Despite its relatively small size, Austria is a country packed to the brim with sights – from majestic mountains and opulent palaces to elegant cities and more stunning cakes than you could ever eat in one lifetime.
… it’s also full of potential culture shocks and silly travel mistakes.
I used to live just across the border in Munich, so over the years I’ve gotten to know Austria fairly well… the hard way! Namely by bumbling around, committing the faux pas and embarrassing myself in the name of research.
But luckily, you’re here just in time to prepare for Austria the easy way – by reading my full list of Austria travel tips, collected over years of first hand experience (and many a starry-eyed day trip from Munich to Salzburg).
So, from avoiding saucy schnitzels to preparing for naked saunas, here are a few weirdly specific must-knows before you visit Austria. I hope you find it helpful!
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1. Remember: Austria ≠ Australia
We’ll start with a silly Austria tip, and one that I (frankly) cannot believe needs saying.
But from US presidents to famous news outlets, it’s a gaffe that pops up time and time again, so, just to make sure we’re all on the same page… Austria is a country in Central Europe, and completely different to Australia, the Southern Hemisphere country famed for its kangaroos and koalas.
Walk around Austria for even a few minutes and you’ll come across silly souvenirs mocking this confusion, and probably a tour guide or two telling a joke about it.
So, again, before you start planning that Austria trip, make sure it’s mountains, schnitzel and Sound of Music you’re looking for, not the Outback, Didgeridoos, and giant spiders that hide in your shoes.
2. Never mistake Austrians for Germans
Just as Austria and Australia are (shockingly) not the same country, the same goes for Austria and its neighbour, Germany.
A very important Austrian etiquette tip I must shout from the rooftops is simply this: Austrians don’t take kindly to being mistaken for German.
So, remember to never say that Germany and Austria are the same, or make jokes about Germans and Austrians being the same. At best, they’ll laugh it off, at worst, you’ll cause legitimate offense.
Sure the two countries share a language and there are (admittedly) similarities, but Austrians are really proud of their country and don’t love it when people just dismiss them as the exact same as Germany, so keep that in mind.
As a Canadian who’s frequently mistaken for American, I totally get it.
3. Be sure to add Austria’s nature spots to your itinerary
Now in terms of where to go in Austria, I find that overseas visitors often gravitate towards the country’s most famous cities, Vienna and Salzburg.
But there is SO much more to explore beyond that, especially Austria’s natural marvels, which many overseas visitors miss. In fact, it’s often Austria that Europeans choose for their nature-forward holidays (whether it be for skiing or hiking), so don’t miss out!
Filled with soaring mountains, glimmering lakes, and charming swathes of countryside, Austria is (in many ways) a more budget-friendly version of Switzerland, so I highly recommend extending your time and expanding your itinerary to include at least a day trip or two to take in some of these incredible natural landscapes.
There’s the valleys and waterfalls of Salzburgerland, the alpine majesty of Tyrol’s nature parks, the beautiful lakes of Carinthia, along with more under-the-radar picks like the Bregenzerwald in Vorarlberg (which offers amazing mountains and cute alpine towns).
All that to say – there’s plenty of amazing nature to be enjoyed in Austria, so don’t just limit yourself to cities.
4. Seek out new destinations by reading Austrian websites
On that note, if you are open to visiting more offbeat places during your Austria trip, one thing I can highly recommend is doing your research on local Austrian websites.
In my opinion, there’s quite a big difference between the Austrian destinations that international tourists visit and the destinations that domestic tourists visit.
Both are great, but if you want to explore beyond the most famous sights, then reading Austrian blogs to see where locals vacation is a good starting point.
NOTE: This is also a great way to discover more offbeat things to do in individual cities as well. For instance, if I wanted to find more alternative things to do in Graz, I might browse local blogs/event websites to find pop-up events or unique festivals.
5. Don’t miss Austria’s Christmas markets
I know that neighbouring Germany is probably the best known country in the world for Christmas markets, but Austria has a fair few incredible gems too, often with far thinner international crowds.
So, if you’re looking for a magical winter destination in Europe, consider pencilling in some Austrian Christmas Markets between mid November to Christmas.
6. Learn the basics in German
In terms of which language to panic-learn before your trip, German is the official language of Austria, so that’s what everyone will speak.
In larger cities, it won’t be tough to get by with English, but it may be more difficult in the countryside.
In any case, it’s good to at least know the basics, like…
- Hello – Hallo (Ha-low!) or Grüß Gott (Grewss-got!)
- Thank you – Danke (Dahn-keh)
NOTE: The German spoken in Austria can sound very different depending on where you are because there’s a lot of different regional dialects, so don’t be surprised if you have trouble understanding locals (or vice versa). It’s all part of the fun!
7. Only rent a car if you plan to do nature trips
If your trip mainly consists of city to city travel, then I’d advise relying on public transport to save yourself the headache of driving.
Public transport is amazing in Austria, so you’ll have no trouble getting around, both from place to place and also within cities themselves.
But, if you plan to do a lot of more offbeat nature spots to see mountains, lakes and national parks, then having a car would be ideal. Be sure to check out my considerations before renting a car in Europe if that’s the case.
Of course, a more convenient alternative would be to book day tours to nature spots from the city you’re staying in – that way you can simply drool in the back seat while you see all the landscapes, without the stress of navigating.
8. Get a vignette if you’re driving
If you do plan to rent a car however, one important Austria must-know is you’ll need a vignette.
This is a sticker that you must buy for your car in order to use the country’s motorways. Failure to procure one means an aggressive fine in the mail weeks after the fact. (Ask me how I know that).
IMPORTANT: Make sure this sticker is purchased and adhered to the car before you enter the country because there are automatic scanners that look for them at the border… so you may get fined even if you buy one upon entry. (Again, ask me how I know that)
9. Understand that public transport is on an honour system
Unlike other countries which have fare gates and other measures in place to ensure you pay, public transport in Austria works on a very trusting honour system where you are responsible for buying your own ticket, and only need to show it if you are asked to (via random controls).
So, make sure you always buy the right ticket and validate it properly in case you get checked!
10. Learn the tricks to saving money on Austrian trains
Train travel is one of my personal favourite ways of getting around Austria. If you are new to train travel in Europe, then be sure to read my step by step guide to get acquainted, and scope out my favourite scenic train rides while you’re at it.
After you’ve decided that you do want to glide elegantly across the country by rail, then there are a few different ways to save money on tickets:
- Einfach-Raus-Ticket: A group ticket that gives you unlimited travel for a day on all local/regional trains across Austria. The more people you have, the cheaper it works out to be per person. Great for group day trips!
- Regional Tickets/Offers: Special passes that give you unlimited travel for a day on local/regional trains for a particular region/area. Great for day trips in a smaller area!
- Eurail: A rail pass that covers train travel across most European countries. Great only in certain instances, i.e. when you are visiting many countries and want flexibility/spontaneity. I explain more in my full Eurail review.
11. Sorry – Austrians do not know the Sound of Music
I hate to be the bearer of bad news.
And trust me – as someone who grew up watching the Sound of Music religiously every Christmas, this fact is definitely not one of my favourite things, but here goes…
Austrians do not really care about the Sound of Music. It’s not a classic film for them, they have no nostalgia tied to it, and (frankly) many of them don’t even like it.
So, when you head to Salzburg for your big Sound of Music pilgrimage, just know that your enthusiasm is probably best shared among your fellow tourists, rather than among locals.
12. Remember “W” is pronounced like V
In terms of language, a good thing to remember is that the letter W in German is pronounced like a V so if you’re saying any words or names, say it with a “Vuh” sound.
In Austria, the most prominent example would be the German name of Vienna which is spelled Wien, but pronounced “Veen”.
You’ll catch this pronunciation trap in the city’s most popular dish too -Wiener Schnitzel. So remember: if you do decide to indulge in this fried slab of goodness during your trip, order it as a “Veen-uh” schnitzel and not “Weeeeee-ner” schnitzel.
13. Avoid catching locals in photos/videos without their consent
Upon arrival in Austria, your first instinct may be to whip out your phone and capture as many of those beautiful sights as possible, to the chagrin of your 52 Instagram followers.
But just a quick note before you do that – Austrians can be very private people who don’t like having their photograph taken without consent.
So, a very important Austrian etiquette tip is to be mindful of others’ privacy and try not to blatantly take photos that might accidentally catch someone’s face head on.
14. Don’t be alarmed if you catch people staring at you
While taking photos of others’ faces is considered very rude, one thing that isn’t is… staring.
To the shock of many first time visitors, Austrians don’t mind staring. So you could very well be sitting on the bus, minding your own business, only to feel the stony stare of a stranger who is (rather shamelessly) staring at you while you just try to peacefully exist.
Can it be jarring? Of course! But don’t worry – it’s just a cultural difference where they don’t consider staring to be a rude practice. Think of it as just them perceiving you (or if it helps your confidence, pretend it’s because you’re wowing them with your stunning face).
15. Learn how to tip in Austria
In terms of tips, tipping culture in Austria is definitely not as aggressive as in North America.
For good service you’ll tend to tip 5-10%, usually rounding up to a number that makes sense so if your meal was 45 euro, you might hand them 50.
What’s worth noting though is that tipping works a little differently here.
For instance, you wouldn’t just leave money on the table after the meal. Instead, you have to tell them how much you intend to pay in total (including tip) as you hand over your cash or card.
So let’s imagine that (including tip), you want to pay 40 euro. In this instance, you would say “40” as you hand over your cash or your card, and then they’ll give you the appropriate change.
If you want them to just keep the change, then you hand your cash over and say “Stimmt So!”, and they’ll know to just keep the whole thing.
16. Be prepared for a different style of customer service
Now in terms of culture, it is often said that Austrians can seem cold and direct. I personally haven’t had this experience as much, but maybe I’ve just been lucky. (And tend to surround myself with the drunk ones).
Anyways, what I will concede though is that Austrian customer service is very different from typical North American customer service.
In contrast to typical North American service which involves being bright, cheery, friendly and hands on, Austrian customer service is usually a lot less animated, and to someone who’s not used to it, it may even seem like you’re being ignored on purpose.
The way I’ve had this explained to me though is that Austrians just really value their privacy, hence why they take such a hands-off approach.
At a restaurant for example, the server will come, take your order and then leave you alone, hence why you need to flag them down if you want anything, because they consider constant check-ins a rude interruption.
So, don’t take ‘colder’ customer service personally – it’s just another one of those cultural differences.
17. Prepare for nude saunas and public nudity areas
Another fun cultural difference? The Austrian approach to nudity!
Namely, that they’re very into it.
If you go to a sauna in Austria for instance, it’s very much expected that you go naked (for sanitary reasons), and there’s often designated nude (FKK) zones at lakes and swimming areas as well.
Add on the fairly common occurrence of both men and women alike sunbathing topless, and you have a sure recipe for culture shock. So, if you’re from a part of the world where this kinda bare-it-all attitude isn’t common, just remember it’s normal here, so adapt accordingly.
18. Eat as much dessert as humanly possible
An easier thing to adapt to perhaps is the absolutely WONDER that is Austria’s sweet scene.
Truly, Austrians are masters of dessert.
While North Americans will have no doubt heard of strudel or the famous Sacher Torte, there are SO MANY more options than those. My personal favourite is the Esterházytorte which is originally Hungarian but is commonly found in Vienna these days too, or the almighty Kaiserschmarrn, shredded pancakes served with jam or apple sauce.
With hundreds of options and special regional desserts all over, I’d recommend you simply go to a coffee house or bakery and let your senses guide you.
19. Try regional specialties wherever you are
While overseas visitors often think of Austrian food as simply schnitzel and not much else, the truth is there’s a lot of culinary variety across the country, so choose your eats accordingly.
For instance, Styria is known for its crispy fried chicken (Backhendl) and delicious pumpkin seed oil. Some alpine regions are also known for their hearty eats like Käsespätzle, bouncy little dumplings slathered with cheese and onions.
Other regions do a lot of fish dishes, others work miracles with potatoes – all to say be sure to try the local specialties wherever you are.
20. Don’t miss out on Austrian wine
Despite its proximity to Germany, Austria is definitely more of a wine country than a beer country, so take advantage of all the crisp and delicious wines that they have to offer.
Or better yet – book yourself a trip to a wine region to enjoy it close to the source! South Styria is one of my favourite areas of Austria.
21. Try Almdudler
And if you’re looking for a soft drink to try in Austria, make sure you grab yourself a refreshing Almdudler.
Besides being fun to say, it’s a remarkably tasty soda made with alpine herbs, and is often considered the national drink of Austria.
22. Don’t order schnitzel with sauce
A proper Austrian schnitzel requires little more than a quick squeeze of lemon juice. Anything more is often considered akin to sacrilege, so keep that in mind before your slather your schnitzel in mushroom sauce (which I fear to admit was actually a common thing I did in Germany).
And for my fellow Sound of Music fans, no, sadly ‘schnitzel with noodles’ is not a thing. Why is it in the song then? I imagine it’s likely because few things rhyme with “potato salad”.
23. Bring cash
While many more places accept card payments these days in Austria, paying with cash is often still the norm, especially for smaller purchases, so having cash is always a good idea, preferably in smaller denominations like 50 euro bills or smaller.
24. Prepare to pay for public bathrooms
Another important Austria travel tip is to bring coins with you wherever you go.
That’s because public bathrooms usually charge a small fee of 50 cents or a euro, so make sure you have some coins with you in case of an emergency.
25. Do not jaywalk
In Austria, the only crime worse than saucing up your schnitzel is crossing the street when you’re not supposed to.
No – really – jaywalking is not only illegal in Austria, it’s actually enforced (albeit kind of randomly), so err on the side of caution and avoid it if possible.
26. Remember that most shops are closed on Sundays
Last but not least, a very important Austria travel tip if your visit coincides with a Sunday is that Sundays are considered a day of rest in Austria so shops (including grocery stores) are closed.
That said, be sure to stock up on any shopping before Sunday, although in a pinch, bakeries, restaurants, gas stations and shops in transit hubs will usually still be open.
I hope this list of Austria travel tips was helpful!
If you’re here after all those Austrian travel tips, congrats – I’m beyond proud of you! Hopefully by now, you’ll feel much more prepared for your big Austria trip, but if you have any more questions, let me know in the comments.