The Saturday City: Vienna

It took me three times to really see Vienna. When I first went in 2006, I was visiting friends and we didn’t do much of anything except lounge around in a park and go to a concert. The second time was to see a girl I was dating, and my time was spent with her not Vienna. However, this time I was determined to actually see the city and its historic sites.

And so this visit was like visiting Vienna for the first time. While my previous visits gave me a brief glimpse into day-to-day life in Vienna (which isn’t bad in itself), I walked away from those visits never really feeling like I knew anything about the city. I couldn’t tell you anything about its history, what to see, or what to do other than what I knew beforehand and I had no concept of the city’s layout.

This visit changed all that. This time around, I wandered around the historical core of Vienna. I visited various attractions. I paid attention on the subway to learn where all the stops were. In effect, I discovered the city for the first time.

I remember when I was going to Vienna the first time. People told me that, because I love Prague, I would also fall in love with Vienna. But when I got there, I remember being incredibly disappointed. The city was nothing like Prague. It wasn’t as fun, it wasn’t as beautiful, and it wasn’t as charming. It wasn’t a bad city. It just didn’t blow me away.

Yet after this visit, I see Vienna in a bit of a new light. Vienna Tourism connected me with one of their local tour guides, who led me on a walking tour one afternoon. I think it was this walking tour that helped change my mind about Vienna.

Walking tours are a funny thing. Their content is always dependent on the personality of the guide. Guides tell stories and point out features relating to their interests. And so you think you are going to learn one thing and you end up learning something totally different. My guide liked cafes, art, and design and my “historical” tour leaned less on history and more on art. I never knew Vienna was such a major center of design, fashion, and modern art.

One thing I was fascinated by were all the coffee shops. The real first coffeehouse in Austria opened in Vienna in 1683 after coffee was left by the defeated Ottoman army. A Polish military officer by the name of Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki opened the first coffee house with the coffee beans he kept from the Turks, and he popularized the custom of adding sugar and milk to the coffee to make it more palpable to European tastes. And, to this day, there seem to be more coffee shops in Vienna than in Seattle.

While I was impressed with the city’s café and design scene, Vienna’s art museums left something to be desired. Taking in many of the city’s museums, I was left extremely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – the museums are actually really good – if you like modern art. I, however, do not. I lean more towards 17th century Dutch landscapes and impressionism. I left disappointed and wishing modern art didn’t involve so many shovels glued to the wall so I could enjoy it more. (In all fairness, though, the Leopold museum did have some wonderful paintings and portraits.)

Despite the cold and rain during my visit, I spent my days meandering around Vienna, marveling at its architecture, getting lost in its sea of never-ending twists and turns, and sneaking into coffeeshops for warm tea. I visited Sigmund Freud’s home, and learned his daughter was also a shrink and that he analyzed her when she was a child.

I strolled by the river, enjoyed Vienna’s impressive gothic church, and ate my way through the town’s main market. Twice. I visited the old royal chambers and finally learned a great deal of the city’s history.

I’m glad I finally got to really experience and explore Vienna. But, while I like Vienna more than my first visit, I’m still not in love. I don’t think I ever will be. Sure, Vienna has its charms and I can see why some people might love it. But I’m not one of those people. It doesn’t light a fire under me. It doesn’t grab my soul the way other cities do.

Would I go back? Yeah, maybe one day. It’s not a bad place. But with no real pressing reason to return, I doubt my next visit will be any time soon. Vienna didn’t wow me and it doesn’t pull me back. There are some places in the world that are just nice. Not bad but not great either.

And that’s all Vienna is to me. It’s just nice.

  1. Will

    I feel your sentiments with Vienna – never really grew to love it all that much either. What happened to the 2nd time girl in the end? Catch up with her the third time round?

  2. Sarah

    Your last paragraph pretty much sums up my feelings on Vienna. It was alright. There were some pretty spots and I enjoyed just laying around in the park reading and people watching. I probably wouldn’t go back though. I was disappointed after so many people insisted I would *love* it.

  3. Kathryn-Claire

    I studied abroad in Vienna and it will always have my heart. I definitely think the next time you go back should be around Christmas, as this is when the city becomes like a fairytale, completely lit with lights. The Christkindlmarkts (or Christmas Markets) are superb and everything just has a great vibe to it. :)

  4. Vienna is one city I definetly want to visit.

    Well, sometimes you are falling in love from the first site, sometime you need time to develop the feelings, and other times its just not clicking… well I guess this is with everything: people, travel destinations and so forth.

  5. Vienna was my other home…but even I prefer the Salzkammergut area of Austria…mountains and countryside to city. HOWEVER, as an artist who LOVES Klimt, let me say that the best thing about Vienna is that you can see marvelous samplings of his work in the Upper Belvedere, the Secession, the Burgtheater, and as murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum…which is the BEST part of that museum. I used to get so bored seeing all those OLD arts unti I looked up and saw the paintings by him on the arches and ceilings!
    Another tidbit…after the Ottoman army was defeated, croissants were supposedly invented. The Viennese ate crescents as a way of symbolising their victory over the Ottoman crescent moon.

  6. JuanCarlos

    I agree that the best time to fall in love of Vienna is if you visit the city In December fro Xmass, it is just lovely and full of lights and the music, colors and the whole atmosphere of the city breaths the holidays. Go to the Dom (the huge gothic cathedral) and listen to the choirs and visiting the christmas markets, drinking hot wine punch (glühwein) from big mugs in the streets.. its just a wonderful experience. In the summer there are also festivals of music, and a visit to the Zoo by the Imperial Palace at Schoenbrunn to see the Pandas or a ride in the Reisenrad (a large ferris wheel by the Danube) visiting the amusement park, a walk on the parks or visiting the caffes and markets where you may find exotic foods from the many foreigner comunities in the city… Vienna is actually a great place to love.

  7. I just spent 3 weeks exploring Vienna and I loved it! I can see how a lot of people can kind of get underwhelmed by it, because it’s a travel destination that’s hyped up a lot. The cafe culture, cuisine (especially the beer!) and history are all excellent though. The people are incredibly nice as well.

  8. Matt,

    don’t give up on this city. I actually did give up on it once, and big time.

    I was born in Vienna and lived and studied there for 10 years until I was bored and moved to London. Since then, my perspective changed because all those things I took for granted surfaced: the lazy weekend brunches at Naschmarkt; biking through the city safely and without polluting my lungs; cool clubbings in historic town palaces and worn out industrial sites; getting to almost anywhere in less than 30 minutes, walking in the vineyards without leaving the city; splashing in vast, clean and just reasonably busy swimming pools in the summer; the list goes on.

    I ended up creating Vienna Unwrapped, a website about Vienna as I see it. Sometimes it’s just getting a different access that can change our view of things.

  9. Fernanda

    What about the rest of Austria, mate?
    I’ll be spending a week or so there over Easter and was wondering how to best spend it.

    Love ur price tips and I’m always checking them up before leaving for my next trip.

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