Located in central Europe, Austria is a landlocked country bordered by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland. The country was a centre of power in Europe at the time when it was ruled by the mighty Habsburgs. Although today it is relegated to being a minor player in the European Union, Austria offers some of the most impressive destinations on the Continent.
The capital Vienna was once the citadel of the Habsburgs who ruled the country for over 600 years. The city is an architectural gem and a centre of music from the medieval times. The Hofburg (Imperial Palace) and the adjoining Augustinian Church are two of the marvels of architecture. Other notable sights in Vienna include the Museum of Fine Arts, Belvedere Palace, and the Sigmund Freud Museum.
Salzburg, the city that gave Mozart to the world, is a picturesque abode surrounded by tall mountains. Your tour of Salzburg is incomplete without a visit to the 11th-century Hohensalzburg Castle, the Museum of Fine Arts, and St. Peter’s Abbey. Four kilometres to the south of Salzburg is the interesting Hellbrunn Palace whose grounds contain trick fountains and water-powered figures.
If destinations off-the-beaten-track fascinate you, Austria has plenty of them too. Wels and Steyr are small cities worth a visit. Rust, and Gurk are some good places to explore along with the Eisriesenwelt Caves, which, incidentally, are the largest accessible ice caves in the world. Another interesting place to visit is Bad_Ischl, the famous spa, where the Austrian Emperors spend their holidays.
Austria is thronged by tourists round the year. Summer is the ideal time for sightseeing while in winter the slopes of the Alps offer ample opportunities for skiing. The Arlberg region with St. Anton or Upper Austria with Radstadt has some of the best skiing resorts in Austria. Up in the Alps, the Gemuetlichkeit of the Austrians makes you enjoy a stay in the snow, skiing or hiking.
Austria’s capital Vienna spreads along both sides of the “Blue” Danube (which as the Viennese are certain to point out is actually muddy brown) at the very foothills of the Alps. The city is a smorgasbord of Baroque with a dash of art nouveau. Circling the old town (the Innere Stadt ) is the imposing revivalist architecture of the Ringstrasse Vienna’s main boulevard. These buildings range from the charming Opera House to the monumental Natural History Museum. Nestled throughout the city are the graceful art-nouveau buildings of turn-of-the century architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. The buildings are one of the many remnants of the artistic and intellectual flowering that took place in Vienna at the turn of the century. Of course the buildings and the city’s history are only a backdrop for the daily culture that can still be found in the concert halls opera houses and cafes.
Before traveling to Vienna try to reserve tickets to the main attractions in advance as ticket requests from outside of the country are given priority. We recommend the Vienna State Opera the Spanish Riding School (with its famous Lipizzaner stallions) and the Vienna Boys Choir (the choir is particularly moving). If tickets for the State Opera aren’t available try the Volksoper which features operettas musicals and ballets. If all else fails the Gothic Rathaus (city hall) hosts a popular Christmas market in the winter and free concerts in the summer. Take a tour of the city to get oriented either on foot or in a Fiaker (a horse-drawn carriage). If you’d prefer a more elevated impression of the city go up to the top of the Donauturm (Danube Tower)—at 846 ft/258 m it provides quite a panorama from its observation platform and two revolving restaurants. You can see from there that Vienna is quite a large city — its sights are dispersed throughout so you’ll want to buy bus/subway passes for the number of days that you’ll be there.
The pulse of the city can be found along Ringstrasse. As you walk around the area be sure to take a break at a sidewalk cafe and have one of the city’s superb pastries. The Viennese invented cafe society and there is no better pasttime than to linger over a torte read a newspaper and watch the Viennese. Each café has its own personality; while the lavish cafes inside the Ringstrasse are most impressive the smaller ones just outside have a charm and authenticity that should also not be missed. Don’t just stick to coffee — the Austrian fruit teas and black teas are so flavorful that you’ll wonder what you’ve been drinking all these years.
After a coffee or a cup of tea you should be ready to visit one of the many world-class museums along the Ring. The Kunsthistorisches Museum has works of art by Bruegel, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Titian as well as Roman and Egyptian antiquities. Just across the plaza is the Naturhistorisches Museum which has the 25 000-year-old Venus of Willendorf one of the oldest works of art in existence. The Museum of Applied Art located farther down the Ring has an amazing one-million piece-collection of Rococo Baroque and Jugendstil furniture glass porcelain and fabric. Just off the Ring is the brilliant Secession Building one of the must-sees of Vienna. Built as a reaction to the overblown Ringstrasse buildings the museum is a work of art in itself and—except for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze—generally better than the hit-or-miss contemporary art exhibited inside.
If the Ringstrasse is the pulse of the city the Innere Stadt (the old city) is the heart. This is where the city’s main attractions are located (and since it is a pedestrian zone it is also a great place to stroll). For an overview climb the bell tower of the 450-ft-/137-m-high St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The cathedral built in 1258 is easily identifiable by the zigzag pattern of its roof tiles. Between St. Stephen’s and the State Opera House is Karntnerstrasse Vienna’s main shopping street. Nearby is the Albertina museum which houses more than 200 000 drawings (works by Albrecht Durer among others). At another corner of the old city is the Hofburg Palace a massive complex that contains the Burgkapelle (the chapel where the Boys Choir sings Mass) the Stallburg (where the Spanish Riding School performs on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings) the Imperial Treasuries (Habsburg Crown Jewels) and the elaborate Austrian National Library.
Across the river from the old city is Prater Park an enjoyable amusement park that dates from the 18th century. The park’s main attraction is the Riesenrad the giant Ferris wheel seen in the film The Third Man (the film plays every summer in one of the theaters on the Ring) and the goofy statues scattered around the park (one shows a enormous baby taking his tiny father for a walk).
On the other side of the old city near the Südbahnhof is the Belvedere Palace which houses a stunning collection of Viennese art from the art-nouveau era including Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” These enchanting pictures are reason enough to visit Vienna. The palace also has a spacious garden with a great view of the city.
Another enjoyable museum is the quirky KunstHausWien designed by the artist Hundertwasser. The museum is a fantasy of colorful tile lumpy floors and peculiar architecture (trees grow out of the third floor window). Just down the street is a block of apartments that was also designed by the artist. Though not open to visitors the colorful fairy-castle facade always draws a crowd of onlookers. If you still have a hankering for modern art visit the Museum of the 20th Century (we found the exhibits to be a bit spotty).
However we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the homes of famous Viennese: Sigmund Freud (his psychoanalytic couch and other possessions are on display) Johann Strauss Jr. (where he composed The Blue Danube ) Beethoven (he wrote his Third Symphony there) and Mozart (called Figarohaus: it’s where he composed The Marriage of Figaro ). We also enjoyed seeing where famous Viennese are buried! Probably the most famous grave is Mozart’s hidden somewhere in the St. Marx Cemetery — when he died the great composer was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave that to this day remains undiscovered. After the Mozart fiasco Vienna got its act together and began to bury its famous people in clearly marked graves in the Central Cemetery which now hold the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schoenberg, and other Viennese dignitaries. To round out the cemetery tour travelers can visit the Imperial Burial Vault (Kaisergruft) the final resting place of the emperors and empresses of the last 300 years of the House of Habsburg. We’re not particularly ghoulish but we enjoyed visiting the Augustinerkirche vault (it contain the hearts—literally—of many of the Habsburgs).
Visitors shouldn’t miss the elaborate 17th-century Schönbrunn Palace which was the Habsburg summer home. Often crowded with sightseers it is nonetheless a must-see. Highlights include the State Rooms the Hall of Mirrors (where Mozart made his debut at the age of 6) the magnificent Wagenburg Imperial Coach collection the enormous gardens and the Tiergarten Europe’s oldest zoo.
If you feel like taking a short excursion out of the city consider having a picnic in the Vienna Woods (beech-covered hills) relaxing in the charming wine gardens attached to nearby vineyards or strolling along the scenic Danube River.
There are several sights nearby Vienna that merit a visit if you have the time. One is Klosterneuburg an abbey begun in the 12th century which features the Verdun Altar. Also south of the city is Baden a pretty wooded town where Beethoven and Mozart lived. Appropriate to its name Baden has a huge open-air thermal bathing complex with a treatment center. The town’s sulphur waters are believed to provide healing; following the footsteps of Mozart’s wife Constanze thousands go there every year seeking rejuvenation. Once rejuvenated they attend festivals and operettas (in the summer) or head to the casino.
Another composer’s town was Eisenstadt south of Vienna where Joseph Haydn lived (he was court musician at the Esterhazy Palace). And don’t miss St. Polten with its Baroque frescoes; and (in summer) Rust and its famous storks.
Every year orchestras from around the world take part in The Vienna International Festival. Churches mansions and palaces across the city host more than 150 different concerts ranging from sacred music to opera and choral music to symphony.
Four nights are really the minimum needed to see Vienna. Additional days could be spent in the region or taking half-day tours outside of town.
Note: Although Vienna is one of the safest cities in the world, travelers have recently become a target of pickpocketing and purse snatching in the two largest train stations. If you stay alert you shouldn’t have any problems.
Vienna has a compact historical centre, bound to the northeast by the Danube canal and surrounded on all other sides by the majestic sweep of the Ringstrasse. From here, the main arteries of communication radiate outwards. Most of the important sights are concentrated in this tourist-clogged district and along the Ring, but a lot of essential Vienna lies beyond it, in the initially forbidding grid of barracks-like 19th century apartment blocks. There are also outlaying sights, such as Schloss Schönbrunn, or the funfair and parklands of the Prater. To discover Vienna by walking needs more than only some days, but public transport items are comprehensive and helpful.
Salzburg is dubbed the ‘Rome of the North’ because of its many churches. It is a compact town easy to get around on foot.
Salzburg is packed with attractions: churches, mansions, museums. The old city offers all of those on a small surface.
On the outskirts of the city is one of Salzburg’s top attractions Hellbrunn Castle. Its water gardens seen in The Sound of Music are great fun especially for kids: When Archbishop Markus Sitticus built the place in the 1600s he had trick fountains mounted in the floors and walls. To satisfy his quirky sense of humor he occasionally sprayed his guests by activating a secret mechanism.
Siegmundstor (Siegmund’s Gate)
Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz, road tunnel through the Mönchsberg, approx. 123m in length, leading to the Riedenburg district. Completed in 1767 under Prince Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach after a construction period of only 16 months (manual labor).
Beautiful Fountain by Tommaso di Garona for Prince-Archbishop Guidobald Graf Thun, is the largest baroque fountain north of the Alps (1656-1661).
Horse Pond (Kapitelschwemme)
Built in 1732 under Prince Archbishop Leopold Anton Firmian. The sculptures are by J.A. Pfaffinger.
with the Mozart monument by Ludwig von Schwanthaler (1842).
Historical street on the right bank of river Salzach at the foot of Capucin Mountain with old burgher houss, beautifully restored shops and a fine pathway on Capucin Mountain, lined with the Stations of the Cross. Breathtaking view over the city from the mountain.
One of the oldest streets in town which has kept its medieval ambiance until today.
Wels, a lovely small village with 60.000 inhabitants, is located in the heart of Austria, at the river Traun. Founded by the Romans as “Ovilava”, the city has a long and important trading tradition. Today you will find both historical heritage and modern shopping facilities, recreation and several markets and fairs, like the popular Wels fair, the Roman market or the farmers’ market. Every august the medieval market attracts lots of visitors to watch the knight horseriding tournament, the sword games, conjurers, wizards and jesters. The Wels zoo, the Schmiding bird paradise or the puppet museum enjoy great popularity not only amongst children.
Steyr, located in Upper austria (Oberösterreich) in 311 m altitude, counts 43.000 inhabitants. South of Linz the city of Steyr offers both recreation and diversion, surrounded by a long history. Steyr has one of the most beautiful city squares in the whole of Europe, where Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque an Rococo meet each other in harmony. In the middle is the town’s enblem – the Gothic Bummerlhaus. It still stands today as it stood six hundred years ago. Above it, the mighty Lamberg castle on the foundations of the Styriaburg. The very castle to which the city owes its founding.
Graz, the capital of Styria, owes its importance to the defence of central Europe against the Turks. From the 15th century, Graz was permanently under arms, rendering it far more secure than Vienna. During the last years of the Habsburg empire, the city’s mild climate made it a popular retirement choice for officers and civil servants. Nowadays, however, it is the second largest Austrian city with plentyful night-time diversions, lots of cultural events and a 250.000 population, amongst them 30.000 students.
Innsbruck is the capital of Tirol and – contrary to some expectations – it is not only an alpine ski village; it’s a bustling city of over one hundred thousand inhabitants. Nonetheless, it attracts more North American winter visitors than any other European ski destination. Undoubtedly, some are drawn by the renown created by two modern Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976, which is perpetuated in the form of a very efficient infrastructure for winter sports fans.
Other visitors are attracted by the historical environment of the Old Town with the renowned Golden Roof as focal point. The Habsburg kings held court in Innsbruck and you will find many historic sights, the most important one being the Ambras castle with its good art collection. Everywhere around Innsbruck’s heritage of two “golden ages” can still be found: the first around 1500 under the Emperor Maxmilan I, the second in the mid-1700’s under Empress Maria Thérèsia.
Overall, the city’s location, nestled into a narrow valley right beneath rugged mountain peaks, together with its old-world atmosphere, historic churches and buildings, interesting monuments, rich museums and galleries, and active commerce, all combine into an interesting sports-plus-culture attraction. It simply makes an excellent destination for those who seek a broader European experience than simply skiing, or for families where some members are less assiduous skiers.
The Austrian city of Innsbruck is one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful ski centers. Nestled in the Tyrolean Alps, the area has some 200 trails covering 500 kilometers (310 miles) and is perfect for beginner and intermediate-level skiers. People often compare this area to Aspen, Colorado in terms of terrain and cost.
Innsbruck is also a convenient place to ski. The town itself is located only three miles from the airport and all six of the ski areas are within a one-hour radius of town. There is also a free shuttle that will pick you up at the main train station and drop you at the resort of your choice.
A reasonably priced all-in-one lift pass covers the major ski resorts in the area including the Olympic villages of Igls and Axamer Lizum and the small villages of Tulfes, Mutters, and the Stubai Glacier. The pass costs about 1,780 Austrian schillings (U.S. $120) and is good for six days. There is also a “Super Ski” special available that offers an additional full day of skiing at the resorts of Kitzbuehel and St. Anton .
Most of the visitors here ski at an intermediate level, but thrill-seekers still have some options. The amazingly daring runs of Hafelekar, Axamer Lizum, and Stubai Glacier are good for advanced skiers. And for those who like to watch other people risk their lives, the world-famous Air and Style Competition at the Olympic Ski Jump stadium attracts over 25,000 visitors in early December and is a must-see for skiing aficionados.
For those times when you are not on the slopes, Innsbruck will keep you entertained with excellent shopping and a happening nightlife. Culture vultures will be happy with world-class opera, gorgeous architecture, and superb museums. And since the locals are friendly and (usually) speak English, Innsbruck is a good fit for anyone seeking an international skiing holiday adventure.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.