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There’s a lot to do in Austria: ski, hike, drink wine, see an opera. And you absolutely should do all of those things. What, however, makes Austria so special and dear to our hearts is the Austrian approach to life.
Austrians cherish “Gemütlichkeit,” which means comfort and coziness. You’ll find that Austrians experience life more slowly and comfortably. In the mountains, there are cozy mountain huts (Hütte, Schutzhaus) that are open for food and drink as well as overnight stays. In the wine regions, there are Heurigen (wine taverns) that offer comfortable spaces for drinking and welcome people of all ages. Throughout Austria, there are Thermen that invite you to relax and rejuvenate in healing waters. And, in restaurants and cafés, you’ll never be rushed or pressured to leave. So, what we’re trying to say is that Austria has mastered an elevated style of slow living, which is especially enviable if you’re coming from a workaholic culture.
Even in Vienna (Wien in German), the capital city, life is unhurried and relaxed. More about Vienna…Prior to WWI, Austria was a sizeable empire that encompassed much of what is today Eastern Europe. The grandeur of the former Austro-Hungarian empire can be felt throughout Central and Eastern Europe, but nowhere more keenly than in Austria’s capital. Vienna is easily the most beautiful city in Europe, with its impressive and varied architecture and immaculate streets. Yes, we’re completely biased. Kati is from Vienna and I (Sabrina) studied in Wien.
By Car. Austria has an excellent public transportation system, which you should absolutely take advantage of. If you’re driving however, you’ll need to purchase a toll sticker (vignette). That sticker allows you to drive on the autobahn, or highways. As of 2017, you can purchase a 10-day vignette (9 EUR), a 2 month vignette (26 EUR), or a 1 year vignette (87 EUR). If you’re renting a car in Austria, they’ll provide the vignette. But, if you rented a car in another country and are driving to Austria, make sure to purchase one as soon as you cross the border. The best place to buy these toll stickers are at gas stations. Once you purchase the vignette, affix it immediately to your dashboard.
By Bus. One really easy and cheap way to travel throughout Austria is via a Flixbus. You can also take a Flixbus to neighboring countries. These comfortable buses are punctual, clean, and provide wifi. It might take a bit longer than a train, but it will save you a lot of money.
Official Name: Republik Österreich (Republic of Austria)
Capital: Wien (Vienna)
Government: Federal Republic
Regions: Austria is composed of 9 states:
(1) Vienna (Wien), (2) Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), (3) Upper Austria (Oberösterreich), (4) Styria (Steiermark), (5) Tyrol (Tirol), (6) Carinthia (Kärnten), (7) Salzburg, (8) Vorarlberg, and (9) Burgenland
Population: 8.7 Million
Language: German. In specific regions, Croatian, Slovenian und Hungarian are recognized.
Tipping Etiquette: 5-10%, Cash Only.
Water Quality: Excellent
Something Interesting: The bodies of the Hapsburg Emperors are buried in three different burial sites in Vienna. Their intestines are stored in urns in St. Stephan’s Cathedral, their bodies are buried in the Kapuzinerkirche (Capuchin Church), and their hearts are buried in Augustinerkirche (Church of the Augustinians).
Nur net hudln.
Don’t Rush. Take Your Time.
(Photograph: Burg Liechtenstein in Maria Enzersdorf)
Heurigen (also spelled Heuriger) is a wine tavern in Eastern Austria. More specifically, it’s where a local winemaker serves his/her new wine under a special license during the growing season. The name is a reference to the year’s young wine, which can be purchased by the glass or in bottles. In the fall, when grapes are being harvested, fresh grape juice (Traubensaft) as well as fermented grape juice (Sturm) are also served.
Heurigen are usually rustic and charming, offer indoor and outdoor seating, and are frequented by Austrians of all ages. In the traditional Heurigen, only cold snacks are offered (e.g. belegtes Brot, sliced bread with toppings). Especially around Vienna, it’s common to see a buffet, with cold meats, hard and soft cheeses, different spreads, olives and pickles, and various salads. In the more “modern” Heurigen, a small selection of warm foods (e.g. Spinatstrudel) are offered.
Depending on what region you’re in, you might also see Buschenschänke, which are very similar to Heurigen, but even more rustic. They’re only allowed to serve cold foods and their opening times are far more limited. The name “Buschenschank” refers to a “Buschen,” which is a bundle of twigs that are found at the entrance of the establishment. If the bundle is visible, it means that the Buschenschank is open and you are welcome to come in. You’ll see lots of these in the Wachau in Lower Austria.
Typically, Heurigen are only open for a limited period of time. You can find these wine establishments in Austria’s wine regions in the states of Lower Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Burgenland.
The history of the Heurigen goes back to 1784, when Emperor Joseph II issued an ordinance that allowed everybody to sell homemade food, wine and juice without having to apply for a permit.
Ötschergräben is a gorge in the Mostviertel within Lower Austria. You can walk the full length of the gorge via an easy trail that’s supported by a number of boardwalks and footbridges. Cascading waterfalls feed the crystal clear river (Ötscherbach) that flows through the steep canyon. As the early afternoon light streams into the gorge and illuminates the trail, you feel transported to a magical realm. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
You can do a day-hike here, or an overnight hike. We hiked Ötschergräben in mid-September – that time of year when summer courteously gives way to fall. We started the hike in Ötscher base in Wienerbruck, where there’s a parking lot and you can pay the park entrance fee (3 EUR/Adult). After lunch at the treehouse-like Ötscherhias hut, we headed towards the mountain hut Schutzhaus Vorderötscher, where we spent the night. This cozy mountain refuge serves delicious food and has extremely comfortable beds. We were extremely satisfied with their Kaspressknödelsuppe, Gulasch and several glasses of Kaiserspritzer.
The next morning, we hiked to Gemeindealpe to the sound of red deer mating calls (roaring). September and October marks the breeding season for red deer in Europe. And, we were lucky enough to see several Gämse (chamois, goat-antelope species), just off the trail. We ended our hike by taking the chairlift down to Mitterbach from the middle-station (30 minutes down the hill from Gemeindealpe). There’s a special train, Mariazellerbahn, that connects this area. We took that train back to our car in Wienerbruck.
A Therme is a thermal spa complex that houses thermal pools, various saunas, and resting rooms. They typically offer massage, spa and wellness treatments. If your budget allows, we recommend spending the whole day at a Therme, so that you can fully relax. It’s not comfortable to continuously check the time to ensure that you’re not exceeding a certain timeframe. Thermen typically house at least one cafeteria and café, so there’s no need to bring a lunch. They are for all age groups, but the sauna section is designated for adults only. No one wears a bathing suit in the sauna, so be prepared to take it off and rock your birthday suit. Depending on the Therme, the saunas are either separated by gender, or integrated.
The Wachau is a pretty river valley in Lower Austria between the towns of Melk and Krems. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can explore both sides of the Danube river, by bike or by car. There are villages, castle ruins, Heurigen and Buschenschänke, monasteries and vineyards on both sides. The Wachau is a wine-growing region and an apricot-growing region. In the fall, you’ll see homemade apricot products (jam, nectar, schnaps) being sold on the sides of the road. You’ll also see winemakers and families harvesting the grapes.
Notable landmarks in the Wachau include the Melk Abbey, Schönbühel Castle, Aggstein, and the Dürnstein Castle Ruins, where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned in 1193.
When we visit the Wachau, we head to the coziest Heurigen, or Buschenschank. Prost!
Prost (Cheers) – In Austrian culture, it’s really important to make purposeful eye contact when you toast. Say “Prost” or “Zum Wohl.” You should tap glasses with everyone within reach. There’s only one exception to the rule. When you drink Sturm, an early wine, you should say “Mahlzeit” not “Prost.”
Mahlzeit (Bon appetite) – You say Mahlzeit right before anyone at your table begins to eat. It means “enjoy your meal.”
Table Manners – Austrians eat with a fork in their left hand and a knife in their right hand. Both hands are visible throughout the meal. Unlike American etiquette, they don’t cut their food, and place one hand on their lap, before proceeding to eat what they’ve just cut. Also, Austrians don’t use their hands to eat foods like pizza and hamburgers. They will always use a fork and knife.
Tiroler Gröstl – cooked potatoes combined with beef or pork and onions are roasted in a pan. A fried egg is served on top. This hearty meal is really popular in the hiking and skiing regions, but you’ll find it also in Vienna.
Käsespätzle – spätzle is a soft egg noodle. In Tyrol, spätzle is sautéed with a variety of pungent mountain cheeses and garnished with fried onions and chive.
Kaspressknödelsuppe – cheese dumpling soup. One or two large flat-pressed dumplings, made with bread, eggs and cheese, are served in a clear broth soup.
Wiener Schnitzel – Thin, breaded and pan fried cutlets of veal. Squeeze a slice of lemon on this quintessential Viennese dish before digging in. If you’re not into veal (we’re not), you can usually order Schnitzel vom Schwein (pork), Schnitzel von der Pute (turkey), or Schnitzel vom Huhn (chicken). Schnitzel is typically served with a side of potato or mixed salad.
Tafelspitz – Boiled Beef. This Viennese specialty was actually Emperor Franz Jospeh’s favorite dish. The tender beef is served in a pot of broth with bone marrow. The dish is accompanied by sides of fried potato rosti, vegetables (spinach, string beans), horseradish and apple sauces. We recommend trying this dish at Plachutta.
Kaiserschmarrn – Shredded Pancakes. It’s often made with raisins. If you don’t want the raisins say, “Bitte ohne Rosinen.” This is eaten as both a meal and a dessert. We say eat it for dessert. Traditionally, it’s served with a side of plum sauce.
If you want to order a glass of wine, you should say “ein Achtel” (an eighth of a liter), which is the common serving size.
Weisswein gespritzt – It’s very common to drink white wine with mineral water, especially earlier in the day. If you like sweeter drinks, order a Kaiserspritzer, which is white wine, mineral water, and Holunderblütersirup (elderflower syrup).
Sturm – this is an early, sweet wine that is only served in early Fall. Unlike all other alcoholic beverages, you don’t say Prost (Cheers) before drinking. Instead, you say Mahlzeit. If you make the mistake of saying Prost, there’s an unwritten rule that says you’re obliged to pay for this round of drinks.
Grüner Veltliner – dry white wine.
Gelbe Muskateller – white wine with a distinct perfume smell.
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