Before London got its Eye, and before the many large, modern observation wheels around the world were put up, the biggest of them all was the wheel at the Prater Park in Vienna. Known as the Riesenrad, the wheel was first put up in 1896 and was the largest in the world at the time.
Ferris wheel construction was popular in the major countries of the world, such as the one built in Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The Ferris wheel today carries 15 cars, with one serving as a luxury cabin which can be booked for exclusive use by the hour. You can have catered meals here as well, with table settings and wine. Rising close to 65 metres, the cars give you a perfect view of Vienna below you. With a recent refurbishment and renovation exercise, the rides can now accommodate visitors in winter as well.
The State Opera Ball is one of the most glamorous events in the Viennese calendar. This social event was Vienna’s answer to the Paris opera Ball, which was the prime social event of Europe at the time. Due to concerns about vice and rowdy behaviour, the Opera Ball was only properly held for the first time in full glory in the year 1935. Today, the Ball starts with the procession of 140 young couples into the floor. The waltzes and ballets follow, to make the memorable evening still the ideal place for being presented to society.
The State Opera Building is host to a proud musical tradition dating back to the early 18th Century, when Leopold I was a patron of music. The building dates to a decision by Emperor Franz Josef in 1857 to proceed with plans to build a new building. It was to be located at a site near the palace and close to a theatre which it was slated to replace. A contest was held to select the design for this new theatre, and it was completed in 1868. War damaged the building in 1945, and it was painstakingly restored before re-opening in 1955.
Living in the Imperial Style was the order of the day at the Hofburg. This palace is not a single construction but rather an administrative complex built up over the reigns of several Emperors and rulers of Austria. The present head of the Austrian Republic, the President, lives and works in the Leopoldine wing of the palace. Beginning life as a fortification, the palace became the primary residence of the Emperor from the time of Ferdinand I onwards — the first Emperor who anchored the Hapsburg family power base here in Vienna.
The museum at the palace has a collection of silverware and porcelain. Tours are available to take you through the Imperial apartments — the Kaiser appartements. Access is gained through the Kaiserstiege — the Emperor’s staircase and 18 rooms from there including the waiting room to the audience chamber, the Emperor’s Study, the Empress’ dressing and exercise room, and a private dining room. The setting is very much as it was when Emperor Franz Josef lived in this palace and strained to run the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire for the benefit of his multi-ethnic subjects.
The retreat of the Viennese is the coffee house. Legend has it that the coffee tradition of Vienna came about as a result of the Turkish siege of the city in 1683. A Polish immigrant by the name of Georg Kolschitzky is said to have infiltrated the Turkish camps, and after the siege was lifted, the coffee taken from the abandoned Turkish camps became the raw materials for his coffee shop.
The courtly Viennese etiquette still holds firm. Coffee drinkers are expected to be largely silent or speak quietly while in the shop. They can nurse a cup for an entire day, while reading or writing. Of course, that is more myth than reality — do not be surprised if you the waiters ask you for “more coffee” after you have been seated for a while with an empty cup. The coffee shops have an air of the past, as if the Hapsburgs still reign in this city. Some establishments have tired old furnishings, whilst others have renovated and sport a restored character, still old looking but not feeling outdated.
Apart from coffee, pastries and cakes are part of the menu too. The legendary Sachertorte, whose recipe is a closely guarded secret amongst the Viennese is a chocolate cake served with whipped cream. Other pastries on offer are the Wiener Kipferl (similar to croissant) and Kaissersemmerl (a roll cake). The last element for a day at the coffee house is reading materials. This went along with the fact that coffee houses were said to be censorship free, at a time when Austrian society was tightly controlled. The oldest running paper in the world is the Wiener Zeitung, previously the Wiennerische Diarium. Some places carry major foreign newspapers as well.
The Schonbrunn was the Summer Palace of the Hapsburgs. This was supposed to be the Austrian answer to Versailles in France, but with the less formal touch favoured by the Austrian Royal Family. Like many Royal country residences, the Schonbrunn began life as a hunting ground. The Emperor Matthias II found a spring of water here and called it Schoner Brunnen — the lovely spring. Construction began around 1696 and proceeded until 1749. The monarch most closely associated with the palace is Maria Theresa, who finished the construction of the palace in her reign. With over 1, 400 rooms, the palace is a mix of the baroque and later rococo styles with a magnificent garden and park.
In addition to the architecture, art and landscaping of the palace, a major highlight of the palace is the Spanish Riding School. In what can be described as a ballet of horses, the white Lipizzaner horses perform in a courtyard outside the palace. Special stands are set up and lighted up for night performances. The performance is similar to competitive dressage, but done by a troop rather than with individual horses. The horsemen, dressed in early 19th Century riding costume, put the horses through their paces, which includes prancing on their hind legs, trotting sideways in formation and big leaps into the air. This performance is considered the pinnacle of horse riding performance in the world.
Take a trip to this Central European jewel of a city, whether to take in the reflected glory of an Empire of millions, a cup of coffee with a good read, or a flight into the sky on an antique giant ferris wheel. This charming Imperial City offers much for the traveller in search of the civilized and the unique.