Life Travel

Vienna on a bike

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

Taking a spin on the ferris wheel at Vienna's Prater Park is a favourite pastime for locals and visitors alike. MAXUM/VIENNA TOURISM PHOTO

Taking a spin on the ferris wheel at Vienna's Prater Park is a favourite pastime for locals and visitors alike. MAXUM/VIENNA TOURISM PHOTO

VIENNA -- Awaking to the chimes of Stephansdom, fuelled by a rooftop breakfast in sight of the cathedral's spire, it was the ideal day to cycle through history.

Pedalpower delivered bikes right to the Grand Ferdinand Hotel, a prime Ringstrasse address with 188 new rooms, an imperial Austrian boutique decor, but bearable for visitors' budgets. It's also right on one of Vienna's safe, dedicated bike paths, providing kilometres of changing views from old town palaces to the Danube, right out to "the lungs of the city" -- the Vienna Woods and vineyards.

Riding the Ringstrasse's perimeter for just an hour or two will cover many sightseers' checklists. The boulevard, which features many of the city's oldest monuments, gradually evolved from the 19th century refit of the bastions and moats that held back the Turks in the Middle Ages.

The Viennese are glad the invaders left behind one legacy -- new and stronger blends of coffee, enhancing their own love affair with the brew. Classic coffee houses on the Ringstrasse include Cafe Schwarzenburg, which dates to the 1860s, one of more than 20 dotting the 5-km avenue. Delicious pastries and light lunches are served, and a library of international newspapers encourage an extended stay.

Back on the bike, there so many palaces, museums and galleries to choose from, a discount Vienna Card is handy for admission, if not just pausing for a quick selfie or photo op.

This year is a milestone for many city institutions, such as the Museum of History, visited annually by 1.5 million in its 125 years. It was one of Emperor Franz Joseph's premier Ringstrasse projects and houses the massive art collection of the Hapsburg dynasty. Three tiers, linked by the grandest of marble staircases, depict the ruling family's many festivals and past-times.

The museum is directly across the Maria Theresa Platz from its twin, the Natural History Museum. Both are a short ride under a coach house entrance to an even larger complex, the one-time imperial stables and riding school, now the Museums Quarter.

Within the MQ are the Museum of Modern Art, the Leopold (featuring Austrian painters) and spaces for contemporary architecture, dance and a children's museum.

Concerts, dance, arts and other events take place year-round.

Austrians spared no expense on their Parliament building, a must-see for the gilded fountain of Athena beneath broad neo-classic columns. Between the Belvedere and MQ is Naschmarkt, opportune for takeaway food or souvenirs from the open-air market's clustered stalls. You can nibble on schnitzel or other treats from Austria and Eastern Europe.

Along and around the Ringstrasse there is greenery galore, in a city of 850 parks and 100,000 trees within its borders. Hotels such as the Grand Ferdinand surround quiet Stadtpark with lovers and young families grouped around statues of Mozart, Strauss and Schubert. Only a few streets away are the ornate gates of the Belvedere -- a chance to check your bike and explore the gardens and sculptures of the one-time summer palace of military hero Price Eugene of Savoy.

The Upper Belvedere has the beloved Gustav Klimt collection and an outstanding city view, with the gradual slope past cascading fountains, quiet pools and Europe's oldest Alpine garden down to the stunning marble and mirror gallery of the Lower Belvedere. Between the two, 700 years of master artwork adorn the walls.

Architecture of a much different taste awaits by wheeling from the opposite end of Stadtpark to Hundertwasser House. Here, no rules was the rule of the eccentric designer, who unevenly divided floors of his colourful apartment building with trees and odd-shaped windows popping out at unlikely angles. It's close enough to follow the Danube Canal into Prater Park.

Though cyclists can reach the heart of the old town with a rewarding closeup of Stephansdom, it is often crowded and might be better discovered on foot.

The Renaissance exterior of the State Opera House is a great starting point, where you might catch an outdoor showing of a Don Quixote ballet, classical concert or a performance of Aida on the 15-metre HD screen. An appreciative audience of backpackers, dog walkers, nannies and off-duty workers maintain absolute opera decorum, including a standing ovation as if they were inside in a royal box in the 2,200-seat theatre.

Though Vienna survived the worst of World War II, the Opera House was bombed in the closing days with 150,000 costumes and many props lost in the ensuing blaze. Fierce civic pride led to a magnificent restoration and day or night it dominates the skyline.

Browsing through the busting main retail area on Karntner Strasse, in cobbled Domgasse, look for No. 5, Mozart House, the only surviving apartments of the great composer. A relatively new attraction from 2006 -- the 250th anniversary of his birth -- it inspired pilgrimages from Madonna to The Eagles, among 1.3 million who have toured the rooms where Amadeus lived with his family for two and a half years.

This is where he produced The Marriage of Figaro and Piano Concerto in D Minor. On view are original manuscripts, first editions, period furniture -- even wall coverings from the 1700s. Mozart's legacy to present day is also celebrated in multi-media.

Park it at The Prater

For 250 years, since Emperor Joseph II donated his former bear-hunting grounds to the public, The Prater has been Vienna's largest and most diverse recreation area.

Vienna, which discourages vehicular traffic in its core, utilizes the Prater's 6 sq-km of green space for cycling, picnics, hiking and public events. Handy to U-Bahn transit at its eastern entrance is the Wurstelprater amusement park, dating back to the days when the royals allowed jugglers and jesters to erect tents on their lands.

It's now dominated by the 65-metre, 245-tonne Riesenrad Ferris Wheel, whose boxcars hold about 20 people, with one reserved for formal dining. Built in 1897 and central to three movies -- including the Cold War spy thriller The Third Man -- the 119-year-old wheel turns at a relaxing 2.7 km/h and at its apex has commanding views of the park, the city and the Danube River. It remains open year-round.

Within the Prater's boundaries are a massive dance hall, which can be divided into themed clubs, and a museum dedicated to park history. By bike or miniature railroad, a trip on the wide Hauptallee passes huge chestnut trees to a former hunting lodge-turned-restaurant, a pleasant 4 km journey.

A little further afield, consider the Christ Heurigen in the suburb of Jedlersdorf, five minutes from owner Rainer Christ's 400-year-old, 25 hectare vineyard. Heurigens, identified by their traditional sprig of greenery above their front door, are neighbourhood buffet diners, which sell their own wine from surrounding hills and a selection of comfort food. Some have traditional music.

The affable Rainer insists his customers treat the premises as "their second living room." He hops from table to table for neighbourhood gossip and to get opinions of his family's twist on Wiener Gemischter Satz, a popular white wine in the region.

NEED TO KNOW

-- For more on Vienna, see vien.info, where you will find information on sightseeing, concerts and events, transit, shopping, dining, the Vienna Pass and more.

LHornby@postmedia.com