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Vienna or Wroclaw; a vs city comparison and travel guide

Both Vienna and Wroclaw 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 Wroclaw 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?)

Introduction to Vienna and Wroclaw

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.

Wroclaw (spelt Wrocław in Polish) is the historical capital of the Silesia region. It's been ruled and fought over and shaped by countless tribes and peoples, from the warring Slavs of the first millennium to the Habsburg emperors to the Prussian generals of the 1800s. That makes it a strangely diverse and varied place, with Germanic townhouses and Flemish-styled mansions next to Gothic cathedrals and USSR tenements.

But Wroclaw is a good-looking city, no questions. It's got a beautiful perch on the Oder River, spreading from island to island with arched bridges that recall Venice and wooded parks aplenty. The Old Town is the anchor of it all, and a great place to wander, people watch, and drink Polish beers. Beyond come the fairy-tale spires of Cathedral Island, the colossal concrete dome of Centennial Hall (a UNESCO site), and even Zen parks inspired by Japan.

High-level summary for Vienna and Wroclaw

Summary
Which city would I go to? Vienna
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Vienna
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Vienna
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Vienna
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!

Destination details

How long to spend in the city?

Wroclaw isn't a big place. Yes, it's one of the largest cities in Poland, but its Old Town is still eminently walkable. There's also a nifty tram network that can whiz you around the main sights for just a few zloty here and there. All that means you should only need a day or two to explore the whole place. The presence of a dedicated airport also makes Wroclaw a prime candidate for a fly-in, fly-out weekend away.

Longer trips to Wroclaw should be supplemented with day outings – there's probably not enough in the town to sustain week-long visits. Get out and you have the wooded mountains of Karpacz (one of the larger Polish ski resorts), the Game of Thrones castles of the Eagles Nest Trail, and the holy Catholic pilgrimage site of Jasna Góra.

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.

Unless you're a fan of air pollution and sub-zero temperatures, Wroclaw is not the place to be in the winter. The whole of south Poland gets cold between November and March – really cold. We're talking minus 10 degrees regularly, with sudden snowfalls and freeing rain. Of course, when there is a dusting of the white stuff, the Old Town of Wroclaw can look wonderful, but recent winters haven't been so promising.

For sightseeing and enjoying the student buzz of the town, it's probably better to hold off until May. That's when the weather really starts getting good. You might have chilly evenings, but you should be able to don the shorts and t-shirts for your wanders through the city. What's more, the local university is in session, so the bars will be lively and vibrant.

Summer sees the students go home and the tourists arrive. It's a reliable period for weather, even if you have to deal with the occasional thunderstorm around early afternoon. September is just as nice, if not even better. That's when the trees of the island parks in Wroclaw start to change to yellow and ochre, lending a romantic atmosphere to the Silesian capital.

If you're the sort of traveller that loves to find off-the-beaten-track cities that don't necessarily have big-name sights, then Wroclaw is sure to be right up your alley. It's not as well known as other towns in Poland but comes with local vibes and interesting neighborhoods. It's also a student city, which means the nightlife can get pumping during term times (September to December and January to June).

Wroclaw has something for those who like the great outdoors, too. Not only is it a green place with lots of parks and riverside areas to explore, but the mountains of the Karpacz and the Czech borderlands are only a short drive to the south. They've got hiking, skiing, spa towns and more.

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.

Prater amusement park Vienna

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 Wroclaw
Two days is all that's needed to explore Wroclaw from top to bottom. Most of your time will be spent in the charming Old Town area, but a few jaunts to parklands and other districts can combine with lively nights on the beer to boot…
The interactive map below shows a suggested route for the 48 hours in Wroclaw, with day 1 highlighted in green and day two in yellow.

Day 1: Every history lover, people watcher, foodie and sightseer will want to see the Stare Miasto district. That's the Wroclaw Old Town; the piece de resistance of this southern city. It begins around the wide boulevard of Piłsudskiego, passing through a few blocks of Soviet-era tenements before hitting the historic area proper. That starts in earnest by the Fosa Miejska, a centuries-old moat that was part of the town's medieval fortifications until it was destroyed by Jérôme Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon.

On the left as you make for the heart of the quarter is the elegant Wrocław Opera House, while the leafy walks of Park Staromiejski are the perfect place to go for a picnic in the summer. Keep going north and you'll eventually arrive at the Rynek. This is the beating kernel of the Old Town, where you'll find the most amazing sights of all.

The Gothic-styled Old City Hall draws the eye first, followed by the German-built housing blocks of 1931 – considered by the locals to be among the ugliest in town! Be sure to check out the narrow alleys that weave through the middle of the square at the Sukiennice. Also keep the eyes peeled for the little dwarf statues that dot the plaza. They're a kitschy addition to the cityscape that you'll find on many random street corners.

As the afternoon turns into evening, consider settling in for a beer tasting at the hearty Spiż microbrewery. Or, head for Setka, where Communist paraphernalia adorns the walls and you can sample potent vodka with pickled herring.

Most Tumski Bridge Wroclaw

The Most Tumski Bridge, where romantics leave love locks attached to the rails and throw the key in to the Odra River. To the rear is the spire of the Bartholomew’s church and the twin spires of the cathedral

Day 2: With the Old Town done and dusted, Day 2 starts with explorations of the outlying islands on the Oder River. There are loads to get through, but the chart-topper that gets us rolling is the iconic Ostrów Tumski. Walk over the pretty bridges to that and you'll find yourself in the oldest part of Wroclaw. The twin spires of high Wrocław Cathedral dominate the skyline, heralding the grandest church in town. Delve in for a peek at the beautiful stained-glass windows and the high vaulted apses.

From there, hop over to Słodowa Island. This is especially fun during the summer months, thanks to the groups of local students and youngsters who sit with BBQ grills by the riverside. Wyspa Piasek is also worth a pitstop, thanks to its handsome chain bridges and cobbled roads.

For the afternoon, catch tram 2, 4, or 10 from the Old Town to Centennial Hall. A whopping great big UNESCO World Heritage Site, it's considered to be a masterstroke of concrete architecture, touting a dome that mimics the Parthenon of Rome. Alongside that are lovely gardens that hit a zenith with the chilled Ogród Japoński – the perfect place to meditate and mull the historic wonders of Wroclaw.

The ever-expanding Wrocław–Copernicus Airport is now served by loads of routes coming from across Poland and Europe. It's even possible to arrive on long-haul connecting flights thanks to Poland's flag-carrying LOT airline. There's a bus that leaves the terminals for the centre of town every 20 minutes throughout the day. Tickets cost 3 PLN and the ride is around half an hour.

To get out to the Centennial Hall, Wroclaw Zoo, or other districts, you can make use of the efficient tram network. Buy tickets at the MPK Wroclaw machines at any bus or tram stop and then validate them as you board. Basic fares cost 3 PLN per ride, but you can also score passes for several days using the Urbancard website.

Hotels in Wroclaw are generally all located within the ring road of Piłsudskiego. Roughly speaking, the closer you get to the Rynek square the better the location, though staying right on the main plaza might be noisy at night. There are also some lovely boutique stays and B&Bs to find north of the Oder River.

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.

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