Top 5 Places to Visit in Austria
What To See & Do in Austria
Austria lies at the crossroads of Europe. It is a landlocked country that connects the West (Germany, Switzerland, Italy) with the East (Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary). This location results in a mix of cultures, which can be seen most easily by visitors in their architecture and cuisine.
Follow the route below as we start in Salzburg and travel clockwise around the country, ending up in Innsbruck.
Salzburg remains one of my favorite cities in the world. It is a great place to just walk around, and you'll find yourself taking so many pictures you'll likely run out of camera film, or memory cards! Around every corner is a stunning vista, a beautiful square, or gorgeous natural scenery.
Salzburg means "Salt Capital" and it got its name from the nearby mountains, where this valuable commodity made it a handsomely rich city in years past. Much of the grand city remains today, and it now relies on tourism as its main source of revenue.
Salzburg is synonymous with music for two reasons. First, it is the birthplace of Mozart. Second, it is the setting for the famous file, The Sound of Music. This musical tradition continues today with concerts and a lively arts scene.
Here are some of my favorite Salzburg activities:
- Walking Tour. The city of Salzburg is best seen on foot, and you'll discover all kinds of interesting sites just by walking around. Marvel at the baroque architecture, duck inside an old church, visit the lively farmer's market in the morning, and take in the view from the river.
- Salzburg Cathedral. Make sure your wanderings around Salzburg take you past this legendary building, and leave some time to tour the inside. It is a masterpiece of baroque architecture, and is the place of Mozart's baptism. Don't forget to look up once you get inside, as the interior of the dome is stunning.
- Mozart's houses - Any classical music fan who wants to pay homage to this legendary musician can visit both Mozart's birthplace home, and the house where he lived. The houses themselves are not spectacular, and are known more for their famous resident than anything else.
- Sound of Music Tour. Although it sounds like a real tourist thing to do, it was actually great. Even my husband, who has limited interest in the movie, enjoyed the tour. They will take you to many of the famous scenes and locations that were featured in the film. You'll want to watch the movie before (and maybe after too) to really appreciate it.
- Hellbrunn Palace. On the southern outskirts of the city is this celebration of excess built in the 1600s. It was a "day palace" whose main purpose was to entertain guests. The real draw are the grounds, which includes numerous statues, gardens, and the famous trick fountains, which have been known to soak a guest or two. It also houses the Pavilion from the Sound of Music.
- Festung Hohensalzburg (aka the Salzburg Fortress). No visit to Salzburg would be complete without a visit to this 11th century outpost. It dominates the city skyline. You can walk or ride up to the top, and the visit is as much about the view down over the city as it is the fairy tale castle itself. The best time to go is at sunset.
- Mirabell Gardens. Located on the grounds of the Mirabell Palace are some of the most beautiful formal gardens I've ever had the pleasure of touring. The gardens are bursting with blooms in every color, and they are accompanied by fountains, statues, and incredible vistas, making the view unforgettable. Try visiting the gardens in early morning, and grab a bench to watch the sunrise unfold and enjoy the peacefulness of being surrounded by beauty.
View of the City
Busy Shopping Street
Sound of Music Location
Take the elevator to the top of MÃ¶nchsberg and then follow the walking paths along the tops of the cliffs to the fortress for great views of Salzburg.
Austria Travel Books
2) Lakes Region
Just outside Salzburg, on the western side of Austria, lies the famous lakes district. You'll need a rental car to explore this area, but it is well worth the drive. The area is dotted with pristine villages over picturesque alpine lakes, with dramatic mountains surrounding it all. You could spend days wandering between towns, and make sure to get out of the car to hike around a little and explore the unique culture of each town. You can even take a cable car to the top of some of the mountains for more scenic views. Allow plenty of time for stops along the way too, as you'll find yourself frequently pulling over to take pictures. There are many famous towns in this area, including Hallstadt, Fuschl am See, and Mondsee, which has the church for the wedding from the Sound of Music.
The lakes district is close enough to Salzburg that you could rent a car and make a long day trip of it if you choose, but if you have more time, I recommend you get out into the countryside here and stay in one of the small towns.
Sunset on Lake Fuschl
Cable Car in Lakes Region
Hallstadt - Austria Lakes Region
3) Along the Danube
The Danube river valley offers a wide variety of natural and man-made wonders to explore. The river itself runs from Germany all the way to the Black Sea, and this portion runs through the Wachau Valley in Austria, known for its devine wine gifts and the "Blue Danube Waltz." The drive from western Austria goes all the way to Vienna, and there is plenty to see along the way. Plan for at least 2 days to see it all, and realistically you may want more time to linger here.
The two best ways to see this region are by car or on a river cruise ship. The river cruises typically are on large flat barge boats, and can be anything from a day trip from Vienna to a full week's vacation, with stops along the way. If you choose to drive, take the road right along the river for the best views and plan for a leisurely pace.
Here is my list of must see items along the Danube:
- Melk Abbey (Stift Melk in German). Rising from the river valley is this golden building of almost impossibly decadent architecture. Inside and out, it is so ornately furnished you'll wonder how it is even possible to pack so much gold, crystal and over-the-top excess in one location. The best view of the outside is from the river valley approaching from the west. Once you arrive, be sure to tour the inside, either with a guide, or on your own. You can also explore the grounds. Make sure you go outside on the western end as well for a spectacular view of the Abbey and the river valley.
- Mathausen. This somber place was the location of one of the Nazi's concentration camps during World War II. Anyone visiting this area should visit to better understand what happened here and how it changed Europe and the world forever. There is a museum on site, as well as self-guided tours of the camp and surrounding fields where many atrocities occurred. I would not recommend this detour for anyone traveling with young children.
- Durnstein. This is a popular tourist destination, and well worth a visit. It sits on the banks of the Danube, and is a well preserved town that is great for exploring on foot. You can hike to the top of the hill behind the town to visit the Durnstein castle ruins, which also affords a sweeping vista of the valley. The castle is famous because it once held King Richard the Lion-Hearted as a prisoner in 1193. It's a great location to take in the sunrise too. At sunset, head for the restaurants that overlook the river valley, and try some of the great local wines and regional foods gift specialties. Afterwards, stroll down narrow cobblestone streets for window shopping and maybe some souvenirs.
Melk Abbey Opulent Interior
Mathausen Concentration Camp
Sunrise over Durnstein
River Barge Cruise
Vienna, the Imperial City, is home to thousands of years of history and some of the largest monuments you may ever see. Everything about this city seems ridiculously huge and it's hard to appreciate the vastness of the wealth and power that built it. Most of the major tourist attractions are around the "Inner Stadt" (inner city). Most of the building and wealth is due to the Habsburg family, which ruled this area of the world for an incredible six hundred years. There are almost too many attractions to mention, but I've listed some of my favorites below.
- Hop on / Hop off bus tour. Vienna is not a city that you want to have to drive in yourself. Even the inner stadt is so large you cannot walk to all the different sites yourself. The double-decker tour buses are a great alternative, as they will allow you to see all the major sites, and disembark and re-board later. A one day pass is probably sufficient, not including SchÃ¶nbrunn, which is on the outskirts of the city and at least a half day tour all by itself.
- SchÃ¶nbrunn Palace. This giant palace and grounds build by the Habsburg dynasty lies on the outskirts of Vienna, and was used as a "summer" residence. It is so vast that pictures cannot really do it justice. You can tour both the inside and the mammoth palace gardens as well. It's best to bring some walking shoes for this tour, which is well worth a visit.
- Music. Vienna is famous for its music, and there are no shortage of options for seeing a show or visiting some famous venues. Among them is the Vienna Opera House. Lovers of Opera or classical music will want to visit, and if possible, see a performance at this famous building. The members of the Vienna Philharmonic are recruited from the opera house musicians. The Philharmonic itself plays at the Musikverein. Finally, don't forget the famous Vienna Boys' Choir, a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages.
- Museum Quarter. Here you find several world class museums, all conveniently located near one another, including a fine arts and history museum.
- St. Stephen's Cathedral. This giant cathedral is in the absolute heart of the oldest part of the city, and was built in the 12th century.
- Visit a CafÃ©. The Viennese love their coffee, and their cafes are legendary. It is not unusual for patrons to linger for hours over a cup or two of coffee (buy Viennese gourmet coffee gifts), and read the newspaper or engage in political discussions with friends.
- Lipizzaner Stallions. Vienna is also home to these famous horses, known throughout the world for their horse ballet. You can visit the stables where they are bred and trained at the Spanish Riding School.
Tribute to Mozart
5) Grossglockner Highway
The Grossglockner highway is a marvel of engineering, named after the highest mountain in Austria. It was built in the 1930s as a toll road, and remains a toll road today. It is actually a fairly easy drive, and there are multiple rest stops and places to pull over along the way. Crossing through the Alps on this scenic drive will reward you with breathtaking vistas of snow-capped mountains, lush alpine meadows, and gorgeous valleys. There are very few residents in the area, but plenty of cars, motorcycle riders, and even bicyclists that use the road every day. Note that the road is only open from late Spring to mid-Fall, and is actually closed at night.
If you are planning a drive through the area, consider stopping in nearby Zell Am See. This is a beautiful town right on the lake (Zeller See). There is a great old town area for walking around, and don't miss the lakeside walk for beautiful views. Zell Am See is also very popular in winter, with skiing on the nearby mountains.
Alpine Town Cemetery
Part of the Road through a Pass
View Along the Road
Zell Am See
BONUS - Innsbruck
If you can squeeze it into your itinerary, a stop in Innsbruck is warranted. Innsbruck is in the westernmost part of Austria, only a few miles from the Swiss border. It sits in a giant natural valley, surrounded by impressive Alpine peaks. It is these great mountains that have made Innsbruck famous. Innsbruck has twice hosted the Olympic winter games, and it's easy to see why. When we were there, the bobsled run was under repair, but it's still quite a site to behold. And you can visit the ski jump for an impressive (and scary) view down the slope, and even have lunch at the top of the facility. Innsbruck itself boasts a nice old town, with historical buildings and lots of shopping.