Here are a few practical items that we have discovered while living here, in case anyone travelling here needs to know:
—1) Viennese–and most European places, for that matter–are not as geared toward using credit cards or bank cards everywhere, so it is best to have cash when going to small markets, cafes, and specialized shops. ATMs are readily available, but even they have to be chosen carefully. Often the ATMs will only accept Austrian bank cards. VISA cards, for some reason, seem to be less acceptable than MasterCard in a lot of places. Sometimes it’s hit or miss: we have a Schwab money card that states that it’s a VISA card, and so some places have said they won’t accept it, but when we try it, it works. Bottom line: just be sure to carry some cash with you.
—2) Viennese mass transit, the Wienerlinien, is a fantastic system, goes everywhere, and with such frequency that you rarely worry about having just missed the U-Bahn or the streetcars. Busses often have a little longer wait, but then that’s usually only 10 or 15 minutes at most. There are a variety of passes for different lengths of stay, and are definitely worth getting, since a single ticket costs E2,20 per ride. Go to the main Wienerlinien office at Stephansplatz to ask about all the different possibilities, from 48-hour passes to 8-day passes, to a Jahreskarte, a year’s pass. As seniors, we were disappointed to discover that we couldn’t get the discounted rate (an Ermässigung) except on a year’s pass (we were buying a Monatskarte, a monthly pass). It wasn’t until we had already paid the hefty sum of about $100/month that we learned that we could have bought the Jahreskarte for the full price of E225, and then turned it in at the end of our stay of three months and get the remainder reimbursed–making our monthly payment about E20 instead of E90! That fact isn’t explained anywhere in the English-language–nor the German-language–directions online. In any case, it makes things so much easier to get the passes, then you can just jump on any bus, subway, or tram with out worrying about it. The system runs on an honor system, although occasional Kontrolle–inspectors–do come on board, and if caught riding black, the fines are very steep, and they make no exceptions for tourists.
The same problem about a senior discount applies to Oesterreichische Bundesbahn, the national train service. If you are going to use the train a lot and will be here for a long stay, you can apply for a senior card, but otherwise you have to pay full price. And remember: BOOK AHEAD online! The fees are MUCH less than if you try to buy the ticket on the day.
—3) Having said how wonderful the transit system is, I do have to point out: Vienna has, inexplicably, not inserted the information about their transit lines onto Google Maps! So you can’t get directions from place to place via Google Maps, you have to go to wienerlinien.at, and get their directions there. This is really an odd omission, since we have found all other places, even the Czech Republic and Poland, to have inserted their transit information into the Google system.
—4) Mariahilfestrasse, which used to be the rather low-end shopping street, has now been turned into a pedestrian mall (after years of debate and controversy) and the shops have become quite a bit nicer. Friday afternoon, when most workers get off by 2 or 3 p.m., is the busiest time on the street. While we still love shopping at all the little specialized shops that make Vienna so charming, it is great to find that big supermarkets such as Merkur are now in the middle of town, and carry just about anything you want. The only thing we haven’t been able to find at all is jicama (George wants to make Mexican food for friends)! Prices for food are overall a little bit higher than in the States, but not nearly as glaringly disparate as they used to be. We’ll see how winter effects what’s available.
—5) Biomärkte–organic markets–are everywhere, and this being Europe, ALL food is non-GMO, and subject to strict EU guidelines, so it all tastes better than a lot of American foodstuffs.Chicken tastes like chicken used to taste in the U.S. The weekly farmers’ markets in places like Freyungsplatz in the middle of the first district are small, but have great organically grown vegetables and even Bio fish (although fish is VERY expensive). We have also found both huge alternative food and health stores–the Denns Biomarkt is unbelievable–and lovely small hippie-like shops where we get excellent goats’ milk cheeses and natural products. Somewhat hefty prices, but nice.
—6) Vegan, vegetarian, and other alternative foodstuffs are easy to find, although I haven’t seen as much advertising of gluten-free products. I have had no trouble finding sheep and goat’s milk, and even sheep and goat’s milk yogurt.
—7) it used to be that EVERY SHOP was closed on Sunday, so it was always a mad rush to remember to buy what you needed on Saturday mornings. So many times we would forget and end up having to go to the Westbahnhof on Sunday for a tiny carton of milk. While that stricture still pertains to most shops, the Westbahnhof is now an enormous mall, with all kinds of shops that are open on Sundays — including flower stalls for forgetful guests. Spar Markt also has a few inner-city shops that stay open on Sunday, so it’s not as anxiety-provoking if you forget to have any food in the house on the weekend.
–8) The one item that you really cannot find here is Pepto-Bismol! If anyone would like to send us packets of Pepto-Bismol tablets, that’s what we would like for Christmas! Otherwise, the pharmacies are as great as I remember them–geared toward homeopathic and naturopathic products, which are readily available over the counter. The pharmacists are also quite knowledgeable, and offer good expert advice on your minor health needs. I have always felt there is more common sense about health issues here, and feel very safe and secure asking the pharmacists for information.
—9) we are happy to report that Vienna is still filled with little shops that specialize in one thing: hat making, a particular kind of jewelry, cat objects, comic books, buttons, wool, paper, you name it. And design shops of all kinds–with specially selected or in-house designed stuff–seem to be on every street. I think I’m going to do a photo study of them. Just lovely, and happy-making.
—10) Stockings are very pricey, so bring those along if you need to wear them often. But there are such fantastic varieties of socks, stockings, tights and leggings that it’s worth going shopping for them here!
—11) George went to the doctor’s yesterday to get some prescriptions filled. He found a clinic very nearby that had been recommended online (yes, you can look up ANYTHING online and find out about it!), with English-speaking doctors. One doesn’t need an appointment, you just pitch up and wait your turn. He didn’t have to wait any longer than we have to wait at our doctor’s at home. The visit cost $50. And here’s the best part: the doctors are obliged to tell you how much the prescriptions cost, and they find the cheapest option. And guess what, my male friends over 60 who have been paying outrageous prices for Viagra? There is a generic for it that costs about E1 a pill here! No one in the U.S. has ever mentioned that to us!
I’m sure as time goes along we’ll come up with other tips, but this will do for now….