The once hallowed seat of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna spoils travelers rotten with baroque palaces, fabled coffee houses and plenty of cultural pizzazz.
But Austria's stirring, majestic capital also makes a great base for exploring some of the country’s other jewels. These are the best day trips from Vienna.
See storybook settings in Salzburg
Storybook Salzburg could easily steal a week of your time, but even a swift day trip from Vienna will leave you mesmerized. The whopping 900-year-old clifftop fortress Festung Hohensalzburg will eat up a whole morning, while a wander through the historic Altstadt will swallow up the rest.
Not much has changed since Mozart was born and raised here 250 years ago, including St Peter’s Stiftskeller serving food. Allegedly Europe’s oldest restaurant, it's said to have been around since the 13th century. Booking remains essential.
How to get to Salzburg: The Railjet express goes direct from Wien Hauptbahnhof to Salzburg in under two hours. Regional trains take around two-and-a-half hours. By car, the journey is around three hours.
Go for a stroll in the Vienna Woods
For some superb hiking and a taste of the mountains near Vienna, scamper across to the Wienerwald. Fringing the capital from the northwest to the southeast, this 45km (28-mile) swath of forested hills was immortalized in Tales from the Vienna Woods, Johann Strauss Jr's 1868 concert waltz.
There are 11 walks to choose from, all easy day trips from the city, but the best lead travelers into the forest. You'll need about three hours to complete the 7.2km (4.5-mile) trail No 4, which threads up to the Jubiläumswarte lookout tower. There are sweeping views of Vienna and the 2076m (1.3-mile) hump of Schneeberg from the uppermost platform.
A slightly longer alternative is trail No 1, an 11km (6.8-mile) loop that starts in Nussdorf and climbs 484m (.3 miles) up Kahlenberg, a vine-streaked hill commanding fine city views.
How to get to the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods): For trail No 1, tram D takes 27 minutes from the Ring to Nussdorf. For trail No 4, tram line 49 takes 34 minutes from the Ring to Rettichgasse.
Hop across the border to Bratislava
A short zip across the border is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Overlooked by a mighty Renaissance castle, it's easy to lose a morning wandering around the delightful old town, which merrily mixes medieval and Gothic architecture.
The city's nucleus is Hlavné nám (Main Sq), where architectural finery shimmers in almost every direction, particularly the Stará Radnica (Old Town Hall). Across the city, look out for lashings of Soviet design, from scowling statues to the space-age bridge.
Try not to miss the art nouveau Blue Church, a powder blue place of worship dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary. If you’re in need of food, the city’s cellar restaurants serve huge helpings of dumplings and fried cheese.
How to get to Bratislava: International trains take one hour from Vienna to Bratislava. The journey takes around the same by car.
See the subterranean lake at Seegrotte
This former limestone and gypsum mine, just over an hour from Vienna, closed in 1912 after a controlled explosion caused 20 million liters of water to flood its underground tunnels – an incident that created the largest subterranean lake in Europe.
Now visitors can wander through its echoing chambers and enjoy a short boat ride out on its turquoise waters. There are also military artifacts on display, as the Nazis used the mine’s dry, upper sections to secretly build aircraft during WWII. Small group tours last 45 minutes.
How to get to Seegrotte: Take the Sbahn from Vienna to Meidling, change for bus 364 or 365, and alight at Seegrotte. The journey will take one hour 15 minutes. By car, the journey is around 30 minutes.
Wander the cobbled streets of Melk
An easy and rewarding day trip from Vienna, Melk is high on the list for many travelers, most of whom call in for its blockbuster abbey-fortress, perched high above the Danube. The twin spires and high octagonal dome of the monastery church dominate the complex, but inside it's baroque gone barmy: a riot of chubby cherubs, barley-sugar twirls and polished faux marble.
Day-trippers stream in from Krems too, so the cobbled streets are busy year-round. Stop in on Schloss Schallaburg to see its remarkable 400 terracotta sculptures, each completed between 1572 and 1573, and wander past the Altes Posthaus, built in 1792. Not only is Mercury, the messenger of the gods, depicted in the stucco reliefs, but so too is postmaster Josef Weber Edler von Fürnberg.
How to get to Melk: The regional train from Wien Westbahnhof to Melk station takes around one hour and 15 minutes. By car, the journey is one hour and 10 minutes.
Discover the arts and culture of Graz
Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, might be a smidge over two hours from Vienna by car, but it’s an instant heart-stealer: renaissance courtyards, baroque palaces, abundant parkland, sea of red rooftops and a beautiful bluff, connected to the center by steps, a funicular and a glass lift.
But it's the absorbing architecture of Kunsthaus Graz, the provocative biomorphic art gallery dubbed the “friendly alien,” that takes visitors aback. Its contemporary design and exhibitions are at total odds with the traditional city, which makes it even more arresting.
For something equally striking but not quite as modern, check out Schloss Eggenberg, the elegant 17th-century palace with magnificent courtyard arcades by Italian master builder Giovanni Pietro de Pomis.
How to get to Graz: The train from Vienna to Graz takes around two hours 30 minutes. By car, the same journey is two hours 15 minutes.
Survey the scene in Budapest
It may take a couple hours to meander down to Budapest by car, but as the dual capital of the once-great Austro-Hungarian Empire, a day trip from Vienna can make for compelling comparisons.
Start in the Castle District, where Castle Hill, the nerve center of Budapest’s history, towers 170m (558ft) above the Danube. Survey the scene from Fisherman's Bastion, a neo-Gothic viewing platform overlooking the vast blue river, built in 1905. Look north (left) for the Hungarian Parliament building, which many believe was inspired by London's Palace of Westminster.
Spend some time at the Royal Palace, which has been bombed and rebuilt at least half a dozen times since King Béla IV established it in the mid-13th century, before heading across the river for some lunch. Then slowly work your way along Andrássy út and up to Heroes’ Square. Finish with a soak in one of the 18 thermal pools at Széchenyi Baths before heading home.
How to get to Budapest: Direct trains go from Vienna to Budapest in two hours and 37 minutes. By car, the same journey takes two-and-a-half hours.
Go for a bike ride in the Danube Valley
To see the grand Danube in all its dramatic glory, head to the Wachau. This romantic stretch of the Danube Valley, between Krems an der Donau and Melk, waltzes through poetic landscapes of terraced vineyards, forested slopes and apricot orchards, with the meandering river – and the imposing fortresses that loom over it –nearly always in sight.
Less than an hour by car, it’s a great spot for a cycle ride with children. Start in Krems an der Donau and take the B3 southwest towards Spitz, pedaling past the lovely town of Dürnstein, with its blue-towered Chorherrenstift backed by Kuenringerburg, the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192.
A couple of kilometers on, just after Wösendorf, you find the church of St Michael, in a hamlet with 13 houses. Get the kids to count the terracotta hares on the church roof. The pretty town of Spitz finally swings into view some 17km (10.6 miles) from Krems. Head to its heurigen (wine taverns) for a much-deserved glass of wine before heading back.
How to get to the Danube Valley: The journey from Vienna to Krems an der Donau takes one hour 13 minutes by direct train and just under an hour by car.
Hit the slopes in Semmering
Come December, when the powder sits plumply across the Austrian Alps, there are a number of easily accessible ski slopes from Vienna that can be visited in a day, including the resorts of Hauereck and Unterberg.
Semmering, however, is the pick of the bunch. A long-term host of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup races, it has 14km (8.7 miles) of slopes at Zauberberg and 26km (16.2 miles) at Stuhleck, and the night slopes at both are open until 8:30pm.
How to get to Semmering: The train from Wien Hauptbahnhof to Semmering Bahnhof takes as little as one hour 16 minutes. The journey takes around one hour 50 minutes by car.
Soak up the scenery in Hallstatt
A few hours by car, a day trip from Vienna to Hallstatt is doable, but very taxing. Thought to be one of the inspirations behind the Disney film Frozen, this fairytale town is thronged with visitors who outnumber the locals by more than 10 to one.
Hallstatt’s beauty borders on the surreal and the sublime. Boats glide serenely across the lake from the train station to the village, situated precariously on a narrow stretch of land between mountain and shore.
If you want to visit in a single day, either get the first train from Vienna at 4:55am and arrive before the coaches, or stay overnight and wait for the day-trippers to leave, then enjoy a lakeside dinner in relative peace.
How to get to Hallstatt: Trains from Vienna to Hallstatt usually require a change at Wels or Attnang-Puchheim and take around three hours and 52 minutes. By car, the journey takes three-and-a-half hours.