What to Do in Austria
Published on: February 18th, 2019
Last modified: July 28th, 2023
As the birthplace of Mozart, the backdrop to The Sound of Music and the inventor of the strudel, Austria is a diverse nation with so many exciting things to offer.
From elegant capital Vienna to the rolling hills of Salzburg, our experts have rounded up their top tips for what to do in Austria.
Vienna is one of the most elegant cities in Europe, known for its exquisite Baroque architecture and sprawling palaces. It’s also one of the birthplaces of classical music, so travellers can delight in visiting the opera. From watching stunning Lipizzaner horses put on a show at the Spanish Riding School to ducking into one of the city’s many coffee shops for some respite, there’s plenty of exciting things to do in Vienna.
In Vienna, the Spanish Riding School is a must-visit for those with an interest in equestrianism. It’s the only institution in the world where the classic art of equitation is still taught in the Renaissance style of the haute école, and has been running for an astounding 450 years. It takes around ten to twelve years to train the horses and riders here, so visitors are guaranteed a good show. At the Spanish Riding School, travellers can marvel in delight at the precise movements of the Lipizzaner stallions or wonder at the decadent Baroque setting of the surrounding Imperial Palace.
As Austria’s capital during the Habsburg empire, Vienna still remains a city of immense grandeur. From opulent opera houses to awe-inspiring palaces, decadence is found on every street in this city. For art lovers, the Belvedere Palace and Museum wonderfully marries an exquisite garden with an impressive collection of artwork by household names such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting Kiss (Lovers) is housed here, so it’s a place of pilgrimage for Art Nouveau enthusiasts. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, this ornate Austrian palace houses the largest collection of Austrian art dating from the present day to the Middle Ages. Beautiful both inside and out, the Belvedere Palace encompasses the grandeur that Vienna has come to be so widely known for.
Central to the Austrian way of life is the sentiment of gemütlichkeit, expressed in English as a feeling conveying warmth, friendliness and good cheer. A typical institution of Vienna, Viennese coffee houses have played an important role in the development of Viennese culture. During the 19th century, they acted as important meeting places for writers, artists, musicians and philosophers.
Today, they are sophisticated hangout spots for businessmen and great places for travellers to indulge in a slice of strudel. One of the most pleasant coffee houses is Café Central. This old-world joint opened its doors in 1867 and was frequented by well-known regulars such as Leon Trotsky, Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. Enjoying a piece of cake and delicious coffee in a Viennese coffee house is a great way to wind down after a day of exploring.
Nestled between the northern foothills of the Alps by the German border lies Salzburg, a picturesque region that is known for its historical importance and feature in 1965 film The Sound of Music. In such a beautiful and pristine setting, Salzburg feels as though it has been lifted straight from a fairytale. A city filled with culture and history set against the backdrop of the Monchsberg and Kapuzinerberg mountains, Salzburg is the jewel of Austria.
For an insight into history, the Hohensalzburg Fortress – one of the largest fully preserved medieval castles in Europe – sits high above the city, commanding the attention of every visitor. A walk or funicular ride up to the fortress offers sweeping views over the tiled roofs below. Visitors can journey through Salzburg’s past in the Fortress Museum, or soak in the opulent surroundings in the Golden Chamber and Golden Hall. Keep an eye out for an aesthetically pleasing recreation of the night sky, created from gold stars on an azure and royal blue background. The furnishings here have remained unchanged since the 1500s, so wandering through this fortress transports you back to the golden days of Austria.
A romantic setting built in 1606 by Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg Wolf Dietrich for his mistress Salome Alt, Mirabell Palace and Gardens is one of Salzburg’s most evocative landscapes. It’s also one of the most prominent filming locations for the infamous The Sound of Music. In the movie, main characters Maria and the Von Trapp children dance around the Pegasus Fountain in front of the palace while singing the famed song Do Re Mi. The movie ends with the family signing the final bars on the steps in front of the Rose Hill here. Today, the Mirabell Palace and Gardens serve as the backdrop for the most romantic of weddings, and it’s easy to see why. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is filled with beautiful ornamental rose beds and grand fountains, all adding to Austria’s grandeur.
Enchanting green hills rolling down to azure waters, colourful blooming flowers and crisp clean air – Austria’s lake district is nourishment for the soul in every sense of the word. The must-visit lakes here are those at Fuschl, Wolfgang and Hallstatt. The picturesque market town of St Wolfgang dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was a place of pilgrimage for many. Today, the town is characterised by traditional shops and quaint cafes, all overlooking the expansive beauty of Lake Wolfgang’s sky blue waters.
Seemingly calm and unassuming, the emerald green Lake Fuschl is the hidden gem of the Salzkammergut region. Head underwater to see 23 different fish species, or take a gentle stroll along the surrounding path as you soak in the lovely lakeside landscapes. Lake Fuschl is the smallest of the three lakes, but the Schloss Fuschl (Fuschl Castle) perched atop its bankside is incredibly scenic.
Arguably the most beautiful of the three lakes though is also the most well-known one: Hallstätter See. Idyllic medieval townhouses line the shore here, with their pastel facades reflected in the shimmering waters. In the nearby market town of Hallstatt, travellers can delve into the region’s history with a visit to the salt mine museum. Here, the town’s fascinating history in salt mining, that dates back to prehistoric times, comes to life. With hiking, cycling and sailing amongst other adventurous activities on offer at all three lakes, there’s something for everyone in this slice of Austrian paradise.
High up in the Austrian Alps, Tyrol is a varied landscape of gorgeous peaks, verdant valleys and historic cities. The mountainous terrain here makes it a great year-round destination. In winter, skiing and winter sports are the favourite activities while the summer climate is good for walking and hiking. There are over 400 kilometres of trails to discover in the Wild Kaiser mountains, so there’s no shortage of choice for hiking enthusiasts. The High Mountain Nature Park in the Zillertal Alps is considered one of the most beautiful in the world – it’s arguably the best place in Austria to immerse yourself in nature.
As well as beautiful alpine scenery, Tyrol is home to pretty medieval cities. Founded in the 14th century, quaint Rattenberg was built in the shadow of the Rat Mountain to protect itself from marauders. Today, this charming town is known for its tradition of glass manufacturing. Known affectionately as “glass town,” there’s plenty of intriguing crystal glass shops to discover here.
Nearby Innsbruck is the largest town in the region, and home to some fascinating sites. The Kaiserliche Hofburg (Imperial Palace) is one of the main attractions. Built by Archduke Sigmund the Rich in the 15th century, it’s now considered one of the most culturally significant buildings in Austria. Today, the five museums here tell the story of the palace’s cultural and political history in a grand setting. Once you’ve meandered through the fascinating cities here, head out into the mountains for an idyllic escape. You’ll find plenty of places of interest – there’s working farms to explore, beautiful waterfalls and lakes, as well as endless nature parks to get blissfully lost in.