I arrived in Vienna on August 7 with no expectations. I had spent three months researching the place, even though I’d only spend one night – maybe two – there.
One night – or two – out of five weeks covering the rest of the continent. It was a stop that meant a lot to me, if only because I was making it mean a lot to me.
I wanted to love it. But I didn’t know I wouldn’t have to try.
Nobody knows anything about Vienna. You know it’s supposed to be “liveable”, because The Economist tells us that, year-over-year.
“For years, Vienna has lingered in the fading glory of the fin-de-siècle era, understandably satisfied with the grandeur of its Hapsburg-era architecture and parks,” wrote The New York Times‘ Sarah Wildman, forgetting for a second that nobody cares if she can properly spell ‘fin-de-siecle’.
“Now a new wind is blowing through this imperial city, with the opening of dazzling hotels, new and renovated museums and a reinvention of the gasthaus, that ubiquitous pub where Viennese artists and philosophers, workers and shopkeepers linger over schnitzel and beer well into the night.”
Google it, and you’ll get endless photos of the same museums. The same castles. The same church. The city’s most famous all-time resident, Amadeus Mozart, is too obvious. He’s actually from Salzburg, too. The country’s most important artistic export, Gustav Klimt, is known to a select few wannabes and an underworld of men with monocles.
Austria has wrapped itself in its own pastry-covered gown for too long. It needs to breathe. It needs visitors and recognition, but even then only just enough.
Wildman’s words “understandably satisfied” are the perfect-est way to describe the city’s somewhat disappointing default to rest on its own laurels. VIENNA. Saying the word makes you sound Parisian. You’re sophisticated now. You’ve just said VIENNA.
Right now, nothing in Austria needs to change… but complacency is the worst flaw a city can have.
What should you see? St. Stephen’s basilica, sure. Grab some currywurst. Why not? You can ride the famous ferris wheel if you really must, but I’m betting you won’t kill yourself for skipping it.
Spend your days, instead, how you should always spend your days: walking, talking, and digesting.
Drink the beer, because it’s great.
(Although, that’s one of my bigger beefs with humanity as a species: that constant need to brag about beer in all its various forms, to slight others while propping up your favourites and only your favourites. Light. Dark. Golden. Amber. Stout and low cal. There ain’t a problem with any of them. Beer is beer. As long at its not skunked, just be grateful and sip it ’til it’s done. Stop pretending you’re above it all just because you’ve tried the freshest brews in Prague or Austria or Berlin. Just shut up and learn to enjoy a Budweiser when you have to.)
Before I left for Europe, I asked people: “What is there to see? What’s in Vienna? Do you know anything about it?” Even the ones who’d been there were lost for words.
“Yeah,” they’d say. “It’s nice.”
Europe’s the kinda continent where actual, real cities are called NICE. Vienna should have more to offer. It should be on posters, shouldn’t it? This grand capital of history’s former most possibly stable empire?
The Hapsburgs. The Germans. The Italians and the like. Vienna – like Austria – is a melting pot. The soup spills out and other ingredients fall in. It seems to have evolved, routinely, over centuries. It seems to reinvent itself without abandoning what makes it it.
I showed up in Vienna after four drunk days in Corfu. I didn’t want anything but a conditioned airport and a comfy bed. I got both, and for a cost I barely noticed.
The McDonald’s looked like an opera hall. The train station was a marvel of modern architecture – and functional, with groceries cheaper than their North American equal. They even had brands like Dove and L’Oreal. You can use a public washroom without selling your soul. You can walk the distance a tube would cover.
The entire city has boutique’d itself to a style so hot, but it forgot to remove the cushions. I’ve never seen a city like it – so pristine and so comfortable, too.
We stayed at Wombat’s, and I won’t blame the hostel for the weather – Vienna was 38 degrees when I was there, and there was no relief from the swelter.
I will credit the hostel, however, for the bar. The beer. The nap room and the WiFi. The secure washrooms and the impenetrable lockers.
Like the rest of the city, the hostel was a fine-tuned combination of European vintage and Western hospitality.
The people were nice. The coffee was hot and thick.
Vienna was exactly as advertised. It’s a secret, and you can’t explain exactly why you want to keep it that way. But you do.
Sure, it’s stuffy. But aren’t we all.
- Vienna, saved by the Americans – Vienna, Austria (travelpod.com)
- Images from Vienna (wantofwonders.com)
- Vienna (capitalsonpostcards.wordpress.com)
- Best accommodation places in Vienna (dianaabend.wordpress.com)