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This extensive tract of woods and meadowland in the 2nd District has been Vienna's favorite recreation area since 1766, when Emperor Joseph II opened it to the public. Before it became a public park, it had been a hunting preserve and riding ground for the aristocracy.

The Prater is an open fairground, without barricades or an entrance gate. Its attractions are independently operated and maintained by individual entrepreneurs who determine their own hours, prices, and, to a large extent, policies and priorities.

Few other spots in Vienna convey such a sense of the decadent end of the Habsburg Empire -- it's turn-of-the-century nostalgia, with a touch of 1950s-era tawdriness. The Prater is the birthplace of the waltz, first introduced here in 1820 by Johann Strauss, Sr., and Josef Lanner. However, it was under Johann Strauss, Jr., "the King of the Waltz," that the musical form reached its greatest popularity.

The best-known part of the huge park is at the end nearest the entrance from the Ring. Here you'll find the Riesenrad (tel. 01/729-5430; www.wienerriesenrad.com), the giant Ferris wheel, which was constructed in 1897 and reaches 67m (220 ft.) at its highest point. In 1997, the Ferris wheel celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it remains, after St. Stephan's Cathedral, the most famous landmark in Vienna. Erected at a time when European engineers were showing off their "high technology," the wheel was designed by Walter Basset, the British engineer. Who was Basset's inspiration, or perhaps better stated, chief competition? Alexandre Gustav Eiffel, who had constructed his famous tower in Paris a decade earlier. The wheel was designed for the Universal Exhibition (1896-97), marking the golden anniversary of Franz Joseph's coronation in 1848. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was supposed to be a temporary exhibition. Except for World War II damage, the Ferris wheel has been going around without interruption since 1897.

Just beside the Riesenrad is the terminus of the Lilliputian railroad, the 4km (2.5-mile) narrow-gauge line that operates in summer using vintage steam locomotives. The amusement park, right behind the Ferris wheel, has all the typical attractions -- roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, tunnels of love, and game arcades. Swimming pools, riding schools, and racecourses are interspersed between woodland and meadows. International soccer matches are held in the Prater stadium.

Another attraction includes "Volare -- The Flying Coaster," which flies facedown along a 435m (1,437-ft.) labyrinth of track at a height of 23m (75 ft.); and "Starflyer," a tower ride where passengers are whirled around at 70m (230 ft.) above the ground at speeds of up to 70kmph (43 mph).

The Prater is not a fenced-in park, but not all amusements are open throughout the year. The season lasts from March or April to October, but the Ferris wheel operates all year round. Some of the more than 150 booths and restaurants stay open in winter, including the pony merry-go-round and the gambling venues. If you drive here, don't forget to observe the no-entry and no-parking signs, which apply daily after 3pm. The place is usually jammed on Sunday afternoons in summer.

Admission to the park is free, but you'll pay for games and rides. The Ferris wheel costs 8€ ($13) for adults and 3.20€ ($5.10) for children ages 3 to 14; it's free for children under 3.