Austrian Culture – What It Means to be a typical Austrian

Austrian culture is not just monuments, artworks, and great literature — it is, above all, who we are.

To a newcomer, Austria may not seem like a strange country. Stunningly beautiful but with people who, at first encounter, can seem grumpy and downbeat. A melting pot of cultures for centuries, yet staunchly sceptical about everything new or foreign. A people who hold music, theatre, opera and balls as dear as eating well and drinking ambitiously; and one for whom a timely Feierabend on Friday around noon is just as important as hitting the piste in winter – and cheering the heroes that routinely bring the gold home every season.

So, when compiling this issue on cultural heritage, we asked ourselves: What is it that unites the people living in this fair country of ours? What is the Austrian culture they share, or see and feel differently about? In short, what is it that makes the Austrians feel, well, Austrian? And it turns out, quite a lot! It ranges from brass music to the multicultural hodgepodge that is Vienna; it’s about Schnitzel and dialect, about family values and fresh water from the Alps; and don’t forget peacefulness, safe (and clean!) streets, music, wine, coffeehouses, long walks along the Donaukanal, good health care, delicious Palatschinken and so much more.

The Austrians we talked to are young and old; they live along rocky Alpine passes, in blooming valleys and big cities; they have fled and returned, moved abroad to come back one day, or never left; some have a kippa, fez or crucifix in their closet; others came out of the closet for all their relatives to see and opened a new chapter. All of them, in their own way, shape, challenge, enrich – and perhaps also love – this little, quirky country. Their views on Austrian culture are as unique as every handmade Krapfen.

This is their story. And if you are one of those 8.7 million living here between the banks of the Bodensee and the shores of the Neusiedlersee, it is your story, too.

People on Austrian Culture

Laura Voggeneder, 28, on Austrian Culture

  • I love to eat: Knödel in any variation (without meat)
  • Listens to: Maschin by Bilderbuch
  • Likes to say: Schau ma mal!” (“We’ll see!”)
  • My go-to spot: Wienerberg
  • Fun fact about Austrian Culture: It is customary to say Mahlzeit (bon appetit) to everyone between 10:30 am and 3 pm. And make sure to look into my eyes, otherwise your kids will turn out ugly 😉

I was born in Linz and grew up in Kefermarkt, a small village about 30 kilometers away from Linz. Everybody there knows each other. We are blessed to have a train station connecting us to the rest of the world, but everybody has a car anyway. My village is close to the Czech border, so sometimes my Dad and I would go shopping there or take the car to be fixed. It is cheaper there.

What I like about Austria is that everything just works. You can be sure that the trains are on time, so are the trams and buses. Stores are open when they say they are. You can rely on that. We Austrians are very privileged and yet not aware of it. That’s also part of Austrian culture. If you talk to people who come from other countries, they say everything works so well here. You can lead a very good life in Austria if you don’t mess it up.

On Gemütlichkeit

And there is also the Gemütlichkeit (comfort). People should appreciate more what they have. Sudern is very Austrian. It means complaining about everything all the time. But now I am sudering about sudering so… Maybe I should talk about something more important and specific, such as the current government. It is really leaning toward the right and is very nationalist. I don’t like that.

Something I always enjoy is music. Not only listening to it, but also making it. I am in a band where I play the clarinet. How do you say “Blaskapelle” in English? I think, brass band is the correct word. When we have a concert, about twice a year, we wear Trachten. That is traditional Austrian clothing and big part of our culture. It makes everything more festive. This is very “Upper Austrian” (typical for the province of Upper Austria). I feel Austrians are very open, many people speak English, they are welcoming. It is a good country for the people who live here – and for tourists.

Hannelore Zita Seidl, 85

  • I love to eat: Wiener Schnitzel (an important part of Austrian Culture)
  • Favourite saying: “Es ist ein gutes Land.“ (“It is a good country.”) – from Franz Grillparzer’s play King Ottokar’s Luck and Downfall
  • Favourite music: the Emmerich Kálmán operetta Die Csárdásfürstin (The Riviera Girl)
  • My go-to spots: the Inner City & Kahlenberg
  • Fun fact about me: My family owned and still owns Kuppitsch, the oldest private bookstore in Vienna

Being Austrian is part of my identity. I feel lucky to be able to live in a peaceful country. Our politicians are awful, but there are worse.

In 1938/39 we were afraid to go out on the street. My poor mother was alone with three children, my father had been sent to the Dachau concentration camp because he was a monarchist, an anti-Hitler journalist and a Jew. He got out because of an amnesty. We knew then it was essential to leave the country. He had good connections to France so we went there. When it was invaded, my father got beaten up in the street and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He managed to escape, I think he had help. We fled to Portugal because just as Switzerland, Vichy France was sending Jews back to Germany. We waited for a ship. Getting a ticket was difficult but we got it. It took us four years to get to the US. I know what it is like to be a refugee.

My family was Jewish, so we had to flee Austria. In France we were drilled to sing “Maréchal, nous voilà!” in the US, they made us say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning… It was propaganda for eight years.

The Free Austrian Movement

I still felt connected to Austria, I even wrote a poem about it: “Country small, but brave and free; A land that loved its liberty; Peaceful, unprepared for war, Surprised by the sudden canon’s roar; Few but still brave to fight, we’ve tried…” We sang in Washington and marched on 5th Avenue for the Free Austrian Movement. My father had an Austrian-language newspaper for Austrians in America. He refused American citizenship although it was offered to us. His plan was always to return. My mother once said, “If the Germans come to America, we will all jump o the Empire State Building.” There was nothing else to do. She couldn’t go through that again.

We came back to Austria in 1950. It took me a long time to feel at home. Many Jews who left Austria never came back, they never forgave. My husband worked for a German company. It was very hard for me to meet his colleagues. They were supposed to be the enemy, the foe. But in my opinion, there are only two races in the world: Decent people and indecent people. Patriotism can make you blind, so you don‘t see what‘s wrong with your own nation.

I have within me a bit of French education, a bit of love for France, I have an affection for the US and I have an affection for Austria. I am a world citizen.

What Austrian Culture means to Sueda Altinai, 21

  • I love to eat: anything with chicken
  • Favourite saying: whatever comes to my mind
  • Music of choice: Schifoan by Wolfgang Ambros
  • My go-to spot: Vienna’s first district
  • Fun fact on Austrian culture: In Vienna’s inner districts, public transportation takes more time than walking

Growing up, I was worried I wouldn’t fit into either of my communities – Turkish or Austrian, but much has changed since then. I’m currently studying biomedicine and biotechnology at the University for Veterinary Science of Vienna.

My mom immigrated here to marry my father, who was already second generation from Turkish immigrants to Vienna. Having such a multicultural background is hard because you’re always comparing one to the other, but my mom raised my siblings and me with this motto:

“It’s easy to argue about cultural differences, but the secret to acceptance and integration is focusing on the many similarities instead.”

Luckily, I was raised in Vienna, which probably isn’t the typical Austrian experience – until the age of 17 I didn’t even know what hackln (“work” in Austrian dialect) means.

Feeling Austrian

It’s such a diverse and international city, you belong even without speaking in dialect. Once high school and the notoriously awkward teen years were finally over, I realized I feel Austrian all the time; even more so when I visit Turkey – their family values are still quite conservative, and I’m not used to being monitored in that way.

What I love most about Austria is that it’s safe. I can walk anywhere, anytime without worrying (I especially love walking through the 1st district’s timeless pavements). What I don’t like, however, is how often we take things for granted… Our standard of living is so high, it sometimes seems we work harder to create first world problems. I’m grateful to call this place home.

Helen Ifeagwu, 20

  • I love to eat: Jollof rice, avocado on toast, Thai curry
  • I like to say:Oida!” which I may just say a bit too much
  • I listen to: this Nigerian artist called Wavy The Creator. She has a huge hit called Shaku, such good vibes!
  • My go-to spot: Motto am Fluss, close to Schwedenplatz
  • Fun fact: I’ve never been to Nigeria (more of a sad fact, though…)

Growing up I never felt so much Austrian. My mum is Carinthian, my dad comes from Nigeria. They met in Vienna. I mostly lived in an international environment, where you barely notice where around the world people come from. They were just all Viennese.

Of course, I also noticed that other people on the street don’t exactly look like me, that I don’t fit in as a “classical Austrian.” But after moving to London a year ago, I suddenly felt so Austrian, so Viennese! People kept asking me questions about my country and city as if it were a foreign, unknown and faraway land and when I tell them about it, I feel how much I identify with Vienna especially.

My mum’s family lives in the countryside, in Carinthia, so I also know and love this part of the country. But for the most part, I feel Viennese. I’ve never been to Nigeria, but I’ll be going there next year. I mostly know Nigerian culture from when my dad has friends over or we go to eat Nigerian or when I listen to Nigerian music. As a kid, we also went with the family to many African parties.

Love from afar

Especially now, living in the huge metropolis that is London, I appreciate so much about Vienna, but also what I might want to see changed in the future. It’d be great if there were more opportunities for young people, especially in the creative sector – more things like Metropole, frankly! Always when I come back to Vienna, I enjoy the peacefulness; that everything is beautiful, quiet, clean and just works. It sometimes lacks the excitement of a really big city, but that may also be its charm.

So, next time I come home, I’ll turn on the tap to drink fresh water from the Alps, eat fresh vegetables and black bread and enjoy nature – it’s this balance that makes life in Vienna so alluring.

Kajetan Hartl, 21

  • I love to eat: Italian pasta
  • I like to say: I don’t really use dialect but when I must… Heast!
  • I listen to: the Viennese band Wanda
  • My go-to spot: Café Hawelka – when it’s not overrun by tourists, or Leopoldsberg Abbey, where you can climb up to the tower and have a view of the city all to yourself as not many people hike up there.
  • Fun fact on Austrian Culture: My name is a very traditional Austrian name; my parents were inspired by an old woodcutter living in our village in Styria.

I was raised in the small town of Gresten, Lower Austria. My father comes from a family of farmers in Styria and my mom grew up in Vienna, so I was blessed with the best of both worlds from a young age – the cosmopolitan city and the beautiful Austrian countryside. Of course, each place has its pros and cons: Like any international city in the world, the Viennese tend to feel superior to the rural population, who are usually traditional and close-minded. While I’m grateful to be a mix of both, Vienna feels more like home for its openness and endless opportunities. As Elmar Podgorschek of the FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party) said in a questionable speech to the German AfD (Alternative für Deutschland): “If Vienna didn’t exist, Austria would be a conservative country.”

Political Culture in Austria

Politics and current events intrigue me, and I’d be interested to tackle modern-day issues by understanding the past. Austria has such a vast history. Through my job at the Finanzamt (finance authority), I have a different perspective on the Austrian system and mindset. Our state is so structured and stable, and the employees at the Finanzamt treat each individual case with equal care and respect, regardless of their background.

Even in times when our government sets an aggressive tone, Austria’s great foundation is its honest, humane people. That’s what I love about Austria. If only we appreciated what we have and didn’t complain so much…

Markus Grass, 46

  • I love to eat… Above all else, Italian food!
  • I like to say… I don’t really use phrases, except for: “Das Leben ist kein Wunschkonzert” (essentially “Life’s not a picnic”)
  • I listen to… Austrian music that I love, including Wienerlieder from Musser and Schwamberger
  • My go-to spot… For me, all of Vienna is a go-to spot!
  • Fun Fact… I was born in Dornbirn and now go to football matches in Dornbach. A coincidence?

Sometimes, I wonder why we, as Austrians, are always so proud of our mountain ranges. I was born surrounded by them in Vorarlberg and moved to Vienna where I now work as a German and history teacher. It’s such a cliché to have to love the scenery surrounding where you were born.

In 2015, I founded our school’s first political discussion group. Once a week, we gather together and discuss pressing issues in a safe and accepting environment. Often the question arises, what I would want to change, and I must truthfully answer that there is too much on my mind to give a full response. On a worldwide scale, I would like social and economic inequality to be abolished, the exploitation of people to end, and the waste of resources to be minimized. More specifically, I would like gender inequality and the legal use of promoting racism or sexism in political campaigns to be stopped. And because I am a teacher, it’s difficult for me not to express my distaste for the Austrian education system. It’s almost as if the schooling system is disregarding the progress of other countries and is still using a 19th-century model to justify its way of being.

Thankful for the the red Vienna

Mostly, I am very grateful for the achievements of the “Rotes Wien” (Red Vienna); such as public libraries and Gemeindewohnungen (social housing). Vienna is now a better place for people to live without earning an exceptional amount of money.

I must admit, in the last couple of decades, I haven’t felt like being in the centre of Austrian culture. I have changed a lot since I was a young kid from Vorarlberg. Although, it gives me hope to see children grow into critical thinkers as the new generation of Austrians.

Amina Mahdy, 22

  • I love to eat: Palatschinken
  • I like to say: “Reg di net uf zefix.” (“Don‘t make such a big deal out of it!“)
  • I listen to: Praterlied by Der Nino aus Wien
  • My go-to spot: Burggarten
  • Fun Fact: I became a published author at the age of 17

I’m a 22-year-old student, writer, and aspiring educator, and I was born in Vienna to an Austrian mother and Egyptian father. While I’m proud of my Egyptian heritage and see myself as “a blend of Vorarlberg and Cairo,” I still feel Viennese above all else. The culture, history, social scene and educational programs here have shaped me into the person I am today, allowing me to become a more open-minded personn and to feel that I belong here.

I feel most immersed in Austrian culture when hiking through the vineyards, hanging out at a café, or walking along the canal. It’s a great place to grow up; there’s always something to do. Vienna’s rich history is visible around every corner in the city centre, and Wienerwald is just a short bus ride away if I need a break from urban life. I’m also grateful for Austria’s health care, social programs and affordable university costs — something I sincerely hope doesn’t change under the current government. I think it is the responsibility of the state to educate and train young people, because we are the future.

Problems with the countryside

Although I love Vienna, the more conservative rural areas of the country don’t feel quite as welcoming toward me. Racism is still very much an issue throughout Austria, and I’d like to see more done to promote intercultural understanding among people of different ethnicities. I wish Austrians weren’t afraid of change in so many ways — on the subject of everything from the education system to attitudes about migration. Still, I’m pleased to see that Vienna has taken steps toward equality. I’m hopeful that this will happen in the future, and I intend to do my part as a teacher.

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