Destinations

Vienna’s Prater park marks 250 years

Eukene Oquendo - EFE

From a primeval forest, to an imperial hunting ground, to one of the first public parks in Europe – Vienna’s Prater has certainly come a long way, and is now set to mark 250 years of its status as a place of leisure, fun and sport, blurring differences of social class.

A decree issued on April 7, 1766, by then-Emperor Joseph II turned the park into a place for everyone.

Spread over six square kilometres, the Prater Park encloses an enormous green area, an amusement park, a planetarium and sports facilities – including a huge public swimming pool, and the Ernst Happel stadium.

An ongoing exhibition at the Vienna Museum is commemorating the April 7 anniversary with a chronological tour of the park’s history using stamps, posters of the park sights and objects which, in some way, reflect the history of Austria.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Prater became a democratising space as there were “few spots in Vienna where one could see a mix of people from different social classes,” exhibition curator Ursula Storch says.

That by the mid-19th century it already boasted nine carousels, 15 bowling alleys, three swings, three puppetry venues and numerous establishments serving wine and beer are testimony to the jump in its popularity.

The exhibition’s press officer Peter Stuiber says the “differences of social class were not important in the Prater, there was more freedom there.”

The theme park inside its precincts, Wurstelprater, is visited by more than four million people annually, and is unique among other such amusement sites in Europe.

The Ferris wheel, built in 1897 at one of the entrances, survived World War Two, making it a long-enduring “symbol of Vienna,” according to Storch.

It is now one of the biggest tourist attractions, allowing panoramic views of the city and providing dining options in its capsules.

The 18th century saw Prater host the testing of hot air balloons, fireworks displays and an exhibition of exotic animals. It was later the venue for the first film screenings ever in the country.

For inhabitants of Vienna, going to the Prater in early 19th century meant a trip to other European cities without leaving home – one of the first attractions, ‘Panorama’, let visitors peek into the landmark monuments of Prague, Paris or London through a panoramic painting as if looking from a high vantage point. Another recreated Italy’s city of canals, Venice, with its trademark gondolas.

While the park lost much of its importance following World War 1, in large part due to the country’s sunken economy, it recovered some of its lost charms in the post-Cold War era, bringing a whiff of fresh air – ecologically and socially – to the Austrian capital.

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