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 the early 1900s
- 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
- See also:
Inside the desert house
(Press photo © Daniel Zupanc)
One advantage 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 back in 2003 and reopened as a mix of botanical and zoological gardens, with even more animals added ten years after that.
The desert house essentially serves as a showhome for some of the succulents owned by the federal gardens 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 (lizards, scorpions, newts, and cave fish like the blind Mexican tetra on my last trip there).
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
(A naked mole rat at the desert house. Press 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.)
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.) Incidentally, “naked” is part of their name rather than a mole rat lifestyle choice.
- The Welwitschia Mirabilis plant, native to the Namib desert
This plant enjoys unusual longevity: specimens are believed as old as 1500 years and beyond. The two corkscrew leaves 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
The avian twittering adds considerably to the desert experience. Watch for flashes of brilliant red (the Red Fody from Madagascar) and the Diamond Dove (a delicate little beauty from Australia).
Tickets & visitor tips
At the time of writing, a standard adult ticket cost €8 with the desert house opening daily. One-time entry is free if you have, for example, a Vienna Pass (see my review).
- 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 the ticket costs
- 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
- 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
- If you like your animals, then Schönbrunn zoo is almost next door (just a little further along the path). In fact, the zoo runs the desert house in partnership with the federal gardens service. And the other side of the path has the giant palm house.
How to get to the desert house
Just follow the instructions for getting to Schönbrunn (go to the heading marked “Hietzing station” to find the desert house).
Address: Schlosspark Schönbrunn, 1130 Vienna | Website