Austria has no shortage of storybook historic towns—so many, in fact, that the national government officially registered 15 of the best according to their ambiance, antiquity, and scenery. If alpine meadows, glacial skiing, and romantic Baroque architecture are what you’re after, these 10 towns are a great place to start.
Germany, Austria’s western sister, may be known for its saunas, but Austria more than holds its own in the spa department thanks to its abundance of natural springs. Bad Ischl, at the edge of the country’s historic salt mining region, is just one of the many resort towns that sprung up as a result of region’s healthful pools, gaining prominence in the late 19th century when it became the summer home of Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph (and the various Viennese nobles who followed him, including Johann Strauss). As if a royal seal of approval wasn’t enough, its glistening lakes and snow-capped mountain peaks are a sight not soon forgotten. While you’re in town, keep an eye out for Bad Ischl’s baroque churches and the town’s Photomuseum (located in Marmorschlössl), which was formerly the teahouse of Franz Joseph’s beloved empress Elisabeth.
Traveling oenophiles will want to drop by Dürnstein, a tiny town (population: 875) right in the heart of Austrian wine country. Idyllic doesn’t begin to cover the beauty of the Wachau region’s poster child, which hugs the shores of the Danube and is backed by craggy forested hills. Hike the surrounding hills—don’t miss the ruins of the town castle, which once imprisoned Richard the Lionheart—but leave time to head into the country for a few wine tastings. The next day, pay for your Gruner Veltliner–influenced sins with a visit to Dürnstein Abbey, a former 15th-century Augustine monastery whose early 18th-century renovations turned it into a veritable Baroque marvel.
The first thing you’ll notice about this gem of a Tyrolian town is its postcard-perfect alpine architecture, which is preserved by strict construction codes to maintain that peaceful, secluded feel. Linked by gondola to neighboring resorts in the Ski Juwel area, Alpbach and its slopes are more ski-worthy than snowboard-friendly, but beginning ‘boarders should find a few suitable runs. Like Bad Ischl, Alpbach bills itself as Austria’s most beautiful town (following a vote that also dates back to the ‘80s), but we’ll let you be the judge.
This tiny settlement on the shores of Lake Hallstatt, with a backdrop of fjord-like hills, dates back to the Iron Age. After arriving via ferry, visit the area’s old mines and caves, set out to see some glaciers, or go hiking (the trails are at their most breathtaking in autumn). Come wintertime, snowshoeing, skiing, and the town’s main square Christmas market are all top draws. For more on the history and archaeology of the area, a trip to Museum Hallstatt is well worth the time. On the more morbid side, the Charnel House, located in a baroque chapel, features 610 painted skulls arranged by family—a band-aid solution to an overcrowded cemetery in 1720.
Zell am See
Skiers and spa-goers will be equally wooed by this snowy lakeside town just south of Salzburg, which is home to a glacier in addition to 80 miles of mountain slopes. You won’t find the chalets one normally associates with Austrian ski resorts here, but the medieval town center more than makes up for it with its Romanesque St. Hippolyte’s Church and Salzburg residence-style Schloss Rosenberg Town Hall, as well as a strong après-ski scene throughout its intimate restaurants and bars. In warmer seasons, families and couples can spend sunny days on—and in—freshwater Lake Zell, swimming, fishing, stand-up paddling, and sailing.
This almost 800-year-old town (which made Austria’s national “small historic towns” roster) hugs the border of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. For a taste of daily Austrian life way back when, check out the Schattenburg Museum, which hosts an impressive art collection inside a 750-year-old barrack, or the Radio Museum, which presents a nostalgic view of old communication devices that go well beyond radio. After a day of sightseeing, stop by Wirtschaft zum Schüzenhaus for some traditional Austrian pub grub (think wiener rostbraten from the Salzburg foothills). Just be sure to turn off your hotel room lights before you go—Feldkirch is Austria’s most energy-efficient city.
Tiny St. Gilgen, on the banks of Lake Wolfgang in Austria’s historic salt-mining region of Salzkammergut, gained recent acclaim after a 2005 tourism campaign dubbed it “Mozart Village,” owing to multiple members of Mozart’s family having lived there. Though the maestro himself never set foot in town, St. Gilgen is as charming as any one of his symphonies. With highly ornamented buildings, a cable car that scales Zwölferhorn mountain, and green hills as far as the eye can see, the spot is straight out of The Sound of Music (scenes from which, incidentally, were filmed in the region). While you’re in town, be sure to take a lake cruise for unrivaled views of the surrounding landscape and easy access to the connecting villages of Strobl and St. Wolfgang.
Lienz, a medieval town in eastern Tyrol, has a lot to offer both culture vultures and nature-lovers. Don’t expect year-round snow and gluhwein here, though: the town’s southwestern location spells slightly Mediterranean weather. Don’t believe us? Just look to the palm trees which sprout out from the town square. That said, winter is still gorgeous—made all the more charming by the town’s annual Christmas market. For a taste of local history and culture, check out the 750-year-old Bruck Castle, a city museum that harbors an impressive regional art collection spanning 500 years. If you’re more of an outdoorsy type, head off to Adventure World Assling, which features a summertime toboggan run, wildlife park, and some 20 acres of land roamed by herds of grazing deer. If you’re interested in taking a day trip, the nearby village of Obertilliach, where the James Bond flick Spectre was filmed, is worth your while.
Located in the Zell am See district, Maria Alm is rural Austrian perfection—think sprawling green fields and a whole lot of chalet architecture. The charming village is especially attractive to skiers—it serves as the gateway to the Königsstourn, the country’s most beautiful ski region that includes Austrian sport paradise Ski Amadé. If you’re dropping by during summer, don’t miss the Harvest Festival, an annual celebration of Hochkönig regional customs including processionals, schnapps distilling, folk costumes, and farmer’s markets. Though staying in town isn’t cheap (particularly during high season), it’s worth shelling out extra euros for a room at Hotel Eder, a luxe stay with an Alpine wellness center right on the village square.
Mountain-lovers have ample opportunity for exploration in Bludenz, which sits at the crossroads of five major valleys—Walgau, Montafon, Brandnertal, Klostertal, and Großes Walsertal. First, take a cable car into the Muttersberg mountain range, just on the outskirts of town. Once you reach the top, hang out for a bit on the summit’s forest playground. You’ll also want to save time for Lundersee, a lake in the Ratikon Mountains just 40 minutes south. There are numerous viewpoints from which you can observe the area’s breathtaking panoramas—we’re talking icy turquoise waters encircled by snowcapped mountains. Golfers will also be happy to know there’s a gorgeous course nearby, replete with grazing cows. After a challenging 18-holer, head to Fohrenburger Brewery, one of Austria’s most popular, for a tour and tasting.