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Both Vienna and Brussels are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased opinions of Brussels and Vienna, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
The erstwhile epicentre of the great Habsburg empire, Vienna, is just as grand and glorious as you might expect. The Hofburg palace spreads is vast Baroque wings in the heart of the town, framing manicured gardens topped with equestrian statues.
It is all too easy to over-look Brussels as a city break destination, especially considering it is the home of modern European politics. However, there is a surprising amount here to explore and enjoy, and a visit here can end up being one of those unexpected hits that with hindsight, you can’t understand why you hadn’t been before.
Being smaller than many of its European counterparts it is able to offer the perks of a more manageable and friendly atmosphere with fewer crowds, exceptional art galleries, museums and medieval churches abundant around every cobbled street corner. It is also brimming with quirky café charm and home to the highest standard of food you will find anywhere in the world.
Which city would I go to? Vienna
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!
Brussels is compact city, and as such, you can see all the sights in 1 or 2 days. There is ample to see, but most of it is packed into the historical core.
Walking from the Grote Markt (The Grand Place) in the very middle of the city to the EU Parliament and through the bustling streets of the Stalingrad District hardly takes more than a couple of hours – depending on how many Belgian beers you stop for en route, of course!
With extra time, you could consider outings to places like Waterloo (the battlefield where Wellington defeated Napoleon in 1815) and the handsome medieval city of Bruges.
Vienna is big and brimmingwith sights. History buffs and culture vultures will want at least three or four days to check off the bucket-list attractions. That's because the mainstay palaces and the most immersive museums each deserve at least half a day to themselves. You'll also need some time to wander the Old Town area and hop the famous Viennese cafés.
If you're eager to explore all of the facets of Vienna, then you'll certainly need much longer than just your average city break. Whole weeks can be spent enjoying the buzzy squares and the statue-filled parklands. What's more, there are day trips aplenty in the region, ranging from the pine forests of the Wienerwald to the rising foothills of the Salzburger Alps.
Vienna in the summer can't be beaten. When the sun shines, the city's parks and bars come alive. The best weather is usually between June and August, but beware that things can get hot and humid, with temperatures cranking up over 30 Celsius. The good news is that there are some strands and swimming spots along the Danube for cooling off. If you prefer things a little milder, May and September are usually also dry and warm.
On the flip side, Vienna in winter is a real wonderland. The Austrian capital hosts some of the most enchanting Christmas markets in Europe. You'll find those brewing up hot chocolates and mulled wine on Rathausplatz and in the grounds of the Schloss Schönbrunn. They get into full swing in December, when it's common to get dustings of snow and sub-zero temperatures – boots and woollies will be required.
Brussels gets busiest during the warm months of the summer. Everyone from city breakers flying in on short-haul budget links to Interrail backpackers on a cross-continent grand tour pass through during the main holidays from June and August.
There's a real buzz about the bars of the Grand Place then, with people chatting and snapping selfies all around the UNESCO-tagged streets. Some downsides: Brussels can have heatwaves, and the price of hotels at this time is sure to be peaking.
While winter is probably best avoided unless you're on the hunt for cosy Christmas markets, spring and autumn have their pluses. They're both typically cheaper. There's fewer people around, so you're more likely to score tours of the EU Parliament and whatnot. And everything costs a little less, from hotels to flights deals into town.
One of the great joys of Brussels is just how many facets there is to the city. You're certain to be entertained if you love architecture. The main square alone comes with Gothic, Neo-Gothic, and Renaissance elements.
Then there's all that fabled Belgian food, from the double-cooked chips to the chocolate-topped waffles to the frothy monk-brewed beers you find in the pubs. Add in enthralling tours of important parliament buildings, pretty parks, and some seriously rich galleries, and you've got a destination suited to all sorts.
Of course, some people might not feel right at home, Brussels is urban to the core. Finally, budget seekers could find themselves a little happier elsewhere. Brussels hardly breaks the bank, but it's no penny saver either.
Packing in handsome palaces, Austrian beer houses, Alpine forests, cool cafés, art-filled galleries, and a buzzy nightlife, Vienna satisfies all sorts of travelers. You can easily fill whole trips in the museums alone. Days can be whiled away flitting between coffee shops. Nights can be spent in opera shows or glugging frothy beers in hipster bars.
Don't go thinking that Vienna is the great Austrian outdoors. This might be the country of the Alps, but the mountains are still at least an hour's train ride to the west. What's more, there's not a beach in sight. The best that landlocked Central Europe can offer in the way of sand and water is a few artificial swimming areas along the River Danube.
48hours in Vienna
So, you only have two days in the Austrian capital? Get ready for an itinerary that's packed to bursting with all sorts. From Neo-Classical Habsburg mansions to strolls on the Danube canals to mornings in buzzy market areas, there's something for a whole host of traveler types in these parts.
Day 1: Morning on the Heldenplatz. This manicured urban garden is one of the most iconic squares in Vienna. The huge equestrian statue of Archduke Charles of Austria is what will probably catch the eye but remember that the plaza was also the place where Hitler announced the annexation of Austria in 1938. Nearby, the Hofburg stands proud.
On a quick, two-day itinerary, it's probably best not to delve inside. The exhibits can easily take hours on end, though it's a must if you're a lover of 18th-century European history. Take your photos of the mighty Neo-Classical exterior and then move straight to the streets to the west. They herald the Innere Stadt (the Old Town) of Vienna. Cobbled lanes and little archways form a maze here that's lovely to get lost in. A lunch stop (read: strudel stop) at Café Central is a doozy. Gold-leafed ceilings and elegant royal portraits gild the interior, though the main draw is sitting where Freud and Trotsky once sat sipping their coffees.
Later on, head north around the ring roads to the Sigmund Freud Museum. It's a fine introduction to the life and works of the founder of psychoanalysis, with the original doctor's couch that his patients would sit on. Beeline straight to Prater when the evening closes in. You can get there on the underground, emerging into Vienna's famous inner-city theme part with its twirling Ferris wheel and fairground attractions.
The Prater amusement park with its traditional rides and the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel
Day 2: The early hours on the Naschmarkt offer some of the best people watching in the city. Fruit sellers call out prices while locals chow down on pretzels and white beer in the stalls. This vibrant bazaar is also the perfect place to grab any Viennese souvenirs and foodstuffs. A ubiquitous fix of palaces comes next. We'd recommend choosing one of the big two – the Belvedere Palace or the Schönbrunn. Both are stunning but the former is the easiest to get to. Both will also likely take a couple of hours, especially if you want to explore the sprawling grounds as well as the interior court rooms of the old Habsburg elite.
That will still leave some time in the afternoon to breeze over to the Danube Canal. Abuzz with boat bars and hole-in-the-wall eateries, it can help balance out the culture with a little hedonism. The district of Leopoldstadt is right behind, replete with hipster coffee joints and cocktail emporiums. An alternative way to cap off your weekend could be a jaunt to the hills of the Vienna Woods (the Wienerwald). They offer lookouts – and gorgeous sunsets – above the capital just behind the area of Hütteldorf.
48hours in Brussels
A whirlwind 48 hours in Brussels can take you from curious statues to modernist structures, regal parklands to beautiful palaces. Of course, there's plenty of time to fit in home-brewed beers and indulgent waffles along the way.
Day 1: The Grand Place is the only real place to begin in Brussels. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the kernel of the city, and has been since time immemorial. Look to the north end and you can see the elegant façade of the Brussels City Museum. It's housed in the Neo-Gothic Maison du Roi, hosting collections that include masterworks by Flemish painters and the original Manneken Pis statue (more on him later).
On the south flank is the indomitable Brussels Town Hall. Gaze up at its gorgeous medievalist spire and wonder at the carvings of dukes on the portals. The rest of the square is a photographer's dream, with guild houses and pubs and more. Next, the area of Stalingrad calls. Curiously named, it's nonetheless one of the liveliest quarters of Brussels.
It's also where you'll find the famously underwhelming Manneken Pis statue – we won't spoil it with a description! After lunching in one of the taverns there, head east to the acclaimed Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. It's a must for any culture vultures, what with exhibits that contain works by the likes of Anthony van Dyck, Bruegel, and Rubens. It demands a whole afternoon.
The town hall on the Grand Place, the main plaza of Brussels
Day 2: Overdosed on art and ready for something completely different? Good, because day two begins at the Espace Léopold. Welcome to the vast European Parliament; the corridors of power for 27 states that range from Romania to Portugal. Tours of the huge debating chamber and the plenary rooms where the decisions are made run daily from 9am.
After an hour inside, you can head for the grand Parc du Cinquantenaire that sits just behind. It's a prime example of Brussels' flamboyant public garden style, hosting the eye-watering Arc du Cinquantenaire, a national symbol of Belgium.
The afternoon sees you hop on trams (a combo of Tram 5 and Tram 6 usually does the trick) to the area of Laeken. This otherwise green a leafy suburb has one major claim to fame: the strange Atomium. You might not believe it, but it was built in 1958. Up top there's a lookout point with panoramas of the whole city.
For the evening, mosey back to the Grand Place and seek out the iconic Delirium Café on the side streets nearby. It's home to a whopping 2,000 variations of Belgian and global beers!
Brussels Airport (BRU) and the Charleroi Airport (CRL) combine to offer all sorts of long-haul and short-haul air links into the capital. The cheapest cross-continent flights on Ryanair and the like usually jet into CRL. Transatlantic and premium carriers usually go to BRU.
You can use Brussels City Shuttle to get to Charleroi for as little as €5 each way if booked online and in advance. Meanwhile, direct rail links go to Brussels Airport from Brussels Central, costing €8.60 and taking a little over 20 minutes in total.
In terms of travel safety, Brussels ranks well. Incidents involving tourists are rare, although thefts, bag snatches, and pickpocketing do occur in many of the visitor hotspots.
Try not to walk alone in the city centre after dark, particularly if you've been drinking. Never leave valuable items within sight if you're parking your car. Also always keep one eye on your handbag or wallet when riding the metro.
For hotels, the best area of Brussels is surely the district immediately around the Grand Place. The closest establishments to that UNESCO site typically cost oodles but ooze luxury. A few streets back and you can find affordable local B&Bs with plenty of charm.
Vienna is among the safest and most liveable cities in the world – at least if the stats are to be believed. Of course, you'll need to have your wits about you as if you were traveling anywhere. Pickpocketing, fake tour guides, and taxi scams do occur, though they aren't common as in other European capitals.
The best arrival point for those flying is Vienna International Airport. It's a well-equipped, modern port on the south-eastern side of the capital. Direct S-Bahn trains link the centre to the terminals, or you can hop on the premium Railjet from Vienna Hauptbahnhof. There's also a shuttle link provided by AirportLines Bus, costing €13 per person, return.
Picking hotels in Vienna can sometimes be a tricky business. First-time visitors can't go wrong if they aim to stay in the Old Town (the Innere Stadt), but rooms there can be pricy and sell out fast. Good alternatives include the hip and happening district of Leopoldstadt (great for dining with a youthful vibe) and any of the blocks that come off Naschmarkt.