Exploring the Vienna Woods:
Mayerling, Seegrotte, and Heiligenkreuz Abbey
The ‘Vienna Woods‘. Rising to the northwest of Vienna atop the very first foothills of the Austrian Alps, the Wienerwald is a beautiful green belt and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve actually within the city limits of Vienna. With over 500 square miles of forest to wander through, it also makes the perfect day trip to get out of Vienna proper and do some biking or light hiking. Indeed this is one of the planned uses for the Vienna Woods, with 39 mountain biking trails and 12 hiking routes. Not feeling quite so ambitious? Vienna is ALSO the only city with proper vineyards inside the city limits as well, and you can sample the fruits of these vineries at the Heuriger restaurant/taverns in the small communities that dot the woods.
As a traveler in Vienna, there are really two ways to make a daytrip out into the Vienna woods.
The first (and easiest) is a day wandering through the trails that connect the small villages immediately ringing the northwest of Vienna. Some of them, like the village of Klosterneuburg with its monastery/winery/museum offerings, justify a whole day in their own right. Others, like Cobenzl and Kahlenberg, serve more as convenient stopping points in between long walks than as destinations in themselves. These points are all connected to Vienna by public transport and by fairly bike-able roads and trails, so if you want an independent freewheeling day out of the city this is the way to go.
If you do visit these communities, whether Klosterneuburg or Nußdorf or Döbling or Gablitz, make sure to spend some time wandering the streets of the villages as well. Apart from manicured vineyards, you’ll find quaint old churches and winding streets and surprisingly good museums. Though most won’t (and I didn’t myself), you could easily spend several days exploring just the small communities of the Vienna Woods. To be honest, most of the tourists who get so far as the Vienna Woods will only visit some of the closest settlements to Vienna. Grinzing, Cobenzl, and Kahlenberg seem to get the most visitors on account of both proximity to Vienna and the fact that public busses and private bus tours both pass down the well-maintained road that connects the three to each other. These all offer a very different experience from central Vienna, but they’re close enough that you can skip through several in the course of one easy day.
Even if you only get that far, a trip out to the Wienerwald should be a cool experience and a very different side of the Austrian capital compared to the standard ‘Museums and Cafes and Hapsburgs‘ bit that Vienna is most known for.
Push even further, deeper into the Vienna Woods and away from the warm embrace of the city, and you’ll see far fewer tourists and 800-year-old monasteries and unsolved murders and underground boat rides in old gypsum mines. It’s relatively unknown to foreign tourists, completely different from the mental image I had of Vienna even after a couple of visits, and all the more delightful because of that. Plus, the views back towards the city as you enter the woods are hard to argue with!
Mayerling Hunting Lodge
Though admittedly not the most photogenic of the bunch, the Mayerling Hunting Lodge has easily the most interesting history. This is an active Carmelite cloister, but this is not why people come. There’s a small chapel and exhibition space open to the public, but this is also an aside.
People visit Mayerling because of Crown Prince Rudolph, his mistress the Baroness Mary Vetsera, and their (still not entirely certain) murder/suicide pact. This moment (known as the ‘Mayerling Incident’ for the hunting lodge where it all went down) disrupted European politics, altered the line of succession of the House of Hapsburg, and lead indirectly to the start of World War I. A tall order for a small house in the middle of the Vienna Woods.
Visitors today can see only a sliver of this history, both in the sense that the bodies and the artifacts have largely been taken away and in that most of the grounds are closed to the public as an active cloister for Carmelite nuns. The bed in which Mary Vetsera died and then Prince Rudolph apparently shot himself has long been removed, and over that spot now stands the altar of the cloister (which is open to the public for Sunday Mass as well as during the week to tourists). The body of the Crown Prince eventually ended up in the Hapsburgs crypts in Vienna, while that of the young Baroness has been interred and exhumed several times in the graveyard of the nearby Heiligenkreuz Abbey (see below) – the first burial of which took place mere hours after the bodies were discovered and which lead to much speculation about the veracity of the official story of events that took place that night. What remains are a few castoff antiques and furniture, the original sarcophagus in which Mary Vetsera was buried, and a host of unanswered questions about what really went down at Mayerling on the night of the 30th January 1889. Oh, and there’s a gift shop.
Adults: 5.7 €
Children: 3 € (ages 6-14)
April thru December: 9:00 – 17:00 Daily
January thru March: 9:00 – 16:30 Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays
The Mayerling Hunting Lodge is just north of Baden bei Wien. From the town the 459 Bus runs once per hour on weekdays to the Lodge and then on to Heiligenkreuz Abbey. To get to Baden bei Wien you can take an S-Bahn S1 train from Wien Miedling, though not all cars make the full journey so you may have to switch at Modling. The full map can be found here, though the official Baden Bei Wien website also helpfully offers information on how to arrive on your own private airplane!
Learn More: Official Lodge website.
There are a monk-ton of abbeys in the near vicinity of Vienna, with two of the most well-known to tourists at Klosterneuburg Stift in the Vienna Woods *just* outside the city and the ginormous Benedictine Melk Abbey in the Wachau Valley under an hour from town. For many, then, the trip all the way out to Heiligenkreuz is not a top priority and rightly shouldn’t be. It’s further, smaller, and less historically important; yet somehow these things are what make it such a nice area to wander through if you do have the time. This is oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world, and though there are only around 50 monks today it remains religiously important as the home of a relic of the True Cross and a center of religious study.
The vaulted hallways, vaulted tombs, and vaulted chapels make the interior of the monastery extremely photogenic. The distance from the city combined with the requirement of a guided tour (guided by monks, if you aren’t part of a group booking!) to see most of the abbey means that it isn’t crowded at all. The central courtyard, through which you pass to enter both the abbey and the church, is downright peaceful. Water trickles over small fountains, leaves waft gently down from the branches of tall trees to the gravel below, and occasionally a cassocked monk wanders through on what is presumably the work of God. Well, or maybe he’s just mulling over a particularly tough theological question – the Heiligenkreuz Abbey has long been known as a center of monastic learning and can, in fact, grant degrees under the aegis of the Pontifical Athanaeum system.
It may not have the amazing view over the Danube that the Melk Abbey commands, or the acres of vineyards of Klosterneuburg, but for a visit to a working monastery away from most of the crowds this is a fantastic trip out from the city and a good place to explore deeper into the Vienna Woods.
Adults: 8 €
Seniors: 7 €
Children and Students: 4 €
Family Card: 14 € (2 Adults + 2 Children)
(Admission is by guided tour only, on the following schedule.)
Monday thru Saturday: 10:00, 11:00, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00
Sunday and Feastdays(!): 11:00, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00
Probably a good idea to email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call (+ 43-2258-8703-0) in advance to arrange a tour.
As with Mayerling Hunting Lodge, the Heiligenkreuz Abbey is just north of Baden bei Wien. From either the Lodge or the town, the 459 Bus runs once per hour on weekdays. (The distance between Mayerling and Heiligenkreuz Abbey is under 4km, so if you’ve missed the bus it could also make sense just to walk.)
Baden bei Wien is itself a 500+ year old spa town in the Vienna woods and surrounded by Heurigen. A better option than making individual daytrips from Vienna could be to base here and visit all the spots nearby within a couple of days. There are spa hotels in town, of course, but hostels seem pretty thin on the ground for budget travelers. although there is one AirBnB property.
Learn More: Official website.
SeeGrotte ‘Lake Cave’
On the other side of the Vienna Woods, an intentional explosion with unexpected consequences created the SeeGrotte – equal parts pure tourist trap and somehow surprisingly unknown given how attractive it actually is. From 1848 to 1912 this was the Hinterbrühl gypsum mine, but expansion plans for the mine grew too ambitious and a blasting operation to dig even further into the rock resulted in a slow but steady flood that filled the lower floor of the caverns with 20 million liters of water.
That’s a fairly big problem for miners, of course, but also an opportunity for the tourism sector! In the 30’s the former mine site was opened as a tourist attraction featuring an underground boat ride, and as a tourist today you can join a guided group as it winds through the tunnel and down a long staircase to a subterranean pier.
The mine and ride are both fairly photogenic (be ready to crank up that ISO, though) but perhaps more interesting is the fact that after the Anschluss the Nazis turned the unflooded upper floor of the mine into an aircraft assembly planet with the use of prisoner labor from the nearby concentration camp. Very small exhibits to both this period and to the cave’s time as a working mine are shown inside, though on my tour through there was only a brief moment to take them in before we were hurried off towards the exit. This is by no means a crucial stop while exploring the area around Vienna, but it was definitely an interesting diversion.
Adults: 10 €
Children: 7 € (4-14 years old)
Family Card: 27 € (2 adults + 2 children)
April thru October: 9:00 – 17:00 daily, last entrance 16:15
November thru March: 9:00 – 15:00 daily, last entrance 14:15
Take the S1 or S2 trains from Vienna to Modling station (full S-Bahn map here), from which several busses run to “Seegrotte Hinterbrühl” station just in front of the entrance. Expect the full trip to take around an hour and a half if you’re lucky with connections, though it should only cost about 5€ each way.
Learn More: Official website.
I’ve visited Vienna several times, both independently and while working as a photographer with GetYourGuide. Getting out into the fringes Vienna Woods is pretty easy. Public transit goes to Grinzing, Klosterneuburg, and Nussdorf from Vienna, and at each of these you can catch hiking trails or public busses up into the woods. GetYourGuide has several options here, among them a City Tour and Danube Cruise that drives through the Vienna Woods but only actually stops briefly at Cobenzl, but if you have the time it’s worth exploring on your own for the day.
If you want to get to the further afield spots like Mayerling, the SeeGrotte, or Heiligenkreuz Abbey it gets a bit more complicated. Something like the Woods and Mayerling Half Day Tour visits all of these on a group bus, but to do it independently you’re basically going to need to rent a car or pick one per day to get to via public transit.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Vienna? I really enjoyed the Hostel Ruthensteiner for a chill hangout, while Wombats was an interesting party hostel if you’re so inclined. On the other side of the budget spectrum, the Intercontinental Vienna is in a great location and reportedly makes a solid use of IHG points.
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