Stunning lakeside villages plucked from fairytales, modern city centers filled with architectural wonders, internationally known museums, and rich history. Mountain-hugging Alpine roads and river cruises that you won’t want to leave. With its geographical advantages and series of beautiful towns and cities, Austria is perfect for both the seasoned explorer and those looking for a quiet and luxurious holiday. Although it’s hard to get a country like Austria wrong, here is a guide to help ensure that you get it right.
Historic center of Vienna: A UNESCO World Heritage site loaded with baroque castles and sprawling gardens, the centerpiece of Vienna has been an important European staple for centuries and retains its ageless charm in the current age. Originally a medieval settlement, Vienna became a critical hot spot for classical music thanks to icons like Mozart, Beethoven, and Johann Strauss (I and II), and today it remains a gathering place for travelers from all over the world. You don’t have to be a classical music buff to enjoy the city center either. Whether by foot, bike or Segway, it’s easy to be dazzled by buildings like the Stephansdom, Hofburg, and the extremely famous State Opera House, or simply relax at one of the many cafes lining the streets. From the city center, it’s also a breeze to get around the rest of Vienna via the S-train, U-Bahm (underground metro) or city bus.
Viennese museums: You may not be able to pronounce the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but you’ll likely find yourself marveling at 5,000 years of artwork packed into one of the most famous art museums in the world. User-friendly and an incredible building in its own right, the Kunsthistorisches is well worth dealing with the crowds that can build up during the peak times of the year. At the Natural History Museum, visitors inspect a terrific dinosaur exhibit, are awed by a world-class planetarium, and experience a rolling set of other acclaimed exhibits. Architectural enthusiasts will also want to check out the Belvedere Palace Museum for even more eye candy.
Palaces and gardens: When the weather is good, you’ll have a hard time beating the sights of Schonbrunner Gardens, arguably the greatest public park in Austria. Intricate water fountains, miles of green space, and colorful flowers fill a visitor’s vision, and a famous maze also makes for a fun stop (as well as a great photo opportunity). The Imperial Palace of Hofburg, meanwhile, is a window into the Viennese past, as it has been an important government center since the 13th century and is the working residence of the current President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen.
Also try: The Vienna Zoo, Albertina (art museum), St. Peter’s Church, Rathaus, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral are all worth researching before heading to Vienna. One of the very best ways to see Vienna is also a Danube River Cruise that takes you right through the heart of the city.
Peruse the Fairytale Village of Hallstatt
No matter when you go to Austria, a trip to the upper region to take in the sights of Hallstatt is well worth your time. One of the earliest areas settled by Celtic tribes during the Iron Age, Hallstatt of today is a quaint village hugging a tranquil Alpine lake (Hallstatter See) and filled with local shops, restaurants, and sightseeing opportunities. With the Alps hovering just behind the classically designed buildings lining the lakefront, Hallstatt has a timeless beauty that helped make it another of Austria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Although it’s perfect for pure relaxation, adventurers can also head up more than 1,000 feet to the Hallstatt Skyway for unforgettable views of the village and the Alps.
A Journey to Salzburg
Salzburger Altstadt (Old Town Salzburg): Vienna is the more famous of cities, but the birthplace of Mozart is every bit Vienna’s rival when it comes to beauty and culture. Everywhere you turn is a sensational piece of architecture or a neighborhood with old world charm, with cobbled side streets and all kinds of small shops and eateries to enjoy.
Salzburg Fortress: Dating to the 11th century, the Salzburg Fortress is a medieval palace on the outskirts of the city that is a perfect place to spend an afternoon. Complete with concerts featuring famous classical works and opportunities to explore the grounds, the fortress continues to be one of the most popular hot spots in the city.
Untersburg: The best place to see Salzburg is actually from Untersburg, a massif in the Berchtesgaden Alps just outside the city that sits along the German-Austria border. A 10-minute cable car can take you up the mountain, where you’ll have panoramic views of Salzburg and the towering Alps that fill in the backdrop of the city.
Also worth checking out: The Salzburg Cathedral is a domed wonder that is known for its unique design and for being where Mozart was baptized. Hellbrunn Castle is another palace grounds with impeccable buildings, well-kept gardens, and waterfalls that make it a great spot for a leisurely stroll on a sunny day.
Melk, Innsbruck, and One of the Most Scenic Mountain Roads in the Alps
It might be a little tough to include Melk and Innsbruck if you have a fairly limited amount of time in Austria, but they also make perfect additions for an extended trip. Less than an hour from Vienna by rail, Melk’s Abbey has a collection of impressive gardens and courtyards to go along with a beautiful main building sitting atop a hill overlooking the Danube. The monks on the premises are also known for making wine and the abbey is often incorporated into Danube River cruises.
In Innsbruck, the Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen is a tramway that takes you soaring through the Alps for spectacular mountain views that have few peers anywhere in Europe. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, the tram is also the perfect way to get in the mood to go cruising down the mountain. For those who can’t get enough mountain views, the Grossglockner High Alpine Road is an absolute knockout that takes you right through the Alps in western Austria.
When to Go and How to Get Around
Austria can be an amazing place no matter the time of year, depending on what you’re looking for. Those who love seeing winter wonderlands will likely be awed by seeing Vienna, Salzburg, and the highlights of Austria covered in a dusting of snow, but spring and summer remain the go-to parts of the year for most visitors. With lush gardens, beautiful waterfalls, and many places to stretch your legs throughout the mainstays of Austria, it’s very easy to plan and enjoy a trip during the warmer weather months. For anyone looking to make trips away from the main draws of Austria, winter weather can also quickly complicate a trip.
The good news is that Vienna and Salzburg are both perfect launching points thanks to the easy access by train and other means of transportation. Vienna, in particular, is incredibly simple to reach through a variety of major European cities by train and its international airport provides plenty of options for those looking to fly directly into Austria. Cruising along the Danube River to Vienna is also an unbeatable way to reach the Austrian capital from cities like Munich or Budapest, and Salzburg is a quick two hours down the rail from Vienna. From either Salzburg or Vienna, there are also plenty of worthwhile day trips accessible through train, bus, or private shuttle.