I have been in Vienna for 3 weeks now and finally feel I can give an update about the city, my first impressions and how it compares to my most recent home away from home, Brussels.
First, a small disclaimer: It is difficult to compare the two cities. Vienna was the power centre of the world and this is obvious in its built form. The art and cultural offerings are endless: the opera, the symphony, the theatre, and many museums. That said, I am calling Vienna home until the summer so here are my first impressions.
Coffee (a coffee-lover has her priorities…)
Vienna is known for its coffee houses and for good reason. The coffee is yummy and one always gets a glass of water with one’s coffee (which I really appreciate, it was difficult to get water in Brussels and it usually involved paying). Sure, there were some nice cafés in Brussels but the coffee one gets from a normal, everyday café is better in Vienna. There are also some important additions to the coffee menu, namely the “Melange”, which falls somewhere between a cappuccino and a latte.
This is one of the biggest improvements on Brussels. The public transportation is really incredible in Vienna. From where I live I can get just about anywhere in 30 minutes. While the public transportation stopped at around midnight during the week in Brussels and 2am on weekends (including night buses), the U-Bahn in Vienna runs all night on weekends and buses run all night during the week.
While they do not play music in the U-Bahn (like in the Brussels métro), the stations are well-organized, clean and provide a lot of information to riders (e.g. the time of the next u-bahn). The buses, the trams (Straßenbahn) and metro (U-Bahn) always announce the upcoming stops which makes navigating in a new city seamless. The frequency of trains and buses is so high than one rarely wait more than a few minutes.
Finally, the public transportation is very affordable. One can purchase a year-long card for €365, which means that you pay just €1 per day or about €30 euros per month (and for full-time Vienna students under 26, it is just €75 per semester). The year-card can be cancelled at any time and the remaining days are reimbursed.
So far I have not had much difficulty finding my way around Vienna. This is partly because I have been with locals, partly because I am taking the U-bahn (and not cycling) and partly because the two rings around the city, the ring road (“Ringstraße”) around the center and the outer belt (“Gürtel”), as well as the monumental buildings are great points of reference.
That said, there is not much in ways of signage in Vienna, just small signs pointing towards tourist attractions (e.g. the Albertina Museum). Brussels actually does an incredible job with signage, with detailed signs all over the city centre towards various destinations and neighbourhoods. However, this may be because Brussels has many drivers and the signs help them to navigate the oft confusing streets of Brussels.
On the topic of cars, Vienna has visibly less cars than Brussels. Also, the cars I have seen drive much more carefully than Brussels’ drivers and appear more patient (I seldom hear honking). I feel much more secure walking and crossing the street in Vienna. Finally, pedestrians seldom cross on red lights in Vienna but rather wait attentively for the green light.
I have not cycled in Vienna just yet (soon!) but from what I can tell it is much flatter than Brussels and bicycle paths are pretty much everywhere and are separated from automobile traffic. Further, there is a bicycle sharing system that costs just €1 per trip.
One last thing: smoking in bars, cafés and restaurants
Smoking is still allowed in many bars and cafés in Vienna. Most bars and cafés have two sections, smoking and non-smoking. This reminds me of my childhood is Montreal before smoking was banned. Smoking is very popular among young people in Vienna, although I have been told that this is slowly changing and there are usually as many people in the non-smoking room as the smoking room.