Austria is a juxtaposition of high culture set against some of the most stunning scenery the world has to offer. Here you’ll find aristocratic beginnings, and ever-changing artistry mingled together with a flair for turning the “Land of Mountains” into a playground of both the body and the mind. The spirit of grand ideas made manifest is the guiding principle you’ll find as you explore these three “must see” sights that take you through the history and ingenuity of this boundless country.
1. St. Michael’s Square: Vienna’s Historic City Center
“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt.” – Austrian writer Karl Kraus
There’s little doubt that Kraus had in mind the inspiring and multifaceted architecture layered upon the streets of old town Vienna when he penned this tribute to his beloved city. There are more than 2,900 structures located within a 1.8 square mile section of middle Vienna. Their histories span across numerous eras, from Roman settlements to modern innovations. Her streets are a living museum, and UNESCO declared the location a World Heritage site in 2011.
One of the best places to experience both the old and contemporary charm of historic Vienna is at St. Michael’s Square. Here you can walk just a few feet in any direction and find yourself transported to in a different era. Even the individual buildings span centuries. The centerpiece Hofburg Imperial Palace is a great example of this: you’ll find sections dating back to the 1200s alongside wings built across the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The palace’s impressive 165 foot-high dome and Michaelerto gate provide an exquisite entrance to the numerous museums and cultural centers now housed within her walls, including the world-famous Spanish Riding School. Show up on a Sunday and you’ll even be lucky enough to hear the Vienna Boy’s Choir singing in the palace’s original medieval chapel.
St. Michael’s Church
The square’s oldest building is also its namesake: St. Michael’s Church, built in the late Romanesque period between 1220 and 1240. It houses numerous treasures, including recent discovery of 15th-century frescoes and the city’s oldest Baroque organ. It also claims the historical bragging rights to being the first church to play Mozart’s Requiem. True to form, the creation of this national icon traversed hundreds of years, and its many paintings and architectural elements make it a fascinating site to explore.
Mix of Old and New
In the square’s center sit ruins that hark back to the first Roman settlement in the area, a military camp called Vindobona. The camp was constructed between the 1st and 5th centuries A.D. and were excavated from below current street levels. When you walk back to street level, you’ll soon find yourself moving from Roman times to the 20th century as you catch sight of the square’s most modern building, the Looshaus. Established in 1912, it caused serious controversy in its day due to its lack of ornamental flair. Emperor Franz Joseph even lost his usual aristocratic eloquence and called the pared-down design of the building “ugly.” Architect Alfred Loos vehemently disagreed with this assessment, saying a spiritual simplicity drove his new style. Today the building causes much less contention: it houses both a bank and an art gallery in the basement, along with a much grander indoor style that is open for the public to enjoy.
2. The Danube River Vineyards of Wachau
The River Danube runs through the historic streets of Vienna and out into the lush countryside of Wachau Province. Here you’ll encounter some of the most famous vineyards in Europe. The ancient indigenous people of the area called the river “Great Water,” and the grape cultivators who made this region famous have terraced the lush soils surrounding its banks to produce decadent white wines that are celebrated the world over.
Wachau makes the list of must-see destinations because it is a kaleidoscope of culturally enriching activities. Just like the city center, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also home to over 124 vineyards located within a short 12-mile stretch. One of the most fascinating stops is Nikolaihof Estate in Mautern, where you’ll experience firsthand the rich winemaking history of the region which extends back 2,000 years to Roman times. Here you can tour the original Roman food storage cellars. Be sure to taste the strictly organic Grüner Veltliner and Rieslings that make the Wachau region famous. The estate is the oldest continually operating vineyard in Austria. It offers a cozy guesthouse, a locally-sourced tavern, and a stellar wine selection including the much-sought-after vintage Nikolaihof Riesling Vinothek.
Another favorite stop on Wachau’s River Danube is Melk village, home of the 1,000-year-old Melk Abbey Founded by Benedictine monks in 1089 A.D. The beautifully ornate castle was a gift to them from military governor Leopold II. Architectural masters of the day were commissioned to create the monastery’s opulent Baroque church. Your eyes will be continuously drawn to the frescoes that adorn the ceilings and walls amidst marble and gold gilding. The abbey is also home to Austria’s world-famous library that houses over 16,000 antique books and historic manuscripts. In Melk’s museum, you’ll learn about its long past, including the monks’ role in building the impermeable dry stone wall terraces that are still utilized on Wachau wine estates today.
3. Grossglockner Alpine High Road: Hohe Tauern National Park
The wonders of the Alps are showcased in the 36-turn Grossglockner Alpine High Road which sits in the heart of Austria’s largest national park, Hohe Tauern. This serpentine pass ascends 8,215 feet to provide you with stunning views of the summit of Austria’s highest peak: Grossglockner Mountain. Grossglockner Mountain stands at 12,460 feet and captures all of the of the spectacular power of the region. The journey upwards towards her summit will take you along 30 miles of pristine scenery. With numerous cultural relics, educational centers, and recreational activities interspersed along the way.
Legend has it that in 914 A.D. a Byzantine general carrying a sacred Christian relic stopped off in the village of Heiligenblut. He met an untimely death when an avalanche hit the village sitting at the base of Grossglockner Mountain. While there, he met an untimely death in an avalanche. The events that followed led the locals to discover that he held a vial which they grew to believe contained the blood of Christ. Thus sprang up a pilgrimage town, and the church of St. Vincent was constructed in 1491 to accommodate the worshipers. The church’s architectural wonders include a Gothic high altar and a refined outer design meant to blend in with the pristine mountain scenery. Today, the details of the Legend of Briccius are still related to travelers who stop in to visit this marvel of the Middle Ages.
Along with being pilgrimage site, the city of Heiligenblut is also the central hub for visitors to the Alpine High Road. The road’s construction was completed in the 1930s by a team of innovators who built the original cobblestone pass in just five short years. Today the asphalt update connects Bruck in the state of Salzburg with Heiligenblut. One of the highlights of this place is the Visitor Center at the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe. Step into simulation of the largest glacier in the Eastern Alps, the Pasterze. Here, you can learn about the ancient ice formations of the region and more.
Once you step outside of the visitor center onto the Gamsgruben Trail, you get to see the real Pasterze. Formed during the last Ice Age, it is approximately five miles long and 390 feet thick. The best views are from the Wasserfallwinkel lookout point located 8,360 feet above sea level. –Continue to the top of Grossglockner Alpine High Road to enjoy the breathtaking sight of the “black” mountain herself, surrounded by over 300 sister peaks all standing at nearly 10,000 feet. You can take in the scenery on the outdoor deck of the aptly named Panoramic Restaurant, where sweet omelets, homemade dumplings with cheese, and succulent smoked sausage are served against the gorgeous Alpine backdrop.
When you come back down from the top, enjoy a day panning for gold in at the historic Alten Pocher gold mining village located in the nearby town of Fleißtal. Here, you can take a ski lift onto one of four Freeride trails covering nearly six square miles of terrain. Or relax in the spa and sauna at the ancestrally historic National Park Lodge Grossglockner. The lodge, the lifts, and St. Vincent Church are all situated just steps away from each other at this beautiful mountain retreat. Come see the places where human-made innovation meet the marvels of Austria’s awe-inspiring landscape.
If you’re looking for a place to go on your next vacation, stop by Austria and experience all the country has to offer.