5 ½ Things You Should Know Before Moving to Vienna
So, you’re considering moving to Vienna? I’m an expat from the UK who has been living in Vienna for the better part of four years now. Whatever your reasons for relocating are, you’ll find Vienna a modern yet timeless city, with excellent opportunities, a multitude of quirks, and plenty of character.
These points are taken from my expat experience in Vienna, having tried to integrate by making the most of Vienna’s culture and way of life. Here are five (and a half) things you should know before moving to Vienna.
1. Café culture
Vienna is a coffee lover’s paradise, and the Viennese coffee house is an integral part of culture in the city, with many Viennese seeing their favourite café as an extension of their home.
The city’s first coffee house opened in 1683 after the Siege of Vienna. Legend has it that the fleeing Turks left behind sacks of coffee beans after being driven from the walls of the city, and with their discovery, the Viennese’s caffeine craze began. Over the centuries, the humble coffee house has become an institution in itself, serving as meeting places for leading figures in the worlds of politics, literature, art, philosophy and psychology.
As you walk into a traditional Viennese café, you’re greeted with a warm, homely feeling - and a display of exquisite cakes and sweet treats. The delicacies on offer are often works of art in themselves. Most cafés will have multiple pages of their menu dedicated to different kinds of coffee, which are always served with a small glass of water on the side. If you’re looking for some concoction of iced-down coffee, sugary syrups and milk alternatives: head to a Starbucks (mercifully, there aren’t all that many around). Coffee in a Viennese café is serious business. Viennese waiters (who prefer to be addressed as ‘Herr Ober’) are known for their typical ‘grantig’ attitude (more on this in a minute). They can often come across as grumpy or rude, but it tends to just be part of an act, and they’re usually softies deep down.
If you fancy a bit of ‘me’ time, enjoy an hour of uninterrupted time to yourself by grabbing one of the newspapers on offer and watching the world go by. Or put the world to rights with friends over traditional Viennese food washed down with coffee and cake.
2. Viennese ‘Grant’ and ‘Schmäh’
Walking in a bicycle lane? Crossing the street on a red light? Blocking someone from getting off the tram? Prepare for a dose of ‘Wiener Grant’.
‘Grant’ (noun) basically means ‘a grumpy attitude’. If someone is ‘grantig’ (adjective), then they’re in a grumpy, irritable mood. For better or worse, the Viennese have developed a stereotype for being ‘grantig’ and although you might think that it’s something reserved for clueless foreigners, anyone who doesn’t know the unwritten code of conduct for Vienna is at risk. So when a sassy baker informs you that the small bread roll you wish to purchase for your breakfast is actually called a ‘Semmerl’, not a ‘Brötchen’ (woe betide anyone using German words instead of their Austrian equivalent), just remember: he doesn’t hate you because you’re foreign, it’s just that you’re not (yet) Viennese.
Another element of Viennese personality is their concept of humour. Unlike the Germans, who are famous for their lack of a sense of humour, the Viennese do enjoy a joke. However, their style of humour tends to be very dry and sarcastic (a little like that of the British). This is called ‘Schmäh’ and is a characteristically Viennese phenomenon. The hapless Germans tend to suffer the most here because, although one would think that these two nations share a common language, they just can’t grasp Viennese wit.
Wiener Schmäh is dark, self-deprecating, and sarcastic. It makes light of death and dark of the state of the world. It is a tongue-in-cheek insult hidden behind a charming smile. And, most importantly, it is totally lost on anyone who is not Viennese. Being from Britain, I must admit that us Brits are perhaps better equipped to understand the subtle mechanics of Schmäh. My fear is for our good-natured, positive American cousins, upon whom this satire is probably lost.
3. The weather
I will preface this by saying that I am comparing Vienna’s weather to that of my home country - England. So the bar is pretty low.
The climate in Vienna is, on the whole, good. The summers are hot, the winters are cold, and spring and autumn have pleasant, moderate temperatures. In summer you can expect the average temperature to be around 27 degrees, although last year we had a record-breaking heatwave (which almost bordered on uncomfortable).
Whilst Vienna doesn’t tend to get that much snow in winter, you can expect a few snow falls from December to February. However, the snow doesn’t stick around for long and turns the pavements into slush after a day or two. Compared to the UK, Vienna receives little rain. Or at least, that’s how it felt to me at first. In fact, most of Vienna’s rainfall happens during the summer, with the winter months being relatively dry. On average, Vienna gets 675 millimetres of rainfall, which is practically barren compared to the UK’s average of 1,154mm. Autumn and winter also tend to be very dull, cloudy and grey. Come October, I resign myself to only fleeting glimpses of the sun until April. When the sun does emerge from the clouds, you will find Viennese residents lining park benches like birds on a telephone wire, their faces turned up to catch some valuable Vitamin D.
One aspect of the weather that still irks me is the wind. Vienna is a windy city. This is due to its continental climate and geographical location which sees it situated near mountains and along the Danube river. Narrow streets exacerbate the issue and during winter the strong winds combined with the biting cold can become arduous. My advice: invest in a good, long coat and don’t bother styling your hair from October to April.
Culture vultures, assemble - Vienna is your city!
Famous for its musical exports such as Strauss, Mozart, and Beethoven, Vienna has a flourishing musical scene. Music is the soul of the city and runs through its veins. People travel from around the world to attend concerts in churches, concert halls, parks, and even cafes. The world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra produces highlights such as the legendary New Year’s Concert and the popular Midsummer Concert in the Schönbrunn Palace Park. There are also a multitude of pop music events, such as the Donauinselfest (Danube Island Festival), and countless concerts by stars of the modern age.
The city also has world-class art museums, and there’s truly
something for everyone’s tastes. Whether you love modern, contemporary works, or prefer to stick to the classics, Vienna has over 100 art museums just waiting for you to discover. I’ve never heard anyone say they get bored of living here.
Dreaming of dancing the night away? Vienna's legendary ball season is calling you. Beginning in November, and reaching its peak in January and February, there are nearly 500 balls taking place each year. The most famous is the Vienna State Opera Ball, and some of the most beautiful include the Philharmoniker Ball, the Confectioner’s Ball, the Flower Ball, and the Coffee Maker’s Ball. Waltz your way through historic palaces and imposing state rooms. You don’t need to have won Dancing with the Stars - a simple waltz is good to know, but not essential for attendance. What is essential, however, is observing the strict dress code. This is normally a floor-length ball gown for the ladies, and black tie for the men. Oh, and comfortable dancing shoes! Because, trust me, your feet will thank you when you make it to five in the morning without blisters.
5. Infrastructure and safety
Vienna’s public infrastructure is, in my opinion, superior to most other cities. And if you’re coming from the USA, prepare to be blown away by the efficient and wide-reaching public transport network. Only 36% of Viennese have a private car, because (if you live and work in the city) there just isn’t the need for one. You can get around perfectly well with public transport, bicycles, taxis, or your own two feet.
The streets are clean and well maintained, there are no bins overflowing with rubbish and there are plenty of trees and green areas.
Broadly speaking, you are safe in Vienna. Of course, every large city will have its dodgier areas and
cases of crime, but I, as a young woman, have personally never felt unsafe walking around - even alone at night. (Granted, I don’t frequent the areas with higher crime rates alone at night).
In 2022, the Global Peace Index ranked Vienna as the fifth most peaceful city in the world, just below Denmark, and in the same year, crime rates were down 20% compared to just ten years previously. Caution and common sense is obviously always advisable in cities, and I’m not saying that crime doesn’t happen here - it does. I’m just saying that the chance of something happening to you is relatively low.
5 ½ . Don’t order Schnitzel with ketchup.
No self-respecting Viennese restaurant will offer this sauce as a side to Schnitzel anyway, but if they do, it’s for children only. Schnitzel is traditionally eaten with cranberry sauce - it tastes so much better anyway.
Right now, I invite you to pop a pair of headphones in and listen to Billy Joel’s song ‘Vienna’. Do you hear those lyrics?
‘Slow down, you crazy child… Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?... Slow down, you’re doing fine… Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while… When will you realise, Vienna waits for you?’
Vienna is a city that invites you to appreciate life. It encourages you to take a beat, look around, and enjoy the finer things in life - whether that’s a sumptuous ball or a simple coffee with a friend. Slow down and make the most of an exceptional quality of life in a city with more history, culture and charm than anyone could summarise in one blog post. These five (and a half) points to know about Vienna are what sprung to my mind when I thought: ‘What would I have liked to know before choosing to make this city my home?’.
No city is perfect, but I think Vienna comes as close as you could reasonably get.