Austria may just be the perfect country to visit. From the towering peaks of the Alps to the bustling, modern city centers, this country truly has it all. Where else in the world can you be skiing down the world’s most beautiful slopes and the next be browsing a fine art museum in one of the world*’s most modern cities?
Perhaps you’d like a taste of city life? In that case, head to Vienna for coffee and baroque architecture or perhaps to Linz’s modern student life and happening nightlife.
Or is getting outside more your style? Drive through the spine-tingling hairpin curves of the Grossglockner Alpine Road or head to one of the country’s many world-famous ski slopes.
If it’s a great dining experience you’re after, there are also plenty of options. Enjoy the rich, decadent wines of the Wachau Valley, the heady coffee in Vienna’s traditional coffee houses, or head to a Beisln (bistro pub) for a taste of fresh, hearty Austrian fare.
Small but full of life, Austria is paradise on earth – no matter what kind of vacation you’re after.
Sitting in a cafe and drinking an espresso is an official cultural pastime in Vienna, according to UNESCO. Take advantage of this and start each day out right. Then, after you’ve stuffed yourself with pastries and filled yourself with caffeine, take off on a self-guided tour through one of Europe’s most breathtaking cities. Austria’s capital (and the country’s largest city) is ripe for exploration thanks to its long history and cultural, political, and economic significance.
Marvelous feats of architecture built for nobility can be found in the immeasurable Schoenbrunn Palace, the Imperial Palace, and the Belvedere Palace and Museum. Religious points of interest not to be missed include Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, Rathaus, Saint Peter’s Church, and the Church of the Jesuits.
For a cultural feast, try the Kunthistorisches Museum of art, the State Opera House, the Natural History Museum, the Albertina, and the Austrian National Library.
To get outside, visit the spectacular Schlosspark Schonbrunn with its labyrinth or the Schonbrunner Gardens. Be sure to make it to the Central Cemetery as well to see elegant statues and hear lovely classical music.
Located along the Salzach River, Salzburg is a true gem with the Altstadt’s towering domes and spires framed by the raised fortress and the even more intimidating mountains in the background. Salzburg is a truly magical city, particularly if one takes the initiative to venture beyond the tourist path. Sure, it’s the home of The Sound of Music and Mozart, but modern Salzburg is something to be treasured and enjoyed as well, particularly in regards to its art and music scene.
A little lower enjoy such cultural highlights as the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, the Wasserspiele Hellbrunn, the curious Haus der Natur, and Hellbrunn Castle. Also be sure to see the historic airplanes in Red Bull Hangar-7.
To see Salzburg’s religious history, dive into the Salzburg Cathedral, Saint Peter’s Abbey, Nonnberg Convent, and Franziskanerkirche.
Get outside and try Untersberg: a cable car will take you up the mountain to enjoy some truly breathtaking views of the city below. There are also plenty of hiking areas to enjoy once you’ve ascended. Afterward, reward yourself with a tour and a drink or two at the Stiegl Brewing Museum.
Hallstatt is hard not to fall in love with: from the blue waters of the lake to the soaring mountains to the charmingly pastel houses, Hallstatt is hard to beat. While its past was all about salt, its present and future is firmly planted in tourism. Chances are you’ll see far more tourists than locals when you visit, but the charms of Hallstatt and the ferry ride from the train station make the heavy crowds worth the hassle.
One of Hallstatt’s popular points of interest are the old salt mines, easily accessible by the cable cars going from the city center. The tours offered are great for adults and children alike (and everyone can participate in the slide!) – just be sure to bring a jacket as it gets quite cold.
For an unbeatable view after heading into the mines, head to the Hallstatt viewing platform. Don’t worry, the cable cars will get you most of the way and there are plenty of places to relax and have a meal after you’ve taken photos.
Innsbruck, coming from the German for “the bridge over the inn”, is the capital city of Tyrol in western Austria. About halfway between Munich and Verona, the city is located in a large valley between the mountains that make up a part of the North Chain. Innsbruck is well known for its winter sports and has hosted two winter Olympics. Unlike many other Austrian ski cities, Innsbruck is quite large at about 125,000 people and has plenty of other attractions aside from skiing.
Many skiing options are available in and around Innsbruck. Experts might want to try the Olympic downhill course in Patscherkofel while others may enjoy the wide forest runs and toboggan runs in Muttereralm.
Continue upwards by visiting the real winner of Innsbruck – the views. Head upwards to visit the Tirol Panorama which includes a museum and an incredible view of the surrounding area. Further on are the funicular and two cable car rides to reach the top of the Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen. From the cable car you can walk to the peak as well as enjoy the many hiking and bike trails.
05. Zell am See
Nestled next to the electric blue Zeller See, Zell am See’s cheerfully painted houses and snowcapped mountains are the very definition of picture perfect. You (along with over one million visitors from around the world) have endless opportunities to enjoy the perfect scenery: in the summer months, swim in the lakes or hike the many well- marked trails. In winter, ski the mountains and brave the epic Grossglockner Road. Start your adventures in the city’s miniature center and make your way ever upward.
Enjoy skiing in Kitzsteinhorn or Schmittenhohe, both parts of the Hohe Tauern range in the eastern Alps. Kitzsteinhorn is the perfect place to visit as a family with plenty of gorgeous views thanks to its location 3,000 meters above sea level. Additionally, the skiing is world-renowned here and offers snow to ski on almost year-round.
Schmittenhohe is more modest at 1,965 meters above sea level – the summit of which can also be reached by cable car. Schmittenhohe has pistes for winter sports as well as several points for paragliders to take off for long flights.
06. St. Anton am Arlberg
St Anton am Arlberg is a formerly sleepy village turned renowned ski resort based at the foot of the 2810-meter high Valluga Mountain in the Alps and along the northern bank of the Rosanna River. Enterprising locals discovered the call of downhill skiing early on and in 1901 founded the first ski club in the Alps. So if it’s fresh powder, friendly locals, and plenty of fellow ski bums, St Anton am Arlberg is the place to be.
St Anton isn’t just for skiers, though. For active tourists, there are plenty of cycling trails around the area as well as a sports center with a year- round water park. During warmer months, many tourists flock to hike the mountain. There is also a small history museum in the town which has several interesting exhibitions for those looking for a break from the chilly slopes.
07. Seefeld in Tirol
No matter whether it’s during the summer or winter months, Seefeld in Tirol is a beautiful place to be. Located on a high plateau surrounded by the Karwendel and Wetterstein Alps, Seefeld in Tirol is unique among Austrian ski towns by placing much more emphasis on cross-country skiing rather than downhill. With over 270 kilometers of well-maintained trails throughout the region, it’s easy to see why fans of cross-country skiing consider this a must-visit location.
Another active option is the Olympia Sport Complex which boasts Olympic-sized pools as well as some large water slides perfect for children. All of this comes with an amazing view of the surrounding area.
Non-skiing options in Seefeld in Tirol include the Sankt Oswald Church, the ancient church which has undergone an unfortunate renovation. Another church’s beauty, also named after Saint Oswald, is marred only by the massive Olympic complex in the background. Finally, the Kreuzweg mit Steinkreis is a five minute walk from the center and a perfect place to find a little peace and quiet from the busy tourist areas.
08. Grossglockner Alpine Road
The Grossglockner Alpine Road is the highest paved road in Austria. The road connects the city of Bruck with Heiligenblut via Fuscher Tori and Hochtor Pass. Named for Austria’s highest mountain, the road is a popular destination for tourists with a sense of adventure and a strong stomach. The twists and turns of the road are sure to delight – that is, if you can stop taking pictures of the natural beauty long enough to keep driving.
The road then crosses the Alpine divide in a thrilling road tunnel and continues further south to another branch of the road. This second branch-off leads to the Glocknerhaus mountain hut which is used to provide shelter for mountaineers along the way. This area also includes the long-winded Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe visitor center, named for a visit by the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. The overlook is a stunning panoramic view which includes sights such as the Glocknerwand and the Pasterze Glacier.
From that point the road makes its way downhill all the way to the southern tollbooth near the town of Heiligenblut.
09. Wachau Valley
The Wachau Valley is a length of land where the Danube River winds its way towards Vienna and the towns are so idyllic it may seem like you’re in a theme park. The towns and area contained within the valley are some of the most popular tourist destinations in Lower Austria, attracting architecture and history buffs as well as wine lovers. In 2005, the valley was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites for its architectural and agricultural history.
The valley also has significant green space in the form of the Dunkelsteiner Wald (Dunkelsteiner Forest) and the Waldviertel (the Austrian Forest Quarter) to the south. Both of these areas are easily accessible by the excellent motorway system in the area.
Navigation through the valley is easily achieved either via car, railway, or steamer boats in the warmer months. (Note that there are no bridges across the Danube River in the Wachau Valley region so ferries are the only way to cross the river.)
One of Austria’s top ski resorts, Kitzbuhel is a small town of 8,000 in the Kitzbuhel Alps. The Tyrolian town is popular year round thanks to its amazing views and plethora of nature-related activities. While skiing is important (in fact, the resort is known worldwide as one of the best), the town itself is a beautiful example of medieval architecture that is worth exploring after your adrenaline-filled adventure ends.
In terms of skiing, you can’t beat the Bergbahn Kitzbuhel. The local Hahbebkamm run is often considered one of the most challenging runs in the world! If you’re not so confident, there are plenty of other slopes for every ability. The Kitzbuhel ski schools are also some of the most highly rated in the world, so a lesson or two would be well-worth it.
Local lifts can also whisk you away to any number of small neighboring towns and their slopes – there are 56 cableway and lift facilities in Kitzbuhel alone which can take you to 40 kilometers of cross-country skiing tracks or bike paths in the summer.
Mayrhofen is a small town in the Ziller river valley which sits between the Penken and Ahorn mountains. The town is located near the Hintertux glacier which, thanks to its position above the snowline, means that skiing is available all year. Today Mayrhofen is known worldwide as an amazing spot to ski and it even used to have a run on the World Cup Downhill circuit but was deemed too dangerous. Although Mayrhofen is primarily a ski destination, the area is popular for tourists all year long.
The Ahorn Mountain provides mainly easy and intermediate runs for less experienced skiers with plenty of lifts, restaurants, and cafes to make your ski adventure as seamless and comfortable as possible. The Penken Mountain nearby houses Austria’s steepest piste – Harakiri – as well as a number of different ski runs. The area is also connected by lifts to other nearby villages.
If you don’t feel like hitting the slopes, the town also offers hundreds of paths that range from lazy strolls all the way up to scaling a mountain. Whatever your level of skill, Mayrhofen will not disappoint.
Alpbach is a small village in western Austria made up of 2,600 people located on a small plateau about 1,000 meters above sea level. Alpbach has been voted “Austria’s Most Beautiful Village” as well as “Europe’s Most Beautiful Flower Village” so you can be sure your experience will be one of unparalleled beauty. The village is known for its outdoor activities, so no matter what season you visit, be prepared to get outside and enjoy the fresh mountain air.
The Gratlspitz Mountain (the one upon which Alpback is situated) also offers plenty of adventure: there are several trails of varying difficulty that begin not far from the town and wind up the mountain. Don’t worry: there are also several small inns and restaurants along the way if you need a break! If you’re looking to cool off in the warmer months, head to the next small town of Reith which has a warm, pleasant swimming lake.
Beyond outdoor activities, there is not much to do in little Alpbach. One point of interest worth seeing, though, is the Church of Saint Oswald, a small Baroque church that dates back to the 13th century. Nearby is a small cemetery which houses the remains of Erwin Schrodinger, the famed Austrian physicist.
Eisriesenwelt – in German, meaning the imaginative “World of the Ice Giants” – is a totally natural limestone ice cave located 40 kilometers south of Salzburg. The cave is located inside the Hochkogel Mountain, a part of the Alps. Eisriesenwelt is well-known not only for its ethereal beauty, but because of its status as the largest ice cave in the world at over 42 kilometers long. The ice caves are located not far from the Austrian town of Werfen.
The tour begins at the entrance of the cave and heads toward Posselt Hall, housing a stalagmite called Posselt Tower and an ash cross on the wall which marks the furthest point Anton von Posselt reached. Beyond that is the Great Ice Embankment rising up 25 meters in the air. Next is Hymir’s Castle and stalactites which have formed what’s called the Ice Organ.
Next points include the Alexander von Mork Cathedral, the final resting place of von Morks’s ashes and the Ice Palace. Eisriesenwelt advises visitors to plan for the visit to last for about three hours, although the cave tours themselves only take a little over one hour.
14. Hochosterwitz Castle
One of Austria’s most impressive medieval castles, Hochosterwitz Castle is located on a 160-meter Dolomite rock in Carinthia. At a height of 664 meters, the castle looks otherworldly and like something straight out of a classic film. Thanks to some intense care, the structure is incredibly well preserved, making it seem almost possible that you’ve been transported back in time. On a clear day, the castle can be seen from up to 30 kilometers away!
You’ll also be able to walk through some of the castle itself – each room is filled with historical artifacts ranging from the prehistoric to medieval. Be sure not to miss the weapons abandoned by Napoleon as well as an 8-foot tall suit of armor belonging to a fearful knight! The castle also houses a small chapel filled with beautiful frescos which all date back to the late 17th century.
Hochosterwitz Castle also houses a small restaurant to enjoy after the long walk up the hill. The food is hearty and good, and the atmosphere is in keeping with the magnificent castle surrounding it.
15. Hohe Tauern National Park
Often described as better than the Alps, Hohe Tauern National Park is one of Europe’s largest nature reserves with a total area of 1786 square kilometers. Most prominent is the 3798-meter-tall point of Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak, which towers above everything else in the park. Made up of pristine lakes, massive waterfalls, glaciers, snow-topped mountains, and more, Hohe Tauern National Park is a must-do for every tourist with a love of outdoor adventure.
Visit the small towns included in the national park. Start with Krimml, a tiny town graced by a 380-meter-tall, three-tier waterfall that takes the honor of the highest waterfall in Europe. Krimml is also perfect for a quiet stay with first-class hiking. Heiligenblut is also a worthy stop, with the spire of its church shooting high in front of the summit of Grossglockner.
Speaking of Grossglockner, be sure to find a car and make your way through the 48km road built in the 1930s that drives through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. For those less inclined to get dirty, head to Bad Gastein, a ski resort which runs therapeutic spas year-round.
Entrance to the park is free and open year-round, although in the winter many roads are often closed.