Only a few more sleeps until EuroVis! As we approach the big date, here are some practical tips and tricks about Vienna, the local culture and the exotic customs of the natives.
Just to avoid misunderstandings: I am Austrian and I lived in Vienna for 10 years before coming to the U.S. This is important context for any criticism and making fun of Vienna, Austria, the Viennese, etc. in this part and the previous one.
The local currency is called the Euro (pronounced oy-raw). Don’t be confused by the different colors of the banknotes, it is real money. In case you’re from a place where all the money looks the same, you will feel like you’re color blind for a few days after your return. It’s also important to realize that coins have actual value: the smallest banknote is €5 (around $6.25), anything below that are coins. So don’t just leave those somewhere, they add up fast.
The next most important thing is electricity. Like most of the rest of Europe, Austria runs on 220V. Check your power supplies to see if they can handle that, most modern ones should be able to. Some appliances like hair dryers may have a switch that you can flip. If they don’t, leave them at home. Plugging in a 110V hair dryer into a 220V outlet will be spectacular, but not very pleasant for people close to the action.
Once you’re sure about the voltage, you will need a plug adapter. Austrian plugs have two round pins, like most of the rest of Europe (with the exception of the crazy British contraption). Some outlets will also accept American-style flat plugs, but those are not very common. Adapters are easy to get though, and your hotel reception should be able to help you.
The best way of getting around in Vienna is the subway (U-Bahn, ooh-bun). Like the trams, it’s based on an honor system, i.e., you don’t have to walk through gates to get to the trains. There are occasional checks though, and if you’re caught without a valid ticket you will pay a significant fine. In typical Austrian fashion, they make you pay for the ticket on top of the fine, to add insult to injury. And don’t try to play the clueless foreigner, they get that all the time. Tickets aren’t expensive and you can get one for the entire week. There are also ones that are good for a certain number of rides, but you will have to remember to validate them every time you get on a train.
When you check into your hotel, you will be asked to fill out a form with your name and address and show your passport. They are actually required by law to do that, so it’s not just an attempt at identity theft.
Like in other places, tipping is expected in restaurants, taxis, etc. However, do not tip 20%! Austrian labor laws allow people to make a living without relying entirely on tips, and people are not used to tips like that. Many people only round up to the next full Euro, and add 50 cents if it’s too close. You might want to be a bit less stingy (I would usually tip around 10%), but it’s not necessary to go overboard.
Also, one trap with regards to tipping is that your waiter expects you to tell him or her how much you want to end up paying as you hand over the money or credit card. If you’re not aware of that, you will get back a credit card slip with the exact amount of your check and no way to add a tip, plus a sour look. Better have some change ready to leave as a tip (but see above for the amount).
Credit cards are generally accepted in restaurants but not in stores, especially grocery stores. Your American debit card will also likely not work, because the magnetic strip is facing the wrong way. So it’s best to always have some cash on hand. And speaking of credit cards: tell your bank that you’re traveling to avoid getting your debit card refused at an ATM. I learned that the hard way once in Frankfurt where I had to wait for the U.S. East Coast to wake up so the people with the right clearance at my bank would show up and allow my card to be used there. Credit cards generally work without that, though you likely don’t know your PIN to get cash (plus, it’s expensive).
If you’re looking for a convenience store, do not ask for a pharmacy. Austrian pharmacies only sell medications, no beauty products, toys, food, or outdoor furniture. You will need to find a pharmacy for any kind of medicine, though, including basic painkillers like Aspirin: those are only sold by pharmacies. Like other stores, pharmacies generally close at 7:30 during the week (and are not open on Sunday), but there is always one designated to be open around the clock; a sign on any pharmacy’s door will point you to it.
The language spoken in Austria is German (doi-tsh), even if it’s not always recognizable as such. Austrian German is softer and there are some words that differ, but overall the differences are minor. If you speak some German, by all means make use of it, but be prepared for people to respond in English and wanting to practice their English on you.
Nobody in Austria has seen The Sound of Music. Nobody. People will not get your references and they won’t be able to sing your favorite songs with you. Save yourself the frustration and don’t even bring it up.
Austrians are proud of their beer (Bier, beer) and wine (Wein, vine). You will get a sense of the latter at the social event, which will be held at a Heurigen. I don’t think there’s a way to translate that, but think: lots of wine and fatty food, fun, song, and a guy playing zither in the background.
The Viennese in particular, but Austrians in general, have a thing for the morbid. You don’t understand Austria until you’ve experienced the dark, bottomless depths of self-denial, existential dread, and morbid fatalism that lie at the center of the Austrian soul. While you will never quite get it as an outsider, you can at least get a taste of it by visiting the Funeral Museum, the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, or one of the many cemeteries. The Central Cemetery is particularly interesting because of its old Jewish part with gravestones that haven’t been touched in 100 years or more (it’s also the subject of a popular 1970s pop song). The best time to go there is early in the morning on a foggy day (not very likely in early June, though).
If that wasn’t fun enough, there is plenty of other stuff to do. The EuroVis venue is located right across from the central part of the Donauinsel, an artificial island that is one of the best places to run, rollerblade, frolick around naked (on the nude beaches, anyway), or ride your bike during the day, and to get drunk at night. There is even a convenient footbridge to walk over to the bars, both floating on the water and on land.
As you walk over there from the conference venue, you will pass the world’s largest floating trampoline. It’s not a hallucination caused by too much alcohol and too many talks, it’s real. Here’s a video of a kid enjoying himself there. I can’t find a website for the thing, but it’s worth checking out. It’s a bizarre sight when the sun sets and there are bodies tumbling through the air, carefree and unaware of what’s going on around them.
Another fun part of Vienna is the Prater. It consists of a large park, with a permanent fairground in one part. Yes, that’s where you will find the Riesenrad. The fairground (also called Wurstelprater) has a certain morbid flair to it, in particular when you walk through it on a rainy day and you run into the Hieronymus Bosch-style statues of clowns that are all attached to each other with heads and hands sticking out everywhere.
It’s pointless to attempt to list everything here, just go with the flow. There will be lots of things to do, and the locals will be able to guide you. Have fun, enjoy, and let me know if you’ve found this guide useful!