Eating at the mountain hut in Tirol

Meet the Austrians

Austria is a wonderfully uncomplicated place to visit. It is in the heart of Europe, most people speak English, and there is a spectacular combination of cultural and natural attractions. And, like everywhere, there are national peculiarities that you will not find described in standard guidebooks. Which is a pity, because the following - quintessentially Austrian - expressions, institutions and mannerisms are integral parts of the real Austrian experience. Some of them may seem trivial, but knowing them will earn you kudos points among locals and enhance your understanding of 'Austrianness'.

Guten Appetit! Eating with Austrians

Austrians take their food seriously and this dedication shows in their gastronomic rituals.

When having a meal as a group, it is polite to wish one another "Guten Appetit" or "Mahlzeit". The word "Mahlzeit" literally means "mealtime" and is also used as a general greeting around midday, when one can assume that most people are about to have lunch. At traditional restaurants, especially in the countryside, it is also considered polite to greet other punters with a hearty "Mahlzeit".

A typical Austrian meal can be a long running affair, as there are normally at least three courses and no rush to leave after the last bite. It is common to languish at the table and enjoy a drink before relinquishing it to the next party. Influenced by Hungarian, Bohemian and Italian cooking, Austrian cuisine is very diverse, with strong regional differences. It is not nearly as heavy as its reputation would have you believe, with modern versions of classic dishes being created by innovative chefs throughout the country. To savour home-made regional specialities, visit a countryside tavern (Heuriger, Buschenschank or Landgasthof), where dishes are simple but divine.

Food in the Arlberg

Food in the Arlberg

Arlberg / Christoph Schuch

Prost! Drinking with Austrians

Drinking has its own ceremonial protocol in Austria, in which eye contact plays a central role.

When clinking glasses, Austrians take a moment to make eye contact and say "Prost" to each person in the round. If you feel like showing off, you can also say "Zum Wohl" or "Prosit" - all three mean "to your health".

Skiing instructors, tour guides, bartenders, and otherwise well-informed Austrians will be more than happy to teach you a variety of less formal, usually rowdy toasts that are popular throughout the country. Austria's excellent wine, spirits and beer are the pride of local restaurateurs, so make sure to sample regional beverages whenever possible.

After a meal you are likely to be offered a shot of schnaps, Austria's favourite digestive. This is not a drink for the faint-hearted. The rule is to drink it in a single mouthful and, with most varieties containing around 40% alcohol, this is - literally - an eye-watering experience.

Heuriger Schübl-Auer

Heuriger Schübl-Auer

Wien Tourismus / Peter Rigaud

Schmäh: A lesson in Austrian humour

From the polished society of the ball room to the jovial crowd at the alpine hut, Austrians are proud of their Schmäh; a word of many meanings.

The word Schmäh (pronounced 'shmay') has many meanings. It can denote a joke, a trick or a lie, but also regional or personal charm, sense of humour, and wit.

Schmäh is a good-natured yet snide kind of banter with a subversive historical background. It has its roots below stairs, originating from servants' mockery of the high-strung, pseudo-courtly lifestyle of their burgeois masters. Part melancholy, part comedy, it often mixes gallantry with persiflage, flattery with ridicule.

Every region and every individual in Austria has a unique type of Schmäh. It is sometimes mistaken for moodiness or impertinence, but it has always been a friendly, ironic sort of naughtiness, with very simple rules of engagement. Roll with the punches and enjoy a harmless - if slightly anarchic - battle of the wits.

Restaurant Neni, Naschmarkt

Restaurant Neni, Naschmarkt

Austrian National Tourist Office / Lois Lammerhuber

Yes. No. Maybe? The meanings of "Na"

Na" (pronounced "nah") is one of the most versatile Austrian expressions. Austrians use it in many different ways, be it in an affirmative sense or as an all-round question. "Na" is derived from "nein", the German word for no, but has assumed many different meanings within Austrian vernacular. A drawn-out "naaa" means "no", for example, but a short, incredulous "Na!" implies "That can't be true!".

It gets confusing when people use "na" in an affirmative sense. "Na, eh" literally means "No, exactly", a common expression of approval in Austria. Then there is the linguistic gem of "na ja", which translates as "no yes" and is used to express a certain indifference, comparable to "oh well, I'm not really bothered".

"Na" can also be used as an all-round question. Depending on the situation, it could be a request to explain who you are, why you are here, what you are doing, how you are feeling or what you are thinking. It can also be a call to action, comparable to "well, are you just going to stand there?".

Finally, there is also the beautifully rythmic "na net na na", which literally means "no not no no", and can be loosely translated as "you are pointing out the obvious, my friend".

Relaxing at the MuseumsQuartier

Relaxing at the MuseumsQuartier

Wien Tourismus / Peter Rigaud
MuseumsQuartier Wien