Every country and city has its little (or big) idiosyncrasies. Vienna is no different. So, before you inadvertently find yourself offending a local, here are some basic tips for navigating the jagged reefs of Viennese etiquette and behaviour.
Tip 1: Service is at the table
Unless a restaurant, bar, or similar explicitly states “Selbstbedienung” (self-service), then you can assume that service is at the table.
It’s rather impolite to go up and order at the counter in such circumstances. And you might require a tick more patience than you’re used to, particularly in coffee houses, where minutes and hours are in no rush to pass (and that’s a good thing).
- Learn more about ordering and paying for food
Tip 2: Tip!
Equally, this service is typically not included in your bill.
If you walk away from a bar or restaurant without adding a tip to the bill, then you’re basically saying you were very upset about the service.
- Learn more about tipping in Vienna
Tip 3: Keep right on escalators
Not sure an explanation is needed. Essentially, keep the left side free for people in a rush.
As a little bonus, be aware that very, very occasionally a single escalator next to steps actually moves down, not up. I haven’t figured out when or why that rare and somewhat illogical event occurs. I suspect it’s the universe reminding us there are no certainties in life.
Tip 4: Queue pragmatically
They do queue in Austria. Just not always as readily or politely as you might expect from places like the UK.
Where there’s a counter, people are normally quite social in terms of queueing and giving way to those who were there first. Where there isn’t a counter, they’re not always so diligent.
This applies particularly at bus, train and tram stops, where whoever’s nearest to the doors tends to get on first. Since you buy tickets in advance and don’t need to show them to a driver, there is no requirement to enter a vehicle at the front.
When I first arrived here, my wife used to wonder where on earth I’d got to because I was invariably forming a queue to get on the tram, which meant I was basically always last to board.
Oh, and let people get off before getting on. The Viennese can become quite stroppy with folk who don’t follow that simple, logical rule.
- Learn more about how public transport works
Tip 5: Avoid littering
That’s obvious, but even more obvious in Vienna. One of the many nice aspects of the city is that it’s remarkably litter-free.
It’s difficult to go more than a few steps without finding a bin, even specific bins for particular kinds of waste (e.g. Papier – paper, Verpackung – plastic packaging, Glas – glass, Restmüll – other waste), and pipes for cigarette butts.
Tip 6: Carry some cash
Electronic payments, particularly via debit cards, are pretty common, but not as common as in countries like Sweden, the US or the UK. Credit cards, for example, are by no means universally accepted.
I can’t even recall the last time I saw anyone pay in a restaurant or bar with a card, though I’m sure it’s possible (particularly in places catering to foreign tourists).
So just be aware that the Viennese still like to use cash.
- Learn more about credit cards and Vienna
Tip 7: Offer a cheery greeting
The Viennese are way less into greeting than people in the country. However, when you enter a store or restaurant, you’ll likely get a “Grüß Gott” (a formal kind of “hello”) from employees.
You’re kinda supposed to say “Grüß Gott” back. If German’s not your thing, say “hello” with a clear non-German accent and you should be fine.
Also, if you’re meeting locals, prepare to have your hand shaken. When someone arrives to join a group, even a relatively large one like the parents at a school meeting, they usually go around everyone to shake their hand in greeting.
Whether this tradition survives the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic is another matter. It’s a mixed bag at the time of writing. Some people have already reverted to handshakes, while others have migrated to fist bumps, elbow bumps or even a simple nod of the head.
I’ll write about the intricacies of Austrian greetings another day.
Tip 8: Say cheers
If you are out with locals, don’t start drinking until you’ve acknowledged the other drinkers with a raised glass and a resounding “Prost” (cheers).
- Learn more about drinking etiquette in Austria
Tip 9: Stay hungry on public transport
It’s generally not the done thing to eat anything when travelling by public transport, but particularly if it has an aroma.
Eating food is actually forbidden on all underground trains. Oh, and consumption of alcohol is forbidden on any public transport.
Tip 10: Don’t be offended by smokers
Attitudes toward smoking are not as negative in Vienna as in countries like the US or UK. Smoking is banned in the usual places (and people keep to those rules), but more folk smoke than you might expect.
- Learn more about Vienna and smoking
Bonus tip: If you really want to fit in, then adopt a facial expression that suggests fate has dealt you plenty of rough cards already, you’re still expecting things to get worse, and having little to objectively complain about won’t stop you from doing so. Vienna is, after all, the birthplace of psychoanalysis.