The daughter of a wealthy merchant named Reyer, she was born at Vienna. As a child, she preferred boys' clothing and liked sports and exercise, which was encouraged by her father. She received the education usually given a boy. Her first long journey was a trip to Palestine and Egypt when she was five years old. The influence of this experience remained with her. Following the death of her father when she was nine, her mother - disapproving this unconventional upbringing - persuaded Ida to wear girls' clothing and to take up piano lessons. After Napoleon I, emperor of the French, conquered Vienna in 1809, some of the French troops were quartered in Reyer's home to Ida's dislike. During the grand review held in Schönbrunn Palace, she protested against foreign occupation by turning her back as Napoleon rode past.
On May 1, 1820, she married Dr. Mark Anton Pfeiffer, a lawyer in Lemberg, (now Lviv, Ukraine) connected with the Austrian government, who was 24 years older than she and a widower with a grown-up son. Dr. Pfeiffer made enemies by exposing corrupted Austrian officials in Galicia and was forced to resign. Subsequently, he found it difficult to find a job and in order to support her family, and due to their poverty Ida gave drawing and music lessons. The financial situation of the family improved only after the death of her mother in 1831, and with this small inheritance Ida Pfeiffer was able to hire better teachers for her two sons. Her husband died 7 years later in 1838.
After her sons had homes of their own, Ida Pfeiffer was finally able to fulfill her childhood dream of traveling to foreign places. She later wrote in Visit to Iceland:
When I was but a little child, I had already a strong desire to see the world. Whenever I met a travelling-carriage, I would stop involuntarily, and gaze after it until it had disappeared; I used even to envy the postilion, for I thought he also must have accomplished the whole long journey.
In 1842 she traveled along the Danube river to the Black Sea and Istanbul. From there she continued to Palestine and Egypt before returning home via Italy. She published an account of her journey in Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land (“A Vienna woman's trip to the Holy Land,” 2 vols., Vienna, 1843); money earned from this publication allowed her to pursue more extended explorations in the future. In 1845 she set out to Scandinavia and Iceland, describing her tour in two volumes, Reise nach dem skandinavischen Norden und der Insel Island (“Trip to the Scandinavian North and the island of Iceland,” Pest, 1846; English translation: Journey to Iceland, Sweden, and Norway, London, 1852).
In 1846 she started on a journey round the world, visiting Brazil, Chile and other countries of South America, Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Asia Minor and Greece, and reaching home in 1848. The results were published in Eine Frau fährt um die Welt (3 vols., Vienna, 1850; English translation: A Woman's Journey round the World, London, 1850).
In 1851 she went to England and to South Africa, intending to penetrate into the interior; this proved impracticable, but she proceeded to the Malay archipelago, spending eighteen months in the Sunda Islands, where she visited the Dyaks of Borneo and was one of the first persons to report on the behavior of the Bataks in Sumatra, and the Malukus. After a visit to Australia, Madame Pfeiffer proceeded to California, Oregon, Peru, Ecuador, New Granada, and north again to the Great Lakes, reaching home in 1854. Her narrative, Meine zweite Weltreise (“My second trip around the world”), was published at Vienna in 1856 (English translation: Second Journey round the World, London, 1857).
In May 1857 she set out to explore Madagascar, where at first she was cordially received by the queen Ranavalona I. She unwittingly allowed herself to be involved in a plot to overthrow the government together with a few other Europeans, namely Jean Laborde and Joseph-François Lambert in apparent collaboration with crown prince Rakoto (the future king Radama II). Upon learning of the attempted coup, the queen executed the Malagasy involved but spared the Europeans, whom she expelled from the country in July 1857. Pfeiffer contracted a disease (likely malaria) during her passage from the capital of Antananarivo to the coastal port of departure and never fully recovered. She died in Vienna a year later in 1858, likely from malaria complications. A travelogue describing her final voyage, Reise nach Madagaskar (“Trip to Madagascar”), was published in Vienna in 1861 in 2 volumes and included a biography written by her son Oskar Pfeiffer.
During her travels Ida Pfeiffer collected plants, insects, mollusks, marine life and mineral specimens. The carefully documented specimens were sold to the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna and Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.
-Madame Pfeiffer is referenced as Madam Pfeiffer in Thoreau's book, Walden. Thoreau talks of how she wore more civilized clothes as she got closer to her homeland.