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Switzerland
Bavaria & Austria
11.01.12

Winter in Austria and Bavaria is known for Christmas markets, Alpine skiing, Viennese waltzing and formal balls held in magnificent venues steeped in legacy. To get in step with a culture defined by former kings and Hapsburgs, read these Travel Tips and prepare for a fabulous journey..

The Sounds of Music

Concerts occur almost every day in Salzburg and Vienna. Soloists, ensembles and orchestras perform lunch concerts, dinner concerts, castle and palace concerts, Mozart concerts, organ concerts, The Sound of Music concerts and more—some even in costume. The fabulous settings make the music even more enjoyable. Check city calendars for Salzburg and Vienna in advance, and plan your visit accordingly.

Attending the Vienna Balls

Tickets and formal attire are a must to get into one of Vienna’s renowned winter balls. Ball season runs from December 31 into February, officially closing the last Monday before Ash Wednesday. The individual guilds (professional and social associations for doctors, lawyers, engineers, firemen, hunters, concert artists, coffeehouse owners and students) hosting each ball provide information and tickets. Check the ball calendar for contact info so you can learn about the dress code, timeline and ticket information. The Vienna tourist office also provides printed copies you can pick up if you’re in town. Advance table reservations and seat/loge tickets for the balls are separate from admission tickets and may have different sale dates. For more information, see our Inside Track on Vienna, Austria – The Season of Waltzing.

Waltz Instruction

In addition to acquiring a ticket and a gown or tux, first-time Viennese ballgoers should learn the proper etiquette and a few dance skills. Several schools in Vienna will get you ready to rumba, waltz or tango. The prestigious Elmayer Dance School has been in business since 1919, training many who attend the balls. The third-generation family member who runs the school—Professor Thomas Schaefer-Elmayer—is not only a dance instructor, but Austria’s leading expert in manners, known for serving as master of ceremonies at Vienna’s Opera Ball. Drop-in Ball Blitz lessons at the Rueff Dance School behind City Hall are available for those short on time who want a crash course in dancing.

Standing for Opera

Opera in Vienna is a serious endeavor, and tickets go for a premium at the famous Staatsoper opera house, often selling out. Thrifty insiders know that over 500 stehplatz (standing-room) tickets go on sale 80 minutes before the curtain rises. The better spaces cost only 3.5 euros (approx. $4.34 U.S.). Look for the “standing room” area on the left side of the opera house and plan on lining up early:

  • 3 hours prior for regular performances
  • By noon for popular operas
  • At 6 a.m. for premieres

Once you have a ticket (each person must be present to get one), line up at the appropriate entrance to secure a good spot inside—and bring a scarf to mark it. Tie it around the railing in front of your space so you can check your coat and bag, rent binoculars or explore the building. Don’t worry about having your space or scarf moved or stolen—people in these hallowed halls are widely respectful of this place-holding practice.

Christmas Happenings

The Christmas season in Austria and Bavaria is all about tradition. Besides special concerts, choirs and performances, Christmas markets fill each country with all the best in food, festivity and ornamentation. Bell choirs, special readings, brass bands and Krippenspiele (Nativity plays) grace church services and markets. On Christmas Eve, residents dressed in their finest fill the gorgeous cathedrals to attend candlelight services and mass. Find a service and share the experience—ask your hotel concierge or local tourist office for suggestions.

English & German

As a whole, Germans speak English very well. However, in Austria and deeper in Bavaria (the most southern region of Germany), people may be less likely or less comfortable to speak it. More provincial in nature, residents are proud of their heritage and stick to it. In Vienna and the Bavarian capital of Munich, English is more common, especially at tourist locations, but you shouldn’t count on it. Be prepared with a phrasebook and learn a few key German phrases. Austrians speak with a strong German dialect and use special local phrases. “Grüss Gott” (greetings to God) is a common greeting in both Bavaria and Austria.

The Viennese Café Culture

Besides the bounty of coffee options, a vast array of cakes and pastries complement the traditional Viennese café experience. Sacher torte (chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam) and apfelstrudel (apple strudel) are classics. Good cafés will always provide a small glass of tap water—often on a silver platter—to refresh the palate and enhance the flavors. Feel free to stay awhile. No one will rush you out—it just wouldn’t be proper. To leave an appropriate tip, round up the tab to the nearest euro. Use this primer for café details: www.tourmycountry.com/austria/coffee.htm

Austrian Attire

In general, Austrians dress more formally than Americans. With the exception of students, local residents dress elegantly to attend operas, concerts, church and special events. Standing-room attire at the Vienna opera is less formal, due to the large student population in the mix. In winter, the Alps make Bavaria and Austria very cold, while Vienna may feel even colder because of the wind. Prepare for snow and ice and dress in layers. Pack boots, a heavy overcoat, a hat and gloves. To find these items and more, see our selection of winter gear.

Classic Austrian & Bavarian Dishes

  • Germknödel – Large yeast dumpling filled with plum jam and topped with melted butter and ground poppy seed and sugar.
  • Leberkäse – Bavarian meatloaf (usually veal) baked in a loaf pan; sliced and served hot, often in a bun.
  • Salzburger Knockerl – Sweet egg and flour soufflé dusted with powdered sugar and served warm for dessert.
  • Tafelspitz –Tri-tip beef boiled with herbs and root vegetables, served with horseradish sauce and fried potatoes.
  • Weisswurst & Bier – A mild white veal sausage served with sweet mustard, coleslaw, a pretzel and Bavarian beer; traditionally eaten before noon.
  • Wienerschnitzel – A wiener (Viennese) specialty; breaded and fried veal; also made with pork or chicken.

The Best of the Mozart Balls

Salzburg’s famous Mozartkugeln (Mozart balls) are a delicious homage to this musical city. Confectioner Paul Fürst originally concocted these chocolate-covered marzipan and nougat treats in 1890. Still in operation, the Fürst confectionary produces and wraps 1.4 million of them by hand each year, adhering to the original recipe and methods. Since imitations abound, look for the signature silver and blue foil-wrapped balls sold exclusively in four Salzburg locations.

Enduring Souvenirs

Three porcelain and ceramic companies provide unforgettable treasures to take home:

  • Augarten– A Viennese institution for fine porcelain since 1718. Over 11,000 hand-painted figurines and dishes come in 150 different patterns. The evergreen “Maria Theresia” and the “Old Viennese Rose” designs are the most well-known.
  • Gmunden – Austria’s largest ceramics manufacturer creates rustic, hand-painted pieces bearing brilliant colors, religious motifs, and landscape and flower designs inspired by its Traunsee Lake location. Its “Grünegeflammt” (flamed green) pattern is a classic.
  • Nymphenburg – Handcrafting fine porcelain in Munich’s imperial palace since the 18th century, Nymphenburg has produced pieces for high aristocracy, palaces, embassies and churches. All items are marked with a coat of arms featuring a diamond relief on the underside.

Planning for Winter & Holiday Travel

Travelers visiting Austria and Bavaria during the winter should keep in mind that hours may be reduced at many museums and sightseeing locations, and some may be completely closed. Christmas markets usually start at the end of November and run through December 22 (some continue until December 26). Since Austrians and Bavarians emphasize Christmas Eve celebrations, shops and many restaurants close in the early afternoon of December 23 and remain closed through December 27. Check schedules in advance and plan accordingly.

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