I’d been to Vienna several times before my recent visit there with Insight Vacations — a company that runs high-class tours of Central Europe and many other destinations throughout the world — but I learned a number of things I didn’t know about the city, largely thanks to our excellent guides and our tour director, Neira Milkovic .
* Vienna sports the world’s oldest zoo, the Tiergarten Schönbrunn, which dates from 1752 and is located within the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace.
* The gardens at Schönbrunn Palace are as big as the country of Monaco. The palace was the summer hunting “cottage” of the Habsburgs, who ruled Austria and much of Europe for hundreds of years; despite its nearly 1,500 rooms and 3,000 servants to tend them, Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled from 1640-80, considered it too small for her needs.
* The Habsburgs’ Winter Palace in Vienna, the Hofburg, has over 3,000 rooms and is bigger than the Louvre in Paris. It was over 600 years in the making because all the emperors had to build new wings for themselves. Today it houses 20 different museums.
* Empress Maria Theresa had 16 children; her 11 daughters were all named Maria or Marie (Marie Antoinette of “Let Them Eat Cake” fame was the youngest). They all married royalty when they were around 11 to 13 years old.
* Napoleon’s son lived most of his life at Schönbrunn and died there at age 21.
* The Turkish sieges of Vienna in the 17th century destroyed most of the city’s Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque heritage, so that most of the architecture now in the old city is Baroque. But the Austrians ultimately made coffee and cake out of the bitter fruits of war: The Turks are said to have left bags of coffee on the outskirts of Vienna after their failed sieges, thus inspiring one of the great coffee-drinking cultures of the world.
* After World War II, Vienna was divided into four zones — American, Russian, British and French; this was the only place in Central or Eastern Europe that the Soviets left voluntarily. That happened in 1955, when the Austrians agreed to remain politically and militarily neutral. Though the country joined the EU in 1995, it has stayed out of NATO.
* The Prater Ferris wheel featured in the film The Third Man (set in post-war Vienna) is the world’s oldest — age 116 and counting.
* It’s illegal not to offer restaurant diners tap water in Vienna (or anywhere in Austria).
* The golden gilded statue of Johann Strauss II in Vienna’s City Park is the most photographed thing in the city.
* Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky Waltz is the last number played in a traditional Viennese concert; when you hear it, you can start gathering your things to depart.
* The Vienna State Opera House stages 300 performances a year, without repeating two in a row.
* The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra sells out every performance, and the waiting time for season tickets is 13-15 years. Applicants must write a letter every year to attest that they are still alive and waiting.
* Vienna’s population of 1.7 million is 500,000 less than in 1918, when it was the fifth largest city in the world.
* The Vienna City Council is Europe’s largest landlord, it rents out thousands of apartments across the city, but it’s illegal to sublet them.
Next up: touring Austria with Insight Vacations.