I recently had the rather baffling realisation that the start of March 2021 marked the half-way point of my Erasmus exchange here in Vienna. The two-week Christmas holiday which turned into a seven week unexpected stay due to the ongoing UK flight ban definitely didn’t help matters, but I still can’t get my head around how time flies indeed! As Bon Jovi sang, whoa, we’re half-way there, whoa, livin’ on a prayer – and given that I’m living in a Studentinnenheim of the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde, I don’t think it could have been said any better myself.
To mark this bittersweet halfway house, here are some reasons why I’m convinced Vienna is the most underrated Year Abroad destination. By Anna Whitehead.
#1 Wien: Die Kulturhauptstadt Europas? The Cultural Capital of Europe?
Whether it’s art, music, architecture, theatre, or literature you’re interested in, Vienna will be just your cup of tea – and if it’s not, then the world-famous Kaffeehauskultur will ensure it will be your cup of coffee instead. The Kunsthistorisches Museum, built in a majestic Italian Renaissance style, is overflowing with spectacular artistic treasures assembled by the Habsburgs, and holds an extensive collection of Old Masters’ paintings. The Albertina and the Leopold Museum are slightly more manageable in size but nevertheless packed with masterpieces. The Albertina palace houses seven major art collections, including works by Dürer and Klimt, while the world’s largest Egon Schiele collection can be found in the Leopold. In pre- and post-pandemic times, the Burgtheater, Musikverein and Staatsoper would of course be unmissable cultural highlights. Many prominent European figures have lived in or been drawn to Vienna over the centuries, leaving the Alumni list of the Universität Wien looking like a who’s who of Nobel prize-winners and influential intellectuals.
#2 A Lovable Livable City
Vienna has topped the rankings of the World’s Most Livable Cities, compiled annually by Mercer, for the past ten years. Berlin comes in at 13th, Paris un peu plus tard at 39th, with London following shortly thereafter at 41st. Vienna has an extensive and accessible public transport system (a Semesterkarte valid from the start of February until the end of June will only set you back €75!) and is a clean and comparatively safe European Capital – although I did sadly to have to amend my Risk Assessment which stated “Vienna has not seen any major terrorist attacks in recent years” after the November Attack. It is much smaller than the sprawling metropoles of London or Berlin and being able to get everywhere I need on a 30-minute tram ride made moving to a foreign city a far less daunting prospect. My student home - the Mediatrix-Heim - is situated right outside the Währinger Straße-Volksoper U6 station and Trams 40 and 41 will take you straight down to Schottentor and the University of Vienna within 15 minutes – very handy for those few weeks of in-person lectures and classes we had at the start of the year!
#3 Raus in die Natur! Out into nature!
One of the reasons the quality of life is so high in Vienna is perhaps the city's attractive location – surrounded by the Viennese woods and just a train-ride away from the idyllic Austrian mountains and lakes, as well as from Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. The Danube does not divide the city in the same way as it does in Budapest, but its banks can be found filled with joggers, cyclists and walkers at the weekend. The more modern Business District, as well as UNO City, one of the four official headquarters of the United Nations, are also situated along the Danube. For a comprehensive yet enjoyable meander (if you’ll excuse the pun) along this key European artery, I’d recommend giving Claudio Magris’ Danube a read. I feel like I couldn’t possibly not mention Vienna’s Stadtwanderwege – signposted (to a certain extent…) popular walking routes around Vienna and it’s surroundings, which provide beautiful views and a refreshing weekend activity. I’ve just returned from a trip up Kahlenberg, which was far more vertiginious and strenuous than I remembered it to be!
#4 Ein gutes Gemeinschaftsgefühl
‘Gemeinschaftsgefühl’ is one of those terribly handy German composite nouns, which translates to ‘the feeling of community’. When considering Year Abroad destinations, and especially during a pandemic, it was important to me that I would live somewhere where I knew I could find a community to slot into. I knew that I would personally find living alone in a foreign city during interminable lockdowns unbearable, and am very glad to be living with other students. I’ve weirdly felt less homesick than I do at Cambridge (which is only a 45-minute train-ride from home!), and I think that’s largely because there are always people around – even if they’re just sitting on the sofa when I come back from the library and ask me how it’s going, it does make a difference. I’ve also found the Catholic Student Community – the KHG Wien – to be incredibly welcoming and friendly – going to Church being the most exciting corona-secure activity in the phases of strict lockdown. I’d definitely recommend scouting out your options and being open-minded when you’re doing your research; no matter how thrilling the course is or how good the internship looks on your CV, you don’t want to be stuck abroad feeling miserable about it.
#5 The Wildcard
My decision to choose Vienna was definitely up there alongside picking up Dutch, Portuguese and Ukrainian when it comes to the quirky choices my friends and I have made over the years. Many students went to Paris to do internships, and the German cohort split between the techno scene in Berlin and the corporate worlds of Stuttgart or Frankfurt. While it’s true that the lockdown hasn’t been conducive to meeting swathes of Erasmus students, I would say Vienna doesn’t have nearly as many British students lurking about. While this might seem like a challenge, I’ve found it to be great for my German practice, and I’ve enjoyed living a very different lifestyle from my fellow Year Abroad-ers. There are also plenty of German students who come to Vienna for exchange, or simply to study, meaning that the common language is more likely to be German than English. While I’ve found that almost all my housemates have a great level of English, dinnertime conversations are always auf Deutsch!
So there we have it – five reasons why Vienna has personally been a "wunderbar" choice for my Year Abroad. I’m glad the colder months are behind us now and that spring is definitely in the air, and I’m looking forward to the adventures the next few months will bring!
- Why Claudio Magris’s Danube is a timely elegy for lost Europe | Books | The Guardian
About the author
I'm Anna Whitehead and I’m a newcomer to Vienna, having made the decision to trade the dusty bookshelves of the University of Cambridge for all the Kaffee, Kuchen und Kultur that an Erasmus year at the Universität Wien would offer! I’m interested in Austrian literature and politics, enjoy learning languages and telling questionable puns. You can find a couple of stories over at https://annaw51.wixsite.com/annadventurelog, as well as a few snaps on the gram - @anna_whitehead11.