No country waltzes so effortlessly between urban and outdoors as Austria. One day you’re cresting alpine summits, the next you’re swanning around imperial Vienna.
Cue High Culture
Over centuries, the Habsburgs channelled immense wealth into the fine arts and music, collecting palaces the way others do stamps. You’ll still feel their cultural reverberations in Austria today – be it watching Lipizzaner stallions prance at the Spanish Riding School, or crossing the Hofburg to eyeball Rubens masterpieces in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Klimt and Schiele at the MuseumsQuartier. The work of classical pop stars such as Mozart, Strauss, Mahler, Haydn and Schubert echo as loudly as ever at lavishly gilded concert halls, and music festivals like Salzburg Festival and Bregenzer Festspiele are staged against uplifting lakeside or mountain backdrops.
River Deep, Mountain High
The journey really is the destination in Austria. Perhaps yours will be a meandering one through deeply carved valleys, on railways that unzip the Alps to thread improbably along sheer mountain flanks, past glaciers and through flower-freckled meadows. Chances are, however, that such lyrical landscapes will have you itching to leap onto a bicycle saddle or lace up hiking boots to reach those enticingly off-the-radar corners of the country. In winter, the slopes hum with skiers and boarders, while summer beckons white-water rafters and canyoners to glacial rivers and lakes that sparkle like gemstones. Der Berg ruft – the mountain calls!
Baroque And Beyond
Austria might conjure visions of wedding-cake-like baroque churches, palatial Habsburg headquarters like Schloss Schönnbrunn, and Gothic crowning glories like the Stephansdom. But the country is more than the sum of its pomp and palaces. A fresh breath of architectural air is sweeping through the cities, bringing with it a happy marriage of the contemporary and historic. Some of the most eye-catching icons are actually the modern ones: Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier in revamped imperial stables, the colour-shifting giant Rubik’s Cube that is Ars Electronica in Linz and the sci-fi ready Kunsthaus Graz. Prepare to see Austria in a whole new light.
Food At The Source
Guess what? There’s more to Austrian cuisine than boot-sized schnitzels and dumplings heavier than bowling balls. The country has come on in culinary leaps and bounds recently, while staying true to its ethos of careful local sourcing. Vegan, organic, foraged, Slow Food: they are more than just buzzwords. Whether you’re at a farmers market, a retro-style deli, a cool new brunch spot or a Michelin-starred restaurant, the love of the land shines through. Asparagus in spring, Marille (apricots) in summer, mushrooms, game and new wine in autumn – Austria's food swings with the seasons and taste of the source.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Austria.
Picturesquely perched on a hill and set among beautiful gardens, this Renaissance pile was acquired in 1564 by Archduke Ferdinand II, then ruler of Tyrol, who transformed it from a fortress into a palace. Don't miss the centrepiece Spanische Saal (Spanish Hall), the dazzling Armour Collection and the gallery's Velázquez and Van Dyck originals.
Vienna's foremost opera and ballet venue, the neo-Renaissance Staatsoper, is one of the finest concert halls in the world. Even if you can't get tickets to see a tenor hitting the high notes, you can discover its architectural brilliance and musical genius on a 40-minute guided tour. Tours (in English and German) generally depart on the hour between 10am and 4pm.
A prince-archbishop with a wicked sense of humour, Markus Sittikus, built Schloss Hellbrunn in the early 17th century as a summer palace and an escape from his functions at the Residenz. The Italianate villa became a beloved retreat for rulers of state, who flocked here to eat, drink and make merry. It was a Garden of Eden to all who beheld its exotic fauna, citrus trees and trick fountains – designed to sober up the clergy without dampening their spirits.
Vienna’s Gothic masterpiece Stephansdom – or Steffl (Little Stephan), as it’s ironically nicknamed – is Vienna's pride and joy. A church has stood here since the 12th century, and reminders of this are the Romanesque Riesentor (Giant Gate) and Heidentürme (Towers of the Heathens). From outside, the first thing that will strike you is the glorious tiled roof, with its dazzling row of chevrons and Austrian eagle. Inside, the magnificent Gothic stone pulpit presides over the main nave, fashioned in 1515 by Anton Pilgrim.
Salzburg's most visible icon is this mighty, 900-year-old clifftop fortress, one of the biggest and best preserved in Europe. It's easy to spend half a day up here, roaming the ramparts for far-reaching views over the city's spires, the Salzach River and the mountains. The fortress is a steep 15-minute walk from the centre or a speedy ride up in the glass Festungsbahn funicular.
Billed as the world’s largest accessible ice caves, Eisriesenwelt is a glittering ice empire spanning 30,000 sq metres and 42km of narrow passages burrowing deep into the heart of the mountains. A tour through these Narnia-esque chambers of blue ice is a unique experience. As you climb up wooden steps and down pitch-black passages, with carbide lamps aglow, otherworldly ice sculptures shaped like polar bears and elephants, frozen columns and lakes emerge from the shadows.
The MuseumsQuartier is a remarkable ensemble of museums, cafes, restaurants and bars inside former imperial stables designed by Fischer von Erlach. This breeding ground of Viennese cultural life is the perfect place to hang out and watch or meet people on warm evenings. With over 90,000 sq metres of exhibition space – including the Leopold Museum, MUMOK, Kunsthalle Wien, Architekturzentrum and Zoom – the complex is one of the world’s most ambitious cultural hubs.
The Hofburg's Kaiserliche Schatzkammer contains secular and ecclesiastical treasures (including devotional images and altars, particularly from the baroque era) of priceless value and splendour – the sheer wealth of this collection of crown jewels is staggering. As you walk through the rooms you'll see magnificent treasures such as a golden rose, diamond-studded Turkish sabres, a 2680-carat Colombian emerald and, the highlight of the treasury, the imperial crown.
A masterpiece of total art, Schloss Belvedere is one of the world’s finest baroque palaces. Designed by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668–1745), it was built for the brilliant military strategist Prince Eugene of Savoy, conqueror of the Turks in 1718. What giddy romance is evoked in its sumptuously frescoed halls, replete with artworks by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka; what stories are conjured in its landscaped gardens, which drop like the fall of a theatre curtain to reveal Vienna's skyline.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Austria.
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