When you mention Austria, some travel adventurists think of Julie Andrews serenading the hills in The Sound of Music. And though the movie gives you a good idea of the country’s astonishing landscapes, don’t dismiss Austria as a world-class destination. Travelers are delighted with Austria the year around from summer wildflowers in verdant valleys to festive Christmas Markets in December and winter sports beyond.
Tiny landlocked Austria in south-central Europe is surrounded by eight different countries including Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. The lofty Eastern Alps covers 60 percent of the territory. In between, you’ll find mountain villages with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, big cities like Saltzburg, and the sparkling capital city of Vienna. Castles, palaces, and cathedrals featuring 17th-century grandeur and Baroque and Gothic architecture are scattered around the countryside.
Discover the country’s history, culture, and natural beauty through what Austria is famous for.
1. The Austrian Alps
The Austrian Alps are often called the Central Eastern or simply the Central Alps. They comprise the main chain of Austria’s Alps and extend into Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia and lie within the 700-square-mile Hohe Tauern, Europe’s largest national park. The towering peaks, Ice Age valleys, and open heaths create one of the world’s best playgrounds for summer and winter sports. They add drama to the cities of Salzburg, Innsbruck, and the province of Tirol.
2. The Blue Danube
You’ve heard the many songs about the River Danube, but did you know it flows through more countries than any river in the world? The 1795-mile-long river begins in Germany and flows east to west through 10 countries. In Austria, the banks of the Danube are lined with centuries-long history and cultures left behind. Whether you explore the Danube by bike, car, or with a river cruise, don’t miss the 900-year-old Abbey of Melk, the Ruin and Abbey Church of Dürnstein (where Richard the Lion Heart was imprisoned), and the vibrant town of Krems, a hub for wine and art enthusiasts.
3. The Capital of Classical Music
Vienna, Austria’s capital city, is known as the World’s Capital of Classical Music. It was also the capital of a long-ago empire. The House of Habsburg was a distinguished European royal house who patronized the arts. It offered a welcoming and creative environment for musicians. Beethoven left Germany for tutorage under Joseph Haydn. The rest is musical history with greats such as Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Johann Strauss with his famous Blue Danube Waltz.
4. The Vienna Boys’ Choir
One of the world’s oldest boys’ choirs, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is no doubt an offshoot of Austria’s musical influences at that time. The choir has been an Austrian icon for over 500 years. In 1498, Emporer Maximillan I issued a foundation charter to recruit one dozen boys to the Imperial Court as members of the choir. The choir produced a number of great musicians including Joseph Haydn who mentored Ludwig van Beethoven. Today the choir is comprised of 100 boys between the ages of 10 and 14 giving 300 concerts per year. Catch a performance every Sunday at 9:15 a.m. at the musikkapelle inside the Imperial Palace.
5. Castles, Palaces, and Cathedrals
Austria is famous for its castles, palaces, cathedrals, and other ancient architecture. Many of them were built during the reign of Habsburg. The most intriguing castles to visit include Burg Hohenwerfen in the town of Werfen, Castle Liechtenstein near Maria Emzerdorf, and Festung Hohensalburg in Salzburg.
Belevedere and Schönbrunn are the two most famous palaces. Both of them are in Vienna. Belvedere Palace was built between 1714 and 1723 and Schönbrunn Palace is from 1696.
Several cathedrals reflect Austria’s strong Roman Catholic roots. One of the oldest cathedrals to visit is the Gothic-style Minortenkirch in Vienna, built in 1224. The French Gothic style New Cathedral in Linz is the largest. Its first stone was laid in 1862, and the cathedral was completed in 1924.
6. Scenic High Drives
Austria has some of the best roads in Europe, and not just for the scenery. The highways are structurally sound and safe. Experience the Dachstein Eigpalast and Skywalk and dangle precariously before getting to the viewing platform. The Silvretta Hochalpenstrasse is a 23-kilometer alpine road with hairpin turns to reach 2500 meters before going over the Bielerhöhe Pass. Drive the Grossglockner Road for 48 kilometers of head-spinning thrills and jaw-dropping scenery.
7. A Giant Ferris Wheel
Or see the sweeping panoramas of Austria perched atop a soaring Ferris wheel. The Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s giant Ferris wheel, provides views from 65 meters high. The Wiener Riesenrad also has a storied past. Dating back to 1897, it was designed by British engineers. After enduring damage during WW II, it was re-built with half of its original 30 gondolas. The Big Wheel was featured in the James Bond movie The Living Daylights in 1987.
8. Exhilarating Hiking
Hiking is the ultimate way to experience Austria outdoors in the summer. The Pinzgauer Spaziergang is a 17 kilometer moderately challenging day hike that affords amazing views of the Kitzbühel Alps and the Hohe Tauern Range. Take a guided back-to-nature walk with an informative ranger in Hohe Tauern. The walks range from wildlife spotting to glacier trekking. The Zillertal Circuit in Schlegeisspeicher is an alpine day hike beginning at a sparkling reservoir with breathtaking views of the Zillertal Alps.
9. Spectacular Skiing
The Austrian Alps provide skiers with delightful pistes and slopes. One of the best places to ski is the famous resort town of Kitzbühel with 170 kilometers of ski area and mountain huts that dot the slopes. Stop by one for traditional Austrian treats and warming drinks. Skiiers will find terrain at all skill levels in three different areas. Bichlalm, the smallest, is designated for free riders. Skiiers relish the 1,998-meter Kitzbüheler Horn, and the area is a favorite for summer hiking. You can also get to the summit by cable car.
10. World of the Ice Giants
While traveling in Austria, don’t miss the amazing World of the Ice Giants on the western edge of the Tennengebirge. The world’s largest system of ice caves covers around 30,000 square meters. An underground river carved the caves during the Tertiary period. They were discovered in 1879 and opened for public exploration in 1912. You’ll see the mammoth Hymir Hall and its stunning ice formations after following along the Great Ice Wall. Stone steps lead to a 1,775-meter high ice wall called the Eistor, or Ice Gate, and an ice palace. Guided tours take two hours.
11. A Coffee Culture
Old Vienna had a cafe for every personality. Intellectuals, artists, the respected, and the not-so respected gathered at different places. Rigid social hierarchies were dropped a bit so people could relax, chat, eat, work, play, and gamble. These cafes set the scene for today’s Kaffeehauses and a coffee culture. Viennese coffee houses are spacious yet intimate, a few traditional Thonet wooden chairs, marble tables, plush seating, parquet floors, and mirrors to set the mood.
12. Rustic Wine Taverns
Austria’s wine tavern culture came to life during the 16 century when each district had its own vineyards. An imperial edict allowed growers to serve wine with food. Rustic roadside taverns called heurige had wooden benches for seating. A small twig or branch above the door signaled that the tavern was open. Most of the vineyards have been lost to development, but the wine culture trend has seen a recent resurgence. Although the variety and number of taverns have grown, the atmosphere of these rustic taverns still exists.
13. An Eclectic Cuisine
You’ll find a great variety of dishes to try at cafes and restaurants in Austria. The chefs use native recipes that incorporate influences from Central Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of Austria’s cuisine resembles German food, especially the sausages. Dishes tend to be hearty and carb-heavy. Americans will like Käsespätzle, a version of mac & cheese. The potato goulash is similar to Hungarian goulash, but not as spicey. Wiener Schnitzel is the most popular dish with tourists.
14. Delectable Pastries
Many people in the English-speaking world think that croissants were first baked in France. Not so. They were invented in Austria. The Austrians know and love their deserts from Buchteln to Sachertoret (Sacher cake) to Apfelstrudel (apple strudel.) Don’t leave Austria without making love to an Austrian dessert and a cup of Turkish coffee.
15. Your Favorite Energy Drink
Many Westerners are surprised to learn that their favorite energy drink is an original product of Austria. Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz created and marketed Red Bull, the world’s best-selling energy drink. Krating, a pre-existing energy drink from Thailand was his inspiration. He modified the recipe to suit the taste of Westerners and then founded Red Bull GmbH in Austria.
16. High-End Crystal
Swarovski crystals are high-end cut-glass gems that are used to create beautiful jewelry, crystal figurines, vases, even chandeliers. Designers sew them on clothing, shoes, handbags, cell phones, and more. Austrian Daniel Swarovski patented a cutting machine back in 1892 capable of cutting the luxury crystals. Along with a few financiers, he established a factory in Wattens to use the local hydroelectricity for the intense grinding process. Today the Swarovski Company is based in Tirol.
17. A World-Famous Psychologist
Ever made a Freudian slip? Moreover, do you know what one is? The term is attributed to the work of Sigmond Freud, an Austrian clinical psychologist known for changing the field of psychology. He developed a method of dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst for treating mental disorders with techniques such as free association. You can visit a museum dedicated to his life and work in what used to be the Vienna flat he lived in for 47 years. However, the famous Freudian couch is in a museum in London. He took his furniture with him when he escaped to German-annexed Austria.
18. Snow Globes
Those whimsical snow globes sold as souvenirs around the world are based on a creation by an Austrian surgical instrument mechanic in 1900. The idea came to him when he was trying to improve the brightness of the new electric lamp. For the ultimate Austrian souvenir, visit the snow globe museum in Vienna. You’ll learn the fascinating story of the snow globe and get to choose one from over 350 designs. Some of them feature Austrian monuments such as the Wiener Riesenrad.
19. The Austrians Themselves
Austrians are generally reserved but are friendly once they get to know you. They can be very direct and appear not as polite as the folks back home. They’re serious, hard-working, not much on partying, but they have some traditions and peculiarities that make them quite interesting. They love to eat, so saying “Guten Appetit” and “Prost” before eating and drinking softens them. German is the official language, but like many countries in this part of Europe, you’ll find that many people also speak English.
20. Endearing Traditions
You won’t find another country that values tradition more than Austria. On Easter morning, the family engages in an Easter egg battle at breakfast to crush each other’s colored eggs. The school cone is a big carrot-shaped cone full of candy and surprises on the first day of school. Lead pouring is a technique in which melted lead is poured into a bowl of water, a superstition to get rid of the e.v.i.l eye. One of the oldest Austrian traditions is Stealing the Bride. After the wedding, the bride is “k.i.d.n.a.p.p.e.d” and taken on a bar tour. The groom must find her and pay to get her back.