Have you heard of the infamous Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century serial killer with a penchant for bathing in virgins’ blood? Or how about the Simmering-bred soccer legend Karl Sesta, who found himself discussing career paths with a British royal? A city as large and old as Vienna has many stories to tell – yet many natives tend to overlook their own history, confident they already know all the city has to offer.
This is changing, however – one of the few upsides of the ongoing pandemic. After registering a record of 17.6 million overnight stays in 2019, COVID-19 and the ensuing travel restrictions have brought Viennese tourism to a standstill: July 2020 saw the number of overall stays plummet by 73.3%.
Suddenly, hundreds of tour guides were out of work. Their ingenuity, fortunately, remained intact. “When you’re sitting at home, ideas flow,” says Christa Bauer, president of the Association of Licensed Guides of Vienna, told Metropole. To compensate for the missing international tourists, Vienna’s guides switched gears, developing special tours for local residents who couldn’t, or weren’t comfortable, leaving the city.
One of them is Sandra Blum, who has been working as a guide for the past five years. “Grätzltours are especially popular right now,” she reports, with many locals eager to learn more about their neighborhoods (Grätzln). Nine out of twelve participants in her most recent Süße Ver-Führung in Margareten (sweet temptation Margareten) tour – an introduction to the pastry an sweet shops of the 5th district – were from the area.
Others like Astrid Stangl offer specialized takes on local history: Her popular Geisterstunden (ghostly hours) tour showcases Vienna’s macabre side, following the footsteps of medieval witches or highlighting Empress Maria Theresia’s obsession with vampires. And while Stangl has always welcomed locals, their numbers skyrocketed this year due to COVID-19, making them the majority of her clients even during high season. Instead of basking on southern beaches or strolling around faraway bazaars, the Viennese are discovering the wonders just outside their front door.
Still, Stangl considers herself “rather lucky;” her popular ghost tours help her weather these difficult times. Others are hit harder – particularly less established guides or those specializing in foreign-language tours. Therefore, many now accept bookings even for small groups, which allows them to select the language individually.
And if you are able to muster just two friends, you can go on a tour with Robert Eichhorn, who quit his job at the renowned Dorotheum auction house last summer to work as a guide full time. He developed two new ideas over the spring lockdown that veer far off the beaten track: his Mein Simmering tour dispels any misconceptions of the 11th district, which is mostly known as the “way to the airport, the Zentralfriedhof (central cemetery) and the municipal parking area for towed vehicles.” In addition, his former employer allows him to showcase the historic rooms of the 18th century Palais Dorotheum to interested parties, a pleasure normally reserved for art dealers.
Still, you don’t have to venture to the outskirts or peek behind locked doors: Even the 1st district is full of surprises. “I’ve been doing run-of-the-mill tours of Vienna’s city center. There were 80-year old Viennese living here all their lives who said that about half the things I told them about were new to them,” recalls Bauer, who offers tours in German and English.
By the way – if you’re eager to learn more about the blood countess’ sticky end, you’ll need to join one of Stangl’s haunted tours. As for Karl Sesta’s royal encounter, join Eichhorn on his walk along the streets of Simmering.
Magical Tours and Where to Register
- Sandra Blum – Süße Ver-Führung in Margareten
- Astrid Stangl – Geisterstunden
- Robert Eichhorn – Mein Simmering, Palais Dorotheum
- For a list of all tour guides and their offers, see the Association of Licensed Guides in Vienna
- Secret Vienna is a group of guides offering tours like “The Dark Side of Vienna,” “Vienna Behind the Scenes” and even “Fire, Plague and other Calamities – the “Corona Tour.”
- Martin Bradley – A native English guide offering both general and special tours like “Vienna in a Nutshell,” “The Old Town and its Squares” or “Hollywood in Vienna.”
- Vienna Walks & Talks is family-run company with a wide array of English tours like “Unknown Underground,” “Jewish Vienna,” “Graham Greene and the Third Man” and many more.