We all know what zoos are like. There are zoos all over the world. Generally speaking they are broadly similar, they have much the same animals, the same kind of shops and attractions and the same sort of layout.
So for a zoo to stand out, it needs to make itself special and unique. This is where Zoo Vienna Schonbrunn succeeds.
For starters, it is the oldest zoo in the world. First opened as an imperial menagerie in 1752, the zoo boasts some delightful original architecture and nods to its heritage. From the moment you walk in, through a magnificent gated entrance, you get the sense that this place is a little bit different from other zoos.
Another way for a zoo to stand out from the crowd is by having rare animals. There is another tick in the box here. And they hit you with the headline grabbers right away.
The first area you come to, on the left hand side, houses the Koala Bear. Truly a fascinating animal, it’s a perfect enclosure to allow you to sit and watch the marsupial play around. He seems thoroughly content, pottering around in the trees inside his enclosure, and certainly had a knack of posing for the camera!
Moving on, the big attractions keep coming, arguably the biggest animal attraction that this, or any zoo, has to offer.
The Giant Pandas are a truly extraordinary animal, and Tiergarten Schonbrunn provides the rare opportunity to appreciate these much-loved, endangered species. At the time of our visit, there were two Giant Pandas, free to roam in a huge outside area or play and eat inside at their leisure.
2016 has brought joy and sadness in equal measure, with two baby pandas born at the zoo being a joyous moment for those connected with the zoo. But the sad recent death of the female panda was a very upsetting event.
What the zoo does better than any other zoo I have ever been to, is provide a beautiful, tranquil area in which to fully appreciate the animals. This is particularly true around the pandas, where the wide, well-maintained walkways ensure many great vantage points can be reached.
At the centre of the zoo is a restaurant, with perfectly straight tree-lined walkways leading off in all directions. This would be a wonderful place to walk and spend a few hours even if there were no animals.
As we move on through the zoo, following the guide book, we move inside to encounter three Hippos. There is a large indoor pool which the Hippos are currently swimming around quite furiously, splashing large amounts of water as they raise their heads out of the water.
Koalas, Pandas and Hippos are animals that I personally haven’t seen at any other zoo, making this a rare and wonderful opportunity for me to witness such marvellous creatures.
The same is also true a little further on, where we come across the Polar Bear enclosure. Now, I admit to having some reservations regarding seeing Polar Bears in the zoo. I feared that such naturally wild, hunting animals would appear trapped in captivity.
I soon changed my mind. The Polar Bear area at Tiergarten Schonbrunn is quite exceptional. There are two huge, split-level pools as well as an indoor and outdoor pool for the two bears to roam around in. There are also huge rock structures for the pair to climb. The two are separate at the time of our visit, and perhaps are always kept in different areas of the enclosure.
Our first bear is outside, pounding around his area on the edge of the water. They are exceptionally imposing but also awe-inspiring animals. Even at such a distance, behind the safety of glass, you feel the fear they instil and the power they have.
Inside, the bear is wreaking havoc in the indoor pool. He swims up to the glass where we are stood, tearing off a metal grid above our heads. A moment of trepidation occurs, before we are assured that is perfectly safe. Phew!
The zoo really does have everything you could ask for. From Penguins to Flamingos, Rhinos to Buffalos, as well as the usual big-hitters – Lions, Tigers, Elephants, Monkeys. There are usually also Giraffes, but the enclosure is being revamped and so they were rehoused at the time of our visit.
But what really stands out for me is the setting. The tree-lined pathways make everything look sensational as do the lakes which house all manner of birds that sit at the heart of the zoo. There are walkways that take you up to be able to look back across the zoo, as well as areas to look down on the Penguins during feeding time and a large building housing bats, otters and many more.
The world’s oldest zoo it may be, but there is not a hint of it being outdated. This is a traditional zoo that boasts some of the most picturesque areas to appreciate a wealth of rare, incredible creatures.
It’s a beautiful day. Cold of course, but the sun is shining as we walk away from the zoo through the shadows of the leaf-free trees. The zoo is located within the grounds of the Schonbrunn Palace, which can be seen in the distance at the end of the trees – like a light shining at the end of a tunnel.
The grounds of the palace are enormous, with a huge lawned garden laid out in front, leading to a large pool of water and a statue. Up above, standing high over the palace is the Gloriette.
We contemplate turning around, given the weary nature of our legs, but the lure of a raised view of the palace and the city in the glorious weather was too much to resist. And so we began to climb.
And boy was it worth it. Peaceful, stunning and magnificent, The Gloriette itself and the view that it offers are an absolute must for all visitors to Vienna. Built in 1775 as a ‘temple of renown, the area was used as a breakfast room for Emperor Franz Joseph I and there is an observation platform on top that looks out over Vienna.
We turn around to a breathtaking view. The Schonbrunn Palace is bathed in sunshine and is shimmering in the light. Behind it, the whole of Vienna stretched out in front of us. Few places, if any, in Vienna offer such a spectacular viewpoint.
Down we go again, bound for the palace. As we arrive, a glance back to the Gloriette on top of the hill reveals the extent of our climb. Our intention is to go inside the palace, but the sight of the queues soon put pay to that idea.
We choose instead to sit and have a drink while waiting for the light to fall and the markets to come alive.
The market at the palace is spectacular, if a little more understated than some of Vienna’s other offerings. A huge tree stands tall in front of the doors of the palace, and the stalls are spread around in a large circle.
As light falls, the lights of the palace shine ever brighter and the stalls twinkle. This market provides a magical, picture-postcard setting, while the goods themselves are a range of trinkets, cuisine and crafts.
We have spent all day in the grounds of the Schonbrunn Palace, from the sensational zoo to the Gloriette and the palace itself. It’s an incredible little corner of Vienna that has something to offer for everyone.
Our day isn’t quite over yet. We catch the U-Bahn back into the city centre, to the market at Karlskirche, set in the surrounds of the exquisite domed church. It is the backdrop that really makes this market what it is, with lights strung above the heads of the shoppers and shone up to illuminate the church.
Nearby is the market that surrounds St Stephen’s Cathedral, in the heart of the city. This towering structure is adorned in purple, blue and red lighting, with an emormous Christmas tree standing at it’s feet.
As markets go, this is perhaps the most disappointing in terms of goods on offer, but the setting is just as magical as all of the others in the capital.
Our third day in Vienna proved to be every bit as wonderful as our last two. The zoo is an absolute marvel, one that is essential visiting for anyone setting foot in Vienna. And the entire grounds of the Schonbrunn palace are simply magnificent, providing a whole range of activities and sights to enjoy.
One more day of our stay to come, and a little more time to relish Vienna’s magic.
To read the blog from the previous three days in Vienna, click here