Berlin versus Vienna: a Capital Battle


After spending four months in Berlin, I took a holiday in Vienna.

If, as some claim, Berlin is a city going through puberty, then Vienna is its older, more responsible sibling. On the surface the family resemblance is clear: the beautiful Altbau (literally “old building”) style of architecture, much of it restored since World War II, can be found in both cities, though it dominates more in Vienna, where significantly less of it was destroyed.

Altbau houses are typically painted in tasteful shades of blue, pink or green and are decorated both outside and inside with elaborate plasterwork. They are tall but not imposing and, while very pretty, not particularly remarkable. In Berlin, in the fortunate neighbourhoods where Altbau buildings dominate, their charm contrasts reassuringly with the gritty Soviet blocks, which are usually within sight. In Vienna, on the other hand, where every street corner boasts yet another impressive feat of architecture, they merely add to the provincial, sophisticated feel which characterises the city.

Altbau in Berlin

While both cities boast an efficient underground transport system, in Vienna the stations look like Duplo models. They are easily navigable, childishly labelled, pristine and absolutely identical. In Berlin, they are different colours, often garish and grotty and full of musicians and homeless men with long, wild beards rooting through bins.

Both places are made for easy living. You can get around quickly until late at night and you can visit galleries and museums or lounge comfortably in the vast open spaces which surround them. In the summer, both cities set up rows of deckchairs beside their rivers. Little kiosks selling peanuts, crisps and beer pop up nearby. In Vienna you can fill your bottle with ice-cold water at Trinkwasserstations, which occur at regular intervals throughout the city. In Berlin, both the young and the old prefer to travel with a bottle of beer in their hand.

While Berlin and Vienna might share roots, their character couldn’t be more different. Vienna is stylish and self-contained, while Berlin is anarchic, vigorous and care-free.

Viennese Coffee Culture

In Vienna, the sophisticated coffee shop culture and well-dressed middle-aged lady reign supreme.

In Berlin it’s the punk bars and anybody inside themthat claims to want to fight the system.

In Vienna, most of the art is kept in museums which charge a high entry fee. In Berlin it’s all around you and changes at the whim of the latest anarchist movement.

The street-corners in Berlin are alive with fire-breathers, hip-hop dancers and human statues covered in body paint. In Vienna, the police politely ask the street musicians for their papers and the latter move on without complaint when they fail to produce the right ones.

Vienna is a city that no longer has much to fight for and whose history has been tastefully, expertly painted over. Berlin is attacking its raw wounds with an aggressive, momentous vigour.

Berlin is growing up. If it develops like Vienna, in a few years it will mourn the loss of adolescent ideals, which many of us too grow up to grieve. And there’ll be fewer beer bottles for the homeless men to collect.

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5 thoughts on “Berlin versus Vienna: a Capital Battle

  1. They both sound fascinating and wonderful in their own way. I feel as if I could relate to either one of them on any given day!

    I love some of the “quality of life” accommodations that both cities seem to have. The idea to provide water to anybody walking down the street seems at once practical, humane and completely foreign to me. I know I’ve made the comment on one of your previous posts, but I fear that any water stations such as that in an America city would be pissed in, spat in, and otherwise ruined.

    One of the things that I constantly bemoan is the stubborn resistance this country has to providing convenient, public transportation. If even a wild, “adolescent,” churning city such as Berlin can manage to make their public transportation convenient, than why not us?

    Oh, don’t get me wrong! We have public transportation in some of our larger cities. However, here in Boston, the T (subway) stops well before the bars close and the one line that leads out of the city is so infrequent on the weekends to be impractical.

    I will never forget the lovely feeling I had when I boarded a train in Lausanne, Switzerland and was able to go up to Gruyere with ease. Considering Gruyere isn’t even half the size of Boston, it really brought home the point of how accessible the country was by public transport.

    At any rate, I’m rambling. Your writing is truly remarkable, Kate! I especially liked the quote, “…whose history has been tastefully, expertly painted over…” Thank you for taking the time to describe and compare these two cities! Incidentally, have you considered becoming a travel writer?

    • So lovely to get such a thoughtful response, Janyaa! I also had the pleasure of travelling by train in Switzerland a few years ago. It’s truly magic to whizz through the Alps and take in the scenery.

      I feel the same way about Dublin as you do about Boston. I’m convinced that certain things like the “Etsies” in Vienna or the liberal drinking policy in Belrin would be a disaster in Dublin. But it does make me think: does a city shape its people or is it really entirely the other way around?

      I totally know what you mean about relating to both. I see Vienna with such different eyes now that I’ve come to know Berlin. I’ve also begun to notice the “energy” of a city much more. Dublin for instance, in spite of its shortcomings (public transport, drunk and disorderly etc) is incredibly vibrant and inspiring. Its stories are much easier to absorb than for example, those in Vienna.

      Thank you so much for the compliment! I’ve never seriously considered travel writing, but I would certainly take up any offer to travel and write! Being between places as I find myself right now privileges you with a new and interesting perspective.

  2. Agh
    I have been logged out of all my wordpress sites! for some bizarre reason, I’ve missed your last three posts thinking you were not posting while travelling, then I nearly missed my bookclub, which is organised through a friends blog. I have to re-register for email notifications.

    Oh and by the way, I am booking my tickets to Vienna, sounds like my kind of place, do they hand out cardigans and pipes in the library? Can I wear my slippers to the coffee shop? Ahhh bliss.

    • Oh dear! How inconvenient, glad you’re back in the zone now 🙂 Slippers and pipes are obligatory in coffee shops – and the rule strictly enforced.. Do stop over in Berlin for anarchic contrast though!

  3. I could be wrong but I think if you’re a classical music/Opera fan then Vienna is probably for you unlike Berlin which probably embraces more modern music.

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