One of my favorite posts I’ve ever written was 25 Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Scotland. I love it so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to make it a series! So I asked my good friend Angela, who studied abroad in Vienna last year, to write a little bit about things she wished she knew before studying abroad in Vienna. I’ll pass it over to her now!

Angela and Addie standing in front of the Gloriette at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria
Angela and I when I came to visit her in Vienna!

Studying abroad in Vienna is one of the best choices you can make. After all, Vienna was recently named the most livable city in the world. But for Americans, there may be a slight learning curve to live in the most livable city on Earth. Here are some of the tips and tricks I picked up in my semester in Wien!

Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Vienna: Daily Life

1. Surviving Almost Cash Only

A number of businesses in Vienna are cash-only, and if you have an American credit card (i.e. with a chip and not contactless), you’ll be slowing everyone down in the places that do. Every time you swipe a credit card you will have to sign a paper copy of the receipt, which no European will have to do. I paid with my card often at the grocery store, and I got a lot of weird looks in the process.

There are two main options to avoid huge bank transfer fees and conversion fees. The first is to find a debit card that does not have international conversion fees, such as certain CapitalOne cards. The other option (which I did) was to open a free student bank account with an Austrian bank and to use a website like TransferWise to move money from your American bank account without fees.

2. Finding an Apartment

Some schools will have a specific partnership with different accommodation services. My school required students studying abroad in Austria to find student accommodation with OeAD, whose services and accommodations are overall decent.

OeAD is specifically for international students, so your odds of meeting and making friends with local students are pretty low. If your school doesn’t have a requirement, I recommend looking on WG-Gesucht, which is almost like AirBnB but for long term housing accommodation with local students.

3. What Stores Sell

Americans are used to stores that sell everything you could need. Most US grocery stores sell not only food, but also medicine, toiletries, cosmetics, and more. To find all of these items in Austria, you’ll need multiple stores. The main grocery stores (strictly for food) are Spar, Billa, and Aldi; cosmetics and toiletries can be found at stores like Bipa.

I remember texting a friend in Austria during my first week in a panic about where to buy toilet paper.

Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Vienna: Food

Delicious homemade schnitzel at Leoni's apartment in Vienna, Austria
Delicious schnitzel

4. No Preservatives

Americans can go to the grocery store once every week or two with no problem, but in Austria and other parts of Europe, your fresh foods simply won’t last that long. I ended up going to the store once every few days, which seemed to be the local standard. Most people seemed to be buying smaller amounts of food more frequently from the grocery store.

5. The abundance of Mohn

Mohntorte (poppseed cake) at Cafe Vollpension in Vienna, Austria

In Vienna, there are bakeries on every corner, which open bright and early with fresh breads and pastries every day. One flavor I did not expect to see so often was Mohn, or poppyseeds. In the US, you really only see poppyseeds in muffins, but in Vienna poppyseeds were in everything.

When you’re there, I recommend trying Mohngelato, Mohnkuchen (poppyseed cake), and a Mohnkrone (basically a cinnamon roll but with poppyseeds instead of cinnamon) at one of the many bakeries close to you.

6. Your Relationship to the Service Industry

One of the most socially terrifying parts as a Southerner in Vienna was having to ask the server for the check. It feels like you are inconveniencing them, especially because they pay way less attention to you than an American waiter. Because of this, Americans find servers in Europe rude, but the standards for service are simply different.

All you need to know is that (1) you have to ask the server for the check when you are done and (2) how you should tip. For a small check (under 10€), simply round up to the nearest Euro for the tip. (Ex. If the bill is 9,50€, tell the server “10€”.) If the check is larger, add on a little bit. At a nice restaurant, I don’t think I ever tipped more than 5€.

Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Vienna: Getting Around Town

7. A Compact City

Everything in Vienna you could possibly need is within a 15-20 minute U-Bahn (subway) journey. Unlike cities like London and Berlin, all of the major sites are fairly close to each other. I lived in the eighth district of Vienna (Josefstadt), and within a fifteen minute walk, I could see the Rathaus (city hall), Parliament, all of the university buildings, and a number of renowned museums. Vienna is by no means an overwhelming city.

8. The Incredible Transit

A yellow semester ticket for public transport while studying abroad in Vienna
This was my Semesterkarte (semester ticket), which allowed me to use all of Vienna’s public transport for the whole semester.

Vienna public transit is so good that you never need to walk more than 5-10 minutes from where you were dropped off. The U-Bahn (subway) runs 24 hours on the weekend with frequent stops. Vienna also has a large network of buses and streetcars (known in Germany as the Straßenbahn but in Vienna as the Bim). There are a number of apps to navigate the public transit system, but I recommend downloading the Qando app the minute you land in Vienna.

9. Where Vienna is actually located geographically

I had always seemed to think that Vienna was basically in Germany geographically, but it’s absolutely not. Vienna is in the northeastern corner of the country, only an hour on the train to Bratislava, Slovakia, but over four hours from Munich. The closest major cities to Vienna are: Bratislava, Budapest, Graz, Salzburg, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Prague, and Munich.

The cheapest and easiest cities to visit from Vienna tend to be in newer members of the EU (like Hungary and Croatia), which are within the Schengen Area but do not use the Euro.

Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Vienna: School Stuff

10. A European Campus

Vienna University, where Angela was studying abroad in Vienna.

An American college campus is very different than the European idea of a college campus. The buildings tend to be spread out across a certain part of the city, and they do not have all of the amenities that an American campus would. There may be a few spots to eat around campus at Uni Wien, but there’s certainly no designated dining hall.

There are also no university sponsored clubs or organizations, so if you want to meet new people in your semester abroad, I suggest going on trips and doing events with groups like Erasmus Student Network, which connects you to both local and international students.

12. Whack school schedule

The school calendar is completely different to ours. The summer semester (our spring semester) starts on March 1 and ends on June 30. When your friends back home are worrying about midterms, you’re only just getting started.

Austria is also a Catholic country, so a number of religious holidays are also public holidays, so schools, government services, banks, and some businesses are closed these days. I had four full weeks of school between March 1 and June 30 due to the frequency of religious holidays.

13. Working out

You won’t find a campus gym in Vienna. For insurance reasons, gyms in Austria tend to only offer six-month or year- long memberships, which is more than an exchange student really needs. In order to stay fit in a country with a Kaffee und Kuchen Culture, students studying abroad in Vienna have a few options.

A network of Vienna universities offer zero-credit workout courses through USI, with activities ranging from Zumba to Yoga to Quidditch. I took two Zumba courses, but I was also able to make arrangements with a local gym so that I could only pay for the time I would actually be in Vienna. It never hurts to ask!

Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Vienna: German Language Nonsense

14. Words that For No Reason in Particular that are Different in Austria

Most of the words that are different in Austria center around food: Zwetschke (plum), Paradeiser (tomato), and Erdäpfel (potato) are all words unique to Austria. There are others, from the word for ATM to the word for shopping bag. See what more you can find out during your semester in Vienna!

15. German Class Doesn’t Teach You How to Live  

If I learned anything in Vienna, it is that learning a foreign language in high school is all about learning how to be a good tourist, and learning a foreign language in college is all about learning how to discuss a variety of cultural, historical, and political topics in said language. In my ten years of German education, I had never interacted with words needed for cooking or banking, which turned out to be necessary.

Things No One Tells You About Studying Abroad in Vienna: Existing as an American

Angela drinking a melange (coffee) from a cafe in Vienna.

16. Few Other Americans

For German-speaking Americans, studying abroad in Vienna is not the most popular choice. Lots of people head to a big city like Berlin or a college town like Freiburg, but Vienna should not be overlooked! You may notice that you are one of a handful of Americans, and the other native English speakers are from Australia or England.

As the only American, you will have to talk politics a lot. I recommend listening to the New York Times podcast “The Daily” to stay up to date. Also, people will think it is weird that your roommate back in the US also has a bed in the same room as you, and that you don’t simply have two bedrooms that are connected.

17. Frische Luft

In German-speaking Europe, frische Luft” (fresh air) is a good phrase to keep in your back pocket. You may notice starting in late April that there is no air conditioning in 95% of the buildings that you enter, and every window in the city is open all of the time.

Germans and Austrians love frische Luft. Fresh air is critical to the health and wellbeing of Germans and Austrians, and the air from air conditioning is somehow less pure than the air outside. Any moving air, however, can make you sick (hence all of the scarves).

I refuse to believe that 95-degree barely moving air indoors is better for my health than being at a cool and comfortable temperature. Also, if the Luft is so frisch, why do so many people smoke? I have a lot of questions.

Planning on being in Vienna soon? These posts might be helpful:

And here’s some more posts about studying abroad:

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Thinking about studying abroad in Vienna? Here are 17 thing no one tells you that you'll need to know in order to survive. From everyday life to words that only exist in Austria, here's everything you need to know about Vienna study abroad. #europe #travel


Addie Gray is a recent college grad and a passionate solo female traveler. Having traveled to more than 20 countries, she now shares her knowledge on budget travel, solo female travel, and travel photography.

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