Austria offers a tantalizing waltz for visitors. Lakes sparkle like gem stones. Craggy mountains brush the sky. Rivers carve deep valleys where enticing villages hide.
Indeed, millions of tourists come each year to experience Austria’s treasures. The majority visit the grandiose capital city of Vienna, the lavishly detailed Baroque architecture of Salzâ€‹burg or winter sports hotbeds like Innsbruck. But there are plenty of hidden gems and small towns just waiting to be discovered in every corner of Austria. Our insider guide to Austria will help you find those the spots tourists haven’t yet discovered.
Austria is a landlocked country of 8.7 million people in central Europe. Bordered by eight countries, including Germany, Italy and Switzerland, Austria was part of the Habsburg-ruled Holy Roman Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a wealthy country where residents enjoy a high standard of living. In terms of size, Austria is roughly the same size as Kentucky.
The western three-quarters of Austria is covered by the Alps mountains which makes winters long and summers short; the eastern Danube valley and Pannonian Plain get less precipitation than the Alpine areas. Even in winter though, it doesn’t get too cold. In Vienna, the average high in January is 36°F; the low is 25°F. Summers are generally pleasant and comfortable. Because of the predominance of winter sports and wintertime cultural events, there’s really no “low season.” Sights in rural areas may close for the winter, but urban centers are bustling and ski resort communities expect visitors when it’s cold. Christmas and Easter are usually very crowded in tourist spots. To avoid crowds, consider going in shoulder seasons: March, April, May, September or October.
The official language is Austrian German which is similar to standard German with a few vocabulary differences. Regional dialects exist throughout the country. English classes are required in Austrian schools, so most people can communicate in English, especially in larger towns and tourist zones. If you plan to drive, you’ll need to be able to read in German as road signs aren’t posted in English.
Money and Tipping
As a member of the European Union, the official currency is the Euro, denoted as €. Most restaurants, department stores and hotels accept credit cards, but small shops and cafes may not. ATMS, called bankomaten, are easy to find. Tipping is expected unless a service charge is included in the bill. Tip 10% in restaurants and for taxis. Leave loose change for hotel cleaning staff and tip porters a Euro or two per bag.
Culture, Food and Etiquette
The country is accustomed to tourists so Austrians are welcoming to foreigners. When meeting someone new, make eye contact and shake hands. Say “hello” (Servus) and “thank you” (Danke) when entering and leaving a shop or bus. Given Austria’s imperial past, societal formalities (such as kissing a lady’s hand) may still be seen at times, but it’s not the norm.
Food in Austria represents influences from many area of central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Italy and Bohemia. Expect many “sweet” dishes during the course of a meal, along with clear broth soups filled with vegetables and meats and Wiener Schnitzel, fried, breaded pork or veal.
Flanked by the Vienna Woods in the west and the Danube River in the east, Austria’s capital of Vienna draws millions of people each year. Baroque buildings created under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia and Emperor Franz Joseph are the stars of the show. But people come to the city of 1.7 million for the special Viennese charm that’s hard to describe. It must be experienced. It’s easy to spend an entire trip to Austria without ever venturing from Vienna. Imperial palaces, opera houses, art museums, holiday markets, wine taverns, coffee houses and cathedrals abound in the city.
Vienna is divided into 23 districts. Among the most popular attractions are the Spanish Riding School, home of the Lipizzan horses, the Burggarten, Habsburg rulers’ court garden, the Hofburg Imperial Palace, Belvedere Palace, home of the Austrian Gallery, and the 1,441-room Schönbrunn Palace, which rivals Versailles in grandeur. You should also check out St. Stephen’s Cathedral and be sure to walk down into the crypt where body parts of former rulers are preserved.
Urban amenities are surrounded by a vast outdoor playground in the Tirol province. With 500 mountain peaks that surpass 9,800 feet, you’ll be overwhelmed by the area’s rugged beauty. A quarter of the province is taken up by a nature preserve and the mountainous terrains means only a fraction of the area is habitable. Innsbruck is the biggest city and provincial capital. Meander through the city’s old town, take a cable car to the summit of Hafelekar and look down on the city or visit Schloss Ambras, a 16th century castle which houses the remains of an ancient fortress and a portrait gallery. Elsewhere in Tirol, take a dip in a beer pool, but don’t drink the water. Starkenberger’s Castle operates a beer spa in an old fermentation cellar.
The westernmost province of Vorarlberg is packed with ski resorts and alpine villages where you can enjoy local cheese-making. The Bregenzerwald Cheese Road is a network linking dairy farms, shops and restaurants involved in the cheese-making process. If you’re around in September, watch as cows are brought back into town from their summer pastures. The tradition involves much fanfare and celebration.
With hundreds of Alpine lakes and Austria’s highest peak, Grossglockner, Carinthia is often described as Austria’s best kept secret. Castles and market towns dot the landscape. Visit Gurk, where the surrounding countryside looks like a scene straight out of “The Sound of Music.” Check out Lake Ossiachersee. Take the country’s oldest cable car up to the summit of Gerlitzen Mountain. Explore the Pasterze Glacier via funicular railway. Walk through the walled villages of Friesach and Gmund or the hilltop fortress in Hochosterwitz.
A medieval city that was transformed into a gem of Baroque architecture during the 1600s, Salzburg is an extremely popular tourist destination. Palaces, Benedictine abbeys and holiday markets draw crowds to Salzburg throughout the year. Elsewhere in the province, see mammoth ice caves perched high above the village of Werfen, tour a salt mine in Hallein or stroll through bucolic Oberndorf where the Christmas carol “Silent Night” was written in 1818.
The Alps transition into rolling plains in Upper Austria where you’ll find the cosmopolitan hub of Linz, a city that experiments with modern design and electronics. Visit the Ars Electronica Center where art meets electronics. Elsewhere in the province, visit the storybook town of Steyr or Enns, the oldest town in Austria where the 200-foot Stadtturm tower juts out from the town’s shingled skyline. An hour from Enns find Traunsee Lake. The lively city of Gmunden sits at its northern end and welcomes visitors to enjoy the area’s breathtaking scenery, including the Seeschloss Ort Palace which sits on an island in the lake.
With vineyards along the Danube, Lower Austria draws those seeking an authentic, rustic experience. The Danube River Valley between Melk and Krems is called die Wachau and features ancient castles and medieval villages. The walled town of Drosendorf and the picturesque Baroque abbey in Melk are worth checking out, or head to Dürnstein, the town where English King Richard the Lionhart was kept prisoner after returning from a crusade.
Emerald green forests, vineyards, thermal spas and outdoor activities offer a more rural Austrian experience in Styria. The market towns of Murau, Judenburg, Eisenerz and Leoben offer authentic sightseeing. The capital of Graz features the Baroque Schloss Eggenberg Castle and the Zeughaus fortress which contains Europe′s biggest collection of 16th century armor. Visit one of the seven thermal spas in Styria or take a drive along the Road of Castles which links 18 historically significant castles in Styria and neighboring Burgenland.
Austria’s easternmost province, Burgenland is anything but mountainous and great for cycling excursions. Visit the salty Lake Neusiedlersee which straddles Austia’s border with Hungary. Base your operations at Podersdorf which provides the best access to the lake. See rock sculptures in the town of St. Margarethen where artists create their masterpieces right in an old quarry. And in Steinberg, see how traditional indigo hand block printing has been done for hundreds of years.
From outdoor adventures to cosmopolitan delights, Austria offers a world of treasures for travelers. Our insider guide to Austria will help you identify the places that interest you most so you can begin planning your trip today.