Why everything in Austria is closed on Sundays - and what to do instead
By law, most shops and supermarkets need to stay closed on Sundays. Why is that and how can you still buy what you need?
In December 2021, as Austrian shops and stores suffered heavily from fewer sales due to pandemic restrictions, the country made a surprising decision: it would allow shops to open on a Sunday to make up for lost sales.
It was the first time in decades that trade was allowed to open on a Sunday, prompting Austrian media to say things like "a sacred cow is killed in Austria", a strong image to show how the country views its holy Sunday as a rest day.
At the time, authorities and workers' unions were quick to reiterate that the one-off exception should not be seen as a move towards Sunday opening more generally.
Shops also had the choice to open, and coming to work was voluntary for workers too. Plus, they got double pay and an extra day off.
What does the law say?
The regulations for opening hours are very strict in Austria. The current 2003 federal law (though the tradition of having shops closed comes from much earlier than that) states that general open times that stores are allowed to have are Mondays to Fridays from 6am to 9pm and on Saturdays from 6am to 6pm.
That means that most trade shuts down in Austria promptly on Saturday at 6pm (or earlier) and will only resume the following Monday at 6am.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, mainly bakery businesses, gas stations (and they can sell fuel, but also "small sale items"), and shops in transit areas.
Federal states can also decide on some exceptions, including serving commuters, tourist areas, and events or "special occasions".
These provisions make it possible that most shops in train stations, for example, are still open.
Where does this tradition come from?
Austria is a very religious country, with Christianity by far the largest religion. In a 2001 census, 73.7 per cent of the population indicated that they were Roman Catholic and 4.7 per cent Protestant.
These numbers have slightly dropped, and in 2016, Statistik Austria found that some 64 per cent of the population was Roman Catholic.
Sunday is seen as a holy day by much of the population, and the Austrian Church for long has protected the day's status as a "rest day". But that is not all.
The idea that Sundays are not for shopping and that keeping shops closed is a way to preserve the Austrian quality of life is treasured in the alpine country.
Even with the exceptional opening during the pandemic, a University of Linz survey showed that only 15 per cent of consumers would use the day to buy goods.
Ask any Austrian or check any poll results, and you will get similar justifications: "Sundays are for family", "Sundays are for culture, nature, rest", "workers deserve their Sunday rest as well", all the way to "plan your shopping better".
It is one of the few areas where most of the parties (including the socialists in Vienna), the Church, workers' unions and most of the population actually agree on.
What to do on a Sunday with an empty fridge?
Just because shops close every single Sunday doesn't mean that you won't find yourself surprised with an empty fridge on a Sunday morning, especially if Saturday was a holiday (and shops were also closed).
The federal law itself provides for several exceptions that you can take advantage of - even if some of the prices could be higher than those in supermarkets.
First of all, it's worth remembering that bars and restaurants are still open on Sundays, or at least they are allowed to open. Bakeries also usually stay open and food delivery services can operate normally as well.
Shops and supermarkets that are in transit and touristic areas also remain largely open, so places located inside train stations, airports, and transit areas are a possibility.
In Vienna, the Billa supermarket at Praterstern, or the one at Franz Josefs Station, and the many shops at Westbahnhof and Hauptbahnhof are always crowded with Sunday shoppers.
Another easy (though likely expensive) solution is to head to a convenience store at a gas station. Some of them can offer quite a large selection of food and drinks and stay open on Sundays - they are also a good alternative for late night shopping in some cases.
Enjoy your Sunday
The closed stores can be quite a cultural shock for many immigrants coming from different "24/7 services" types of cultures.
This is one of the things that are not likely going to change anytime soon, and over and over again, the country has decided to keep Sundays for rest.
Austrians deal with it by doing most of their grocery shopping after work hours (or hectically on Saturdays), in short runs to the supermarkets - which also goes with the culture of eating fresh meals.
On Sundays, especially when the weather is nice, they flock to parks, trails, palace gardens and many areas and events, most of them free, their cities have to offer.
It is a day to slow down, and there are numerous ways to enjoy it that do not include "capitalist" traditions such as going to the mall - at least according to the locals.