Travelling With Geeks: Vienna – Part 1

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Schloss Schoenbrunn: Image by Xell
Schloss Schoenbrunn: Image by Xell

This year we spent our Easter break in Vienna, a city famous for art, music, and psychoanalysis. Often when I tell people where we’re going on holiday, they look at me like I’ve grown an extra head. For some reason, once you have children, cities are seen as  a “no go” area. Most families head to the beach. I can see why; children in a pool or the sea are usually happy children, and most resorts have places you can drop the kids, leaving us parents free to have a well-earned kip in the sun.

There are a number of reasons why traditional resort holidays aren’t really for us. The main one being that my wife, being fair-skinned, burns to a crisp under anything greater than a 60W lightbulb. This means she has to sit away from us in the shade, or plaster on the sun cream and spend the entire holiday feeling like a sticky, sweaty puddle. This is no fun for anybody. Even in the cooler months, if it’s school holidays, the prices are still sky high for the warmer climes. The weather, though, is temperamental, and who wants to pay a fortune to sit on a deck chair in long trousers and a jumper?

Eastervienna
Painted eggs are a traditional Easter decoration. Photo Robin Brooks

Cities, on the other hand, are fine in poor weather. Dry is best, of course, but cities, even if it’s pouring with rain, always have something to do. For families of geeks, the possibilities are usually endless. That’s why ever since having children we’ve tried to include one city destination as our annual holiday. It’s not always an easy option and it’s certainly more difficult now that we have three, but, tiring though they may be, we find our city-breaks to be wonderful, geeky experiences.

The first thing about taking children to a city is to be savvy about what you attempt to do. You don’t need a rigid plan because, as we all know, with children involved, things rarely go according to plan, but an idea of what you want to do each day is essential. No longer can we flop out of bed mid-morning, find somewhere for breakfast, and decide what to do over coffee and croissant. We’ve found the most important thing to do is slow things down. Gone are the days where in 72 frantic hours you can hit all the major attractions a city has to offer. With children, I think you have to spend twice as long as you would want to spend without them. That’s why we tend to go for a week.

This sort of time-scale allows you to be flexible. If the kids are too tired to hit that museum and need some chill out time, you want wiggle-room in the schedule. If you’re in a cafe, where the food is wonderful, the coffee great (everywhere in Vienna) and, mercifully, your children are being sweet and kind to one another, you want to savor that rare occurrence and stay exactly where you are. You don’t want to be rushing off to the next site. If your tram-obsessed two-year-old sees an old-fashioned tram and is desperate to take a ride on it, you want to be able to do that, to wherever it may lead, knowing you can get back on track tomorrow.

Vienna's Lokalbahn: Photo by Bahnsteig 1
Vienna’s Lokalbahn (popular with two-year-olds): Photo by Bahnsteig 1

Every family has their own accommodation requirements and preferences. We like to go for an apartment, particularly in European cities. They give more living space for the family to spread out in, which is invaluable when you all arrive back tired from a day of sightseeing. In Europe there seem to be a mass of beautiful period buildings, with wonderful high ceilings and original ironwork, available for holiday stays. They’re usually cheaper than hotels and offer a glimpse of real-life in the city. If the apartment has a half-decent kitchen, it’s easy to save money on breakfast and other meals. Visiting the supermarket to do groceries, putting the garbage out, even finding somewhere to do the laundry, suddenly become interesting and exciting ways to spend time. In Vienna we stayed at the Actilingua Aparthotel, a clean, well-run place, primarily for students of a language school, but perfect for our brood, close to both U-bahn and tramlinks.

Vienna is an excellent city for children. With over 100 museums, there’s so much to do. All of the ones we visited were excellent, with lots of hands-on activities for children and multilingual explanations. There’s lots of green spaces too, so when the boys needed to let off some steam there were plenty of places for them to run about. It was chilly whilst we were there, so we didn’t fully explore the city’s myriad outdoor spaces. The public transport is excellent, with trams, buses, and subway trains reaching to all corners of the city, making it an excellent destination for transport geeks. (Top Tip: Look out for Weekly Ticket – valid from 12am Monday to the following Monday. It’s so cheap, even if you buy it on a Thursday, it still works out as excellent value. Also note, children travel free during school holidays, yay!) Slovakia and Bratislava are just an hour away, making for an easy cross-border train journey; there is something very pleasing about international rail travel.

The city has countless art galleries and concert halls. Whether you think your children can manage these is obviously your own judgement call. We’re not a musical family, or particularly art-inclined, so we left those experiences for when the boys are older. At the moment, we’re looking for more hands-on adventures. We did hope to go the much recommended Haus der Musik, but it slid off the agenda, due to one of those blissful afternoons featuring quiet children and good cake. There’s also the Spanish Riding School, a must for many visitors, but not one that particularly appealed to us.

Birthplace of the Sachertorte, Vienna is rightly famed for its cake. Coffee and cake is almost a religion. The need for good coffee is high on many geek’s agenda, and Vienna is second to none. I had what is probably the best coffee I have ever drunk in the Cafe Museum, an Adolf Loos designed building, with a plush interior. The city’s speciality is the “Melange,” a confection that is like a cappuccino, yet somehow nicer. I think it uses a milder coffee. It’s delicious. Even the one I bought from a bakery on the Wein Hauptbahnhof concourse ranked in my top 10 coffees ever.

There are great bakeries everywhere in the city. Wonderful bread, pastries, and cakes are in abundance. The other notable cafe we visited was the Cafe am Schottensift on Herrengasse. This delightful traditional cafe had a full menu, with local specials and amazing cake. The staff were helpful, friendly, and took extra time to engage with the children. A real find and highly recommended. For a more upscale treat with unbeatable surroundings is the Palmenhouse cafe, attached to the Hofburg.

steampunkvienna
All around the city there are touches that remind me of Steampunk novels. Photo Robin Brooks

My oldest son loved the city’s architecture. We ended up walking around a fair amount of the centre, and there is something interesting to see on every corner. Everywhere you turn there are soaring spires, domed roofs, and palaces with intricate façades. Many periods are covered, including the unusual Secession building, with a Beethoven fresco designed by Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner’s imposing Postsparkasse. We found the streets remarkably quiet, making it easy to stop and talk about what we could see. One of the city’s architectural highlights was the imposing Gasometers, within walking distance from our hotel. These four towering brick structures could have been pulled from the pages of a steampunk novel. (Extra Geek Fact: These gasometers have been converted into a mall, within which resides a Games Workshop.) Everywhere you turn, Vienna has something for the geeks.

We had a fabulous time in Vienna, I would whole-heartedly recommend it to families looking to do something a little different, and who like eating cake. Next time, I’ll talk in more detail about some of the museums we visited, including the Techniches Museum Wein, probably the finest museum I have ever been to.

gasometers
The Gasometers. The finest looking shopping mall in the world? Photo Robin Brooks

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