Vienna vs. Budapest: 27 Observations

The central parliament buildings of both Vienna and Budapest were originally designed for a country far greater in size than currently. Photo: Tas Tóbiás; Design: Péter Nemes

Given their proximity and shared history, Vienna and Budapest have a lot in common. There are also notable differences and it seemed like a good time to jot down some thoughts about how the two cities compare to one another. TLDR: They're both very nice places in general.

#1 - Vienna and Budapest are both among the largest capital cities in Europe with cultural, commercial, and dining offerings that few can rival. Nevertheless, they’re no Paris or London, and the past century has seen historical events that actively undermined their cosmopolitan nature starting with the 1918 collapse of Austria-Hungary: The ethnically tolerant, economically and intellectually thriving monarchy disintegrated into small, insular, and rather backward nations plagued by radical political ideologies, both left and right. Since the 1960s, Vienna has impressively revived itself. Budapest less so.

#2 - Vienna is significantly wealthier than Budapest (€53,000 vs. €33,000 nominal GDP per capita). Austria is one of the richest countries in Europe and its post-WWII economic performance is often described as miraculous. This wealth difference has many implications but it’s most obvious outside the center, when comparing Vienna’s road conditions, retail stores, and housing stock to that of Budapest, for example.

#3 - The legacy of the Habsburg family, which ruled Vienna (1278-1918) and much of Europe for longer than any other dynasty, is unimaginably rich. Vienna has more than a dozen individual museums dedicated to the Habsburgs. There’s one for the Habsburg horse carriages, another for their furniture, yet another for their coronation regalia, and still others for their jewelry, art, natural sciences, books, musical instruments, and burial vault. The list goes on. Nothing like it exists elsewhere in Europe. Not even the Medici treasures compare, which, incidentally, fell into the Habsburg lap when they inherited the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1737.

#4 - Compared with other big cities in Europe, Vienna and Budapest are both safe, with excellent public transportation networks. Buses, trams, trolleys, and subways run frequently and arrive on time (try catching a bus in Rome). Crowding can be an issue in Vienna because of its recent population boom, worsened by a critical shortage of drivers. When it comes to being bike and pedestrian-friendly, Vienna is far ahead of Budapest.

#5 - The Danube flows through both cities, but Budapest is situated more favorably. Vienna’s city center is located away from the river, which splinters into smaller branches in the northeast. In Budapest, the Danube’s voluminous gray-blue cuts through the heart of town and is flanked by the dramatically soaring Buda hills that provide panoramic vistas and city-center hiking trails. A beautiful Danube island (Margaret) is the cherry on top.

#6 - Vienna is separated from its Old Town. The 19th century build-up of the Ringstraße replaced the defensive fortifications and connected the Old Town (District 1) with the rest of the city, but the two are still split by a fifteen minute uphill walk or a few tram stops. This is why tourists rarely go to the lively residential neighborhoods that lie beyond the Ringstraße. In Budapest, a few steps will get you from the Old Town to the buzzing Districts 7 and 8.

#7 - Average rents are slightly higher in Vienna than Budapest but the whole picture is more complicated. Vienna has an excellent (social) housing system in which rents are centrally controlled for 40 percent of homes. Part of Vienna's success is that it builds new units every year at a very high rate for both social and private housing. This allows the city to keep up with the population growth and to keep the market rates also under control. As a result, rent levels in Vienna compare favorably to other cities in Europe with similar wages.

Budapest, on the other hand, suffers from a critical housing shortage. It’s the most expensive rental city in Europe relative to local wages. However, most people don’t care about this because home ownership is extremely high: due to post-Communist privatizations, only 20 percent of households rent their homes (in Vienna, rental is 80 percent). While high home ownership is a positive, the insufficient supply of apartments means it's expensive to buy or rent a place in Budapest for newcomers, for example university students from the Hungarian countryside.

#8 - Compared with other big cities in Europe, both Vienna and Budapest have an impressive lineup of museums. The collections often hark back to the Austro-Hungarian period (1867-1918), but not exclusively. The House of Music, which opened in 2022 in Budapest, has an excellent permanent show and the recently revamped City Museum of Vienna is rightfully all the rage currently.

#9 - Special mention has to be made of the fine arts museums, among the very best in Europe. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is a legacy of the Habsburg family, while the old masters paintings in Budapest’s Szépművészeti came from Hungary’s high aristocracy and its archbishops.

#10 - The Holocaust ended Jewish life in Vienna. 136,000 people managed to escape before the deportations began in 1941, while 65,000 were murdered in concentration camps. Jews had been overrepresented within the intellectual fields and some historians believe that the city's intellectual life still bears these scars today. In Budapest, despite horrific persecutions in 1944, most Jewish people survived and remained there and the city is still home to continental Europe’s largest Ashkenazi community with an estimated 100,000 people who are completely secular. The presence of this Jewish community in Budapest has notable cultural and political implications.

#11 - In 1955, Austria regained its independence from the occupying Allied powers and joined the capitalist democracies of Europe. Over time, this made Vienna an extremely desirable destination for immigrants. People migrated from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 1970s, from Poland, Romania, and Hungary in the early 2000s, from Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine more recently. There’s also a big contingent of German students and even Jewish people re-appeared with the arrival of a few thousand ultra-orthodox Hasidim.

The result is that today nearly half of Viennese residents were born outside of Austria and the city’s population grew by almost half a million people in the past two decades. The Viktor-Adler Market, the Brunnenmarkt, and Leopoldstadt (District 2) are good places to appreciate this cultural diversity, which isn’t so apparent in Vienna's city center.

#12 - Budapest has been a far less popular destination for immigrants for a combination of reasons. The 1948 Stalinist takeover and the ensuing Communist system (1948-1989), no matter how soft, translated to increasingly lower living standards compared with Vienna. More recently, the ruling party in Hungary has been strongly anti-immigration. Apart from recent refugees from Ukraine, the only sizable immigration since the fall of Communism was from China. With about 30,000 people, Budapest has the largest Chinese community in Central Europe (and the best Chinese restaurants). This Chinese community accounts for about one percent of Budapest’s metropolitan population.

#13 - Parts of Vienna can feel more conservative than Budapest. The reasons are complex and go back to the Counter-Reformation and the Habsburg family itself, the most traditionalist dynasty in all of Europe. The Habsburgs regularly expelled Vienna’s most enterprising (Lutheran) residents and forced everyone else for centuries to adopt a strict Roman Catholic lifestyle that was rooted in religious rituals and piety. During the Holocaust, Vienna once more erased its most modern elements. For various reasons, none of these things applied to the same extent in Budapest. Recent Vienna census shows religious plurality and a rising share of the non-religious, but this long history of Catholic dominance is palpable, especially in the city center.

#14 - Vienna has maintained a robust coffeehouse culture. Both cities were known for their wonderful coffeehouses during Austria-Hungary, but the Communist nationalizations of 1949 decimated those in Budapest. A few were revived in recent years but they cater mostly to tourists. Coffeehouses in Vienna, however, are still thriving and popular among a large segment of the population, both young and old.

#15 - The foods of the twin cities overlap: best-of dishes from the Habsburg Monarchy, such as goulash, schnitzel, knödels, palatschinken, and strudels. But it’s far easier to find excellent traditional restaurants in Vienna than in Budapest. Vienna is likely better represented because of its more conservative dining habits and higher disposable incomes.

#16 - Naturally, both cities follow the latest global drinking and dining trends – for example, there’s an increasing number of restaurants specializing in shared-plates, fermentation techniques, and natural wines. These trends originated or were standardized in places like New York and Paris, and what a visitor from these cities finds in Vienna and Budapest might appear less developed or exaggerated.

#17 - Rather than simply mirroring global trends, a few attractions in both cities have shown exemplary creative imagination. Examples include Budapest’s ruin bars, which capitalized on the dilapidated housing stock of the old Jewish Quarter, and new-wave bakeries that revived old recipes within a contemporary framework. Vienna has excellent rejuvenated sausage kiosks and wine taverns (Heurigers). Their success shows that people appreciate establishments with a sense of place and a local angle.

#18 - Like other cities, historically Vienna and Budapest grew grapes for wine on their hillsides. Vienna still does. It’s the only metropolis in the world today with massive vineyards within its city limits. This is thanks to mayor Karl Lueger’s progressive building ban of 1905 which protected the vineyards. (He’s the same Karl Lueger whose statue on Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Platz has been defaced by protestors because of his rabid antisemitsm.)

#19 - Both cities have some of the richest classical music calendars in Europe. Starting with the great classical trio of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (to which sometimes Schubert is also added), Vienna has been a center of music since the end of the 18th century. Later came the Strausses, Brahms, Mahler, and the avant-garde of Schönberg. The Vienna Philharmonic still counts among the leading orchestras globally. In Budapest, Franz Liszt helped set in motion the musical life, which was carried forward by Bartók and Kodály and more recently Kocsis and Fischer. The Musikverein (Vienna) and the Liszt Academy (Budapest) are the most prestigious performance halls.

#20 - Gothic architecture exists in both cities, but Vienna’s Gothic buildings, such as the Saint Stephen’s cathedral, are much grander in scale. There are two reasons for this. One, before the 15th century, Budapest wasn’t the main residence of Hungary’s royal family. Two, many Gothic-style buildings, including the Buda castle of King Sigismund of Luxembourg, were reduced to rubble during the Ottoman occupation (1541-1686).

#21 - Neither Vienna nor Budapest has much Renaissance architecture despite the extraordinary Renaissance-era remains of King Matthias Corvinus’s Buda castle. The reason: the Habsburgs shifted their attention from Vienna to Prague in the 16th century. At the same time, Budapest was occupied by Ottoman Turkey, which left its own unique built environment, especially in the form of thermal baths.

#22 - Apart from Rome, no city in Europe can rival Vienna’s Baroque. These astonishing palaces, churches, and sculptures sprang up in the first decades of the 18th century under Charles VI and embodied the victory of the Habsburg Counter-Reformation. The Baroque in Budapest is less developed because it coincided with the bloody liberation wars against Ottoman Turkey which left the city almost totally deserted.

#23 - While Chancellor Metternich’s police-state stifled investments in Vienna in the first half of the 19th century, Budapest came into its own in those years. Fueled by enlightened aristocrats such as István Széchenyi and the Habsburg Palatine, Archduke Joseph, this flowering period of romantic nationalism climaxed with the construction of the Hungarian National Museum and the Chain Bridge.

#24 - The second half of the 19th century was a good one across Europe, but Vienna and Budapest were extreme cases, enjoying increasing prosperity, skyrocketing populations, and a massive construction boom. Budapest’s population, for example, went from 300,000 in 1870 to 1.1 million in 1910.

The result is the eye-catching architecture that still defines both cities. The radiating avenues of Budapest and the Ringstraße of Vienna are textbook examples of the Revival style to which architects such as Ödön Lechner in Budapest and Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos in Vienna added their own brand of Art Nouveau and proto-modernism that are still international benchmarks.

#25 - The first decades of the 20th century marked the intellectual and artistic peak of both cities. Vienna contributed to the international avant-garde with such figures as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka. The Hungarians were especially successful in the emerging field of photography – László Moholy Nagy, André Kertész, and Robert Capa each spent their formative years in Budapest. One can survey some of these artworks at the Leopold Museum and the Belvedere (Vienna), as well as the Hungarian National Gallery and the Capa Center (Budapest), for example.

#26 - The list of famous writers, philosophers, and scientists from this period is long and includes Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and John von Neumann. Many were Jewish who later fled from the Holocaust and became part of the great generation known bitterly as “Hitler’s gift to America.”

#27 - Culturally minded foreign tourists sometimes feel underwhelmed by contemporary Vienna and Budapest – the period after 1950. Excellent art and architecture do exist, but it's probably true that one needs to search a little bit harder. Offbeat is here to help!

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