The Prater

All ages
Destination: Vienna, Austria

In the 1949 film The Third Man, set in a rubble-strewn post-World War II Vienna, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten hold a clandestine meeting in the Prater, Emperor Josef II's old hunting ground and the official birthplace of the waltz. And where do Welles and Cotten talk where no one can overhear them? In one of the enclosed cars of the Riesenrad, the Prater's giant Ferris wheel, where they lift high over the rooftops of Vienna, warily gazing over the ravaged city below their feet.

Talk about classics -- the Riesenrad was built for the Universal Exhibition in 1897 (commemorating the 50th year of Franz Josef's reign) by British engineer Walter Basset. This "giant wheel" was supposed to be a temporary exhibit, but like the Eiffel Tower, which had been built for the World's Fair in Paris a decade earlier, it never closed. Heavily damaged in 1945, it was reopened in 1947 as a symbol of Vienna's rising from the ashes. At its zenith, the wheel is 67m (220 ft.) high; one revolution takes 20 minutes. Instead of sitting in small fixed cars, passengers stand in roomy wide-windowed cabins, where you can move from side to side, taking in aerial views of Vienna across the Danube canal.

The Riesenrad sits right near the entrance to the Prater, which has been Vienna's favorite outdoor gathering place since the emperor opened it to the public in 1766. An amusement park behind the wheel has typical attractions kids love -- merry-go-rounds, go-karts, tilt-a-whirls, shooting galleries, and a couple of excellent roller coasters, one of them rising nearly as high as the top of the Riesenrad.

The Prater is charming at night, with tiny lights strung in the trees around open-air cafes and beer gardens, and the rides themselves decked out in colored light bulbs. From the top of the Riesenrad, the concentric rings of Vienna's city layout sparkle. In the daytime, you can pick out Vienna's landmarks -- the needlelike spire of St. Stephan's Cathedral, the massive complex of the Hofburg palace, the stately Kunsthistoriche art museum.

Information: Praterverband (tel. 43/1/7295430;

Nearest Airport: Vienna International

Accommodations: Hotel am Schubertring, Schubertring 11 (tel. 43/1/717020; Hotel Römischer Kaiser, Annagasse 16 (tel. 800/528-1234 or 43/1/512775113;