10 ways to avoid looking like an idiot in Vienna

dont smile tip pic (streets of Vienna) photo courtesy of Tori Hartman
Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Tori Hartman)

Vienna is a beautiful city filled with exquisite buildings, powerful opera halls, sophisticated clothing and roaming Seattleites; stomping obliviously on every cultural norm they encounter.

If you’re planning a trip to Vienna any time soon, take these tips from Seattleites Tori Hartman and Tash H-Chavez, both of whom studied abroad there last spring.

1. Don’t smile at people. Smiling at random people in Vienna is like making kissy faces at people on the street as they walk by in Seattle. Public displays of emotion are just not the norm. You will get weird looks. People might think you have a hidden agenda. Passersby will studiously avoid making eye contact. H-Chavez says she still hasn’t totally recovered “I still get surprised when people smile at me [in Seattle].”

2. Be prepared for extreme changes in weather. The weather in Vienna might actually be more bipolar than Seattle’s.

weather tip pic (The streets of Vienna covered in snow) photo courtesy Martin Ortner
The streets of Vienna covered in snow (Photo by Martin Ortner via Wikipedia)

“When we got [to Vienna] it was snowing and then it got really hot,” H-Chavez said. “It got to like 80 degrees, 90 degrees, 100 degrees,” she said. “When it comes to weather it was just all over the place.” Vienna has an Alpine climate which can account for extreme changes in weather. So pack layers and make sure to prepare for the unexpected!

3. Leave your North Face vest at home. I know you eat, sleep, jog, lounge around and go to class in your puffy vest that seems to go with every single outfit you have in your closet. But your vest is not Vienna appropriate. “I felt out of place wearing it there,” Hartman said. The Viennese dress much more conservatively than we do in Seattle. So substitute the vest for a nice pea coat or long sleeved jacket.  

4. Don’t make small talk.

small talk tip pic (Billa supermarket in Vienna) photo courtesy of Gryffindor
Billa supermarket in Vienna (photo by Gryffindor via Wikipedia)

When you are at the register in Zielpunkt and your groceries are being rung up, don’t worry about making chitchat. Small talk is not  common in Viennese culture, or in much of Europe. “I’d say in general [Viennese people] are less friendly than people in Seattle,” H-Chavez said. “But I mean if you can get to know them they’re so open,” she said.

5. Skip the drip

Coffee tip pic (Melange coffee drink popular in Viennese cafes) photo courtesy of Tori Hartman
Melange coffee drink popular in Viennese cafes (photo by Tori Hartman)

Yes, that is right. Drip coffee does not exist in most of the cafés in Vienna.  Fancy coffee is served in a fancy glass brought to you on a fancy platter served by a fancy waitress wearing a fancy uniform. “In Vienna when you go into a café it’s like walking into a four star hotel,” H-Chavez said. “Some of the [coffee shops] have chandeliers.” In fact, Viennese cafés have a long history of being places of innovation where authors, artists and many intellectuals of society went for inspiration. So take your time and skip the drip.

6. Don’t wear yoga pants or leggings.

yoga pant tip pic (Cropped yoga pants from Lululemon) phot courtesy of Lululemon
Cropped yoga pants from Lululemon (phot0 by Lululemon via Wikipedia)

Seeing someone walk across the street wearing leggings and sneakers in Vienna would be like seeing someone wearing pajamas and slippers in Seattle. “Here I wear Nikes and leggings to class quite often,” Hartman said. “That would not have been acceptable for class in Vienna.” Viennese people tend to dress nicer than Seattleites no matter where they are going. If people can see every scratch, dimple, curve and crevice on your entire body; then your pants are too tight. So wear a nice pair of jeans and some nicer shoes.

7. Don’t tip (that much)

Don't tip pic ( waitress from Cafe Sacher in Vienna) photo courtesy of Tori Hartman
Waitress from Cafe Sacher in Vienna (photo by Tori Hartman)

When you’re at La Tavolozza and you are finally done drinking, talking, drinking, talking, drinking, talking, eating, and drinking for three hours…do not feel obligated to tip the waiter or waitress.

The Viennese just don’t tip as much as Seattleites. Many restaurants include the tax and service charge in the bill. “It’s not really part of their culture,” Hartman said.

I know this is quite different since tips are expected for service in Seattle, but think of this as a blessing. Now if a burger cost $10 and all you have is $10 you can still eat dinner.

8. When you go to dinner plan to be out for at least three hours. In a Seattle restaurant; you might be served a drink first, then an appetizer, and them bam! All your food is piled on the plate; you eat, you tip, and you leave. Long meals are an hour and short meals are 30 minutes. But in Vienna going out to a restaurant like Salm Bräu Klosterbrauerei (on the grounds of Belvedere) with friends or family, is more about the company and less about the food. “I think it is definitely a huge cultural difference for just Europe in general,” Hartman said. “They focus on spending time with your meal and not rushing through your food,” she said. 

9. Kiss, don’t hug.

kiss tip pic (European greeting involving cheek kissing) photo courtesy of European Peoples Party
European greeting involving cheek kissing (photo by European People’s Party via flickr)

Viennese people don’t greet friends and family with hugs, they kiss each other on each check. It’s  a common greeting and tradition in Vienna and an excellent way to weed out the Americans in the crowd if they are not already obvious. “It’s the same thing when [Seattleites] see people kissing people on the cheek, we’re just kind of like ‘oh, that’s different,’ H-Chavez said. “When [Seattleites] greet each other we do hugs,” she said. So if your friend is all ‘hugs!’ when you see her at a Café Mozart, avoid eye contact and walk away.

10. Become a football fan.

Sport tip pic (Rapid Vienna team fan after 2008 championship) photo courtesy of Doma-w
Rapid Vienna team fan after 2008 championship (photo by Doma-w via Wikipedia)

When someone asks you if you enjoy a good football game don’t say, ‘hell yes Russell Wilson is my favorite QB!’ In Vienna (and Europe), football is soccer. So become a fan. And prepare yourself for enthusiastic European football fanatics. You think the 12th man knows crazy and out of control? You haven’t seen anything until you are sitting between two Viennese football fans at a local sports bar. So make sure to wear the jersey of one of the local teams and mimic all the fans around you. When the guy beside you jumps up and starts yelling at the television be sure to follow and maybe knock something off the table. If the bartenders don’t tell you to settle down, then you are not fitting in.

This story has been updated since its original publication

14 Comments

  1. Great article Kierra! I really enjoyed it and thought it was quite insightful. Can’t wait to see more of your journalism work in the future :)

  2. These points are good. I’ll add that when Europeans don’t smile, it does not mean they are in a bad mood, don’t like you, look down at you, or think that you are a tourist. It’s just culture. It’s not good or bad. It just is.

    Travelers that are able to learn beforehand, adapt in situ, or otherwise be sensitive to the local, cultural norms, will have a richer, more rewarding experience when traveling abroad.

    Shoes, by the way, are a pretty good giveaway when you are abroad of where you are from. Picking up some local flourish such as a scarf, or even, more conveniently, carrying your stuff around in a bag branded with a local grocery store, is an affordable and local way to blend in and see what is around you. If someone is on CapHill’s Broadway in Seattle and they are carrying a QFC bag of stuff, you might still recognize them as foreign, but maybe give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ve been here for a while, might be interesting to talk to, and are not just tourists.

  3. All of you points are absolutely incorrect, except for point 10 maybe. Still, I can barely imagine that you’ve ever visited Vienna.

    I don’t mean to be rude, but everything you write is idea highly exaggerated or simply false.

  4. I have to agree with Misha, you obviously have never been to our beautiful town. We are not chit chatting that much as it is considered being ‘fake’ if one is too friendly with someone you don’t know. But all else is far from true. To not tip is actually considered as extremely rude, we viennese tip at least 10% of the amount of the bill.

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    1. Hi Hanna (that was my Grandmothers name) I am visiting in a few months , Just for two weeks. My ancestry is from all the surrounding countries with a great Uncle from Austria. Would love to hear your Ideas about the best way to blend in and experience the country I am in my mid 60’s at this point and have the opportunity to travel on business to your beautiful country.
      thanks in advance. Hope you get this.
      Bob

  5. Well I like your article, that is your perspective..they are kinda unfriendly – with that I must agree, after spending 6 years in Vienna.

  6. Totally untrue.
    I live in Vienna and my girlfriend is Austrian. It’s obvious you’ve never been to Vienna. Don’t write an article about something you don’t understand. You give false information.
    Thank you.

  7. Why all austrian people are pissoff? This is true, especially part with less friendly. I am not from Austria, I live there for few years (4) and I can say from all the places that I work (my jobs involve moving) in Austria I have no local friends. All the friends that we (also my wife and children) are foreigners. Funny fact 90% of ours colleagues was austrian.

  8. I lived in Vienna back in 1995 and I certainly don’t agree with some of what is stated above. I found the people in Vienna to be exceptionally friendly except on one occasion where the people I was talking to thought I was from North Germany. I lived in North Germany as British soldier for 20 years and clearly had a “Prussian” accent. As soon as I told them I was English, the problems just disappeared. The same happened in Prague.

    Vienna, what beautiful memories. I was so impressed with the city I even named my daughter after the city.

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