Traveling to Two Cities: A Comparison of Vienna and Budapest

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

At several places in the world there are comparable cities, the comparison of which makes both more interesting for the traveler. In this first of a series of three articles I will compare and contrast Vienna and Budapest. A short 2 1/2 -hour drive, or three hours by train, will take you from one to the other. The leisurely traveler can choose to go the distance on a cruise down the river Danube.  Both cities are well worth seeing, and the comparison makes them more so.



Vienna and Budapest share a common history to a great extent because they were both raised to their grandeur as part of the Habsburg Empire, otherwise known as the Austrian Empire, which ruled a good portion of eastern Europe from the 1300s to the early 20th century. The family of the Holy Roman emperors, the Habsburgs expanded their influence through marriage — perhaps best known to many would be the marriage of Maria Antoinette to the French king Louis XVI. The monarchy was dissolved in 1918 at the end of the first world war, as the Habsburg’s had sided with Germany and therefore lost the war. The Habsburg’s ruled in Vienna for over 600 years, and their cousin were the royalty in Hungary. During the long reign of Francis Joseph I the two cities flourished and many of the remaining building from that time give testimony to the power and influence of their rulers.

Beautiful Buildings

Vienna is a city of palaces, large regal structures surrounded by open areas that augment the size and impressive statement of power that is inherent in their design. Throughout the city center impressive structures with Renaissance ornamentation delight. The visitor to Vienna must see the Schönbrunn Palace, home First to the indomitable Empress Maria Theresa and then to Francis Joseph I and his wife “Sisi.” It is open to the public and attracts 8 million visitors a year. Too large to see in a day, the visitor is given a a choice of tours, depending upon their interests. The romantic tour allows you to see the Imperial Apartments, was my favorite. A highlight for me was the Great Gallery where Nikita Khrushchev had his famous confrontation with the United States Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1961. While I remembered the incident from TV when I was a little girl, I had not pictured the Russian president beating his shoe on the table while in this gorgeous large gold room with amazing frescoes of angelic forces and pastoral scenes on the ceiling and walls.

Another highlight of this tour was the story of Mozart sitting on the lap of Empress Maria Theresa in 1763. Maria Teresa was obviously a force to be reckoned with, and throughout her legacy of the palace itself and the way it was decorated, the visitor can come to understand the power and foresight in this woman. While she might be best known to some now as the mother of Marie Antoinette, in her time she reigned over Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeia, Galicia as well as the Austrian Netherlands and Parma. And all that between the time and energy it takes to have 16 children! She instituted financial and educational reforms, promoted commerce and the development of agriculture, and reorganized the military.

Budapest is two cities, Buda and Pest, the former being the residence of royalty, while Pest was the city of commerce. The dual city has many of the same stately buildings, incredible architecture, and because Budapest and Vienna were joined by relations of royalty, shared architects, etc. their similarities in size and structure are immediately apparent. The Ethnographical Museum used to be the royal court and is an architectural mix of the Baroque, Renaissance and Classical. During the reign of Maria Teresa the Royal palace in Budapest as it now stands was begun. Other parts were completed during the reign of Francis Joseph I. Small in size in comparison to Schönbrunn, it houses the Hungarian national Gallery, and Palace Museum..

No visitor to Budapest should leave without visiting the baths. Our favorite was the public spa in the middle of the city Széchenyi Spa which has 14 different pools, different temperatures, indoors and outdoors, some with whirlpool some not. People play chess while standing in warm water, while others delight in getting tumbled and turned as the periodic jets start up. There are several other indoor Turkish baths as well and during the weeklong trip, a visitor could easily explore one a day.


Both Hungary and Vienna are proud of their tradition with horses, although they give the visitor very different experiences. In Vienna the Spanish riding school is the only institution in the world which is practiced 430 continuous years of the Renaissance tradition of haute école. These lovely white horses train with their riders daily and the visitor can buy tickets to watch the morning exercises, as well as, or in addition to, a formal performance.

In order to see the Hungarian Bakod Puszta tradition of working with horses, a visitor must take a short trip into the Hungarian countryside. There you will learn about how the Hungarian cowboys used horses, their ability with whips, and then when they had free moments entertained themselves through training horses to act in unusual ways. These include sitting down much like a dog, jumping up on their trainers shoulders, or the Puszta cowboy riding six or more horses in a group while standing up standing up.

Comparison of the Cities Today

The history post-World War II of the two cities shows the difficulties of maintaining an urban environment under different types of government. Austria after the war was an independent nation able to make its own way and rebuild what it could after the devastation of Nazi bombing. Many of the buildings were destroyed as much as 50%, and while some lesser houses were let go and rebuild over, much of the grandeur of Vienna was reconstructed, to the point that visitors will not know that the areas they are in a relatively new. A visitor to the city center of Vienna will experience much of the modern city would be comparable to New York.

Hungary on the other hand was occupied by the Russian communist regime and the people and the buildings testify to the fact that this was a difficult occupation. Buildings are ravaged by bullet holes from when the Russians violently put down the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. While we were there, 50 years later, artists could fill those bullet holes with bronze and wax tears. The Russians finally left hungry in the 1990s and the city and country have been rebuilding since then.

Interestingly enough, a Google search will point out that Vienna is facing larger degrees of urban decay than Budapest. This is perhaps an interesting comment on the fact that what the visitor sees is seldom the full reality of the place because of the visitor to these two cities would assume that likely the opposite were true. Nevertheless, the visitor should allow multiple days to explore the grandeur, the variety, and the cultural diversities in these two cities, similar and yet very different. The comparison and contrast between them will make both of them more interesting and important in your travel memory book.