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AUSTRIA EXPLAINED

Five unwritten rules that explain how Austria works

Feeling confused about social etiquette and expectations in Austria? These unwritten rules might help you make a little more sense of things.

Five unwritten rules that explain how Austria works
Austrians possess the incredible skill of never being late. Ever. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Adjusting to life in a new country takes time – even more so when navigating unwritten rules of how to act in social and professional situations.

But learning how to live like a local in Austria will not only make it a more pleasant experience, it will also show that you fit in and respect the rules.

To help you further understand Austrian culture, here are five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria.

Always say hello – at least in the countryside

Austrians have a reputation for being direct in their communication, but politeness is also highly valued. 

A prime example is the unwritten rule of saying hello to people – even if you don’t know them.

This applies more in the countryside than in the cities but it’s worth being aware of to avoid making a social faux pas.

According to a Kurier article, failure to greet others will even have you labelled as unfriendly, arrogant or badly educated.

READ MORE: Nine things you might be surprised are actually Austrian

So, if someone is walking towards you, you walk into a bakery (for example) or you see neighbours on the street, then a greeting is expected.

It could be a simple nod of the head, but in most cases it will be “Servus”, “Griaß di” or even “Hallo”.

But don’t try it in a city like Vienna. Saying hello to strangers will just result in funny looks.

Saying hello to someone will show them that you come in peace. Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels

Always bring food or drink to a social gathering

If invited to a barbecue or dinner party at someone’s house, always take a drink or something to contribute to the meal.

For example, if your host is cooking, offer to bring a salad or a dessert.

If they are taking care of the food then offer to bring a nice bottle of wine or a selection of beers.

If you’re going to a gathering, always bring something – especially if someone tells you it’s not necessary. Photo by Nicole Herrero on Unsplash

And if they are hosting a barbecue, always take your own meat and expect a wide selection of salads and bread that other guests will also bring and share with everyone else.

Not only is this polite, but it will stop other people from talking about you because you violated the unwritten rule.

Don’t expect polite queues at ski lift stations

While Austrian society can be polite in many ways, queueing at ski lift stations in the Alps is a different story.

In fact, it’s a free-for-all and it’s something that both tourists and international residents in Austria have experienced.

REVEALED: What do Austrians think about foreigners?

An Austrian in Tyrol, who asked to remain anonymous, summed it up when he told The Local: “Don’t be civilised and politely queue up at the ski lifts – just push in.”

So, when going skiing in Austria, leave your manners at home, be prepared for others to cut in front of you and get ready to push to the front of the queue.

For a country that loves order and predictability, Austria sure doesn’t know how to queue. Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Lateness is not appreciated

People in Austria are generally punctual, like to be on time and expect others to do the same – just like in neighbouring countries Germany and Switzerland.

The unwritten rule applies to both work and social situations, including going out to dinner at a restaurant.

READER QUESTION: Is it legal to drink in public in Austria?

This means if you’re running late it’s polite to call the host and let them know. Likewise if you have a reservation at a restaurant.

However, there is still a limit on how much lateness can be tolerated, with 15 minutes typically the maximum delay before people become annoyed.

Always carry cash

Cash is king in Austria. 

What can I get for this many? Always carry cash in Austria. Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

It always has been and it probably always will be, with a pre-pandemic study showing that 83 per cent of Austrians preferred paying with cash.

Customers can even expect a grumpy roll of the eyes when trying to pay with cash in some places because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture.

READ MORE: Why is cash so important to Austrians?

This attitude towards cash is perfectly reflected in the Austrian saying “Nur Bares ist Wahres” (only cash is true) and there are three reasons for this – freedom, anonymity and control. 

Austrians like to have the freedom of not relying on a bank, the anonymity to spend money on whatever they like and control over spending.

For international residents from card-favouring countries like the UK, Ireland and most of Scandinavia, the best way to deal with this is to just get used to carrying cash.

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AUSTRIA EXPLAINED

How to drink coffee like an Austrian

If there's one image that comes to mind when you think of Austria, it's probably the grand interior and delicious aroma of a traditional coffeehouse.

Waitress carrying coffees in a Vienna cafe
There's an etiquette and special language to drinking coffee in Austria, but even as a non-native you can pick it up. Photo: WienTourismus/Peter Rigaud

The Austrians love their coffee. While they might not rank among the top five coffee consuming nations in terms of quantity drunk (the Scandinavians have that honour), that may well be because here, it’s all about quality.

The story goes that coffeehouse culture first came to Vienna after the Siege of Vienna in the late 17th century, when a local named Georg Franz Kolschitzky used coffee left behind by the Turkish invaders to set up the first coffeehouse. Kolschitzy is honoured by a street and statue that you can see today in Vienna’s fourth district (Kolschitzkygasse; the statue is at the intersection with Favoritenstraße).

But like many great stories, it’s not actually true. Vienna owes its coffeehouse tradition to the Armenian Johannes Diodato, who was granted the honour of being the city’s only trader allowed to sell coffee for some years. Once this was relaxed, the coffeehouses soon spread. 

That’s actually later than coffeehouses arrived in countries like neighbouring Germany and Italy, but something about it took off in Austria. Over the following decades, new trends were adopted here which have become synonymous with the Austrian coffeehouse, including providing newspapers to encourage patrons to linger over their drinks, and serving hot food.

Until 1856, women were not allowed in coffeehouses unless they worked there, but today they are a meeting point for people from all parts of society, tourists and locals alike. Here are the keys to unlocking this aspect of Austrian culture.

Take your time

As mentioned above, coffeehouses started offering newspapers as early as the 1720s, and the tradition is still going strong today, with newspaper tables for you to browse from.

A common grumble from foreign residents and visitors is that Austrian customer service can be slow, but try to look at it from another perspective: waiting staff want to allow you to take your time.

In contrast to countries like the UK, where there’s a clear distinction between cafes serving hot drinks which usually close around 5pm, and bars and pubs that stay open later serving alcohol and warm food, a coffeehouse is somewhere you can stay well into the evening, and there’s often musical entertainment at the grandest venues. It’s not about getting caffeinated and rushing on with your day; you go here to feel gemütlich (cosy).

Although tap water is not always free at Austrian restaurants, in a coffee house you can expect a small glass of water with your coffee, with a spoon placed over the top to indicate that it’s fresh. Waiters will often top this up during your stay. 

We’ll add a caveat though. This applies to the traditional coffeehouses, while Austria also has plenty of smaller, modern cafes, where you may indeed be asked to leave if you have been sitting for a while and haven’t ordered food. 

The newspapers are generally laid out on a table with convenient wooden holders. Photo: WienTourismus/Peter Rigaud

Soak up the history

One reason Austria’s coffeehouses are so much more than your average cafe is their artistic associations.

Mozart and Beethoven performed at coffeehouses in their day, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, writers worked and socialized in these institutions as well as intellectuals like Sigmund Freud and politicians like Trotsky and Lenin.  There’s even a specific term, Kaffeehausliteratur, to refer to the works of literature penned in the hallowed halls of the coffeehouse.

Austrian modernist poet Peter Altenberg supposedly considered Cafe Central his home to the point of having his laundry sent there, and the cafe considers that it and Altenberg were pioneers of cashless payments, since he would pay his tab with the work he’d written on a napkin during his stay rather than cash.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for coffee culture. Post-war, new kinds of eateries and meeting venues sprung up and many coffeehouses closed as locals found them outdated. Ever prone to dramatics, the Austrians call this time Kaffeehaussterben (the death of the coffeehouses) but luckily many of the institutions survived and underwent a revival a few decades later.

Today, even Unesco recognizes Viennese Coffee Culture as Intangible Cultural Heritage, calling them “places where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill’.

In Vienna, you’ve got no shortage of historic coffeehouses: Café Central, Café Sperl, Café Hawelka, Café Landtmann and Café Ritter are just five of a long list of venues steeped in history. Because of that, there are often queues to enter during tourist season, but there are spots just as stunning that tend to escape the worst of the crowds, such as Café Jelinek and Café Westend. 

Austria’s other cities have plenty to offer too, from Salzburg’s Café Tomaselli which has a claim to being Austria’s oldest, to Café Traxlmayr in Linz, to charming Café König or the local branch of Café Sacher in Graz, to Café Munding in Innsbruck and many more in between.

Café Landtmann in Vienna. Photo: WienTourismus/Christian Stemper

Note that the older coffeehouses are more formal than your typical cafe; expect to see waiting staff wearing black tie, but know that there is no dress code for guests.

Alternatively, in the bigger cities you are never too far from a branch of Aida, a chain that aims to recreate the experience of the traditional coffee house on a lower budget with less formality and is recognizable from the large amounts of pink (the logo, the decor, the staff uniforms).

The other main Austrian chain is Oberlaa, more of a Konditorei (patisserie) than a coffeehouse but still sharing many of the same traditions — our tip is to try the one near Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, also called Café Dommayer, for a coffeehouse experience.

Know the lingo

In traditional coffeehouses, (male) waiters should be addressed as Herr Ober as a mark of respect; unfortunately there’s no clear equivalent for female staff. Tourists aren’t expected to follow this etiquette, but here’s the vocab to understand the menu and make your order in German if you wish. 

When making your order, know that you need to be more specific than “ein Kaffee, bitte” (a coffee, please). 

A kleiner Schwarzer is an espresso and a großer Schwarzer is a double. If you want milk with your coffee, it’s a kleiner or großer Brauner.

A Verlängerter is an espresso with hot water, so a bit less strong.

An Einspänner is a real Austrian classic, an espresso topped with whipped cream.

A Wiener Melange or just Melange is very similar to a cappuccino, made of coffee and steamed milk (sometimes whipped cream too, such as the Aida Melange), and slightly less strong than a cappuccino.

Feeling like something a little more fancy? Austria has you covered. 

An Überstürzter Neumann means you’ll get a cup of whipped cream, served with a double espresso to be added at the table. 

A Wiener Eiskaffee is more than an iced coffee; it’s a delicious mix of vanilla ice cream, espresso and milk. 

A Mozart Coffee is a double espresso topped with whipped cream and served with brandy.

A Maria Teresa is a double espresso with whipped cream, orange liqueur and orange zest.

Outside the older coffeehouses, these days of course you’ll find more modern cafes in Vienna too, where you can find your flat whites, caramel macchiatos and alternative milks. 

Eating sachertorte at Café Sacher is on many an Austria bucket list. Photo: WienTourismus/Paul Bauer

Don’t forget the cake

Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) is the Austrian way to relax, akin to the Italian pausa caffe, English tea break or Swedish fika. Each coffeehouse has its own specialties, but there are some classics you will usually find on the menu.

Some of the most traditional cakes include the Sachertorte (a chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam), the adorable Punschkrapfen (like a French petit four with a tasty rum flavour) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) or Topfenstrudel (a strudel made with Topfen, a type of cream cheese that is extremely Austrian).

The Dobostorte (caramel) and Esterházy (almond) layered sponge cakes are technically Hungarian rather than Austrian, but they’re still a common and delicious feature on most menus.

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