When reading about a destination before you arrive, there are always certain places, attractions and activities that are described as ‘must-do’.
In Vienna, one such example of this is the Spanish Riding School. This world-famous site is the only equestrian institution in the world to have practiced for nearly 450 years. Today, it showcases the beauty and grace of the Lipizzaner stallions and draws visitors from all over the world.
As our second day in Vienna commences, we head straight off after breakfast to tick this ‘must-do’ activity off our list. Upon arrival at Michaelerplatz, home of the Spanish Riding School, we are instantly amazed by the jaw-dropping architecture of the domed entrance square.
Inside and into the ticket hall, it’s every bit as beautiful. Cabinets packed full of trophies and artefacts highlighting the history and tradition of the school line the walls of the fairly small waiting-area room. And it steadily seemed smaller and smaller and the crowds poured in ahead of the first show of the day.
We had come adorned in layers of clothing due to the chilly temperatures outside, but it quickly became uncomfortably warm as over a hundred people crammed into the hall. Frankly it’s a ridiculous way of asking visitors to wait for the show and puts everyone in a bad mood before they go inside.
Once inside, in truth it’s a mixed bag. You sit in single-file seats around this magnificent equestrian theatre, with seats for the orchestra at one end and royal-box seating at the other. It’s one of the most ornate and beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in, with a stunning chandelier hanging down from the roof and carved figures into almost every pillar and post.
The show itself was something of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, the ability and the grace of the horses can’t be questioned. But once you’ve seen them do it a couple of times, you rather feel you’ve seen it and would like to see something else. We lasted for around 45 minutes, before concluding that the same thing was just going to keep happening and it was safe to leave.
Bizarrely, the highlight of the show was the man tasked with heading out into the arena with a brush and dustpan, to clean up the little ‘gifts’ that the horses left in their wake. It drew great amusement from all sides of the room. He became something of a star.
And so with that, it was time to crack on. Out the other side of the Spanish Riding School we walk into a small Christmas market in a circular cobbled area surrounded by magnificent six and seven storey buildings. Several horse-drawn carriages are waiting for people – adding to the magic of this area.
We have a wander round the market, picking up a few pieces including a glass dome which displays a Viennese scene when lit up, and then jumped on the U-Bahn underground system. Our destination was the Danube Tower.
Vienna boasts a very well-connected transport system, and the U-Bahn network seemed to us to be very reliable, safe and clean. We get off at Alte Donau having taken line U1 from Stephansplatz in the heart of the city.
Unfortunately the Danube Tower is located approximately equidistant from three tube stations, and from whichever one you choose it is one heck of a walk to reach this imposing tower – which you can from miles away but it has an end-of-the-rainbow quality in that it never seems to get any closer.
Eventually, having walked through Donaupark following two people who we hoped were heading for the tower, we arrived. And it was worth the trip. This was another attraction that was part of the Vienna Pass scheme and so was free on our arrival.
From the top of the tower you can see the whole city, across the famous Danube River. The weather wasn’t fantastic but it was clear enough for us to pick out all the sights, the famous churches, the boats tripping up and down the river, the Ferris Wheel in the distance. It’s a trip out to the edge of Vienna that comes thoroughly recommended as it is by far the best way to get a look at the city from above. The view is simply breathtaking.
We have lunch at the restaurant at the top of the tower, which is on a turning platform, allowing you to get a full 360° view. It was at this point, looking down, we realised that winding our way through the middle of Donaupark was a big mistake, probably trebling our walking distance compared to simply walking around the outside!
Correcting our mistake on our way back to the tube, we head off back into the city.
The Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel has been turning since 1897, and is just as popular today as it has ever been. It offers locals and tourists the chance to enjoy a view of the city from a height of 64.75m, and many claim you haven’t been to Vienna unless you’ve taken a ride on the Riesenrad.
It also featured in iconic post-WWII film noir The Third Man, and it’s another of Vienna’s sights that we can enjoy for free with the Vienna Pass.
The whole area of Leopoldstadt, where the Ferris Wheel stands, is utterly charming. Walking from the U-Bahn station, you pass a series of Christmas market stalls, each beautifully adorned with twinkling lights and ahead there is a buzzing circular area housing several stalls with a huge Christmas tree at the heart of it. A delightful road train passes us by, bringing visitors to one of the many attractions here, including Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium.
But we’re here for the Ferris Wheel and so we whisk straight through the entrance gates with our Vienna Passes and join the queue. The cabins of the Ferris Wheel themselves are fairly small and entirely red, with a number painted on the side. They are made entirely of wood, and conjure up images of children’s toy scenes of days gone by. That is a feeling that is provided by much of Vienna. There is always a nod to the past, to history, to tradition.
Some of the cabins that pass us by while we wait for our designated one have been made up with a tablecloth, chairs and cutlery, set out for someone to enjoy a romantic evening on the wheel as the day fades into night.
At the height of the wheel we are provided with a view of the Vienna skyline and a glimpse of the architecture that defines this city. The red rooftops spread like a blanket over Vienna, as the church spires rise at every turn. As we descend again, the Christmas tree and the market below us shimmer and shine as the traces of music drift up to us from the stalls and carousel.
It’s a wonderfully Christmassy feeling but I’m sure the Riesenrad must be a fantastic experience all year round. Providing views across the city, in a charming, old-fashioned setting, it is indeed an absolute must while in Vienna.
Our day is not over yet. As night falls it’s time for more market indulgence. But the city by day has proved to be as magnificent as I had hoped, full of culture, history and fun. And as we continue our second day here, I conclude that I’m falling in love with Vienna.
Read part one of my Christmas in Vienna travel guide here