Custom Austria Tours
Austria is the opera you have waited your entire life to experience, where ethereal sounds are not just in the music but within the incredible snowcapped mountains and colorfully clad villages. Palaces grace the countryside and cathedrals flourish within the cities. The sound of music echoes through the hills, building to a climax that brings an uproarious applause.
Aerial view of the historic city of Salzburg, Austria.
Austria pulls you in like a Mozart concerto. Hapsburg palaces along the grand lanes of history; The Sound of Music in Salzburg and the smell of cake in a decadent Vienna coffeehouse; glorious winter ski slopes and picture-perfect lakeside villages. Like the great orchestral concerts of old, the beauty is found in the harmony between individual parts. Few other countries offer such a euphonic mix of urban legacies, and the great outdoors. One moment you are exploring fine art and the remains of the empire, admiring the innate attention to detail, the next you are standing amid glorious mountains, humbled by the towering scale of nature.
The strings still echo through palaces and opera halls, in the country of Mozart, Strauss, Haydn, and Schubert. The Alps rise high, carving glaciers, ski slopes, riverine valleys and intrepid adventures. Hapsburg villages deliver pomp and excess, while the Gothic and baroque continue history’s journey. Look further, and Austria has a contemporary side that is carrying the love for fine art and architecture into the 21st century. The destinations are diverse, yet they come together easily, connected by stunning alpine train journeys and a sense of grandeur that is synonymous with Austria. It is this harmony that pulls you in, slowly, elegantly, and effortlessly.
Modern Austria is a slither of what was once the House of Habsburg, and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of Europe bares evidence of this long-standing legacy, with imperial Vienna the glorious centerpiece that has hardly changed since those times of worldly prosperity. The 21St-century Vienna is a journey through the lanes of history. You can spend many days immersed in the illustrious pomp of yesteryear. This old capital city is the typical starting or ending point to any Austrian vacation. There is no question that the city deserves its status as one of Europe’s ultimate destinations. It is located in the far northeast of the country, close to the borders with Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.
A gorgeous landscape in the Austrian Alps.
Travel beyond Vienna and its immediate surroundings, and you enter the mountains. Central Austria is packed with pretty towns and soporific scenery. Castles and vineyards rise above calm lakes. Musical odes are found in Salzburg, with Mozart and the hills Julie Andrews sang about in The Sound of Music. Find a monastery in Melk, modern art in Linz, vibrant historic streets in Graz, then onwards to a village of wooden houses beneath mountain peaks.
It is to the west where the Alps really rise. Railways and rivers twist through the valleys, far below the snow-dappled peaks. This is where you visit for some of Europe’s best winter skiing, and some of its finest summer hiking. The landscapes inspire, and the towns have retained the air of tradition, from butchers and bakers to grandiose monasteries and castles. Innsbruck is both a jumping off point for an adventure, and a dazzling overnight stop, with its medieval center backdropped by dramatic mountains.
Yet for all the famous names and images of beauty, Austria has a surprisingly restrained level of tourism. Perhaps it is because visitors are spread thinly, and everyone makes their own route, especially outside Vienna. It could be that Austria is too old-world; there are certainly fewer backpackers and student visitors than in neighboring countries. None of this should be off-putting. Austria has a well-developed tourist infrastructure, and it can be a relief to explore such alluring destinations without fighting through queues and crowds.
As you might expect in a country of mountains, Austria makes the journey as memorable as the destination. An excellent railway network connects both major and minor destinations; sit back and watch the landscapes unfold as you weave through the Alps. There is a good international airport in each corner of the country, so you can travel onwards or back home without looping back to where you started. The roads are in superb condition, and traveling overland means stopping at an array of lesser-known sights. These transport connections tie Austria’s orchestral pieces together and make the vacation as ambitious as your imagination.
Vienna State Opera House lit up at night.
Vienna is a city that responds to its romantic fame featuring summer palaces, opera houses, and baroque cafes. The city also showcases plenty of art nouveau-inspired train stations, faded historical lanes, and boutique art galleries. The old quarter is large but is easy to get around on foot. One of the grand highlights is taking a stroll down cobbled avenues, admiring the detail that drips from grand townhouses. Another is a lazy afternoon in the coffeehouses, which suggest glamor yet maintain a laid-back feel. There are diverse stories to follow, anything from Freud to Jugendstil providing a focus to your exploration. Whether two or five days there is no end to the attractions and experiences.
Salzburg's rolling hills are the famed filming location of The Sound of Music.
Two musical icons have their roots in Salzburg. Mozart was born here, and his house is just one of the townhouses showing faded paint and historic grandeur. The hills are alive, and The Sound of Music tour has become the city’s number one attraction. Spend your evenings in the heart of the city or ascend the hills for a quiet retreat, where every angle seems to reflect the preconceptions of Austria.
Seefeld castle, Innsbruck, Austria.
Innsbruck means mountain adventure. Ski slopes and hiking trails extend in most directions, with something for all levels of ability and interest. The cute and compact city center is all history, the perfect place to recover from the mountains but also an intriguing stop on any journey through Europe. All this makes Innsbruck two vacations in one, and even if you are not going into the mountains, the views from ground level are superb. Traveling onwards you might consider visiting Munich due north or Verona and Venice located directly south.
Hallstatt and the Salzkammergut Region
Hallstatt mountain village, Austria.
Tucked beneath vertiginous slopes on the shores of a serene lake, Hallstatt is just one jewel of the alpine Salzkammergut region. The setting is sublime, especially on a clear day when the mountains reflect upon the glassy water. While the village is small, it has enough to keep you entertained. On a quiet day, you can go boating on the lake or hike in the mountains, perhaps even mountain biking if you have a lot of energy. Hallstatt can also be an idyllic overnight as you hop through the Alps and take some downtime on a European vacation.
Graz and Styria
Graz Styria aerial view, Austria.
The landscapes are green in Austria’s southeastern corner, from hills that rise towards ruined castles to lakes painted an emerald tone. Forests cover vast swathes of the land here, and when they rescind, you find vineyards and traditional villages. This immense region is known as Styria, and it is surprisingly light on visitors. Medieval Graz is its capital, a city that blends decadent old architecture with quirky contemporary designs. There are snowy slopes in winter and relaxed hiking for the rest of the year, plus a good assortment of museums and galleries. So while Graz does not match the fame of Austria’s other major cities, it is very much worth a position on your itinerary.
Melk and the River Danube
Melk Abbey, Austria.
Dripping with baroque excess, Melk Abbey epitomizes the Austrian dedication to art and detail. Ceiling frescoes extend to red marble walls, imperial rooms paint a portrait from previous centuries, and then you spot a monk and realize that this remains a working abbey. Perched high above the River Danube, the abbey is the attraction that dominates the charming town of Melk. There are other similarly extravagant buildings here, including the old coffee houses. Melk is just one of the enchanting towns along the River Danube, the great waterway that twists through most of Austria’s history.
Winter Sports in Western Austria
Snowshoeing in the Stubai Alps.
It is the abundance of resorts that make Austria a European favorite for winter skiing and snowboarding. The snowy areas are not quite as vast as those in France, but the warming atmosphere more than compensates. Ski lifts take you high above the valley, where you change, strap on boots, and take smaller lifts onto the slopes. There is a something for everyone, from friendly beginner snow to the steepest black route in Europe. Apres ski starts on the slopes, with bars for drinking with your boots on. Then you descend to traditional farming villages, where the atmosphere is distinctly Austrian, despite the influx of foreign skiers.
Something Different in Linz
Holy Trinity column in Hauptplaz main square.
Often skipped as visitor’s rush between Salzburg and Vienna, Austria’s third largest city is well worth another look. Silence reigns in the old cathedral, a baroque town hall backdrops al fresco cafes, and you can easily spend a day discovering the sights of the old town. The chief attraction in Linz is its difference to other Austrian cities, notably its modern art scene. Lentos Art Museum and Ars Electronica Center reflect a hip, contemporary side to Austria’s traditional fine art. The city has a setting framed by nature, with broad boulevards taking you along the River Danube’s curves.
Pinswang and King Ludwig’s Castles
Hidden in the mountains on the Bavarian border, Pinswang is an alternative jumping off point for visiting King Ludwig’s castles. From this small town, you can hike or cycle over to Germany and the famous fortresses across the border: Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and Linderhof are all within easy reach. You could go by a vehicle as well, a day trip that returns to the enchantment of rural Austria. On this side of the border, you will find the cave castle of Schloss im Loch and a series of medieval churches.
Mountain landscape with a glacier backdrop in Austria.
Austria has two tourist seasons and when to go is always dependent on what you want to do. December to April is for winter skiing, with Christmas and New Year seeing a big surge in the number of visitors. May to October mean different adventures in nature, like hiking on warm summer days.
As you may expect from a mountainous country, these seasonal definitions are not clear-cut. The weather is variable when you are in the mountains, so even in mid-summer, you will need to pack carefully for a full-day hike. While the clouds may be gray in parts of winter, there is consistent snow covering from mid-November all the way until the middle of April.
Travel to Austria’s towns and cities are possible all year around. Summer is more pleasant, with warm days, and far less rain. As an example, Vienna seems far more vibrant on an August day, when the townhouses glisten beneath a blue sky and clear evenings emanate energy. Like much of urban Europe, February is not quite as photogenic, although the festive December period is also a lovely time to visit, especially with the Christmas markets up and down the Danube.
St. Wolfgang Hotel, Austria.
Accommodation is one of Austria’s highlights. Common accommodations include palatial townhouses and boutique hotels along the historic lanes of Vienna and Salzburg. Spa hotels in the mountains, constructed from wood to blend effortlessly into their surroundings. There are converted palaces and castles, in the hills or the heart of an old town. You can get a real sense of the Hapsburgs and a time of empire as if the Austrians want to transport you to a bygone era through the accommodation they offer.
The luxury five-star options almost always have a prime location: along the River Danube, set apart on a mountain slope, draped over one of the alpine lakes, surrounded by Renaissance streets. While the Austrians are not particularly known for their hospitality, the accommodation indeed provides a grand welcome. Many of the large international chains are represented as well, especially in Vienna, giving an additional choice when you are in the cities. Travel in the Alps, and there is an array of self-catering options, with spacious wooden chalets that will appeal to families and groups of friends. You have space to be alone here, in accommodation that looks and feels distinctively Austrian.
Accommodation comes in big and small packages. When you visit the mountains, you are more likely to stay in small or mid-size hotels, typically wooden buildings that often have a spa (it is tradition to go naked in these spas although some boutique hotels have private-use spas for couples and families). Large-scale hotels are more common in the cities, with Vienna and Salzburg having some excellent options in large 19th-century proprieties. Families can choose from many upmarket hotels that have been adapted with interlinked rooms and family amenities, while couples will find a number of opulent lodgings for a special occasion.
Austria has similar immigration policies to the majority of Europe.
Austria is indelibly European. Standing at the heart of the continent, this country has its roots in the mannerisms and styles that have made Europe what it is today. As part of the European Union and Schengen Agreement, Austria has the same customs and immigration policies as the majority of Europe. Citizens of the U.S. and Canada can travel here without a visa, as per Germany, France or anywhere else in the Schengen zone.
Take a scenic train ride through Austria to discover hidden natural gems along the way.
While some people fly in and out of Vienna on a multi-country European itinerary, the ease of getting around is another Austrian highlight. You do not need to use the same airport for arrival and departure. Alpine trains are wonderful experiences, landscapes rolling by as you twist and turn along the Danube then into the mountains. The roads are just as pretty and a good way to discover Austria’s lesser-known destinations. Hop across the borders and Austria can become an excellent setting for an international day trip: Slovakian capital Bratislava is an hour from Vienna, Bavaria’s castles are closer to Pinswang than Munich, and you can ski over the border to Italy, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.
Austria’s central location creates superb travel opportunities. Continue a few hours east, and you reach Budapest, go north from Vienna to Bohemia and Prague, or take the road south from Graz to Slovenia and Croatia. No country in Europe is as conveniently situated, and there are six international airports to fly into. Another option is to fly to Munich then out of Vienna. For mountain adventure, it is usually quicker to use Munich or Innsbruck than Vienna International Airport in the far east of the country.
It is important to pack for all the seasons. The climate on an alpine hiking trail can be very different from what it is in Vienna or Graz. This is also a variable climate and it is amazing how quickly the weather can change when you are in destinations like Innsbruck and Salzburg. Be sure to bring a raincoat along with that summer gear, and think sensibly about your choice of footwear. There is a good chance you will be walking a lot in Austria, whether in urban or rural areas, so keep it comfortable when packing shoes.
Austria has adopted the Euro and has a modernized banking system. There are ATMs in almost every village, nearly all of them accepting international cards. The easiest way to access money is to withdraw it once you are in Austria, although it may be worth bringing a stash of Euros as well. Somewhat surprisingly, the country has been a little slow to jump on board the digital revolution, so while it is possible to pay by card in large establishments, cash is required in smaller shops.
Tipping is commonplace although the custom is to round up a price in a cafe or restaurant, rather than add on 15% or more as is typical in the U.S.
Hallstatt Lake with the scenic alps in the background.
Austria has always been a healthy nation. Clean mountain air and fresh organic food play a central role in this, as do good medical facilities that were once the pride of Europe. Even in rural medical establishments, you should be able to find somebody who speaks English and can translate. It is rare that you will need bottled water, especially given the tasty alpine melt that comes through the taps in Western Austria.
Austria is also safe, with Vienna one of the safest capital cities on the planet. Other than leaving a rental bicycle unlocked and unattended, it is extremely rare that visitors encounter problems.
Customs and Ediquette
View of the Hundertwasser House, Austria.
Austrians are a patriotic people proud of their homeland. It is common for Austrians to identify with their state or region, rather than the Austrian nation. You may meet a local who introduces himself as a proud Viennese or Salzburger. People from Tyrol identify with their region, which is now spread across two countries before they identify with Austria. This gives every Austrian vacation an eclectic feel, especially when you travel with guides local to their city and country. The regional makeup and history is complex, and it is only through the locals that you will come close to understanding what makes up modern Austria.
This is a rural country, and the people are relatively conservative, especially once you travel outside Vienna. While there are not any nationwide pieces of culture or custom you must follow, each region has its specialties you can explore. These could concern food or local dress, or perhaps a mystery that emanates from a castle or palace in the region. Some visitors will say that the Austrians can be hard to talk to, however, this is a more a reflection of their rural conservative roots rather than any unfriendliness.
Food and Drink in Austria
Traditional street food in Austria.
Austrian food sets you up for a day of exploring. It rewards after a long day on the slopes or extended exploration of a historic city center. Bread is the key staple, and it comes from the bakery, rather than a supermarket. Heavy rye bread is the most traditional way to start the day, but you will also have a wide choice of sweet and savory rolls. Other bakery products form your desserts, like fruit knodel and the ubiquitous strudels.
Typical meals are warm and filling, with beef or pork accompanied by soap, potatoes, dumplings and more bread. Wiener schnitzel is just one example, and the size of the portion is much closer to U.S. standards than nearby France. Local guides can suggest regional specialties as everywhere you go there is something slightly different, such as salads with green pumpkin seed oil in Styria. Good traditional restaurants are found across the country with the major cities seeing a surge in contemporary dining, including Michelin-starred establishments providing a new take on old local classics.
Arguably the most famous culinary experience is in one of the old-world coffeehouses, which are ornate and abundant in Vienna as well as being found in other cities. They reflect a leisurely pace of life, coffee, and cake enjoyed in a salubrious setting at a time when people would be at work in other countries. Complementing warm coffee are Austria’s unique drinks. The white wine is sweet and acidic while the choice of beer is similar to neighboring Bavaria, particularly the dark beers (dunkles) and wheat beers.
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