Recently I got to take my first Covid-era work trip – a surreal feeling! It was also the first trip I’ve taken for my current job, which I’ve been in for almost a year.
I was able to spend a whole week working out of my organization’s offices in Vienna, Austria. Every day, I walked to the train station, took the U-bahn to the office, worked out of a colleague’s empty office, had meetings with a million people, and also continued to participate in calls for my regular job back in Geneva. By the end of the week, I was exhausted and ready to crawl back into my introvert shell, but it was such a rewarding experience, getting to pretend that this was my regular life for a whole week.
So – what did I think of Vienna as a place to work, and would I ever move there? That was the big question on my mind during this entire trip. To answer that question, I had to first compare and contrast Geneva and Vienna in a few key aspects.
Vienna is a HUGE metropolis compared to Geneva. Its land area is 26 times that of Geneva; the population is about nine times bigger. It is a city of sprawling urban transportation networks, innumerable tourist sites, and endless apartment blocks.
By comparison, Geneva is a small village. The population is concentrated heavily on the banks of Lake Geneva. It only takes around 15 minutes to travel from the airport to city center by bus.
The Vienna train station is a large hub in Central and Eastern Europe – only an hour from Bratislava, Slovakia, I was told, and also not far from Budapest, Hungary. If travelling by train, Vienna is a bit farther from Western Europe. A colleague from the Balkans told me that he is able to go home very easily, and roundtrip plane tickets often cost only around 40 euros.
Geneva is definitely in a more central location. By train, it’s two hours from Lyon, three from Paris, two from Bern, and three from Zurich. There are two daily direct trains to Milan that are four hours. Places like London, Munich and Salzburg can be reached by train in under a day.
Public transportation in Vienna is very advanced. The U-bahn trains arrived constantly at the stations, often only 2-3 minutes apart. The above-ground tram was less frequent (more like 8-10 minutes) apart, but it offered reliable transportation to and within the more touristy areas. The city seems very bike-friendly, with bike lanes running everywhere, and as a pedestrian it would be wise to constantly keep an eye out for cyclists, as pedestrian paths often cross directly with bike lanes.
Because Geneva is so small, its public transit is sufficient but more limited. Many people travel via buses or trams, which can run up to 6-8 minutes apart. There is only one subway line, and also a ferry to transport people across the lake. The city is quite walkable and is bike-friendly in theory, but often lacks dedicated bike lanes.
Every colleague at the Vienna office told me that German was not a common working language in the context of our organization, which is international in nature. English was very much the default. This was an interesting contrast to the Geneva office, where French is very much a dominant working language, and we are more or less expected to either know French, or be actively taking classes to improve our French.
I was also told that knowledge of German was a nice-to-have but not crucial when it comes to living in Vienna, as it’s an international city with a large expat population. Multiple people huffed, “They’ve got their own Viennese dialect of German that’s impossible to understand!” To which I replied, “… Have you heard Swiss-German?”
Nevertheless, I cannot imagine living in a foreign country and not making an effort to learn the local language. Think of all the administrative tasks that you have to wrangle in your daily life — signing a lease, calling the plumber, making a doctor’s appointment.
However, I did find that when I went to a restaurant or shop in Vienna, I was often greeted in English first. The opposite happens in Geneva: wherever I go, I am always spoken to in French first. Even though I am Asian and visibly look foreign, the default assumption is that I do, in fact, speak French.
Cost of living
Multiple people told me that even though salaries in Vienna were objectively lower than in Geneva, “the money goes further”. I can see how this might be true. In the work cafeteria, whereas a plate of food and a drink would cost 17 francs in Geneva, in Vienna it would cost less than 10 euros. In restaurants as well, I found that prices were lower — and the food was much better, too.
Rent, of course, is also lower in Vienna. Some people did complain that it was hard to find a good apartment, but the same complaint can be said for Geneva tenfold. Many people said that Vienna was an excellent place to raise a family – not that Geneva isn’t, but everything is just so much more expensive here.
While I appreciated the elegant, classical architecture that was everywhere in Vienna – and of course, there were some nice gardens in the city – at times it did feel too urban and crowded for my taste. The density of people was very high compared to Geneva, and the city often felt like an endless stream of restaurants restaurants apartments apartments offices offices tourists tourists. I was also underwhelmed by the Danube, which, due to poor weather conditions, was a dull shade of grey.
I have to say that I much prefer the environment in Geneva. The lake is at the center of our town, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, a body of blue silk. Along the lake are long tree-lined promenades and layers of vineyards, and in the distance snow-capped mountains. On weekends, the lake is dotted by white sailboats. Whenever I come home to Geneva, I feel a deep sense of respite, of finally unwinding after a chaotic time away. That is not something I take for granted.
Outside of the city, of course, Austria has fantastic natural landscapes. I particularly enjoyed the views that I had on my train and bus rides to Salzburg and Hallstatt two summers ago. Salzburg in particular is an absolutely lovely and relaxing place to visit.
For those working in international development, international affairs, diplomacy, or a similar field, I would say that Geneva offers vastly more opportunities. There are a ton of international organizations and agencies here; the UN is just the tip of the iceberg of what Geneva has to offer. The Swiss government, despite not joining the UN as a member until 2002, is very proud of Geneva’s profile as an international city, and is highly involved and supportive of the many organizations working here.
While Vienna is also an impressive international hub, in my organization specifically, I observed that there are much fewer opportunities in Vienna, both in terms of interesting jobs and upward mobility. Speaking to many people, I detected a relatively lower level of morale. Many people seemed resigned to what they were doing, and only brightened up when talking about their personal lives outside the workplace, enjoying all that Vienna has to offer. In a way, I think that’s a healthy attitude to have – your job shouldn’t define your identity and your happiness as a person. But I did feel that the office environment in Vienna lacked a bit of conviviality and energy.
Quality of life
Vienna has much more to offer on this front than Geneva. I could have stayed there for another month and would still have barely explored what this wonderful city had to offer. I am a huge fan of museums, especially art, history, and the intersection of the two. Most of Switzerland’s museums are concentrated in Basel, a few hours away. In Vienna, of course, the art and culture are unparalleled: the palaces, the abundance of riches from the Habsburg era, the opera, the art museums, the coffeehouses, the music….
The food scene in Vienna was also vastly superior to Geneva. You can find a myriad of restaurants serving any cuisine, at a high quality, for reasonable prices. The same cannot be said for Geneva, where most restaurants are both mediocre and expensive, and I cook at home 90% of the time out of necessity.
Without question, Vienna would be an amazing place to live.
So – would I move to Vienna after my time in Geneva is up? It’s too early to say, but at this point, I probably wouldn’t do it. Not that I didn’t love Vienna – I would go back there to visit in a heartbeat. But at this point in my life, my three biggest concerns are:
- Location. I would prefer to stay in a more central location in Europe that allows me to travel more easily by train.
- Career. It’s important for me to have a job that I find creatively fulfilling and rewarding. I don’t want to feel like I’m just going through the motions.
- Language. I’ve already invested 3 years into studying French, and becoming fluent is a very real possibility, if I keep at it. I don’t know if I could muster the same energy to start learning German from scratch.
In conclusion… I guess that means the destination of this train remains TBD.