Vienna is apparently famous for its high quality of life. In a study of 127 world cities in 2005, the Economist ranked it joint-first as the world’s most liveable city. For the last seven years, Mercer has ranked Vienna top place in its annual “Quality of Living” survey of hundreds of cities around the world. The UN-Habitat classified Vienna as being the most prosperous city in the world in 2013. The city was sixth out of 256 in the 2014 Innovation Cities Index based on 162 different factors.
That’s what Wikipedia will tell you. But I beg to differ. Yes, of course, it is a beautiful and impressive city with an enormous history of politics and art. Freud, Stalin, Trotsky and Hitler – whatever we think of them – were an influential quartet of residents. Not to mention a few other reasonably well known Viennese – Mahler, Strauss, Schubert and Marie Antoinette
And nobody can argue with the fantastic array of buildings – the churches, palaces, museums and cathedrals. But how well does it do today a modern, functioning city? Allow me – as a humble tourist – to observe a few practical shortcomings:
- Convenience shops are closed “out of hours”. We arrived at 6.45pm on Saturday and all the shops were already closed. So, we could not buy any basic necessities – milk, drinks or food for supper and breakfast. Fortunately the owner of our apartment had left behind a bottle of Prosecco and some coffee and almond milk. We survived. The next day – Sunday – in the middle of the city, we had to walk 15 minutes to find a grocers which was open. The fact it was heaving with hungry people playing dodgems with trolleys and forming long queues at the checkout only served to underline the desert of convenient retail outlets.
- None of the restaurants take plastic. This is manageable once you realise it. But having bought pizza on the first evening (remember, no shops were open), we were only told they did not take cards when I waived one at the waiter, just as we were about to leave. A run through the rain to find an elusive cash machine finally reaped cash dividends. Now our holiday is distracted by the need to top up with notes from cash machines, rather than just paying as we go. As someone who has worked for two year in Scandinavia without ever using cash – this feels like a step back into the previous century.
- Weekly parking costs a fortune. To park our hire car for the week anywhere near our apartment is horrendously expensive. I won’t even tell you, but its greater than the cost of the hire. I’m all in favour of keeping cars out of cities, but it’s hard to imagine the complexities of travelling to and from airports and exploring the beautiful countryside around Vienne and the Danube – without access to a car. The cost seems all the more unreasonable when you see that half the spaces on the street outside our apartment are vacant. When we were in Germany last year, we paid for a very good value tourist parking pass.
- Pencil thin traffic lanes. The traffic lanes are confusing enough, without being about an inch wider than our car (classed as a medium sized car). We rely on other road users to drive with expert precision, and we breathe in whenever we have cars on either side. Larger vehicles simply occupy two lanes. Add to that the absence of diversion signs where roads are closed for roadworks, and it all gets a bit stressful.
- Graffiti everywhere. I like a well-positioned artistic or meaningful tattoo or two. Body art can be a statement and a voice, as well as a thing of beauty. But, I’m not a great admirer of skin smothered in ink, so that every last area is painted. So it is with graffiti. Its healthy for a city to have a voice of protest, insight or philosophy. But Vienna has graffiti at every turn. Along the canal it is unending – so much so that you can’t really see any of it properly. Even though some of it is splendid, it is crowded out. The best art needs space around it. And, if the city is so perfect – what is everyone shouting and protesting about?
- Ugly mid-rise buildings. I read that there is a height restriction on new buildings in Vienna. If so, it is too little, too late. The ubiquitous ornately painted 5 or 6 storey buildings lining most of the streets are beautiful, without being over-stated. We have been staying in the penthouse of one of them. But as we look out across the city from our fifth floor, the historic church spires are overshadowed, and in some cases obscured, by half-a-dozen ugly, late twentieth century grey concrete and glass square towers. Too tall to be ignored, too short and depressingly designed to be admired. Despite attempts to jazz them up with projected coloured lighting displays, they only spoil, rather than enhance, the skyline.
- Poor maintenance. Outside the centre, the city is not particularly clean, tidy or well-maintained. The maintenance staff are either over-stretched or under-worked. Weeds, cracked paving stones, flaky paint, discoloured concrete and a confusion of signs, posters and advertisements clutter the streets. It feels – and smells – dirty in places, particularly along the murky canal.
So Vienna – there is so much to enjoy. Stunning buildings, pleasant people, great shops, stunning history. But the best city in the world, or even in the top 10? I would put it no higher – and maybe lower – than Valencia, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Oslo, Florence, Venice, Helsinki, Prague, Krakow, Dubrovnik, to name just 10 in europe. Maybe it’s different if you live here. After all I am just a tourist.
But “best quality of life” in Europe, “most liveable city”? That means nothing to me, oh Vienna.