My most disappointing destination

Anyone who has travelled a lot will start to have their own catalogue of places they liked, places they loved and places that just didn’t live up to expectations. Whilst I can talk for hours about how much I loved Prague, Budapest, Reykjavik or the Swiss Alps, and I like to hear tales of people’s favourite cities and countries, sometimes I’m more interested in the places people didn’t like. From some travellers I’ve heard that Paris really didn’t live up to the hype, or that they were let down by Swiss cities like Basel or Geneva, or that they hated Milan. In my case, It’s taken me a while to find a city or destination that didn’t meet my expectations – but finally I did.

… Vienna.

Now a disclaimer. I did come to Vienna at the end of a long trip, having already been blown away by Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Lviv and walked around even more cities and towns in a short period. So maybe I was suffering from city fatigue – they all start to seem the same after a while; fountains, statues, bridges, river, shops, restaurants, token cathedral or impressive town hall… I was also suffering from the remains of a stomach bug I picked up on my last night in Budapest. And it was around 40 degrees centigrade, so all in all it was probably the worst possible time to visit. So perhaps I really didn’t see the right side of this city. But I have to say that of all the places I’ve visited, this one has disappointed me the most.

I’ve actually always wanted to visit Vienna, and had imagined it as this incredibly grand and beautiful city.

Instead it was a bit more like this:

Yes, the majestic Donau….

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Hahaa. Ok, slight exaggeration, there was some nice stuff as well…

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But overall, I found Vienna somewhat… odd. My expectations were actually quite high. As a German speaker who has spent quite a while living in Austria (the other side, Bregenz, by the Bodensee), I really love the country and was dying to see the ‘other side’ – posh, beautiful, majestic Wien. I imagined long strolls along the Donau; stunning, palatial buildings; splendid cascading fountains; ancient, beautifully sculpted statues; stylish cafes with people sipping on capuccinos whilst nibbling overpriced but delicious Sachertorte…

In reality it was sort of… smelly. And empty. And devoid of anything really interesting to do or see. The city centre is actually tiny by comparison with most other capitals. We parked nearby and started walking in, all the time wondering if we were actually in the wrong place. We didn’t see anything that looked like an interesting monument, a church, a cathedral, a palace, a garden… We just saw some dingy, closed up shops, some alleyways and dirty ‘green’ spaces. So we thought maybe we were still a long way from the touristic area and stopped for an overpriced lunch in an average, vaguely Austrian-style restaurant where I had a ludicrously large plate of carb-y spinach dumplings and an expensive (but great!) beer. Fine. So we continued our walk into the city, only to find that actually, we were already in the city.

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When we finally got to the central square where there is a beautiful church with a coloured roof, a nice square and some refreshing fountains we thought ‘finally! we’ve made it!’ Now, this church really is beautiful, and I have to admit, Vienna has some wonderful buildings. But the issue is, they seem to be oddly packed together. So you see some sort of splendid church or town hall or something, but there’s no space to stand back and admire it or take a photo – it’s all crammed in among shops and things. Also, there are far fewer amazing sights than you expect. I kept looking at the map and wondering ‘where are the tourist attractions???’ – there are very few, in fact. There is of course the Schoenbrunn Palace (which is amazing, of course), St. Stephen’s cathedral (the one on the left) and a nice-looking Rathaus (town hall), but not much else. Unless you’re really into the zoo or some parks, there isn’t so incredibly much to see and do.

Now, we were absolutely sweltering in 40+ degree heat, so maybe that took something away from our day or two that we spent there. And maybe that was the reason for 2 other things I really didn’t like about the city. One was the smell. That awful uriney smell that you often get in back streets, but in Vienna it was almost everywhere. Perhaps because of the heat – I can imagine Vienna is really a different, magical place in the snow, for example. The other was that it was really, spookily and bizarrely empty. Again, perhaps because of the time of year (Vienna isn’t popular in late August-early September??) or the heat? But I’ve never walked around a capital city and seen so incredibly few people. It was almost ghostly, considering how many people you expect to be visiting a touristic city. I kept feeling like I was missing something or in the wrong place. But really, yes, that was the center and that is Vienna.

I would love to have seen the nightlife as I hear it is quite alternative and Berlin-esque. But we were staying in a campsite faaaar outside the city (Vienna Sud – it’s really a lovely campsite and highly recommended if you have a car or don’t mind taking the bus) and we were still suffering from what I shall call ‘Budapest belly’. So I can’t comment on that, maybe it’s fab. But we had the same problem again when trying to find somewhere to eat. Everything is very expensive, a bit posh and not very interesting. I love schnitzel as much as the next person, so definitely eat that and try my favourite Austrian dish, Spaetzle. And of course have some of their incredible cake. The ‘original’ Sachertorte costs about 5 euro, plus 3-4 euro just for a coffee, but I think it might be worth it even so. But great cake is everywhere, for sure.

So in the end, my impression of Vienna was: overly expensive – you’re 1/2 an hour from Bratislava which is an amazing and cheap city – go there instead! It was also oddly smelly, incredibly hot and very empty. Most of the center is comprised of expensive designer shops and chic but uninviting cafes. Yes there are some wonderful sights, but not nearly as many as I hoped for, and there’s not much to do other than look at them and get out again.

Have you been to Vienna? What did you think? Did I completely miss the point, or was I suffering from city-fatigue or I went there at the wrong time?

What’s YOUR most disappointing destination? I’d love to know!

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5 thoughts on “My most disappointing destination

  1. I’m sure Vienna is lovely if you live there, but I’m somewhat reassured by your post – I visited the city quite a long time ago now (1990), like you as part of a long trip, and I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by it, not very impressed at all. I found it to be a rather cold city (in a figurative sense; I visited in summer) and distinctly got the impression that I was an outsider looking in – a feeling I’ve rarely had elsewhere. I also remember cafés and bars as being extremely smoky, although that’s probably changed now. But until now I’ve never come across anyone else who shared my less than positive feelings about Vienna!
    P.S. In answer to your question, my most disappointing destination overall has been Vietnam.

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      1. I’ve lived in Asia and visited about 20 different countries there, including North Korea. The scenery and food in Vietnam are wonderful. But more than any other country I felt that many of the people there were not very welcoming, other than if they thought they had a vested interest. Even amongst Vietnamese I witnessed spats. And I talked to expats there who mostly confirmed my visitor’s impressions.
        On a different note I loved Tibet and Mongolia!

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  2. I just came back from Vienna, and I was underwhelmed as well. We luckily had a good hotel near Schönbrunn, but the rest was a bit underwhelming.

    It gave me more appreciation for Brussels and Gent (my hometown)

    I found that Vienna had a very individual feel, no warmheartedly welcome or so. I didn’t find the Viennese very engaging except for our one at the hotel desk and a server at a cafe at the schonbrunn palace. There were even outright rude servers. When the clients are friendlier than the people working an serving, there’s a problem.

    I also found the city a bit rundown; sidewalks and streets are mostly patchwork and just slabs of asphalt or concrete. The government assisted housing was worse, just building blocks which add little or no value to the city’s face… especially in just outside the city center.

    Old forgone glory was the feeling I got and it was like Vienna is still running on that and not making an effort.
    Perhaps it is better to live in, cause transport is very good and cheap, food is good and cheap (from a Brussels perspective), but I felt a bit sad as a visitor.

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  3. Here in Vienna right now, and I have to agree it’s one of the most disappointing places I’ve ever visited. I went for a long night walk in may and found it mostly abandoned, there is zero city life and apart from one or two pretty buildings there is not very much to see. So weird given Budapest is one of my favourite cities ever, but Vienna is not in the same league..

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