I grew up listening to the Vienna Choir Boys Christmas album. Yes, album, not cassette, tape or CD. Although vinyl albums have been surging in popularity lately, this memory makes me feel really old. But what’s Christmas with a little nostalgia, right? Along the same lines of thought, when we were in Vienna for Christmas, I insisted we go see a Vienna Choir Boys performance.
History of the Vienna Choir Boys
One of the most famous choirs in the world, the Vienna Choir Boys can trace their origins back to the choirs of the Viennese Imperial court. When the Austro-Hungarian empire fell, the court choir was disbanded. The Vienna Choir Boys were started as a professional choir in order to continue the tradition. Their uniform was changed to the well-known navy sailor suit instead of a military cadet uniform.
The choir is made up of about 100 boys from the ages of 10-14 who are mostly of Austrian origin. They are divided into 4 touring troupes which among them perform about 300 concerts per year.
The boys receive both academic and musical instruction from the Choir. It must be an intense eduction because they are also on tour about 11 weeks of the school year. Sadly, as with many institutions involving pre-pubescent children, there have been allegations of sexual abuse by some of the boys in recent years.
A Vienna Choir Boys Performance
Every Sunday from September to June the Vienna Choir Boys sing at Mass at the Imperial Court Chapel in the Hofburg Palace. This tradition has been ongoing since 1498.
During the Mass, the choir boys sing from their balcony on the organ loft located above the congregation. At the end of the Mass, they come downstairs and perform a couple of songs in front of the Altar.
Hearing the boys singing in this chapel was a sublime experience. The Chapel is very small because it was intended to be a court chapel of the Imperial family. It reminded me of a theatre because most of the seats are in boxes. Both the nobles and the Imperial family sat in one of the boxes to attend Mass.
We were only able to get two sets of tickets with two seats together so my husband and I took a child each. My husband and son were in one of the boxes and my daughter and I were on the ground floor.
Both the acoustics and the visual display are amazing as would befit a Habsburg. The Hofburg Chapel has a lot less stained glass than Sainte Chapelle, the other royal private chapel we visited in Paris. We were all enchanted by this jewel box of a chapel especially with the clear sweet voices of the Choir singing.
Attending a Vienna Choir Boys Performance
The Vienna Choir Boys have a dedicated website that you can book tickets to attend either a concert at the Music and Theatre Hall (MuTh) or a Mass at the Imperial Chapel. The website also has information on the choir’s international touring dates.
On a sunny day, we considered getting an outside table at Demel, the famous cake and chocolate shop in Vienna, a stroke of immense luck. Viennese tend to hang out at Demel sipping their coffee and reading the paper with no real inclination to leave. It’s old school cafe life with no pressure on the cafe to churn through customers to increase profits. In the shadow of the Hofburg Palace, we had picked the cafe because of its fame and its location which is perfect for a rejuvenating break after sightseeing.
The History of Demel Cafe
Located on an upscale side street near the Hofburg Palace, Demel is perfect for people watching as both locals and tourists throng to the area. The street is Vienna’s equivalent of New York city’s Fifth Avenue but with a lot less traffic. Kohlmarkt and its surrounding areas are chock full of upscale international luxury shops. Traditionally it has been the location of big name jewellery stores such as Cartier and Chopard for when you needed to nip out of the palace to buy your wife (or mistress) a pretty bauble to keep her happy.
Demel was set up in 1786 by a confectionary assistant from Wurttemburg who came to the big time in Vienna with a krone and dream. They hold the title of court suppliers of cakes for the imperial and royal family. During the cafe’s long history, it got into a legal tussle with the Hotel Sacher on who could name their cake the original Sacher torte. Located practically on the doorstep of the Hofburg Palace, the cafe was very popular with the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s aristocracy, including Empress Sisi, Austria’s 19th century answer to Diana, Princess of Wales. Demel did a regular delivery of confectionaries to Empress Sisi at the court.
Demel Cafe, A Step Back in Time
The Demel building itself is a neo-baroque concoction that is in keeping with its fluffy, girly cakes. It was designed by the pre-eminent architects of the time. It’s worth a look to see the inside of the building even if you don’t stop for cake (I can’t really comprehend that possibility).
An elegant interior
There is a charming bar on the ground floor if you wanted a quick coffee and cake. Coffee in Austria is always served with a water chaser – don’t ask me why. There are tables in the back as well as a first floor dining room.
Service was excellent. The waitresses, known as Demelinerinnen, still wear starched black dresses trimmed in white, uniforms which were designed a couple of hundred years ago. I don’t speak German but apparently they have a specific way of addressing customers in the third person which shows respect and deference. Apparently, this approach was used when titles fell from disfavour but you still wanted to kow tow to the upper classes.
In addition, you can watch the Demel bakers hard at work. My kids found this fascinating. They were prepared to volunteer to lick the bowls of cake mix like they do at home.
Hard at work making chocolate cakes
In addition, there is a Demel museum showing items from its history as well as a beautiful gift shop. The museum is only open for a couple of hours on a Friday morning.
The Pastries at Demel Cafe
There are so many delicious-looking cakes, we couldn’t choose between them. You go inside the cafe, pick out the ones you want and then order at your table. You know how much my family and I love our cakes and confectionary. We have sampled our way through many a patisserie, including Danish pastries in California, donuts in Minnesota, tea cakes in England and eclairs in Paris.
So we were four people, and we wound up choosing 6 cakes. Because that’s how we roll. And we ate them all. Every last delicious crumb.
so many choices, all so good.
Visiting the Demel Cafe in Vienna
The Demel Konditorei is located on Kohlmarkt 14. Although the Hofburg is huge, you will find Kohlmarkt is the street that runs in front of the giant domed and arched entrance to the Spanish Riding School exhibition grounds. The cafe is open daily from 9-7. It also serves light meals in addition to coffee and cake.
I might have gotten out of going to an amusement park in the Costa Brava in Spain but it was another story in Vienna. Having heard that the rides were a bit on the scary side I went to the oldest amusement park in the world, the Prater in Vienna, with a little hesitation. My kids were thrilled, however, because they are adrenaline junkies. And they are also too young to worry about safety.
History of the Prater in Vienna
The Prater is a public park in Vienna famous for its amusement park. It started out as a hunting ground for the Emperors of Austria until Emperor Josef II decreed the land a public recreation area. What eventually became the amusement park soon followed the establishment of restaurants and cafes. The oldest amusement park in the world, you can convince yourself that a visit to the Prater really counts as cultural sightseeing.
The giant Ferris Wheel at one of the entrances to the amusement park, the Wiener Riesenrad, was built in 1897 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I. For about 65 years, this Ferris Wheel was the tallest one in the world and has become of symbol of Vienna.
It’s not all historical. Check out this mermaid which has been made to look like Austrian Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst.
The Positives For Prater
This amusement park is the first one I’ve been which is based on your child’s stated age not height. No, there is no proof of age either. My daughter was delighted she could go on many of the big rides because she is very petite. Most people would think she was younger than she is.
There are a lot of rides of varying thrill levels. My kids love roller coasters and I counted at least 8. I saw 2 each of the Ferris Wheels and the haunted houses. You don’t usually get so many in one park.
There are also water rides which came in handy on a hot day like the day we were there.
There are also the usual games and food vendors. There doesn’t seem to be any restriction on bringing food into the park. Presumably they feel gouging you on the ride tickets is enough.
For little children, there is a dedicated small ride area as well as a 75 year old little train that toots around the park. The Prater is also the sight of the local Madame Tussaud’s and Planetarium if you want to avoid rides altogether.
The Negatives for Prater
Can I tell you how much I hate parks that are pay per ride? The little rides are 2-3 Euros each but the bigger rides range from 4-5 euros. With two kids it really adds up. Especially when there are no queues and each kid can just jump on a ride and be fine 2 minutes later.
I also hated this carousel ride which featured real ponies shackled to a cart going around in circles. I can’t believe they have these rides anymore!! I felt so sorry for those poor ponies.
What about the scare factor? Austria’s lack of litigation culture means it has less of a nanny-state culture. Parents definitely need to use their judgment on what rides are appropriate. Some of the rides are scarier than the others. There is one ride called Ejection Seat that looked like a giant rubber band which for 15 Euros will catapult you at 14 meters per second into the stratosphere. I was nauseous just looking at it.
The Praterturm took the otherwise innocuous fairground ride that is a spinning swing and super-sized it. Spinning 110 meters high above Vienna, it is the highest spinning swing in the world.
The Prater Park
In an effort to distract them from the thrill rides I hired a family bike/rickshaw. It was really good value starting at 5 Euros for half an hour. We peddled around the park near the Prater enjoying the sunshine and people watching.
A menace to Viennese society
More accurately I peddled and the children fought over who got to ring the bell. Randomly they would also try to steer in the opposite direction and/or pull on the brake. We were not a coordinated family and lurched around the park like drunken sailors on shore leave.
By the end of this hair raising and tiring cycle ride, I was ready to pay for thrill rides again.
Visiting The Prater
The Prater is very easy to reach by public transportation (Praterstern station on either line U1 or U2). It’s open daily from 10AM to midnight all year round. Peak season is from March until October. Individual attraction opening hours may vary. Entry is free to the park itself but you pay individually for rides.
The bike rental has a lot of bikes of varying sizes for children and adults as well as 2-4 people rickshaws to rent.
We weren’t sure about seeing the Haus des Meeres in Vienna because we have been to many other aquariums in our travels. My friends, though, insisted our children would like it because they had heard rave reviews from other children about it.
The Haus des Meeres (or the Aqua Terra Zoo) is not your ordinary aquarium. For starters, it is based in an anti-aircraft gun and battle tower from the World War II era. The tower is over 150 feet tall with 11 foot thick walls. During World War II, it held radar equipment on the roof which could be lowered into the tower during air raids.
The tower has now been converted into an aquarium/zoo which houses over 4,000 square meters of habitable area with over 10,000 animals. Thanks to the outstanding conversion the aquarium gets hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. Most of the visitor’s money goes back into funding the aquarium.
What We Saw
The Haus des Meeres also has more than the usual aquarium. It’s also a vivarium with a tropical house with free-roaming birds, turtles and monkeys. The tropical house is built as a conservatory-style extension to the sides of the tower.
My children loved seeing monkeys and other animals clambering on vines above them. The birds would whoosh right past our faces.
The tropical house maintains the temperature and sunlight conditions as if the animals were outside. Needless to say, it was warm and humid!
The aquarium lays claim to Austria’s largest shark tank. There is also the usual fresh and saltwater fish tanks.
There is also a terrarium with various nasty bugs and reptiles fascinating to children, such as scorpions and snakes. You can get pretty up close and personal to the animals, including the frogs, lizards and crocodiles.
From the top floor roof deck, you get gorgeous views of Vienna laid out before you in every direction. There is also a nice cafe up on this 9th floor.
What We Thought
The Haus des Meeres was not the biggest aquarium we’ve been to but it was definitely the coolest. Due to its architectural constraints, it is necessarily quite small and manageable. You take an elevator to the top of the tower and work your way down the stairs and out through the obligatory gift-shop. Frankly, I’m not sure it would be very pushchair-friendly but there really isn’t much walking involved.
The Haus des Meeres is open daily from 9 AM to 6 PM and open later on Thursday nights. It is located in Esterhazy Park in Vienna’s 6th district, a short couple of blocks from the metro stops at Mariahilfer Strasse. Children under the age of 3 are free. Be forewarned that it can get crowded with families.
When we went to Vienna at the end of last year, my children were very excited about seeing the famous Lippizaner horses at the renowned Spanish Riding School. They both love horses and take riding lessons. The Vienna horse show was going to be the highlight of our trip.
I, unfortunately, completely screwed up the purchase of the tickets by getting cheaper ones. I got tickets for the Morning Exercise with Classical Music (still not cheap though at 28 Euros each).
This is what we were expecting.
Sadly, the morning exercises were not that interesting.
The Two Choices For the Vienna Horse Show
With the Morning Exercises ticket, you line up even if you have tickets and then there is a mad rush to get a seat. If I were you, I would go to the other side from the entrance door once you are inside the ring to avoid getting into a scrap over a seat. If you don’t get a seat, you will have to stand for the show. For 2 hours some very pretty horses trot around the ring. Literally, that is all they do. The walk around and sometimes they break into a mild trot. No tricks, no jumps, nada.
The building in which the ring is housed is very pretty. The horses are very pretty. The men in uniforms look dashing. But, overall it is somewhat underwhelming (especially for children) no matter how much you like horses.
For a show of skilled horsemanship, I should have gotten tickets to the weekend performance which are also not cheap (from 23 Euros to 89 Euros). We are returning to Vienna in June and I am planning on biting the bullet and buying us tickets to an actual show.
The Spanish Riding School, the oldest riding school in the world, has been going strong for hundreds of years. In fact, special celebrations are planned for the end of June in 2015 to mark the school’s 450th anniversary.
The Lipizzaner stallions were imported from Spain in the 16th century. They are a cross between Spanish, Arabian and Berber horses. As you can see, they are beautiful horses.
The winter riding school was commissioned by Emperor Charles VI in the early 18th century. It is one of the thousands of rooms which are part of the Hofburg Palace. I bet these houses have a nicer exercise room than most people’s homes!
Image credit: Daniel Stockman
The riders of the Lippizaner horses undergo rigorous training of approximately 8-12 years. The first few years are spent on getting posture completely correct! In 2008, the school finally allowed women to be riders (one British and one Austrian).