Vienna’s not the first place that comes to mind when you think of cacti and cave fish. But you’ll actually find plenty of both in Schönbrunn’s Wüstenhaus (the desert house).
- Large iron and glass hothouse from 1905
- Full of cacti, succulents, desert fauna, and cave dwellers
- Be sure to check out the naked mole rats, nature’s answer to the Alien films
- Excellent destination on a cold day
- Tickets are €7 for a standard adult (or free with a Vienna Pass)
- See also: Schönbrunn Zoo | The Palmenhaus
Inside the desert house
One of the advantages of being an Emperor is that when you start to worry about whether your houseplants will survive a cold Austrian winter, a purpose-built hothouse is a mere snap of the fingers away.
And so it was with the giant green iron and glass construction currently home to the desert house located in Schönbrunn Palace park. They built it in 1905 to provide winter accommodation for the more sensitive specimens among Emperor Franz Joseph’s exotic plant collection.
The building underwent a complete refit in 2003 and reopened as a mix of botanical and zoological gardens, with even more animals added ten years after that.
(A naked mole rat at the desert house. Photo © Daniel Zupanc. Editor’s note: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.)
The desert house essentially serves as a showhome for some of the succulents owned by the federal garden service and also educates and informs the public about desert (wild)life and its peculiar survival strategies.
Once you pass through the ticket barrier, you go through a set of artificial tunnels with glass enclosures featuring various desert and underground fauna, such as lizards, scorpions, newts, and cave fish like the blind Mexican tetra.
The tunnels lead you out into the first, smaller, open glasshouse space, filled with succulents like the crown-of-thorns with its brilliant red flowers.
Next up is the main glasshouse area, a huge edifice stuffed to the brim with tiers of cacti and similar plants, some of which are remarkably impressive indeed.
An outside area features the hardier sort of cacti, yuccas, bulb plants and similar, as well as a small enclosure for two Austrian natives: the green lizard and the European ground squirrel.
Desert house highlights
In particular, look out for…
- The bizarre-looking naked mole rats, scurrying through 70m of see-through tunnels. This extraordinary species has colonies that operate much like ants, with sterile workers and a queen. (“Queen of the mole rats” would look good on a CV)
- The Welwitschia Mirabilis plant, native to the Namib desert. What makes it unusual is its longevity – specimens are believed as old as 1500 years and beyond. The two corkscrew leaves can grow up to 6m, and the roots reach down up to 30m. The name comes from its “discoverer”, the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch
- Various free-roaming birds, whose twittering adds considerably to the desert experience. For example, the flashes of brilliant red are the Red Fody from Madagascar, and the Diamond Dove is a delicate little beauty from Australia
Tickets & visitor tips
At the time of writing, a standard adult ticket cost €7 with the desert house opening daily. Entry is free if you’ve bought a Vienna Pass (see my review).
- As a relatively small attraction, there is no cloakroom. But the entrance to the desert house has public toilets immediately inside, before you reach the ticket counter. The toilets cost €0.50 to use, though, on my last visit
- When you enter the building, the location of the ticket office isn’t obvious – just keep going the only way you can and you’ll find it easily
- A quick trip around the glasshouses takes no more than 30 minutes. Whether that’s worth the entrance fee for an adult depends on your interests. Personally, I reckon the mole rats are worth at least double that fee
- Nearly all information was in German only when I went round, but you can enjoy the plants and animals without the additional insight from the descriptive labels
- If you do have a Vienna Pass, this is one of the places you can usefully kill time should you have to wait for a later time slot on the main Schönbrunn palace tour
How to get to the desert house
Address: Schlosspark Schönbrunn, 1130 Vienna | Website