Updated October 29, 2015
The mention of Austria creates images of Alpine beauty, jagged granite peaks dusted with snow. Even in summer, there are glaciers that glimmer in the sun and make Austria one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. But its historic buildings and unique architecture are also worth visiting and the great breads, beers, pastries and wines are certain to please your tastebuds.
Most tourists include either Vienna or Salzburg on their itinerary of Austria. Others head straight to the ski resorts around Innsbruck. Those wanting to experience traditional Austria, or continuing on to Hungary or Slovenia, often travel to the small towns in Carinthia, the southeastern region of Austria. Each area has is own unique charms that will delight those who come looking for what the region has to offer.
FIRST CRITICAL PIECE OF ADVICE TO DRIVERS: You are required to have a sticker on your car if you are traveling on Austrian roads, even if you are only briefly passing through the country to get from Germany to Lichtenstein or Switzerland. You can get the "vignette" at convenience stores and gas stations near the borders. Be sure that you have one, which cost 8.7 Euros in 2015 for the 10-day sticker (unfortunately for those headed to Lichtenstein or Switzerland, from parts of Germany, they don't sell a single day pass).
Don't take the chance of driving without a "vignette". You will get a steep fine for driving without the required sticker. The sticker is required for ANY use of Austrian roads. We know travelers who never left the main highway but were fined. This is the primary source of road revenue; do your part to help keep the Austrian roads in great condition and don't risk the heavy fine that you'll encounter without one. If you rent a car in Austria, the required sticker should already be on the car, but be sure to verify that it is; if you come from anywhere else, it is unlikely that it will have a sticker that is valid for the period you are traveling. Also, be sure to calculate which "vignette" is best for you. If you are driving through Austria to another country (Germany or Switzerland to Italy, Hungary or the Czech Republic or some variation thereof) consider whether you will also travel through Austria on your return trip. You may save money by buying the longer road sticker, which lasts 2 months.
Like many other European countries, Austria produces delicious wines. It celebrates the harvest and serves the delightful wines each year during the "heuriger" when wine taverns pour the chilled white wine to accompany traditional Austrian dishes of ham and pork.
Vienna is the capital of Austria, located in the east on the banks of the Danube. Traditional must-see attractions are the Vienna Boys' Choir and the palaces of the Hapsburgs. The famous Lippizaner Stallions also live in Vienna performing their graceful moves at the Spanish Riding School. You may be able to get tickets at the last minute, but if you are set on seeing one of these activities, be sure you've booked in advance or at least have double-checked the schedule to be certain they are performing while you are in town.
Two of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of Vienna are:
You should also journey into the forests and farmlands over which the Hapsburgs reigned. Blessed by incomparable beauty, it seems that time has stood still in these areas. Timber-framed homes look much as they did a hundred years ago, pastures span to the foothills, the beauty of nature is everywhere, framed by the dramatic silhouettes of the Alps. And yet, modern conveniences are easily found--well-maintained roads provide safe, efficient travel between communities that cherish their history and culture, small stores carry vast selections of consumer goods, and state of the art communication networks reach into the smallest burgs.
But for most, the experience of Vienna is best enjoyed by wandering its beautiful streets and savoring coffee and Viennese pastry at one of the city's many cafes.
Like many other cities in Europe, the older sections of the city are surrounded by a circular boulevard, The Ringstrasse. Each section of the Ringstrasse has an identifying name that includes the term "ring." If you travel from the inner district with its elegant villas, palaces and modern apartment complexes beyond the Ringstrasse you will find yourself in the suburban and industrial sections of the city.
Getting around town is relatively easy on public transportation. A well-designed system includes the subway-U-bahn, trams and busses. Like Paris, you can buy a pass for the system that allows unlimited rides and gives you discounts to museums, shops and restaurants. Conveniently, the Ringstrasse is served by two tram lines, one moving clockwise, the other moving counterclockwise, making it easy to get to places in the oldest section of town. An easy way to get your initial orientation and view of the city is to circle the center of town on the tram and make note of the various stops and nearby sites.
In a whirlwind day of tram rides and walks, we visited the most famous sites of Vienna...
and enjoyed some uniquely Viennese experiences as we
We don't recommend that approach. That frantic day meant we merely walked by most of the sights and skipped most of the tours that would have broadened our understanding of Hapsburg culture whose influence on the world is overlooked in most American World History classes.
We started our visit to Vienna at the tram stop near the Parliament building.
St. Stephen's cathedral was badly damaged during World War II but has been beautifully restored and its odd history preserved. As you approach the cathedral, you'll notice that it has towers on both the north and south but that the north tower is much shorter (half the size of the south tower). The explanation we heard was that the contractor made a "deal with the devil" to complete the tower in one year, an impossible task, so that he could win the hand of his beloved. In exchange for his satanic help, he promised to never utter any sacred name. On the day that brought construction to an end, Hans Puschbaum called down to the woman of his dreams, Maria. Having broken the deal, Puschbaum plummeted to his death. The tower was topped off with a "temporary" top that houses Austria's largest bell, the Pummerin," but is a reminder to all that the Devil drives a hard bargain. You can reach the top of the North Tower by elevator for an interesting view of the city but if you want to the best view, you must climb the stairs of the South Tower, Steffl, which gives you a great view of the city and its surrounding countryside.
Stephanplatz is the center of Vienna. Between the cathedral and Hofburg Palace is a street lined with the most expensive stores in the world.
For many people, Vienna is the city of Mozart and music. It is easier to find concerts at a variety of locations throughout the city, though you may prefer to see one in the famed city opera house. Not far from the opera house, as you continue counterclockwise on the Ringstrasse, is a beautiful little park with a statue of Mozart and a treble-cleft shaped flower bed in front of him. Though a fitting tribute, it is not his grave. The exact burial site is not known: at the time of his death in 1791, there were restrictions on burials within the city walls. As a result, Mozart was buried in St. Marx Cemetery in a mass grave. Over the years, its exact location was forgotten, but a cemetary caretaker erected a memorial to the famed musician and many fans travel to the marker to honor the prodigy. Similarly, in the main cemetery, Zentralfriedhof, a centopah (a marker but no grave or body) commemorates Mozart amid the actual graves of many of Austria's other great musicians.
If you are an avid windsurfer, the idea of windsurfing the world-famous Danube has strong appeal. Not far from downtown Vienna, there is a recreational district known as the Alte Danube where you can rent the equipment and sail across an area where you are protected from the current and river traffic. It will be memorable if not dramatic.
The price of accommodations in Vienna is surprisingly reasonable. We stayed in a very nice, recently remodeled hotel not far from the city center for about 50 Euros that we found online. Check the hotels page for links to Orbitz.
The international airport is just about 18 kilometers south of Vienna, with bus service from the airport to the city's central air terminal and train service from the airport to two city stations.
Vienna is also a hub for European train travel, providing connections to Eastern Europe at Vienna's southern train station and connections to Western Europe at the northern train station.
Looking down from the North Tower
Gardens at Schonbrunn Palace
Links to Information about Vienna
The sweet display of tortes
Say Salsburg and you think of music. Home to Mozart and the Von Trapp Family of "Sound of Music" fame, the scenic beauty of Salzburg can claim credit for inspiring the great musical works that sprang from the area. Located near the northern border of Austria, close to both Germany and the Czech Republic, it is an easy addition to any journey to southern Germany and well worth the time. Visit Mozart's birthplace, glorious palaces of the Hapsburgs and enjoy delightful Austrian pastries in one of the many coffeehouses found in the central part of Salzburg. The Mirabell Palace and the Salzburg cathedral are just a few of the magnificant architectural sights in the city.
On the outskirts of the city is the charming Schloss Hellbrunn. Built at the direction of an Austrian archbishop, the compound was a popular escape from palace life in the 17th Century. On a warm day, you'll appreciate the amusing water features added to the gardens and entertainment areas. On a cool day, be sure to pack a rain jacket and hat. If you have any time in Salzburg, this is a good place to spend it...the whimsy of the waterworks (and the amazing ways that water is employed at the Lustschloss), made this one of the most enjoyable castle tours we took.
A short trip from the city takes you to the great salt mines for which the city is named. Visitors ride small mine trains and slide down miners' chutes to explore the pits where salt was removed. In one, you can visit a chapel carved from the salt and ride a ferry across an underground salt lake. Approximately 50 kilometers south of Salzburg is the world's largest ice cave.
As you leave Salzburg, you will see two major palaces.
If you are interested in World War II history, from Salzburg a short trip to Obersalzburg brings you to Hitler's retreat, the Eagle's Nests, where many of the brutal stategies of his regime were developed.
You can arrange a tour which will take you through the lake district where the Sound of Music was filmed. And other day trips take you into the scenic areas of southern Germany. The dark shadow of its recent history still spreads across the "Obersalzburg" where Hitler and other leaders of the Third Reich spent holidays.
Salzburg is easily reached from Germany by car (remember to have the appropriate sticker) but is also served by an airport just south of town and by a main rail line that is the hub of many east/west and north/south routes.
Along the Danube
The ride along the Danube is both beautiful and historical. For many, it is a popular vacation route taken by boat or bicycle (or both). The Donau (Danube) flows into Austria from Passau, Germany. The rolling hills and farmland are still as stunning as when the famed empress-to-be, Elizabeth, sailed down the great river to her wedding in Vienna.
A brief detour from the riverside road will take you to the brutal concentration and work camp at Mauthausen. As a prison, it housed many political prisoners from neighboring countries, including Franco's opponents in the Republic of Spain, Russian Communists and others who resisted Nazi policies. In the nearby stone quarry, many Jews died under the strains of forced labor. Though the actual numbers are not reported, it is believed that the most brutal of all of the concentration camp was Mauthausen. The tragic memorial to the worst of human nature is maintained by the Austrian government and open to visitors daily.
A bit past Mauthausen, the beautiful city of Linz also sits along the Danube with a majestic bluff above the main city. The Postlingberg, as the bluff is called, gives you a spectacular view of the great river. Not surprisingly, the bluff was soon identified as a spectacular place for a the town's basillica which can be reached by Europe's steepest cogwheel railway. While in the city, stop at a bakery and pick up some of the town's most famous export, Linzer Torte, a succulently spicy pastry.
The biggest tourist attraction on this part of the Danube is Melk Abbey. Built with the wealth of the Austrian empire, the abbey is overwhelming in its opulence. You can wander the grounds and visit some parts of the complex on your own but some of the most interesting parts of the abbey can only be seen on the regularly scheduled tours. The golden altar and chapel rivals the grandeur of St. Peter's in Rome. All of the architectural structures of the chapel seem to be leafed in gold, paying gilded tribute to God while reminding visitors of the wealth of these Austrian clerics. Wander the gardens here and then continue along the Danube to the beautiful towns along its shores. It is not the fastest route to Vienna, but the beauty is worth the extra time.
A short ride past Melk, if you continue along the Danube, is the amazing Aggstein castle ruin. As you approach the bluff where a local lord once ruled, it is hard to comprehend how a castle could have been built on such a precipitous spot, but you already know that the steeper and higher a castle can be built, the safer it should be. As you drive up the narrow (but safe and not to be feared) paved road to the castle ruins, you think the guy who built this place had definitely found a very secure location. For a small fee, you can enter the ruins of the castle and see what remains of this mighty output. The audio device does a great job of explaining what life was like in the castle. And in addition to the interesting historic displays, you can enjoy lunch or dinner in the part of the castle converted to a restaurant while enjoying spectacular views of the Danube River valley.
Continue farther along the river and you reach the heart of Austrian wine country. In the summer, the slopes along the Danube are draped with vines and more castles dot the slopes. This area also has charming towns with classic Austrian churchs that create postcard perfect photo moments.
There are many small hotels in the region, and like there are in other parts of Austria, "Zimmer Frei" signs are an indication that the owner can provide you with a place to stay. In this area, as in many of the more rural parts of the country, it is possible your host may not speak much English. But they will still be able to provide you with a comfortable place to spend the night while soaking in the beauty of the Danube.
Inside the Chapel at Melk Abbey
The Town of Durnstein, as seen from a vineyard
The town's name is synonomous with downhill skiing. Sitting in a protected valley at the base of the Alps, Innsbruck is a short drive or cable car ride from some of the world's most challenging ski resorts. St. Anton, Kitzbuhel, and Seefield are easily reached from the center of Innsbruck. offering slopes to meet any skill level.
In the summer, Innsbruck is a starting point for hikes into the Austrian Alps through fields of wildflowers and across mountaintop ridges. It is also the country's central playland, providing opportunities to swim, raft, golf, windsurf and parasail.
Links to Innsbruck Area
The towns surrounding Innsbruck seem quiet and pastoral. There are miles of farmland punctuated by small communities with little stores and gas stations. The simple Tyrolean architecture is often adorned with beautiful paintings making a drive in any direction a pleasure for both the eyes and the soul.
We stayed in an comfortable room in a campground/resort near Innsbruck, when a summer electrical storm made us think twice about a night under the stars. The neatly manicured grounds of the campground along the Natter See offered tent and trailer spaces and a few nicely maintained hotel rooms. The small lake at the campground had boats and sailboards as well as equipment that swimmers could enjoy. Unfortunately, the weather, which was both dramatic and chilly, kept even the hardiest swimmers out of the water. The weather may have ruled out swimming, but we enjoyed a short driving trip into the hillsides as we watched the storm pass through.
Many of the ski resorts in the area offer cable car trips into the Austrian Alps. Uncooperative weather kept us at the valley floor. It seems that the mountainous backbone of Europe collects clouds and storms coming off the North Sea. While they put snow on the mountaintops and keep the valleys green, the clouds often hide the peaks from the traveller who is only visiting for a few days.
An airport just outside town connects Innsbruck to most of the major cities in Europe. Innsbruck is also easily reached by train and sits on the major highway between Germany and Italy, just at the base of the Brenner Pass.
South of Salzburg and Vienna, in the mountains that separate northern Europe from the warm weather of the south, you find the Carinthian region of Austria. The capital of the region, Klagenfurt, is famous its university and the scenic beauty that surrounds it.
One of the most beautiful sites in the region is the Hochosterwitz Castle which was built in the 9th Century atop a rocky perch. From a distance, it creates an imposing image of medieval power. On a clear day, the climb and the view it provides is most rewarding.
The guide books paint a treacherous picture of this spectacular highway that takes you through the Austrian Alps through the High Alps National Park to the base of a glacier where you get a close-up view of the country's highest mountain. If you typically drive wide, level roads, the highway may be intimidating; but drivers who are familiar with the roads of the American west, the Grossglocknerstrasse is a safe, modern, well-maintained road that we found much less intimidating than many of the roads we drive in Oregon. The highway, with a hefty toll of approximately $33 USD, has many hairpin curves that make it a popular spot to film auto commercials and it has a steep grade. You need to down shift and avoid building up speed as you leave the area. But it has many pullouts, wide lines and lots of signs to keep drivers aware of conditions, making it easy to drive. The Sierras, Cascades and Rockies will challenge your driving skills more, making this road an excellent way to see high-altitude beauty without the terror.
Note that the road closes for bad weather but also closes late at night during the summer. It takes about 2 hours to drive the road and additional time if you enjoy the beauty of the area near Grossglockner. If you are getting to the area in the late afternoon, you should probably grab a room and then enter the park the following morning.
We arrived at the Grossglocknerstrasse from the Italian Alps. The dramatic road past Cortina connected with another eye-popping road that brought us to the southern entrance of Grossglockner park. As we entered the park, we spotted the long, narrow cascade of aWaterfall. A cafe and viewing station adjoin the parking lot for the falls, making it a pleasant place for a picnic.
You are in the Grossglocknerstrasse park and about to approach the toll station when you reach the charming alpine village of Heilligenblut. The steeple of its roadside church stands like an exclamation point expressing its enthusiam for the majestic beauty of the mountains beyond.
As you climb higher into the Alps, you see one dramatic view after another. Eventually you reach a side road that will take you to Grossglockner, Austria's highest mountain. There are tourist services, parking, and a funicular that takes you to the base of the glacier that fills the valley beneath the soaring peaks. Be sure to scan the hillside for the adorable little marmots who scamper around the "pasture" during the day. If you get to the area during business hours, you'll be able to get a drink and souveniers, but the store closes around 5 p.m., as do the other tourist services in the park, so again, plan accordingly, bringing your own food and drink if you are entering the park late.
There are two high passes with more great views. We were, however, surprised by that much of what we drove through was bare alpine hillside when we were there. By mid-July, much of the snow had melted, even at the high passes. Whether it was due to climatic changes or has always been that way, you will see lots of bare alpine mountainsides. On earlier trips we had visited the Swiss and French Alps which seemed to retain more snow. In Austria, the distant mountaintops still glimmered with snow but the parking areas and main road were often in barren spots.
I shifted the transmission into first as we started our descent. Just as the uphill climb had challenged the engine of our little Opel, the downhill challenged the reliability of our gear box and our breaks. It is steep; remember that downshifting prevents your car from gaining to much speed as it rolls downhill and saves your breaks for critical moments. Also, be ready for the (over?) confident driver who will pass you in some designated area and then leave you in their dust. We didn't encounter many drivers taking the road without care, but we were passed by a few drivers who were going faster than a couple tourist who were enjoying the scenery.
The sun had moved behind the mountains as we reached the valley below. It seemed like time to find a place to spend the night so we started searching. About a mile south of the town of Fusch, we pulled into a farm offering rooms for rent, "Zimmer Frei." For about $40 we found a clean bed in a room with a toilet and shower and took it for the night. We could see the farm from the Gasthaus where we had dinner and then called it a day. In the morning, we discovered the village of Fuchs had many hotels, other bed and breakfasts and good places to grab snacks for the day.
North of Fusch heading toward Salzburg, the foothills of the Austrian Alps provide their own beauty. Castles sit on hilltops above quaint villages and echo back to the time when Austrians were a powerful force in the world. It is a pleasant drive through lush green hills, a place we'd love to return for days of fishing and hiking.