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Secured in between the soaring Alps, Austria is a captivating country having dreamy landscapes, marvelous baroque architecture, picturesque meadows, and grasslands. The country is known not only for its scenic beauty but for its cultural activities as well. It is a well-known place with skiers and hikers, but Austria is also a country that provided the world with an important musical heritage, ranging from the Strauss Waltzes to the Von Trapp family and the classical composer Mozart. From the best operas to the most lavish desserts, pretty villages and the magnificent cities, Austria has the perfect ingredients to intoxicate one’s senses.
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Vienna is a city that responds to its romantic fame featuring summer palaces, opera houses, and baroque cafes. The city also showcases plenty of art nouveau-inspired train stations, faded historical lanes, and boutique art galleries. The old quarter is large but is easy to get around on foot. One of the grand highlights is taking a stroll down cobbled avenues, admiring the detail that drips from grand townhouses. Another is a lazy afternoon in the coffeehouses, which suggest glamor yet maintain a laid-back feel. There are diverse stories to follow, anything from Freud to Jugendstil providing a focus to your exploration. Whether two or five days there is no end to the attractions and experiences.
Two musical icons have their roots in Salzburg. Mozart was born here, and his house is just one of the townhouses showing faded paint and historic grandeur. The hills are alive, and The Sound of Music tour has become the city’s number one attraction. Spend your evenings in the heart of the city or ascend the hills for a quiet retreat, where every angle seems to reflect the preconceptions of Austria.
Innsbruck means mountain adventure. Ski slopes and hiking trails extend in most directions, with something for all levels of ability and interest. The cute and compact city center is all history, the perfect place to recover from the mountains but also an intriguing stop on any journey through Europe. All this makes Innsbruck two vacations in one, and even if you are not going into the mountains, the views from ground level are superb. Traveling onwards you might consider visiting Munich due north or Verona and Venice located directly south.
Hallstatt and the Salzkammergut Region
Tucked beneath vertiginous slopes on the shores of a serene lake, Hallstatt is just one jewel of the alpine Salzkammergut region. The setting is sublime, especially on a clear day when the mountains reflect upon the glassy water. While the village is small, it has enough to keep you entertained. On a quiet day, you can go boating on the lake or hike in the mountains, perhaps even mountain biking if you have a lot of energy. Hallstatt can also be an idyllic overnight as you hop through the Alps and take some downtime on a European vacation.
Graz and Styria
The landscapes are green in Austria’s southeastern corner, from hills that rise towards ruined castles to lakes painted an emerald tone. Forests cover vast swathes of the land here, and when they rescind, you find vineyards and traditional villages. This immense region is known as Styria, and it is surprisingly light on visitors. Medieval Graz is its capital, a city that blends decadent old architecture with quirky contemporary designs. There are snowy slopes in winter and relaxed hiking for the rest of the year, plus a good assortment of museums and galleries. So while Graz does not match the fame of Austria’s other major cities, it is very much worth a position on your itinerary.
Melk and the River Danube
Dripping with baroque excess, Melk Abbey epitomizes the Austrian dedication to art and detail. Ceiling frescoes extend to red marble walls, imperial rooms paint a portrait from previous centuries, and then you spot a monk and realize that this remains a working abbey. Perched high above the River Danube, the abbey is the attraction that dominates the charming town of Melk. There are other similarly extravagant buildings here, including the old coffee houses. Melk is just one of the enchanting towns along the River Danube, the great waterway that twists through most of Austria’s history.
Winter Sports in Western Austria
It is the abundance of resorts that make Austria a European favorite for winter skiing and snowboarding. The snowy areas are not quite as vast as those in France, but the warming atmosphere more than compensates. Ski lifts take you high above the valley, where you change, strap on boots, and take smaller lifts onto the slopes. There is a something for everyone, from friendly beginner snow to the steepest black route in Europe. Apres ski starts on the slopes, with bars for drinking with your boots on. Then you descend to traditional farming villages, where the atmosphere is distinctly Austrian, despite the influx of foreign skiers.
Something Different in Linz
Often skipped as visitor’s rush between Salzburg and Vienna, Austria’s third largest city is well worth another look. Silence reigns in the old cathedral, a baroque town hall backdrops alfresco cafes, and you can easily spend a day discovering the sights of the old town. The chief attraction in Linz is its difference to other Austrian cities, notably its modern art scene. Lentos Art Museum and Ars Electronica Center reflect a hip, contemporary side to Austria’s traditional fine art. The city has a setting framed by nature, with broad boulevards taking you along the River Danube’s curves.
Pinswang and King Ludwig’s Castles
Hidden in the mountains on the Bavarian border, Pinswang is an alternative jumping off point for visiting King Ludwig’s castles. From this small town, you can hike or cycle over to Germany and the famous fortresses across the border: Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and Linderhof are all within easy reach. You could go by a vehicle as well, a day trip that returns to the enchantment of rural Austria. On this side of the border, you will find the cave castle of Schloss in Loch and a series of medieval churches.
Austria has two tourist seasons and when to go is always dependent on what you want to do. December to April is for winter skiing, with Christmas and New Year seeing a big surge in the number of visitors. May to October mean different adventures in nature, like hiking on warm summer days.
As you may expect from a mountainous country, these seasonal definitions are not clear-cut. The weather is variable when you are in the mountains, so even in mid-summer, you will need to pack carefully for a full-day hike. While the clouds may be gray in parts of winter, there is consistent snow covering from mid-November all the way until the middle of April.
Travel to Austria’s towns and cities are possible all year around. Summer is more pleasant, with warm days, and far less rain. As an example, Vienna seems far more vibrant on an August day, when the townhouses glisten beneath a blue sky and clear evenings emanate energy. Like much of urban Europe, February is not quite as photogenic, although the festive December period is also a lovely time to visit, especially with the Christmas markets up and down the Danube.
Accommodation is one of Austria’s highlights. Common accommodations include palatial townhouses and boutique hotels along the historic lanes of Vienna and Salzburg. Spa hotels in the mountains, constructed from wood to blend effortlessly into their surroundings. There are converted palaces and castles, in the hills or the heart of an old town. You can get a real sense of the Hapsburgs and a time of empire as if the Austrians want to transport you to a bygone era through the accommodation they offer.
The luxury five-star options almost always have a prime location: along the River Danube, set apart on a mountain slope, draped over one of the alpine lakes, surrounded by Renaissance streets. While the Austrians are not particularly known for their hospitality, the accommodation indeed provides a grand welcome. Many of the large international chains are represented as well, especially in Vienna, giving an additional choice when you are in the cities. Travel in the Alps, and there is an array of self-catering options, with spacious wooden chalets that will appeal to families and groups of friends. You have space to be alone here, in accommodation that looks and feels distinctively Austrian.
Accommodation comes in big and small packages. When you visit the mountains, you are more likely to stay in small or mid-size hotels, typically wooden buildings that often have a spa (it is tradition to go naked in these spas although some boutique hotels have private-use spas for couples and families). Large-scale hotels are more common in the cities, with Vienna and Salzburg having some excellent options in large 19th-century properties. Families can choose from many upmarket hotels that have been adapted with interlinked rooms and family amenities, while couples will find a number of opulent lodgings for a special occasion.
Standing tall at the heart of the continent, Austria is indelibly European. The country has its roots in the styles and mannerisms that have made Europe what it is in today’s time. Since Austria is a part of the European Union and Schengen, the country has the same customs and immigration policies as the majority of Europe. The U.S. citizens, as well as the citizens of the Canada, can travel to Austria without a visa, as per France, Germany or anywhere else in the Schengen zone.
Another highlight when it comes to Austria is the ease of getting around. One doesn’t need to use the same airport for arrival and departure. The Alpine trains are truly an amazing experience. As you twist and turn along the Danube then into the mountains, you witness the landscapes rolling by. The roads are just as wonderful and are a really good way to discover the lesser-known destinations in Austria. Just as you trip across the borders, Austria can become an amazing setting for an international day trip: Bratislava - the capital of Slovakia, is just an hour from Vienna, the castles of Bavaria are closer to Pinswang than Munich, and one can ski over the border to Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein.
The central location of Austria creates excellent opportunities for travel. Step a few hours to the east, and you will reach Budapest, continue north from Vienna and you reach Prague and Bohemia, or you can also reach Slovenia and Croatia by taking the road south from Graz. There is no other country in Europe which is as conveniently situated and there are six international airports in Austria to fly into. There is also another option
Another option is to fly to Munich then out of Vienna. When it comes to mountain adventure, it is usually quicker to use Munich or Innsbruck than Vienna International Airport in the far east of the country.
It is crucial that you pack for all the seasons. The climate in Vienna or Graz can be very different from what it is on an alpine hiking trail. There is also a variable climate and it is really amazing how fast the weather can change when you are in destinations such as Salzburg and Innsbruck. Make sure to bring a raincoat along with that summer gear, and decide sensibly about your choice of footwear. There is a good chance that you will be walking a lot in Austria, whether in urban or rural areas. And so keep it comfortable when packing shoes.
Austria has adopted the Euro and has a modernized banking system. ATMs are available in almost every village, nearly all of them accepting international cards. The easiest way to access money is to withdraw it once you are in Austria, although it may be worth bringing a stash of Euros as well. Somewhat surprisingly, the country has been a little slow to jump on board the digital revolution, so while it is possible to pay by card in large establishments, cash is required in smaller shops.
Tipping is commonplace although the custom is to round up a price in a cafe or restaurant, rather than add on 15% or more as is typical in the U.S.
Austria is a very healthy nation. Clean mountain air and fresh organic food play a central role in this, as do good medical facilities that were once the pride of Europe. Even in rural medical establishments, you should be able to find somebody who speaks English and can translate. It is rare that you will need bottled water, especially given the tasty alpine melt that comes through the taps in Western Austria.
Austria is also safe, with Vienna one of the safest capital cities on the planet. Other than leaving a rental bicycle unlocked and unattended, it is extremely rare that visitors encounter problems.
Customs and Etiquette
Austrians are a patriotic people proud of their homeland. It is common for Austrians to identify with their state or region, rather than the Austrian nation. You may meet a local who introduces himself as a proud Viennese or Salzburger. People from Tyrol identify with their region, which is now spread across two countries before they identify with Austria. This gives every Austrian vacation an eclectic feel, especially when you travel with guides local to their city and country. The regional makeup and history are complex, and it is only through the locals that you will come close to understanding what makes up modern Austria.
This is a rural country, and the people are relatively conservative, especially once you travel outside Vienna. While there are not any nationwide pieces of culture or custom you must follow, each region has its specialties you can explore. These could concern food or local dress, or perhaps a mystery that emanates from a castle or palace in the region. Some visitors will say that the Austrians can be hard to talk to, however, this is a more a reflection of their rural conservative roots rather than any unfriendliness.
Food and Drink in Austria
Austrian food sets you up for a day of exploring. It rewards after a long day on the slopes or extended exploration of a historic city center. Bread is the key staple, and it comes from the bakery, rather than a supermarket. Heavy rye bread is the most traditional way to start the day, but you will also have a wide choice of sweet and savory rolls. Other bakery products form your desserts, like fruit Knodel and the ubiquitous strudels.
Typical meals are warm and filling, with beef or pork accompanied by soap, potatoes, dumplings, and more bread. Wiener schnitzel is just one example, and the size of the portion is much closer to U.S. standards than nearby France. Local guides can suggest regional specialties as everywhere you go there is something slightly different, such as salads with green pumpkin seed oil in Styria. Good traditional restaurants are found across the country with the major cities seeing a surge in contemporary dining, including Michelin-starred establishments providing a new take on old local classics.
Arguably the most famous culinary experience is in one of the old-world coffee houses, which are ornate and abundant in Vienna as well as being found in other cities. They reflect a leisurely pace of life, coffee, and cake enjoyed in a salubrious setting at a time when people would be at work in other countries. Complementing warm coffee are Austria’s unique drinks. The white wine is sweet and acidic while the choice of beer is similar to neighboring Bavaria, particularly the dark beers (dunkles) and wheat beers.
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