In 2015 I made the last-minute decision to study abroad on an Erasmus exchange in Salzburg, Austria. I applied late and did next to no research on what it was like to study there, instead adopting an ‘it’ll all be fine’ attitude.
Luckily for me, Austria turned out to be an amazing place to study. However, it never hurts to be prepared so if you’re considering studying in Salzburg, Vienna or one of the other top Austrian cities for students, here are my top 14 things to know before studying there.
Austria is a lot less populated than the UK
Austria has a population of 8.7 million people, roughly the same amount of people who live in London! As you can imagine, this meant my first impression when arriving in Salzburg was it seemed a little quiet.
However, I soon realized what an advantage that is. The cities are less polluted, costs are cheaper, and you can walk in a straight line down the pavement – no dodging prams or commuters! It’s amazing.
University feels relaxed
The Austrian university system is extremely relaxed. With free education and no limit to the length of your degree, students tend to take their time. I met people who had been in higher education for eight years and had only just started a master’s program.
Obviously, you still have to work while you’re there, but the pressure isn’t the same in comparison to the UK. It meant I could be more creative and experimental with my work and so I enjoyed studying in Austria much more.
It’s easy to make friends, especially if you’re on an Erasmus scheme
The Erasmus experience surpassed every expectation I had. Making friends is a breeze with Erasmus-organized events and Facebook pages providing other ways to meet people in addition to your university classes.
I made my greatest friends there after posting on a Salzburg Erasmus Facebook page, asking if anyone was going to Oktoberfest. I had just arrived in the city and university hadn’t started yet but a group of people going invited me along and the rest is history!
The social life in Austria is great. Binge drinking isn’t practised so the culture and atmosphere is very different to UK universities. Instead, people go out to socialize, prioritizing having a great time with friends.
Supermarkets are completely different
Don’t expect to find supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsburys in Austria. Unlike in the UK, where supermarkets are your one-stop shop for everything from food to homeware, the supermarkets in Austria are very much food focused.
Hoffer (aka Aldi) and Lidl are exactly the same as at home, or you can find unusual international foods in specialist shops. It also stuck with me how much Austrians love good quality bread and that mayonnaise comes in a tube!
You will have to learn German
On most exchanges you will be expected to take a German class as part of your semester credits. That means you can’t avoid picking up a little bit of German and if you take the course seriously, you have a great opportunity to learn a new language.
However, Austria is not the same as Germany
An incredibly important thing to know before studying in Austria is that it’s not the same as Germany! Austrians have their own traditions and a clearly distinguishable culture, and it definitely annoys the locals if you group them in with Germany.
I found that generally Austrians were far more relaxed. Although they have a strong work ethic, they value time off with family and friends above all else. They also know how to party, with loads of public holidays and festivals held throughout the year.
Nothing opens on Sundays
Austria is predominately a Catholic country which means all shops close on Sundays. The only places open are petrol stations where you can get a few essentials. I wish I’d known this before going as I arrived in Salzburg on a Sunday which made getting bedding and food pretty difficult!
It’s not that expensive
Surprisingly, Austria is very cheap to live in. In 2015, I paid 280 euros for my en-suite dorm room in Salzburg which included all bills.
Food and public transport were a little bit pricey but still cheaper than you’d expect if studying in the UK. With your student loan from home and the Erasmus grant, life is pretty easy going!
You’ll experience real winters and hot summers
Expect to see a lot of snow if you’re in Austria for the winter semester. Likewise, if you’re there for the summer semester, prepare for hot weather.
I loved living in a country with real seasons because it opened up opportunities to try so many new things. In winter you can ski, while in summer there’s a chance to escape to one of Austria’s many alpine lakes for some wild swimming.
Austrians love the great outdoors
I spent a lot of time hiking in the Austrian countryside, a popular activity for locals. Even though Austrians are some of the heaviest smokers and drinkers in Europe they all seemed extremely fit and healthy.
The most popular form of transport in Salzburg is cycling and almost everyone here can ski so you can expect to spend some of your time here embracing the great outdoors.
It’s reasonably conservative but very multicultural
Obviously, this is a sweeping statement and not everyone in Austria is conservative. However, there are times when you feel it more noticeably, in Upper Austria for example.
Vienna is very cosmopolitan, multicultural and liberal which I loved. Salzburg was also very multicultural and full of Erasmus students from all over the world. I made friends with many international students and actually found it harder to make friends with locals because I didn’t meet as many. However, the ones I did meet were all lovely!
Vegetarians and vegans can survive in Austria
Traditional Austrian cuisine is not the best for vegetarians and vegans, being very meaty and often including cream and cheese. However, the international food available is extensive and varied which makes eating out a breeze.
There are also plenty of vegan restaurants to choose from in Vienna and also smaller cities like Salzburg and Innsbruck. Cooking at home is easy too with supermarkets like Basic Bio selling all sorts of meat alternatives and organic produce.
The rest of Europe is on your doorstep
Prague, Budapest and Munich are all easily accessible by train, as are Italy, Switzerland and many other countries worth exploring. If you’re from the UK, it also means you won’t be that far from home so going home for Christmas or a weekend is an option.