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Austria (And What to Do Once you are There)

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Austria | Vorarlberg | Tyrol | Salzburg | Carinthia
Styria | Upper Austria | Lower Austria | Vienna | Burgenland
A photograph of a wooden hut by the edge of a pond, in a forest in Austria.

We are told that Douglas Adams thought of writing The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy while lying drunk in a field near Innsbruck. While it is still absolutely possible to do that, the goal of this Entry is to give you some ideas about other things you can do in Austria and also to give you a bit of background information.

Where is Austria and What is it Like?

Austria is a small country in central Europe. With a size of about 83,900km2 and a population of roughly 8.4 million it has about a quarter the size and about a tenth of the population of Germany1. At the same time it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and has a very low rate of poverty. Austria has eight neighbouring countries: Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Most of Austria is mountainous, with the Alps stretching from the westernmost part of the country almost to its eastern border. While in the west lofty mountains and glaciers can be found, over in eastern Austria it is rather hilly or even flat. This also influences the climate, which can be quite different in every valley in the mountains, but generally ranges from mountainous to continental or even almost Mediterranean - although Austria has no access to the sea. In winter temperatures can drop below minus 20°C but usually stay between minus 10°C and zero degrees Celsius. Summers are warm with temperatures of above 30°C being not uncommon. On some hot days 40°C can also occur. The coldest month, with most snow, is usually January while the highest temperatures can be expected in July and August. Warm winds from the mountains give people headaches, cold Siberian winds bring snow, and sand from the Sahara desert can give the sky a slightly reddish-brown colour.

About half of Austria is covered in forests which are getting bigger every year: more new trees grow each year than are cut down or die naturally. Most of the remaining space is used as fields, for grazing cattle and other farm animals. About 20% of the farmland is used for organic farming, making Austria the country with the second highest proportion of organic farming in Europe. The only city with over 1 million inhabitants is Austria's capital Vienna, most of the population of the country lives in small towns and villages. The largest river running through Austria is the Danube, and most other rivers of the country join it on its way to the Black Sea sooner or later.

Politically the Republic of Austria is divided into nine federal states: Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Styria, Tyrol, Upper Austria, Vienna and Vorarlberg. Every state has its own government and is sub-divided into smaller districts and communities. The national government consists of the Federal Council - the representatives of the federal states depending on their size - and the National Council, which is elected by all Austrians every five years. The National Council is made up of all political parties depending on the percentage of votes they receive from people in all of Austria. To govern, a party has to occupy more than half of the seats in the council. If no party has this many seats a coalition has to be formed with another party to reach the required number. The head of the government is the Chancellor, who is usually the head of the strongest party in the Federal Council. The head of state is the President, who approves the government, passes laws and represents the county. He is elected every six years in a direct election, meaning people do not vote for a party but a person.

Austria's official language is German, which locally has a few differences to the standard German used in Germany. The Austrian German language is defined as a 'standard variety' of German. The colloquial language used in most parts of Austria are Bavarian dialects. On German TV it is not uncommon to add subtitles when an Austrian is speaking; to many Germans the Austrian pronunciation seems slurry and difficult to understand. English is a compulsory subject in every Austrian school and most people should theoretically understand at least the most basic things in this foreign language.

A Shortcut Through History

Map of Austria todayMap of Austria in 1900

Early traces of mankind in today's territory of Austria reach back as far as the time of the Neanderthals. Later Celts and Romans left their imprint on the land. Until the collapse of the Roman Empire parts of Austria belonged to the provinces of Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia with the 'Limes'2 running through northern Austria along the Danube, resulting in various forts along the border. Many traces of the Romans can still be found today.

In the early Middle Ages most of today's territory of Austria belonged to the Duchy of Bavaria in the empire of Charlemagne. At the end of the 10th Century the Margraves of Babenberg reigned over 'Ostarrichi'3 at the eastern boarder of Bavaria. Slowly their property grew, spreading eastwards and acquiring Styria. Since the 12th Century Vienna is the capital of Austria.

Since the 13th Century the house of Hapsburg reigned over Austria, continually expanding the borders of the country. From this house came all but one of the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire from the 15th to the 19th Century. Through clever marriage their influence spread from Spain to the Netherlands to Hungary. The Empire of Austria was founded at the beginning of the 19th Century, when Franz II had to give up the Holy Roman Empire and became Franz I of Austria.

In the 19th Century the nations within the large Austrian Empire strove for independence, but only Hungary managed to achieve equal status with Austria, leading to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In around 1900 the Austro-Hungarian monarchy included parts of today's countries of Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The growing dissatisfaction in the countries of the monarchy finally resulted in the beginning of WWI.

After the war the Hapsburg monarchy was ended and the first Republic of Austria was founded with a state territory quite similar to that of today. A hopeful start was ruined by an economic and political crisis ending when Austria joined the German Reich in 1938. During WWII Austria was part of Germany.

With the end of WWII Austria became an independent country once again. Just like Germany, Austria was occupied by the Allied Forces and Russian troops. These occupying forces left in 1955. Austria then became part of the United Nations, which has one of their headquarters in Vienna. Until 1990 the country was lying directly at the Iron Curtain but kept a neutral status in the East-West conflict. Since 1995 Austria has been part of the European Union. It has signed the Schengen Agreement and has used the Euro as currency since 2002.

Things to See in Austria

Guided tours through Austria seem to revolve mainly around Vienna and the town of Salzburg4. Both of these places are part of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage and there are certainly very many interesting sights to see. Historic buildings, palaces and museums will assuredly keep you busy for days. While today's appearance of Vienna has mostly been influenced by the 19th Century and by the fact that it was once the capital of a huge empire, Salzburg is smaller and shows an amazing variety of historic building styles.

The historic city centre and the baroque palace of Graz are also on the list of UNESCO Cultural Heritages. Graz is Austria's second largest city and its city centre has buildings from the Middle Ages as well as contemporary architecture. In Innsbruck visitors can find many buildings from the 15th and 16th Century, a time when it was an important city in the empire. There are many other towns and villages with interesting historic sights. Visitors will also find an uncountable number of museums showing historic artefacts and works of art.

As most of Austria is mountainous it is of course a good place for hiking, taking extended walks or climbing high rocks and mountain peaks. Up in the mountains - just like you may expect - you will still find remote farm houses and cattle that spends the summer up on higher ground before returning to the valleys in autumn. Often footpaths will go straight through a meadow with grazing cows. Other than that you may encounter deer, chamois and other mountain and forest creatures. Cycling and mountain-biking is also very popular in Austria. There are many cycle routes that make it possible to explore the whole of the country by bike. Many lakes can be used for swimming when it is warm enough - and some of them indeed get very warm in summer, while lakes higher up in the mountains may stay icy cold.

In winter the same mountains are used for skiing and numerous other winter sports. Some regions are suited for families, others by party folks and some by rich - often Russian - tourists. The size of the ski resorts and the difficulty of their slopes also varies greatly so you should check on this before setting off. You should also be aware that, particularly in large ski resorts, some holidaymakers like to have a party every day after skiing, or even start drinking in the afternoon. If this is not to your liking you would be advised to choose a quieter resort. The skiing season generally lasts from November to March although skiing on glaciers is possible all year round. Swimming is also possible in winter, but people rather go to one of the many thermal baths than lakes. Austria is a geologically active area with many small earthquakes, so there is plenty of warm water in some regions.

Where to Stay

If you visit a city or town in Austria the most obvious place to stay is, of course, a hotel. You can find anything from luxury hotels, large international chains, hotels with contemporary design to smaller family-run hotels with prices for different budgets. Usually you will get a breakfast included in the price but not always any other meals. An often cheaper possibility is a 'Pension', a smaller guest house which is also family-run most of the time. Those who want to be by themselves can rent apartments, houses or even huts in the mountains.

Campgrounds of varied quality are of course also available but camping in the wild is not allowed.

Travel and Transport

Austria has six international airports in Vienna, Graz, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt and Linz. The largest of them is certainly the airport in Vienna. If you cannot find a good flight to your preferred destination you should also have a look at flights to neighbouring countries. The airport in Vienna for instance has a bus connection to the airport in Bratislava.

For people who want to keep their feet on the ground Austria also has good railway connections to all neighbouring countries. Austrian cities are all very well connected with each other by rail, so you won't necessarily need a car to get from one place to another. Prices for rail tickets are usually more or less reasonable. Of course there are also plenty of cars to rent. Austrians drive on the right-hand side of the road and unlike in Germany there's a maximum speed limit of 130km per hour on the Autobahn (motorway). To drive on Austrian's motorways you also need the so-called 'Vignette', a sticker on your front windshield that tells the authorities that you have paid to use the motorway. You can buy the Vignette in places such as gas stations, roadhouses or tobacconists.

Another possibility way to travel to Austria is by taking a boat along the Danube, which may also enable you to see Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

Food and Drink

What to Eat

If you stay in a hotel the breakfast you get will most likely be 'continental', meaning that you will get bread, rolls, jam, honey, cheese, cold meat and probably boiled eggs. Austrians usually don't have big breakfasts, the most fancy thing they can imagine are croissants and a soft boiled egg on Sundays. There are, on the other hand, a great variety of breads and rolls sold at bakeries as well as many different kinds of meat and cheese to put on a sandwich. If you go shopping yourself you can certainly find a lot of delicious things.

If they have the time Austrians eat their main meal at noon. This traditionally consists of soup for a starter, some meat with vegetables and/or salad as a main dish, followed by dessert. You can get such a meal in any restaurant or 'Gasthaus' both at noon and during the evening. The standard soup you get there is a beef broth with either 'Frittaten' (finely cut pancakes) or 'Leberknödel' (liver dumplings), additionally you may get vegetable cream soups and the like. The classic main dish at any place is 'Wiener Schnitzel', a fried piece of pork5 served with potatoes, potato salad, chips or rice. Apart from plain pork it is available in many variations, with salt meat, poultry, or as 'Cordon Bleu' with ham and cheese as a filling inside of the meat. Of course you can also get lots of other dishes like roast pork with sauerkraut, fried chicken or venison. Each restaurant will usually have at least one vegetarian dish or a 'healthy' option - just don't expect it to be vegetarian and healthy.

For people who don't have the time, or prefer their main meal in the evening, there are - apart from kebab and American fast food chains - other options. Würstelstände (sausage stalls) will offer you items such as Bratwurst, chips and Käsekrainer - a roast pork sausage with some cheese in it. At supermarkets and butchers you can get rolls with Schnitzel or a slice of warm Leberkäse, which is very finely minced meatloaf. Bakeries and supermarkets also have a wide variety of breads with cheese, ham and other fillings.

If you spend your day walking in the mountains you can often find a hut or a farmhouse where they serve food. This may be just a small snack such as bread with ham and cheese or Schmalz6 or a full meal of, for instance, lentils with bacon and dumplings.

Austria is mostly known for a great number of different and delicious cakes and other sweet dishes, indeed there is an uncountable number of them. When you are in Austria for a visit you should definitely try the local specialities. The best way to do that is to go to a 'Kaffeehaus' (coffee house) or 'Konditorei' for afternoon coffee, just like the locals do. You can get anything from a light fruit cake to a heavy chocolate cake; every coffee house has its own specialities. The Kaffeehaus is an important part of life in Austria and a meeting place for all generations and classes.

In the evening most Austrians have a supper consisting of bread, cheese and meat - if they manage to get proper lunch at noon. Those who don't may choose to go to a restaurant if they don't want to cook at home, but in eastern Austria many people like to spend their evenings at the 'Heurigen'7. In regions where wine or cider is produced Heurigen are a way for farmers to sell their home-made beverages along with various hot and cold food (and cakes) at very reasonable prices. Some of them even offer hearty lunches too.

What to Drink

As well as enjoying a wide selection and many variations of coffee, most Austrians enjoy drinking beer. Many local breweries produce beer like pale lager or pils8. In eastern Austria you can also find some very good red and white wine. A popular drink in summer is the 'Spritzer', which consists half of white wine, half of sparkling mineral water. In some regions you can also get good cider - with sparkling water or without. Those who prefer stronger drinks can find many different kinds of Schnapps, made from any fruits people can get their hands on.

How to Pay

Tipping the waiting staff is the norm in Austria. The sum you should give is more or less 10% of the bill, depending on how much you liked the service and your meal. [You give the tip to the waiter immediately when paying your bill. When the waiter tells you the amount of money you are supposed to name a higher sum that includes the tip if you don't have the exact sum you want to pay in your purse.]

Be prepared to pay in cash - see below for further information.

Further Information

In many countries around the world shops are open almost 24 hours 7 days a week. This is not the case in Austria. Monday to Friday you'll usually find supermarkets are open from about 7 am to 7 pm, with larger supermarkets open for longer. Other shops open later and often close at 6 pm. On Saturdays shops close even earlier. And don't expect to buy anything on a Sunday. On Sunday all shops are closed, if you are desperate you may get some vital things at a gas station.

Do not count on all shops or restaurants accepting credit cards or bank cards. Supermarkets will accept them as will most shops, but restaurants usually do not have the facility to accept credit cards. You should always have some cash with you.

Museums are usually closed on one day of the week, very often (but not always) this is Monday or Tuesday. Additionally some sights are closed in winter. Before you go anywhere you should make sure to get the information about opening times.

1Or one third the size and one seventh of the population of the UK.2the Limes Transalutanus, 'Limes' a Roman defended and fortified frontier at the edge of the Empire.3'Land in the east'4As opposed to the federal state Salzburg, of which Salzburg is the capital.5Germans insist that the true Wiener Schnitzel is veal, but Austrians don't know about that.6Depending on which part of the world you come from this translates as 'lard' or 'dripping'.7Traditional East-Austrian wine taverns.8Pilsner: A lager beer with a strong hop flavor, originally brewed at Pilsen (Plzeñ) in the Czech Republic.

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