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Studying in Vienna

By Hannah Ward-Glenton

Posted: 12th January 2022 10:17

German was the first foreign language that I learnt at school, and it’s safe to say that it had me at hallo. Intrigued by the language that has a far worse reputation than it deserves, I decided to study English & German at university, and as is conventional for language-based degree programmes, a year abroad was compulsory. After completing my first year, I travelled around central Europe, dedicating most of the trip to exploring Czechia, Hungary, and Croatia. 24 hours in Vienna was thrown in as a convenient stop-off between Prague and Budapest, but after spending less than a day in the city, its charm had completely won me over. In that moment, I decided to embark on a journey that would trigger a lot of awkwardly correcting people as they asked what it was like to live in Germany, and I chose Vienna as my home for the year.

Why Vienna

A melting pot of bourgeois culture and modern internationality, Vienna has been voted as the world’s most liveable city an astonishing 10 times, and that’s not without reason. It also happens to be the home of the Viennese Waltz, and as a competitive ballroom and Latin dancer, I couldn’t resist honing my skills in a place so famed for its dancers. I was even inspired to write a first-class dissertation, which explored how ballroom dancing is intrinsic to Viennese culture.

Thanks to the Habsburgs’ penchant for the fancy and their desire to show-off their wealth during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna is shaped by the most incredible architecture. Living in the city, I used to love coming out of underground stations. As bizarre as that may sound, every time I emerged from a different stop I was met with a new pocket that I’d yet to discover, and stumbling across quirky churches and lesser-known monuments became my preferred method of sightseeing.

As a self-confessed geek with a liking for the flexibility of student timetables, I opted to study rather than work or teach, taking a German-taught course in German Philology. The University of Vienna was founded in 1364, making it the world’s oldest German-speaking university and with almost 90,000 students, it is also one of the biggest in Europe.Tutors had warned that the size of the university could be overwhelming, but I loved the rows of notable alumni busts that lined the courtyard, and the grandeur of the Hogwarts-esque library. The pure magic of the building coupled with its excellent reputation made choosing to study at the University of Vienna an easy decision.

What to do

There is no bad time to be in Vienna, as a constant stream of events and festivities make it a city that is always in full bloom.

In the winter months Vienna hosts more than 20 Christmas markets, where the most imposing buildings backdrop an assortment of festive food and trinket vendors. Most impressive is the market in front of the town hall, with 3,000 square metres of skating rink, and ice paths that wind amongst the fairylight-adorned trees. Karlskirche always struck me as Austria’s take on the Taj Mahal, and it is best viewed with a light dusting of snow and a Christmas market sprawled at its feet.

The true way to test any Christmas market is with your taste buds, and giant jammy Tyrolean doughnuts, known as Kiachl, washed down with spicy Glühwein makes Karlsplatz a winning choice in my books. When temperatures dip below freezing, go for a Feuerzangenbowle, but be warned: this drink is literally flaming hot.

During summer everything orbits around the Danube, and a dip in the river is a cooling antidote to the scorching August temperatures. Following the river into the city, you’ll find its banks lined by beach bars, where you can dance under the stars at a silent disco. Donauinselfest is the world’s biggest open-air festival, and this free annual event has an eclectic schedule that has featured the likes of Shaggy and Sean Paul, as well as up-and-coming Austrian bands. Vienna’s amusement park, Prater, also comes to life in the summer, and a spot of bumper-karting is the perfect prelude to a ride on the giant Ferris wheel which makes up an iconic part of the Viennese skyline.


Within the bourgeois setting of Vienna, a trip to the opera is as commonplace as going to the cinema. The accessibility of high-culture was something that I adored about the city; standing tickets at the Opera House cost as little as €3, and outside screens allow you to watch live ballet performances without spending a penny. The Sommernachtskonzert is a particularly spectacular free concert, and over 100,000 people descend on the grounds of Schӧnbrunn Palace, picnics in hand, to watch the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform.

The most notable of Vienna’s museums is probably the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which features artistic masterpieces from Raphael and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but there are over 100 museums to choose from. Exhibitions showcase everything from chocolate to hats – there’s even an entire museum dedicated to condoms – so rainy days in Vienna are never dull. The Long Night of Museums is great for the indecisive, as one ticket allows admittance to over 700 museums and galleries throughout the night.

Four seasons aren’t enough for everything that goes on in Vienna so they added a fifth – ball season.

Over 400 balls take place between November and March, and they really are the stuff of fairytales. And it isn’t all about classical dancing; The Confectioners’ Ball for example, was one of my favourite nights in Austria, and it wasn’t least because organisers installed a bakery in the middle of Hofburg Palace, making bread for revellers until the early hours, as well as party bags containing the next morning’s breakfast. Other balls include the Coffee Makers’ Ball, the world-famous Opera Ball, and Life Ball, an LGBT celebration that is Europe’s biggest charity event.

Travel & Exploration

Vienna is slap-bang in the middle of Europe, and excellent coach services make travelling very cost-effective and simple. Slovakia’s charming capital Bratislava is only an hour away, and it was so accessible that people take the trip just to stock up on cheap beer. Prague and Budapest make for great weekend trips, whilst Zagreb and Ljubljana are underrated capitals that are also only three to five hours away by coach. Other excursions included an amazing 28 hours of donning a Dirndl in Munich for Oktoberfest, whilst many people paid a visit to Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.

You don’t have to leave Austria to visit beautiful cities other than Vienna; Graz and Salzburg have a mix of avant-garde and old architecture that rival the capital in their quaint loveliness. Each city also boasts its own culinary specialities, and in Graz I discovered a new favourite – the traditional Styrian salad. This dish is made up of fried chicken coated in pumpkin seeds, a regional delicacy, and enough creamy potatoes and puddles of dressing for it to defy every convention of a healthy salad.

The Salzkammergut region in Upper Austria is stunning – particularly the town Hallstatt, which is so delightful that the Chinese have built their own full-scale replicain Guangdong. Austrians are also keen hikers, and areas like Kahlenberg mean that you can take in the mountain air without leaving Vienna. The Alps run straight through west Austria, making it one of Europe’s best skiing locations with its reliably white winters. Zell am See was my favourite for snow spot, but there are plenty of hills and smaller mountains within a short distance of the capital.


You can’t beat the golden crunch of a lemon-topped schnitzel, but Austrian cuisine boasts a real smorgasbord of dishes that extends far beyond the city’s best-known export.

Würstelständeare sausage stands with a ubiquitous presence in Vienna and a classic snack is a Käsekrainer– a thick sausage with hot cheese running through its centre. Make sure you order it with a Semmel(bread roll) and sauce to truly eat like a local.

Another favourite snack of the Viennese is Mannerwafers, and these pink-packaged squares of hazelnut chocolate deliciousness can be spotted in every shop and vending machine in the city. A downside of this sweet treat is that it’s quite messy to eat, but the Austrians solved this conundrum by also making it into schnapps.

Coffee house culture is integral to Vienna and caféshave been popular study spots since the fin-de-siècle period. Café Central was frequented by the likes of Freud and Hitler, and is the most famous coffee house in the world. Its exquisite slices of cake are also some of the tastiest in the city, and they are best accompanied by a Wiener Melange, the typical Viennese coffee. The world has Vienna to thank for the sheer joy that is hot apple strudel, but it was Kaiserschmarrnwhich really stole my heart. Parting with those sugar-coated chunks of fluffy pancakeserved with warm apple saucemay have been the toughest goodbye when I left Austria.

Vienna is also very international and has great food from all over the world to suit every diet, from the pay-as-you-like Pakistani restaurant, Der Wiener Deewan, to Vegetasia, an Asian all-you-can-eat buffet that kick-started Austria’s now thriving vegan scene.

Overcoming the challenges of studying in Vienna, Austria


Austrian German is the official language of Austria, and it can differ hugely to what non-native speakers would learn in the classroom. Wienerisch is the dialect specific to Vienna, but in the capital there’s really no knowing which of the country’s many dialects you might encounter next. The biggest differences between German German and Austrian German can be found in the pronunciation and the vocabulary, and although the basics are the same, dialect can impact your day-to-day conversations.

Top Tip:My tip for anything language-based is to absorb what is going on around you – just going to the shop can teach you a lot of dialectal quirks, such as the cashier greeting you with Grüß Gott (Greetings to God) instead of the German hallo. Food-related vocabulary is a minefield when it comes to dialect, so just treat accidentally-ordered plates of food as a nice surprise and always have a dictionary app handy. Packaging with pictures will also become your friend.


Coming from England, it was likely that wherever I ended up the people would seem rude, and Vienna definitely had its moments. Making eye-contact in London leads to embarrassed blushing whilst staring at your feet for the next 15 minutes, but Austrians definitely don’t have that problem and seem happy to have a staring competition with a stranger. This can be a little unsettling, as can their bluntness, which can come across as rude if you aren’t used to it.

Top Tip:Aside from setting up your own etiquette school, the only way to combat perceived impoliteness is to not take things personally – it’s just a cultural difference. You might even change your behaviour in response. After religiously starting every conversation with Wie geht’s? and not being asked how I was in return, I concluded that it just wasn’t the done thing. And don’t expect a flustered flurry of apologies if somebody barges into you, because you’ll be waiting for a while.

People don’t know a lot about Austria

Vienna is definitely one of Europe’s lesser-known capitals, which can be inconvenient at times. At the end of a conversation with an insurance provider I was told to ‘enjoy my trip in Italy’, and she wasn’t the first to confuse Vienna and Venice. People also get in a muddle with Austria and Australia, and it happens enough that road signs that read ‘No Kangaroos in Austria’ can be purchased in most souvenir shops.

Top Tip:Most of the time any confusion is easily resolved with a quick explanation, but when it comes to important things like arranging insurance cover, or even when just chatting to friends, it doesn’t do any harm to say ‘Vienna, the capital of Austria’. As for the Australia/Austria conundrum, just enjoy the bright yellow kangaroo-covered merchandise, as it really is everywhere.

Studying in a foreign language

Studying abroad will always have its challenges, especially if you’re learning in a different language. In Vienna, it was largely dependent on whether lecturers chose to speak in dialect, as well as how convoluted they decided to make their sentences. I took a module about dialects across Austria which was fascinating, but I misunderstood small things, like the nuances of each accent. All in all it was quite alienating, and it made knowing when to laugh at jokes a nightmare.

Top Tip: In Vienna there were Facebook groups for every module of my course, and these were packed with lecture notes and previous students’ tips for passing exams. It’s also definitely worth telling tutors that you’re a foreign student, and hopefully they’ll offer you some additional support. Finally, take as many notes as possible, no matter what language the notes are in – my notes were a scrambled mess of English and German depending on what came to mind quicker, but they helped.

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