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What to Know when you visit Vienna – a guide for travellers & expats coming to the city

In Living Abroad, Vienna, Vienna Local Experiences by Carly

All the things you should know before you vist Vienna

Vienna is a really boring city if you only see the surface tourist attractions.

I should know, I used to think it was utterly pointless to visit back in 2012. It was pretty, sure, but boring compared to the buzz of Berlin’s nightlife, Prague’s history, or Amsterdam’s canals, bikes and indie clothing stores. When I was a tour guide, I was convinced Vienna was a waste of time.

The universe has a pretty hilarious way of showing me I was a complete idiot back then.

Once I moved to Vienna (for love, for the history and maybe for the cakes) I was forced to look beyond the postcard tourist attractions and find something more. It was also a wake-up call to learn all the etiquette, habits, and ways of doing things to make the most out of the city. I didn’t see the point in moaning about the way things were here, I saw it as a personal mission to adapt into my new home.

So to prepare you for your visit, here’s everything you need to know before you visit Vienna, whether you’re visiting as a traveller or moving as an expat, keeping these things in mind will help you on your way.

What to know when you visit Vienna

Calm. Down.

You’ll notice it the minute you step off the plane or train on arrival. Vienna is quiet. It moves at its own leisurely pace.

Sometimes you can be walking in the city centre in the middle of the day and have the entire cobbled street to yourself, as you gape up at tall beautiful buildings and historic landmarks.

Vienna is not Barcelona, New York or London. It has its own stately, calm, relaxed pace. It’s not because there’s nothing going on, it’s because the fun things that are happening take a little more work to find. Nothing is ‘in your face’ here.

Plus, you’re in a Germanic country now – so everyone is always on time for things – there’s no need to rush down the city streets, because everyone arrives perfectly on time, as they intended.

The quiet calm is different to Mediterranean countries calm – less beach vibe relaxed, more ‘everything is under control’ steadiness. Vienna has nothing to prove (it’s been a capital for centuries and was home to the Habsburg empire that ruled for 700 years) so waiters, locals and horse & carriages really don’t care if you’re in a hurry.

If you come from louder, more hectic cities, it will definitely be an adjustment, but one that you’ll eventually appreciate as the calm, slower approach to life means you appreciate the small moments more.

Service is not like at home. Especially if your home is the USA.

Ok, this gets people SO riled up, that you can actually watch travellers fuming as they sit in Viennese restaurants and don’t receive what they consider ‘good’ service from waiters. The point they miss is that service is supposed to be this way in Vienna – and it’s all about your attitude from the moment you step into the restaurant.

Particularly if you come from a culture where waiters rely on tips for a living wage, the seemingly gruff nonchalance of Viennese waiters can be a shock. But guys, I can tell you with absolute certainty, they don’t give a shit if you’re annoyed. In fact, the more outraged you get, the less likely they are to serve you, because you obviously don’t understand (or care) about the local way of doing things.

Some hard truths – the customer is not king here. The customer is not always right. In fact, the waiter doesn’t need your tip and you’re lucky he’s serving you at all in some places. Waiters here are paid a living wage, trained for years in service and tourism schools and deal with clueless tourists all day.

Here’s the thing though – this is a cultural difference. You’re not at home anymore. Getting ‘mad’ at a waiter for not serving you in the same way you are served in London, L.A or Sydney is like getting mad that they speak German, or serve local dishes.

There’s a myriad of reasons why Viennese waiters are unlike those you have back home, but if you let yourself get annoyed by it, you’re gunna have a bad time.

Some quick tips to get by:

  • Don’t click, wave or shout at your waiter to get attention, it’s the fast track to them disappearing for 20 minutes
  • Generally, you will have table service in most establishments. Very, very rarely will you need to order at the bar/counter
  • The best way to ask for help is to say ‘entschuldigung’ and for the bill is ‘Zahlung bitte’
  • Be as polite and friendly as possible, even if they are ‘rude’ in the beginning, Viennese waiters warm up once you settle in and can even start to banter with you, if you have the right (not overly entitled) attitude

You don’t need to drive or get a cab anywhere

Vienna has one of the best inner-city public transport systems in the world. It’s not grubby and overcrowded like the Tube in London, it runs waaaayy more regularly than any transport system in Australia, and it’s legit been designed to help locals, and women in particular, get about their day more easily.

Realistically, you are often faster with public transport than a car in this city.

 You can always find a tram and the Ubahn runs all night on weekends!

With strict parking regulations, traffic issues, and pedestrian-only zones in the city centre, taking the ubahn or a tram will be infinitely easier than driving anywhere. Even getting from the airport to the city centre is simple with the City Airport Train that connects straight through to Wien Mitte.

So get yourself a transport card and enjoy seeing the city by old-fashioned tram, or getting to your destination quickly by train. Even the buses run every 7 minutes on most routes, so you are never far from a connection point. Download the Quando app to help route your journeys – but don’t bother with the car hire!

There are wineries within the City limits

The Viennese loooovve their wine. The city is surrounded by local winemakers and is one of the last remaining cities in Europe that has vineyards within its limits. The best way to enjoy local wine is by taking a ‘Heuriger hike’ in the 19th district, to wander between small historic wine taverns and taste wine by the glass.

At roughly €2 a glass for excellent fresh wine, you’ll quickly understand why the Viennese hold this tradition so dear.

This is in our backyards in Vienna

It also isn’t unusual to see locals drinking a glass of wine or beer with their lunch on a weekday, or going for 1 drink with friends after work. Like many European cities, the culture here isn’t to drink until you’re drunk/blotto in the pub but to simply sip on a glass of wine before heading home.

Which brings me to my next point….

It’s very civilized.

In trying to sum up what it is about Vienna that keeps expats here long-term, and keeps attracting the high scores in the quality of living surveys, a friend of mine described Vienna perfectly;

‘There’s not one single thing to pinpoint, it’s just so civilised living here’.

And she’s right – there are a hundred small things that add up to Vienna being civilised, but some that you should be aware of before visiting are:

  • People are respectfully quiet on public transport and in public spaces
  • Many events, restaurants and activities are designed for maximum enjoyment of locals, not chasing tourist dollars, so need to be researched beforehand.
  • Walking home at night is generally very safe, quiet and easy
  • It’s affordable for most people to live a good lifestyle; restaurants, outings and rent is within reach for most to enjoy (unlike London or Sydney *ahem*)
  • There are rarely issues with violence from drinking, fights in bars, or nights out gone wrong.
  • Sausages are served on silver trays from Würstlestands – if that’s not living our best lives I don’t know what is!
  • People still respect artists, creatives, philosophers and writers. Work-life balance isn’t a catchphrase – it’s a way of life that Austrians value. (which is why stores are completely closed on a Sunday)

The number one priority for most Viennese, is respect for public decency, the greater good of society over the individual and (despite recent political shifts) keeping public spaces and a level of life enjoyment available for all.

So yeah, don’t come here expecting a rowdy booze-up or to enjoy poking fun at locals is what I’m saying – you’ll be shamed outta town by an old Viennese lady in fur and pearls.

The supermarket counter is a merciless speed zone

If you’re anything like me, when you visit a new city then taking time to wander around the local supermarkets and figure out regional snacks is a must-do. To get a real look at how the locals live, there’s no better place than a supermarket, even if they can be confusing or filled with things you’ve never seen in your life.

The thing to know in advance about Austrian supermarkets is that the cashier will pelt your items down the conveyor belt! You’ll have everything rung up on the register before you’ve even gotten your wallet out of your handbag.

What to know before you visit Vienna

There’s no one to pack your bag for you. There’s just you, a long queue of impatient Austrians twitching behind you, and a cashier speaking rapid-fire German to ask for your money.

BRACE YOURSELF for the speed of supermarkets guys, because if you falter, if you hold up that queue, there’ll be someone yelling ‘Kassa! Bitte!’ (requesting a second register to open) behind you before you know it.

Nudity is embraced in swimming areas & saunas

Otherwise known as the ‘no shame’ policy, like many Germanic countries, Austria has absolutely no problem with nuding up in public. There are dedicated nude swim spots along the Donauinsel and in public swimming areas, but don’t be surprised to see people sunbaking topless at your regular public swimming pool.

Austrians have a different relationship with their bodies and basically aren’t as repressed as us English speakers who are horrified at the thought of seeing old ladies and unfit Dad-bods jiggling around nekked. There’s nothing sinister about it at all, and it’s commonly accepted, so you’ll just have to politely grin and bare it (sorry not sorry for all puns, always).

Oh my Lord the smoking

Yes, smoking inside, even in restaurants is still a thing, and yes, you may have to walk through the smoking area to get to the non-smoking area. It sucks. They are trying to fix it, but failing. Austria is one of the few EU countries that still allows this, and some Austrians see this as their ‘right’ to choose to smoke, while business owners’ are sick of the costs of adapting to new Government regulations every 2 years. Or are just plain stubborn!

Here’s the thing though – if you refuse to go into any smoky bar or restaurant, you are going to miss half the city. There are some wonderful restaurants that are smoke-free – in fact, most of my favourite brunch places are, but if you are looking for bars, or going for some traditional Austrian food, there will likely be smokers.

My best tip for a night in a smoky bar? Pack some eye drops, particularly in winter ‘cos the smoke dries out your eyeballs like you wouldn’t believe.

Then, always air out your clothes on a balcony/window as soon as you come home from the bar.

Lastly, even if it’s super-late, have a tipsy shower before bed to get the icky smoke stink off you – it lingers on your pillow and duvets if you don’t!

But don’t hold yourself back from entering a venue because of smoking, you may find a lovely clear, well-ventilated dance party basement away from the smokers that you would have missed otherwise.

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These are the basics of what to know before you visit Vienna, and probably the first things that will strike you when you visit. But I’m sure there are many more! What are some of your ‘must-knows’ before coming to Vienna? Let me know in the comments and as always, if you have any questions I’m happy to help so you can make the most of your time in Vienna.

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