As hard as it is to find solitude in a city of almost two million, it’s far from impossible: at the Lainzer Tiergarten nature preserve in the 13th and 23rd districts, you can have a whole forest to yourself – barring the occasional wild boar. A word of advice: Don’t get too close to the wildlife. At least once a year, some poor fellow makes the local news after getting chased through the park by an irate hog. But don’t blame the boars – they might still be a little nervous from back when the area was an imperial game reserve, first created for Emperor Ferdinand I in the 1560s. Since opening to the public in 1919, the 2,450 hectares of Wienerwald has been a getaway for locals, as most tourists don’t bother undertaking the long journey to Vienna’s distant west. Make sure to check opening hours beforehand as some gates aren’t open all year round and the park closes at night to avoid disturbing the animals (between 17:00 and 21:00, depending on the season). For the same reason, there are no dogs or bikes allowed – however, there is a trail following the 22 km-long wall that encircles the reserve.
Into the wild
There are six gates leading into Lainzer Tiergarten, with the most accessible being the Nikolaitor, a ten-minute walk from the U-Bahn/S-Bahn station Hütteldorf. Upon entering, you’ll see one of Vienna’s oldest buildings, the Nikolaikapelle, a charming chapel built in the late 12th century that was probably part of a castle – you can still see remnants of a wall and moat. If you’re expecting an ornate interior, prepare to be disappointed: The building was looted in 1945 and never got refurnished.
Opposite the church is one of six playgrounds found throughout the Lainzer Tiergarten. Since park regulations prohibit leaving the trails (remember, we are still in Vienna), this is the place to let children go crazy on the swings or in the sandbox.
Follow the many signposts and you’ll reach the scenic overlook Wienerblick after a 20-minute walk: As the name suggests, it offers the park’s second best view over Vienna (keep reading, the best one is coming). There is a spacious meadow if you need a little break, but you might be feeling a little hungry, so let’s stop at the charming Rohrhaus, a sound choice for a square meal. Don’t let the basic decor fool you: its goulash and lentil stews are tasty, homemade and served by an extremely friendly young staff. A good thing too, as you’ll need your strength to climb the highest point in Hietzing: the 508-meter-high Kaltbründlberg. A military lookout was constructed on its peak during WWI, which was later converted to the Hubertuswarte observation tower. Instead of enemy biplanes, visitors can now spot wildlife and enjoy a stunning view from the 22-meter-high structure. If you are up for a detour, you can continue to the Gasthaus Hirschgstemm, near the border to Lower Austria. Its seasonal Austrian specialties – like its divine apricot dumplings – can be enjoyed while lounging rustic style underneath a grove of ancient trees. Just be aware that waiting times can be long on busy days.
Hermitage in the woods
Once you’ve recovered, head on to the cultural highlight of the forest: the Hermesvilla. A gift from Emperor Franz Joseph to his globetrotting wife Elisabeth, he hoped the secluded mansion, far away from the bustle and intrigue of court life, would entice her back to Vienna. Resembling something from a fairy tale, “Sissi” referred to it as a “castle of dreams;” now converted into a museum, visitors can have a peek into the private life of the imperial couple. They also have a restaurant on the premises that sells picnic baskets filled with regional goodies if you prefer lunch al fresco (just don’t step off those pathways!)
Close to our exit gate, there is a deer enclosure; as the animals are used to visitors, they will come to the fence to say hello if they are in the right mood. Forget the playgrounds – this is the biggest attraction for kids. We have now reached the Lainzer Tor where the 55A bus line can take you back to civilization. There is also a public toilet, a midsize parking lot and an info stand here, making this the best point-of-entry if you come by car. Vienna is a city of palaces and coffeehouses – but its wild side is still fit for an emperor, as the Lainzer Tiergarten aptly demonstrates.
You can find even more information on the Lainzer Tiergarten on their website.