Surprise! I Changed My Mind About Vienna


Vienna, Austria

In 2003, my partner and I spent ten days traveling through Europe; specifically Prague, Munich, Salzburg and Vienna. Vienna was the last stop on the trip and I was admittedly tired after a long week on the road. Maybe that’s why I didn’t immediately fall in love with this great European capital, but I didn’t. No, instead I left not disliking the city, but not really liking it either. It was just OK and I couldn’t imagine wanting to return. When I learned that Vienna was a stop on our Viking River Cruise trip along the Danube though, I was excited. Excited to see what a decade had done to both the city and me and to see once and for all if I really liked Vienna.

When I first visited Vienna, I didn’t do a great job of seeing the sights. With trusty guidebook in hand, I led us around to some of the more famous areas, churches and palaces and my initial impression was that Vienna was a gritty, grey city. Driving into the city center in 2014, the clouds overhead didn’t help with the color, but some of that initial grittiness I had found ten years ago seemed to have been cleaned up.

The major difference between the two trips, and one of the reasons why I enjoyed myself so much more this time, was thanks to a walking tour. I write all the time about the importance of a great walking tour when visiting a new city. The professional guides are great not just for imparting historical knowledge, but cultural too. Viking River Cruises includes complimentary walking tours at all of its ports of call, so I joined in and had an amazing morning in Vienna as a result.

Sure, learning more about the history was great, but the real value of the tour was learning the layout of the city and scouting places to revisit in my free time. It was a week before Christmas, so the streets were filled with shoppers, anxious to get last minute presents for friends and family. There also seemed to be a Christmas market at every turn; from small neighborhood versions, to the massive one in front of the Rathaus. Thanks to the guide though I learned much more about Vienna than I did on my first visit, and that helped me appreciate the city so much more.

Vienna Austria

What we did when not on a walking tour though helped transform my image of Vienna from something blah to something wonderful. Rather than killing ourselves trekking from one historical site to the next (which we’d already seen anyway) we decided just to experience the city in a much more organic way. Thanks to the recommendation of our guide, we enjoyed the best Weiner schnitzel in town at Figlmüller restaurant, where they’ve spent a century perfecting their recipe. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip and there’s no way I would have found it without the guide’s advice. The rest of the afternoon was a blur of sitting in coffee shops escaping the cold weather, window shopping along the main boulevards and eating more than my fair share of treats at the Christmas markets. I stopped off at a couple of strange and quirky museums, and in general just had a great day in Vienna. Did I see countless palaces, churches and museums? No, more importantly I got to know and understand the city on a much more personal level.

That’s the key really I think when spending time in a new city. Sure, go see the important sites, visit a few museums and be a good tourist BUT after that, be sure to watch how locals live and then do what they do. Coffee culture in Vienna is extremely important, which is why we included it in our day. Ordering in poorly executed German, we enjoyed hot beverages and snacks and relaxed, another important activity on any trip. The problem with my first exposure to Vienna in 2003 had nothing to do with the city and everything to do with me. I was a stressed-out traveler, desperate to see and do as much as possible. Thankfully, as I’ve aged I have realized the error of my former overplanning ways and the result is to enjoy the destination for what it is. That’s what travel is all about, isn’t it?

So yes, my formerly lackluster opinion of Vienna has changed. I left the Austrian capital not necessarily in love, but in strong like with the city. It has a lot to offer and I understand now why so many people enjoy it as much as they do. Instead of dreading a third visit, I would now welcome it but that lesson, how perceptions of places can change depending on style of travel is perhaps the greatest gift the city gave me.

Have you been to Vienna? What did you think?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

9 thoughts on “Surprise! I Changed My Mind About Vienna”

  1. I had the same feeling about Vienna, I didn’t like it as well but that was how I felt as well with Paris during my first visit and now it’s one of my favorite cities after going back there and staying for a longer time. I guess I should give Vienna another chance and go back there around Christmas time. I’d love to see their Christmas Markets.

  2. We visited Vienna during a heat wave. Despite the heat, it was beautiful! I would definitely go back. This past christmas, we went to Salzburg and everything closed promptly at 2:00 pm on Christmas eve….and continued to stay closed as we visited Zurich, Lucerne (stores /museums opened to 4:00 pm), Swiss Alps and then Geneva. I would have to go back to see those areas again when it’s not snowy and closed.

  3. When I lived in the Czech Republic, I was about 1.5 hours north of Vienna, but I went there just once and didn’t feel the love. Maybe I was comparing it to Prague or just didn’t have enough time, but the city felt stale. I know many people who just love it, and I’m sure I will, too, if I can spend some time there again. I like that Viking River Cruises offers walking tours–definitely a great way to get a feeling for a city in a short time.

  4. I love Vienna! We have just been to Berlin, Munich and Prague but as soon as we got to the city centre of Vienna, we fell in love with it straight away. We spent our time walking and had coffee at one of the many coffee shops. We would love to come back and stay longer.

  5. I included Vienna on a trip this past fall that included Budapest and Salzburg. Thought “see Vienna it’s there and then on to Salzburg”. I have to say I was underwhelmed after having been in Budapest for 5 days. As the young man in Budapest told me “The Austrians like their stones smooth- we like ours a bit rough” perfect analogy- Vienna was beautiful but very hmmm dull compared to Budapest.

    1. I first visited Vienna in 1984 while backpacking through Europe. My graduate studies focused on the history of Vienna’s Jewish community so for many years I longed to return. I knew the streets so well in my head! Finally, in the summer of 2014, my husband, four daughters and myself rented a fabulous apartment near the Judenplatz. The apartment was beautiful and we spent 8 days exploring the city. At the time, we didn’t know much about Budapest but figured since we were making this big trip, let’s do a side trip. We booked three days in Budapest. From the moment we left the train station in Budapest, we were blown away. All six of us fell in love with the city and immediately regretted 8 days in Vienna and only 3 in Budapest. We loved how raw it felt, how creative, and not at all polished like Vienna. So, while Vienna was great and we’d all be happy to go back, Budapest enthralled us.

  6. I went to Vienna this last summer for a couple of days. The weather was amazing and I loved seeing all of the historical buildings in the centre. Everywhere seemed walkable and I got a good feel for the city, as well as it’s food and drink as a festival was also taking place.

    I think how you feel when you visit somewhere definitely changes your experience… I went to Hamburg when I was extremely tired from travelling and I know my thinking of ‘it was OK, not for me’ is more a result of that than Hamburg not having a lot to offer.

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  7. I had lived in Vienna for 12 years from 1999 until 2011, and I loved the city I called home. When I first arrived in July 1999 I didn’t like it right away because I was new and not used to the abrupt and cold welcome of the Viennese people. However, as the years went by, Vienna slowly changed into a multinational cosmopolitan with the arrival of many international expats working for the United Nations and International Organizations that set up their HQ there. When Austria joined the Euro zone, and the Schillings turned into the Euro, Vienna city flourished, and more other tourists arrived to see the grand beautiful city. Many of the historical buildings were cleaned up and renovated and Vienna transformed into the glorious beautiful city it is now. By the time I left Vienna, I was deeply in love with the city and I missed it every day now. I hope to return there again in the near future.

    1. I lived in Vienna for a year in 1993/4, just as they were deciding whether to join the EU. I was lucky to know some Viennese friends who “introduced” me to the city as a local, rather than a visitor. So I immediately experienced something of the cool neighbourhoods, the local bars, the good restaurants etc without the tourist veneer. It may take a little longer for the Viennese to warmly welcome a stranger/tourist, but when they do, they are as warm and welcoming as anywhere. My first impressions were also not of overwhelming palaces and architecture. I got to know the city underneath first. I’ve been back several times since and am looking forward to another visit next Christmas – Vienna IS Christmas.

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