Tag Archives: Vienna

Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Susan Portnoy

WOW Experience: Backstage at the World’s Oldest Horse Riding Academy

One of Vienna’s most popular tourist magnets is its 450-year-old Spanish Riding School, where world-famous white Lippizan horses practice and perform classical dressage—that graceful art that’s like an equine ballet. Anyone can see a performance while visiting Vienna—if their timing is right—but we at WendyPerrin.com know that the way to make a trip special is to go above and beyond what “anyone” can do. So we’re starting a series of articles about “WOW Experiences” you can have around the world—behind-the-scenes, private, insider-access experiences available via the world’s most well-connected travel fixers. These experiences are just one way to elevate a trip from ordinary to extraordinary, which is the point of Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts: They’re the fixers who can make the magic happen.

Below, we’re spotlighting what Gwen Kozlowski, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Austria, likes to arrange at the Spanish Riding School.

Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Susan Portnoy

Most travelers never get inside this courtyard. It’s the Summer Riding School at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

The What:

A visit to the Spanish Riding School at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, including a private VIP tour of the stables and a seat in the Royal Box—where the Hapsburg kings and queens once sat—to watch the legendary Lippizan stallions perform.

The Where and When:

In Vienna, select weekends March–June and August–December (the stallions are on vacation in July). That’s when you can see the horses’ performances, as opposed to just their daily exercises.

Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Susan Portnoy

Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

The WOW:

The Spanish Riding School represents the pinnacle of the tradition of classical horsemanship. The stunning and athletic Lippizan stallions were originally imported from Spain by Ferdinand I in the 16th Century (thus Spanish Riding School). The show takes place in the grand baroque Winter Riding School, part of the Hofburg, the former imperial palace in the center of Vienna. You’ll get to see the show, but you’ll also be ushered past the crowds and across an alley into the cordoned-off, 16th-century Summer Riding School, where you’ll tour the stables, peek into the tack room (where dozens of magnificent custom-made saddles and bridles are kept) and, if the timing works, watch as grooms prepare the horses or lead them through their workout.

Then you’ll move into the Winter Riding School—a splendid showcase built by the Habsburg emperor in 1735—to see the horses’ morning exercises: Multiple riders take their stallions through various gaits (walk, trot, canter), then tackle harder movements such as a cabriole, where a horse leaps into the air, with a rider on its back, and kicks out his back feet—a move used hundreds of years ago by the military to attack the enemy if surrounded. While other spectators stand in balconies on either side of the ring and get commentary via loudspeaker (which the acoustics make difficult to understand), you’ll get a coveted seat in the Royal Box, at ground level with the riders, next to an expert who will provide customized commentary and answers to any questions you have about what you’re seeing in the ring.

Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Susan Portnoy

Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Photo: Susan Portnoy, The Insatiable Traveler.

How to Make it Happen:

This experience can be tailored to your specific interests and is available through Gwen Kozlowski, our Trusted Travel Expert for Austria, as part of an itinerary of three days or longer. See Gwen’s Insider’s Guide to Austria, and read reviews of Gwen to understand the caliber of trips she arranges. To be marked as a WendyPerrin.com VIP traveler and get priority attention and special benefits, request your trip here.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.


Read more from Susan Portnoy at her own site, The Insatiable Traveler, and follow her at facebook.com/Insatiabletraveler and @susanportnoy.

Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip

When you’re looking for festive Old World holiday charm, you can’t beat Central Europe. Cities and villages decorate and light up their medieval town squares until they look like something out of a fairytale. Stalls sell unique handmade gifts and delicious regional specialties to eat. Locals gather after work to drink glühwein (hot mulled wine with sweet Christmas spices), socialize, and enjoy concerts al fresco. These Christmas Markets are great for holiday shopping too: Most of the merchandise is affordable handicrafts that you can’t find in the U.S. or in any catalog—and notably absent from the experience is the crass commercialism surrounding Christmas that you find in the States.

I’ve now gone Christkindlemarkt-hopping through Central Europe several times (by car, train, and river ship), as well as in several ways (on my own, with my husband, and, just last week, with children in tow), so I thought I’d share my hard-earned tips for how to plan an extraordinary Christmas Markets trip, illustrated with Instagram pics from last week.

1. Hit a mix of big cities and small towns—and more than one country.

It’s surprising how different the markets are in different cities—and how different the handicrafts and foods are. You might see something for sale and think, “I can get that at the next place,” but there are many unique items you won’t find again. The markets vary most by country, which is why country-hopping makes the experience even more interesting. Particularly lovely markets are in Vienna, Salzburg, Nuremberg, Passau, Heidelberg, Regensburg (specifically the Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt there), Strasbourg, and Dusseldorf, as well as in many small German towns. If you can choose only one city, make it one with several different markets; my recommendation would be Vienna.

Here’s the Christmas Market at Maria-Theresien-Platz. #Vienna #ChristmasMarkets A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


2. Time your trip right.

Each market has different start and end dates. In Central Europe many start in late November and last till December 24, with a few even lasting into the first days of January. Your itinerary will likely be dictated by the dates of the Christmas markets in the cities that most interest you. You’ll find those dates on each country’s or city’s tourism information website.

#Bratislava #ChristmasMarkets in front of the Slovak National Theatre. A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


3. Focus your Christmas-market visits on weekdays.

Factor into your itinerary that the markets are best visited on weekdays rather than weekends, when they can be extremely crowded. Morning is the best time for actual shopping (that’s when crowds are lightest), whereas the best time for photos is at about 4:30 p.m. (the sky turns from overcast to blue at dusk), and the concerts tend to happen in the evenings. Beware Friday and Saturday nights at the markets in big cities.

#Lights, #lanterns, and things that glow at the #ChristmasMarkets at Michaelerplatz, #Vienna A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


4. Don’t rent a car.

Driving between cities with Christmas markets is a logistical pain. Snow conditions can make it difficult, you can’t drive close to the markets because they’re usually in pedestrian-only areas in the old city, and parking is really hard to find. Getting around by train or river-cruise ship is much easier. Train stations are usually within easy walking distance of the old city (where the market is). A river cruise is easy in that you don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting between cities (the ship drops you off in town), and you don’t have to pack things from hotel to hotel. A river cruise is, in fact, what I did last week—aboard Viking River Cruises.

All aboard! Next stop: Bratislava. #VikingCruises A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


5. Forget restaurant reservations.

You’ll be snacking your way through Europe—it’s impossible to resist trying the many intriguing local specialties—and there won’t be space left in your belly for a sit-down meal. Much of the food at Christmas markets you can’t find in restaurants anyway—giant donut pretzels, for instance, or chimney cake. You needn’t even try speaking the local language because at each stand you can point to the food you want.

Have you ever seen a bigger #pretzel? #Salzburg #Christkindlemarkt #gobigorgohome A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere. A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


6. Consider going over Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanksgiving is low season in Christmas-market cities (it’s not a holiday that’s celebrated in Europe), and some of the markets kick off the weekend before Thanksgiving. Last week, on our Danube cruise over Thanksgiving, we managed to hit 12 holiday markets in 6 different cities. If you’ve got kids, depending on their school schedule, Thanksgiving might be the only break that works for your itinerary, timing-wise.


7. See if there are low-season offers.

Some hotels run promotions throughout the period of the holiday markets (with the exception of New Year’s Eve, which is generally expensive).  Sometimes those offers are available only through a destination trip-planning specialist with clout. I booked my pre-cruise hotel stay in Budapest and my post-cruise hotel stay in Salzburg through my Trusted Travel Expert for Central Europe because she negotiates reduced rates that include tax, breakfast, and benefits (e.g., free upgrades based on availability). In Budapest, for instance, she had winter promo rates at the four-star Le Meridien (where I stayed, as one of the Christmas Markets is right downstairs). In Salzburg (a very expensive city), she put me in the five-star Hotel Sacher, where midweek rates in November and December start at $350 (again, that includes tax, breakfast, and certain amenities).

Aerial view of the @hotelsacher’s front desk. I’m not sure hotels get any more polished than this. #LHWtraveler A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

Look what you can expect in your room at @hotelsacher in #Salzburg. #seriouschocolate #INeedToTakeHomeASacherTorte

A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


Stay tuned for my advice for choosing the right Christmas Markets river cruise, based on last week’s Danube trip on Viking River Cruises (and the five other European river ships I’ve sailed on).

And if you’ve got any questions about travel to Europe during the holiday season, by all means ask below!