Guide to Vienna: Part 1 – Why I Love Vienna

Vienna's inner city skyline with Neue Hofburg and St. Stephan's Cathedral

Vienna’s inner city skyline with Neue Hofburg and St. Stephan’s Cathedral

Welcome to Vienna!

My in-laws recently travelled to Vienna, Austria, and asked me to give them some advice and a few tips for their visit.  My short list of points of interest quickly grew to several pages and included a brief, opinionated, somewhat political, description of Vienna in its Austrian context. Here is a slightly edited version of what I sent them off to Vienna with.

Some background:  much of my family is from Austria and both of my parents were born in Vienna. My mother spent WWII as a child with her family in Vienna and endured the hardship and bombing of the war there while my grandfather was a soldier in the German army.  My father left Vienna in 1938 when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany and came to the US during WWII.  He returned to Germany after the war as a civilian in the US Army and, among other tasks, translated German documents into English for the prosecution at the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals.  My father and mother met a few years after the war while she was studying in Germany.   They married, my mother became a US citizen to allow my father to continue working for the US Army and they begot me.  My father passed away early in my life and later my mother converted to Judaism, remarried and fulfilled her dream of moving to New York City where she and I live today.  I was closest to my maternal grandparents; they continued to live in Vienna after WWII and I lived and visited them regularly and was greatly influenced by my grandmother’s poise and honesty and my grandfather’s sense of humor and love for animals.  I spent three formative semesters of graduate school in Vienna learning about the city’s pioneering public housing program.  This guide is infused with that personal history.

I’ve divided this very opinionated guide into several sections.  In this post:

       I.            Introduction

      II.            Why/How I love Vienna

     III.            Vienna Fun Facts


To be posted following:

IV.            General Information about Austria and Vienna

V.            Class and Jews in Vienna

VI.            A quick political history of Vienna for people with a political interest

I. Introduction

Austria is a prosperous country, where most people are pretty well off and are taken care of by a fairly dense social net.  The national anthem – at least of Vienna – ought to be Strauss’s “An der schönen blauen Donau”/ “On the beautiful blue Danube” (reality check: the Danube is not along Vienna’s center and it is not blue either) which they play continuously as you board any Austrian Airlines plane and everywhere else in the country.  I admit, listening to a real recording of it, makes me nostalgic.  You can see a version of it played at the New Year’s Day Concert at the Musikverein concert hall here: This summer the Danube has given Austria – and other countries in Europe – though, some grief with severe flooding.

Vienna is undergoing a kind of renaissance – after many decades of population loss, Vienna is growing again and old, sleepy districts that were once quiet are awakening with many new residents, often from abroad.  Some of those new residents from abroad include Turks (this time peacefully, unlike in the 1600’s) and, with the opening of borders through the European Union, Germans (this time, also, peacefully, unlike 1938).  Vienna is experiencing a kind of reverse brain drain; because it is part of the European Union and its universities are free, students from Germany come here because there is no GPA requirement.  They (may or may not) finish their degrees but many seem to stay in the city, find or make work, join the creative class and start families (that is how cities grow today).  Also, I believe Vienna is growing because its continued investment in its infrastructure and improvement in its quality of life is now paying off.

A rejuvenating older neighborhood in Vienna

A rejuvenating older neighborhood in Vienna

II. Why/How I love Vienna

I love old-style Vienna, i.e. the Vienna I grew up in in the 1960’s.  It was a bit dilapidated, dirty, slow, small-townish and very old school polite.  There was a certain smell in the trams from the treatment to the wooded floors, the metro was a slow-moving contraption painted in dark red with letters for lines (“W” = Wien valley, “G”=Gürtel, “WG”=Wien-Gürtel) rather than today’s modern subway lines.  The commuter trains were also painted with a matte but distinctive orange stripe.  When it’s rainy and foggy in Vienna, and the sounds seem to disappear and few cars are in the street, I can be transported back to that time.  I love the fact that in Austria (and especially in Vienna), the Social Democrats are still called the Socialist Party (even though they are Social Democrats), that they still have deep roots in the working classes of Vienna and that they identify themselves by their party offices in the different districts.

“Real Vienna” is a tram operator, is a blue collar worker who stands at the hot dog stand drinking a beer and talking with the owner inside, is an old lady walking with a shopping bag of groceries walking a tiny little dog, is an old man sitting in a café reading a newspaper waiting for someone, is a middle-aged, middle-class woman sitting on the subway making a face because she doesn’t like what the people near her are doing or saying, is a middle-aged, college-educated person sitting in a modern, cool bar, smoking and debating whatever with friends, is a little kid talking to  his  parent or  her  friends in this cutesy voice. “Real Vienna” are also not-so-recent immigrants from Turkey and Germany who enrich the city just like their now-homogenized Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovenian, Serb, Croat and Polish brethren did after the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  You will see “real Vienna” all over, in the subway, at any café, in a restaurant, and on every street corner.

Real Viennese, following the rules: Waiting at a red traffic light with no cars in sight

Real Viennese, following the rules: Waiting at a red traffic light with no cars in sight

What I love about Vienna now is that it is coming into its own.  It is growing, it is gaining young people and families; it is changing for the better.  As a result, neighborhoods are being rediscovered and rejuvenated with shops, and markets and boutiques.  Young Viennese are generally politically aware and active and mostly progressive and that gives me hope for the future.


“Fiaker” horse-drawn carriages for tourists making their way through the old city of Vienna

“Fiaker” horse-drawn carriages for tourists making their way through the old city of Vienna

III. Vienna Fun Facts:

–    It is located further east than the eastern boundary of Germany (this used to be more impressive when you could say “eastern boundary of East Germany”)

–    It is located further east than Prague, which many might think is really “east”.

–    It is part of a triangle of central European cities dating back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

–    It is by far the largest city in Austria with almost 1.75 million people in a country of around 8 million people.  The next largest city is Graz at 265,000 population (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home state!).

–    It is its own federal state within Austria.

–    It is divided into 23 districts with numbers and names.  You can generally tell the class, educational level or religion of someone by which district they live in (which is why “what district are you from?” is the second question Viennese abroad ask each other).

–    As noted above, Vienna is not really on the Danube at all but along a tiny arm of the Danube.  Vienna takes its name from the River Wien (Vienna) which is a sad, regulated little body of water running along the southern part of the city into the arm of the Danube.


IV.            General Information about Austria and Vienna

V.            Class and Jews in Vienna

VI.            A quick political history of Vienna for people with a political interest

Winston Von Engel is an urban planner for New York City and teaches about urban planning at Pratt Institute and at the City University of New York.  He grew up in Vienna before moving to New York and later studied Vienna’s public housing program for his Master’s thesis at Pratt Institute.

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5 Comments on “Guide to Vienna: Part 1 – Why I Love Vienna”

  1. Syed S. Ahmed July 29, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    It shows that you love Vienna. Thanks.


  2. Hermine Steinbach-Buchinger August 1, 2013 at 4:57 am #

    Hi Winston, it’s good to read that!! Well done! Would be lovely to see you soon again here, at Vienna! I have an album at my facebook site, it’s called “Viennamoremio”, I guess you would like it! Have a nice day, Hermine


  3. dedicated hosting August 5, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Thank you for some other informative web site. Where else may just I am getting that type of information written in such an ideal means? I’ve a undertaking that I’m just now working on, and I’ve been on the glance out for such information.|



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