Wien

VIENNA — For such a historic city, Budapest doesn’t appear all that old. That’s because it was repeatedly destroyed by foreign occupations over the course of its 1000-year history, especially when the Turks invaded in the 16th and 17th centuries. And the the Soviets’ obsession with standardized buildings in the 20th century didn’t help.

Vienna is a different story. It seems there’s history everywhere. The city is huge, and it’s made up of mostly classic-looking buildings just like you’d see in movies. There’s a more modern-looking area that’s removed from the center, but most of the city really does look like that. It certainly has a more Western feel than Budapest. Whether it’s that German sounds more familiar than Hungarian, that the food is less mediterranean-influenced, or that everything is just a bit more built up, the city seems less of a departure from an American existence (other than architecture). It’s still significantly different, though. Just not like Budapest.

The scale also seems bigger. The Museumsquartier, a complex of several museums located in the heart of the city, is massive. We went into just one of the seemingly endless buildings and spent two hours browsing art from ancient Egypt through the 11th century. We could’ve spent much more time there if we were so inclined. Schönbrunn Palace is a giant building with grounds vast enough to allow visitors to stand far enough away to appreciate the scale.

Schönbrunn Palace from a hilltop

I like Austrian food a lot, and though I’m not even close to being an expert, I’d describe it as similar to German cuisine with the addition of schnitzel as the local specialty. Order dumplings and you get a dish that’s a cross between scrambled eggs and potatoes. I find schnitzel delicious; it’s basically a piece of meat (usually pork), sliced very thin, fried.

I had actually been to Austria before (but way back in 2011), and was pleasantly surprised to find a couple drinks that I’ve never seen anywhere but in this country. Almdudler is a “sweet carbonated beverage made of herbal extracts” according to Wikipedia, and is considered the country’s national drink. That’s a vague description and also more specific than anything I could come up with. Elderberry juice/soda is exactly what it sounds like, though I’m not even sure what an elderberry is and I haven’t seen this beverage offered elsewhere.

Like Copenhagen, one of Vienna’s big attractions is an amusement park tucked into the middle of town. Unlike Copenhagen, Vienna’s is free to enter. Prater is more like a regular amusement park than Tivoli (much less greenery) but its best feature is a massive Ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas. Like the London Eye but smaller. It’s still huge and gives a great 360-degree view of the city. We grabbed lunch at a park concession stand (really good sausages encased in bread, somehow with ketchup and mustard already inside the continuous bread) and went up.

View from atop the Ferris wheel in Prater amusement park

Our major mistake of the weekend was trying to go to Nachtmarkt, a long stretch of open-air food stands and restaurants, on a Sunday, when it is completely closed. Walking through, it looked like it would be awesome when open, so that was a bummer.

One of the best things about this trip was the easy transport. The train from Budapest took well under three hours. It was comfortable, and there are several per day so you can pick what time you like. One confusing thing was that we bought both segments through the Hungarian railway MAV-START, but when we set on our journey home, we discovered our train home was an Austrian OBB train. This was fine (and actually more comfortable), but we had no way of knowing this and my friends who didn’t pre-print return tickets were forced to pay for a new ticket on the train, which is absurd.

There’s a divide somewhere down the middle of Europe’s rail map in terms of efficiency, advanced web presence and ease of use, and Hungary is on one side of that line, and Austria is on the other. The Hungarian train was perfectly good, but booking the ticket required a lot of patience and experimenting with their clunky web interface, and I imagine that many non-Hungarians struggle with it every single day.

On the whole it was a great weekend and I’d say Vienna is among my favorite cities I’ve visited in the world.

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