus of Willendorf
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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