It took my fifth visit to Vienna before I realized how great a place it is for kids. The previous four visits were centered around the activities for which the Austrian capital is renowned: classical arts, schnitzel and fine dining, luxury hotel stays, and a general joie de vivre that has compelled me to tell anyone who will listen that Vienna is what you think Paris should be.
What I didn’t know is it’s also a gigantic playground for children, similar to Manhattan with museums, interactive activities, and theme parks. The fun starts — and never stops — at Wurlster Prater, the amusement hub that has been a site of leisure dating to 1162. Prater, as it’s called, was the eighth theme park my family visited in 2023, so the best of Orlando and also of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens were fresh in our minds when we arrived.
Here are reasons why Prater stands out among the leading amusement parks in the world:
- No entry fee: You pay for the rides your kids want to go on and they’re inexpensive, with most costing between 3-6 euro (about $3.15-$6.30 USD) per ticket and lineups are short, if there are any at all. The exception is the popular Giant Ferris Wheel, or Wiener Riesenrad, which costs 13.50 euro ($14.20 USD) for an adult ticket (or 6.50 euro/$6.85 for a child’s fare).
- Small crowd size: Reasons for the lack of lineups is Prater’s free cost of entry and its never-ending hours of operation. Crowds don’t congregate at one time nor do visitors feel they have to do it all in one day. There is no turnstile or security gate to pass through when you enter Prater, so you can come and go as you like. That’s what we did, returning to Prater four times during our 11-night stay in Vienna, often for only three or four rides at a time. The park never closes, though the rides will stop operating around midnight, or earlier, each day.
- Public transit: Praterstern is the station that serves the park and its vicinity. Vienna’s tram and underground metro system both have stops at Praterstern, located in the trendy Leopoldstadt district. The theme park is a few minutes’ walk from the station.
While the rides are neither new nor snazzy, they’re well-maintained and dependable. The highlights are the two Ferris wheels. One is Europe’s oldest. Dating to 1897, the Riesenrad features covered wooden carriages that clunk along one station at a time as the wheel completes a single revolution that lasts about 10 minutes. Recently, a new daring activity was added to the attraction as adventurous riders can harness themselves to the sturdy steel arms of the big wheel and circle while standing on top of the flat roof of one of the carriages. We stayed safely inside our cabin in the sky and took in the views of the city, the park, and those daredevils hanging out in the air.
The second Ferris wheel is modern and thrilling, with an open-air design that allows you to rotate your car as you loop around. It was a bit scary for my 5-year-old, Gabriel, but he still exited in delight, proclaiming it to be one of the best experiences of his life.
I was extremely pleased that Gabriel’s affinity for Vienna wasn’t limited to the bells and whistles of Prater. He took to the classic charms of the city, too. The Kunsthistoriches has both a natural history and fine arts museum, two identical sandstone buildings — with domed roofs and arched windows — that are separated by a beautiful garden adorned with a 63.5-foot (19.4-meter) memorial to Empress Maria Theresa. Previously, I spent hours wandering through the jaw-dropping masterpieces of Renaissance and Impressionist paintings in the fine arts museum, spending a fraction of the time in the natural history space. This time, with dinosaurs and sea creatures fascinating Gabriel, all the time was spent in wonder of the nearly incomprehensible collection of taxidermic species collected by the Hapsburgs. The displays include extinct dodos and the rarest of existing birds. While the practice of taxidermy is considered cruel now, these specimens are decades, if not centuries, old and illustrate the vastness of the empire — especially during the reign of Franz Joseph I, the Austrian ruler who was in command when the museums were opened in 1891.
After Gabriel had taken in the ornamental stuffed animals, he became mesmerized by the manufactured dinosaurs that dominate several of the halls on the museum’s ground floor. Some of the dinosaurs are animated, moving and growling, a feature sure to capture any child’s attention.
A more contemporary attraction devoted to the animal world is Haus des Meeres, an 11-story tower of mostly aquatic life. It features a floor devoted to sharks and learning opportunities galore. The top floor of the building is a restaurant with a 360-degree view of the city.
Even more animal fun can be found at Schönbrunn Palace. Dating to 1569, Schönbrunn was the home of Hapsburg royalty, including Franz Joseph I and Maria Theresa, and, as you might expect, it features opulence throughout and exquisite gardens surrounding it. What is unexpected is the large Schönbrunn Zoo that neighbors the palace. It will delight kids and give parents the chance to educate them on why keeping animals in captivity is a tragic practice that humans need to evolve out of.
While we never explored the depth of Vienna’s music culture, running out of time needed to visit Mozart’s home, or take in a concert of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, or symphony in the orchestra halls, we did make a point to experience the highly interactive Haus der Musik. Kids can get carried away on the musical staircase, play conductor in front of a virtual-reality orchestra, practice playing instruments, and learn about the legends of classical music.
The city’s appreciation for music of all kinds was revealed at the Bruce Springsteen & E Street Band concert that we attended in July at the 50,000-plus-seat Ernst Happel Stadium just south of Prater. To my delight (and relief), Gabriel was enthralled by the show, so completely mesmerized that he grooved along to the songs for the entirety of the 2-hour, 45-minute concert. Because the night had been so momentous, he woke up the next morning, eyes wide, and declared his love for “Bruce, summer, and Vienna”. I knew then, as I prepared for our day’s sojourn to an amusement park rising bold and stark above the neighborhood, that a return visit to the city that I — and my son, too — adore wouldn’t be too far away.
MORE ABOUT VISITING VIENNA
Getting Around: A single ticket on the Vienna tram or metro (subway) system costs 2.40 euro. Use of public transit is mostly an honor system; tickets are rarely checked by tram drivers or authorized transit personnel. Discount programs such as the Vienna Card provide unlimited use of the city’s public transit system for a specific period of time, as well as deals on attractions and dining.
Inside the Prater Amusement Park: The rides at Prater accept only cash as payment. While there are ATMs at the park, they charge an expensive transaction fee, so arrive with euro in hand for the activities.
The one ride that you can pre-book and pay with a credit card is the historic Riesenrad Giant Ferris Wheel. Among its options are a Champagne dinner for two, where one of the covered cars is designated for a couple. Groups can also book a car that features welcome cocktails for the ride. Visit the Riesenrad website for details.
Prater has a number of dining options, including beer gardens and schnitzel houses like the rustic and family-friendly Schweizerhaus. Kids will also enjoy the Rollercoaster Restaurant where meals are delivered to each diner via an overhead conveyor system that resembles a steel roller-coaster. The food is uninspired but the experience is unique and fun.
More Dining: What everyone loves about Vienna are the pastries, which make it a joyous place to explore for families. While there are many cafes and bakeries to explore, the highlight of course is the Sachertorte. You can enjoy the legendary original at the Sacher Hotel or try the long-time competitor at Demel Cafe. It’s my favorite dessert in the world and to share it with my son was among the highlights of our trip.
The quality of food is mostly exceptional in the city. Vienna has a number of outstanding and historic places to dine that won’t bust the budget. Among my favourites is Zum Schwarzen Kameel — known for delectable finger sandwiches, oysters, and reasonably priced wine. For your schnitzel fix, try Huth Gastwirtschaft — the staff during our visit were incredibly kind and considerate, providing a seating space where Gabriel could nap while his parents dined — and Cafe Anzengruber, a locals’ favorite near the Naschmarkt.
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Currency Exchange and Costs: The USD and euro are trading roughly at par; as of October 2023, $1 USD equals 0.95 euro. Compared to many European capital cities, Vienna is fair-priced, if not a bargain. If you book a short-term apartment stay, as we did, you’ll be glad to know that grocery prices are comparable to North American cities and some items are cheaper.