Those of you who know me, understand that you should take this title literally. Vienna is known by most visitors as the city of the Blue Danube, Empress Sissi, the Spanish Riding School, Johann Strauss concerts, Disneyland-quality castles, a Boy’s Choir and a lot more classic romantic sights. Many blogs have been filled with these mass tourism travelguide-sights of Vienna and movies about all this made actresses like Romy Schneider famous all over the world.
In reality Vienna is a modern, laid-back European capital, with lots of contemporary attractions. The Museum Quarter has great classic and modern art, the classic coffee scene has reached cult status and it is definitely a fine dining destination. Vienna is a financial, business and global government capital, attracting many worldwide institutes that have headquarters in Vienna. The United Nations has one of the world’s largest offices in Vienna, its many hundreds of employees adding a very international metropolitan flavour.
Unknown even to most locals, Vienna is also an important international hub in the space sector. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is a global administrative center and the Technical University is one of the leading schools in space technology. But Vienna also houses a few surprises for the traveler interested in space and astronomy. Let me take you on a tour along the space sites of Vienna:
On the edge of city center you will find two identical buildings facing each other. One is the Kunsthistorisches Museum (art) the other the Naturhistorisches Museum. This Museum of Natural History opened in 1889 and has hardly changed ever since. But don’t be fooled by its age: This place should be on top of your Vienna bucket list!
The museum opened in 1889 to house several imperial collections on all aspects of nature: Geology, biology, paleonthology, anthropology and…
Meteorology… or whatever you call the science of meteorites… The museum houses an impressive large collection of stuff that fell from the sky. The world’s largest collection, clearly!
Mostly displayed in their original 19th century showcases, this exhibit gives a great overview of types and sizes of meteorites. By adding 21st century technology, the museum explains very well the myth and science of the universe and what value these rocks from space have for modern astronomy and our knowledge of the universe.
It is great to see how our perception of meteorites changed over time. From ‘messengers of evil’ to ‘messengers of science’. A truly great collection.
In addition to the collection, the building itself is worth your visit. All rooms are adorned with paintings that relate to the contents of the room. Here is an old painting telling the story of a famous meteorite that predicted a lot of badness for the region a long time ago…
The rest of the massive museum collection is a unique mix of 19th century displays and 21st century education. This is definitely a place to take your kids! Yoiu’ll find more animals here than in the zoo. And many of these have been extinct for so long, that this is the only place to see them. Trust me, your kids will love this place!
The other space-place in Vienna is the Technisches Museum, not too far from the Natural History Museum. In fact, it is located right opposite Schönbrunn Castle, the number one tourist attraction in Vienna. But when you let your kids choose (or your inner geek), the Technical Museum is the better choice! The space exhibition advertised here is unfortunately temporary (until 29 June 2014), but the permanent exhibits are also totally worth your time.
The museum is large enough to cover almost all aspects of technology. The main floor downstairs is dominated by the great industrial age of the 18th and 19th centuries, with large heavy machinery and trains. The upper floors cover transport, domestic appliances over time and communication. Great to see the development of the PC or cell phone. Weird to see your favorite devices of 10 or 20 years ago displayed behind glass…
During my visit I attended a talk by the Space exhibition curator, highlighting some of the special exhibits. One of these highlights is this 1.5 tonnes heavy Astris 3rd stage of the 1971 ELDO Europa rocket. The models next to it reflect modern launch vehicles from Europe, Russia, China, Japan and India.
This is a very special exhibit. It is the original 1543 “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” book by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the first person to describe our solar system as revolving around the Sun, instead of around the Earth. This famous book is the very start of modern astronomy.
There are lots of artifacts from early Russian space flight, like this training helmet and glove from famous Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to leave a spacecraft for a spacewalk in 1965.
Forever busting the myth about liquor in space, this selection of space food items shows some of the cosmonauts favorite selections. I am sure you wouldn’t see space vodka in any US space museum!
It is good to see the Austrian contribution to Mars exploration highlighted in this exhibit. This is an older (but still very recent) version of the Austrian ÖWF Aouda.X Mars analog space suit.
After visiting all that space history you should head up to the Vienna International Centre, which is the official name of the United Nations facility in Vienna. This collection of buildings are home to the UNited Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), as well as several other offices (UNEP, UNHCR, UNSCEAR, etc.). You can visit the site on a guided tour, where you learn about the role of the UN in the world andof the different offices housed in this impressive complex. You can also buy cool UN-branded souvenirs in the UN-shop.
Practical information: Vienna is well connected to the rest of world by plane, train and road. Most visitors will arrive at Vienna International Airport, from where the super-convenient City Airport Train (CAT) will bring you straight to city center. Much of Vienna can be explored on foot, but there is a very efficient, in expensive and easy public transport system. Just get yourself a 48 or 72-hour unlimited transport pass and hop on any unnderground, tramway or bus in the city. You can conveniently buy this ticket at the airport, combined with your CAT ticket.
Vienna has many hotels in all categories, that can be pleasantly affordable outside the peak tourist seasons (summer and December). Weather is never too severe, so you can really visit Vienna year round. Around Christmas time (that starts in October), you will find many picturesque Christmas markets and a great ice skating rink at City Hall. Spring often comes as early as March and summer is never too hot in this region. Do not expect great skiing in the Vienna area. Despite it being the capital of skiing country Austria, the real mountains are still relatively far away.