You gave us Mozart, Porsches, and even our beloved Arnold Schwarzenegger (He’ll be back). Red Bull is Austrian, too, as well as that dude with a beard that once won Eurovision. Then there are the Alps, the stunningly beautiful city of Vienna, and a world-famous Ferris wheel. In some languages, the word for Ferris wheel is actually Vienna wheel. Just a little fun fact for you.
But when it comes to Austrian culture and people, too often we expect them to be basically like Germans.
Which is weird, and you will understand why from your very first days in Austria. It does not feel anything like Germany, and even if you think you know what to expect — culture shock is just lurking around the corner (of that charming cobble stone street where you got an Airbnb like a true tourist).
So if culture shock is inevitable, why even write this article? Because the more you know…
The more you know, the easier you will adjust and start socializing like an Austrian. This comes in handy if you plan on moving there, but it is equally good even if you’re just staying for a few days. It gets you experiencing Austria in a more genuine (and super intriguing) way 😉
That is that for an introduction, here you have your 7 facts about Austrian culture, so that you don’t feel like a tiny alien once you land in Vienna.
Of course, this is very personal and varies from one Austrian to another, but generally, people here love their homes and they don’t insist on exploring the world. Not only are globetrotting and wanderlust novelty concepts, but Austrians don’t even bother to explore their own country that much.
If you stay for a longer period of time, you will certainly hear some comments about all that traveling you are doing (and that you certainly should do, because Austria is so gorgeous and so well-connected to other European countries that it would be a shame not to take advantage).
There is a sort of homebody culture, where people really enjoy building a stereotypically decent life for themselves and stability is valued much more than exploration.
There are even those that have spent their entire lives in their village, maybe going to university in a nearby town, but nothing more than that.
Especially in smaller towns and villages, your foreigner status makes you very interesting. However, good manners in Austria means not bothering others and not expressing unnecessary curiosity. Your travels and your life abroad will be great conversation starters, but you will have to bring them up yourself.
In general, Austrians do not like asking, even if they are genuinely interested. It is perceived as an unpleasant intrusion in somebody else’s life. Same goes the other way round — say you are chatting with a stranger in your train carriage (this is very common, people chatting you up on the train).
At first, stick to neutral topics.
Even ‘What do you do for a living?’ might come across as impolite, so mostly just the time, the trip, and your impressions of Austria/Europe.
This is a sort of initial barrier you have to overcome with your Austrian acquaintances and future friends. The way to learn more about them is not asking, but giving the same information about yourself. It’s just how conversations work in Austria, I guess.
Austrian German is actually quite hard to understand at first, even if you are already a German speaker.
There are a lot of differences in vocabulary and especially in words used daily. For instance, Austrians don’t say Kartoffel, they use Erdapfel (it means potatoes by the way), they don’t fahren their cars like Germans do, they lenken (literally translated, steer them).
And while the vocab differences are pretty much surmountable, if weird at first, much like the difference between U.S. and U.K. English, pronunciation is an entirely different story. Accept that it would just take the time to get used to Austrian German and use every opportunity to speak it, even if locals look at you a little funny. It’s simply your best bet.
And for people that don’t speak German — you should probably try to learn it. I promise, almost everybody speaks English, but you will notice it isolates you from locals.
They are very quick to switch back to German, even if there is more than one foreigner in the group and also, speaking Germans makes everyday life plain easier and more stress-free.
PS: The best program to learn German is Rocket German.
Have you ever been to the opera? I hadn’t. For me, it has always seemed like a sort of exclusive place, where only fancy, rich people went (along with fancy rich wannabes).
Not for Austrians, though.
The Austrian culture is incredibly varied and accessible, with massive discounts for students, for the young, the elderly, the unemployed — the list goes on and on. On top of that, theater performances, ballet, concert, and opera tickets are generally quite cheap, even if you are paying full-price.
And people take advantage.
You will notice most Austrians know quite a lot about art, they read a lot and they often go to different events. I guess it makes up for their lack of interest in travel?
If you plan to be spending all day walking around Vienna and exploring the Austrian culture, make sure you pick yourself up a decent pair of shoes for comfort.
Germanic people get a reputation for being almost militantly disciplined, and that is very much true for Austrians. You will definitely enjoy how well-organized, neat, and clean the entire country is.
This is because people do actually follow the rules.
Take recycling for example. It is everywhere and not doing is not simply frowned upon, it is almost unthinkable. Same goes for littering — 9 out of 10 times you will get called out by a stranger on the street if you throw your garbage where it doesn’t belong.
On the road, there is very little speeding, passing on red lights or people crossing the street outside a zebra. People joke that Austrian drivers will not feel the tiniest bit of guilt if they ran you over while you were crossing where road rules don’t allow it.
Be warned 🙂
Yes, you probably associate Austria with the Alps and hence, with skiing. True, it is a very popular sport that almost everyone practices (and even average people are great skiers). In fact, most Austrians take a ski vacation to their favorite resort every single year. It’s a huge part of the Austrian culture.
But Austrians don’t particularly enjoy watching skiing. Of course, they have some world-class athletes, as well as huge competitions taking place in their country. That generates a lot of interest, maybe more than you are used to.
Still, most people consider football to be the national sport. Austrians enjoy seeing local and international teams alike. There are Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, Bayern Munich etc. fan clubs all over the country.
It is much more likely that you find yourself discussing a soccer game with your Austrian friends, then a ski competition.
So make sure if you are expating to Austria that you bring your best pair of FOOTBALL shoes 😉
Personally, I’m a fan of these.
Historically speaking, the Austrian territories were quite homogenous. Combine that with the typically Austrian mindset of ‘My country is the best and there is no need to explore other cultures’, as well as the recent migration crisis the entire European Union has been experiencing and the fear Europeans have developed from refugees (this is an actual thing, happening in many European countries).
Any doubts as to why Austrians tend to be a little xenophobic?
This is mainly true for black and brown people, not so much for Asians. Of course, regardless of the color of your skin, Austrians are much too polite to verbally express any concern or hatred.
However, you might see that they are a little distanced and unfriendly towards some foreigners. Thankfully, this tendency is slowly vanishing, with young people being much more tolerant. Still, it’s a reality that you will notice and have to live with.
All in all, Austria is a weird, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes amazing little country. Accepting the quirks of locals is a part of exploring any culture, so start off being curious and accepting, without too much prejudice.
Austrians have their cool traits and their not-so-cool traits, but even if you notice a friendship deal-breaker, try not to actually go through with distancing yourself from that person. It is a different mindset they have and they have been brought up with, after all. Give Austria a chance.
Got any more fact about Austrian culture expats and travelers need to know about? Share them in the comments!
PS: If you want to get a little practice with your German, click here (there's a free trial).
A View Into Vienna