Once the seat of the mighty Habsburg Empire, Vienna retains a feeling of grandeur and elegance. Today, its numerous parks and palaces are open to the public, and the chandeliered ballrooms and frescoed corridors house an incredible breadth of museums. It might not seem like an obvious family destination, but there are some museums, parks and gardens that are particularly good for families with younger children. Here are the top things to do in Vienna with kids.
1. Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is the reason many visit Vienna. It's a truly encyclopedic collection of natural wonders housed in one of a pair of twin palaces (across the way is the Kunsthistorischesmuseum). For historians, the highlight is the Venus of Willendorf (the world’s oldest sculpture), but the kids will hightail it to the dinosaur exhibits, which include numerous complete fossils as well as moving, roaring, life-size mechanical reproductions. There are so many taxidermy specimens of animal life – an example of just about every creature you could imagine. Beware, the collection is huge and it would take a full day to do it justice.
2. House of Music
The House of Music balances grown-up displays (portraits of famous composers, artefacts from their lives) with interactive exhibits that children love: a musical staircase, for example, each step of which is a virtual piano key, so you can play your way up and down. There is also a charming virtual conductor installation, where Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, interacts with you and helps you lead his orchestra – and if you are too choppy with your conducting, the musicians will give up on you and grumpily stop playing.
3. Spanish Riding School
If your children love horses, then catch the famous Spanish Riding School show, or even a practice session (which are open to the public and ticketed). See the Lipizzaner horses in action, dancing and leaping, but be sure to book ahead. These shows are regularly sold out and the lines to buy tickets on the day often wind the length of several city blocks. You can catch a free preview by looking into the glass atrium of the stables across the street from the performance space.
4. Zoom Children’s Museum
Zoom Children’s Museum is one you should reserve before you arrive. Unlike most museums, it does not have open exhibition spaces that you wander through, but rather offers a series of themed exhibits that are accompanied by museum staff. They lead kids through various activities, such as one on the human body, one on oceans, another on animation, and more. All the exhibits are hands-on, for specific age groups, and entry is ticketed and at precise times. This is regularly sold out, so be sure to book ahead.
5. House of the Sea
The House of the Sea private museum was built in a former Nazi air-raid tower, made to withstand Allied gunfire. The concrete tower opens up to a surprising variety of aquatic and terrestrial animal life. The lower floors include a glass tunnel that allows you to walk through an enormous tank, as rays and sharks cruise by on all sides. The exhibits are generous and expansive (not something one can always expect from a private museum), with several hands-on installations. A huge highlight for children is a two-storey open space criss-crossed by bridges and containing a combination of pens (for the crocodiles and turtles) and an open run for birds, monkeys, bats and more.
6. Vienna Zoo
The world’s oldest zoo began as an imperial menagerie back in 1752. Today it features over 700 species sprawled across 42 acres (17 hectares) of the elegant Schönbrunn Palace Grounds. You can visit special shows and feedings of various animals, like the elephants, sea lions, penguins, wolves, tigers and even giant anteaters. This is so expansive, and a bit outside the city centre, that a full day should be dedicated to it.
7. Prater Park and the Giant Ferris Wheel
While your kids are unlikely to be familiar with the classic Orson Welles film, The Third Man (1949), parents can live out their film noir fantasies by riding the Riesenrad (Giant Ferris Wheel) in Prater park. First built in 1896, the current version dates to 1947, and provides spectacular views of the city. Prater is lovely for a stroll and also features an amusement park with over 250 attractions, a museum of chocolate, and even harness horse-racing, so there is plenty to do.
A few tips
There are two city cards available for tourists, Vienna City Card and Vienna Pass. While they offer a long list of perks, they may not be good value for a family. The cards are pricey, and the biggest benefit is free use of public transport. If you visit only two attractions per day (which may be as much as kids have energy for) then the cards may not suit.
Another useful tip is to buy entry tickets online – even if you are standing next to the attraction. You can skip lengthy lines by buying your ticket with your smartphone and showing the ticket QR code at the door, cruising past all the people who are waiting to buy tickets the old-fashioned way.