Austria is one of the most scenic countries in Europe. Much of its western sections are dominated by the Alps. The Danube River runs along the northern border. Besides adorable Alpine villages and the music-themed town of Salzburg, Austria contains the elegant city of Vienna, with some of the most beautiful architecture in all of Europe. Enjoy my tribute to the best of Austria. Then check out the photo album which will soon follow.
Vienna, Austria, is a city which blends some of the best of Europe’s architecture, music, food, and vitality in a single, cosmopolitan package. It was thankfully spared much of the destruction that other large cities of Europe absorbed during World War II, so it remains a showplace today.
Most tours of the city begin at the Kartnerstrasse, a long, pedestrian-only avenue which serves as a hub for an exploration of the inner city. The crowds are always enormous, but constantly moving and, unless you are trying to cut across, easily manageable. Major focal points on the Kartnerstrasse are Stephansplatz and its focal point, Stephansdom, whose steeple still dominates the skyline of the city. It is a beautiful, Gothic cathedral, especially distinctive because of its mosaic tile roof, many intricate, stone sculptures, and wood-carved altar.
In Stephansplatz, there are numerous young people, dressed like Mozart, who are selling tickets to music concerts. Splurge a little, especially if you can book a concert at the Musikverein (Golden Hall), a splendid venue, considered one of the top five acoustical halls in the world.
Don’t forget to sample “wurst und bier” at one of the ubiquitous stands along the pedestrian street.
For a completely unique Viennese experience, walk to or drive by the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment complex designed with an eclectic hodgepodge of architectural styles, festooned with trees and vines, and painted in squares of various colors.
Stadtpark, located along the inner ring road, is a kaleidoscope of flowers, trees, sculptures, and quiet paths. Note, particularly, the statue of Johann Strauss, Jr, who is standing under an archway, playing the violin, surrounded by flowers.
Belvedere Palace, just outside the inner ring, is a beautiful estate, now a museum, on a small hill which provides a view of the Vienna Woods, so beloved by Strauss and the Viennese people. The grounds are well manicured, extremely attractive, and enhanced by reflecting pools and sculptures as well as the buildings themselves.
The Hofburg is the magnificent winter palace of the Hapsburgs. There are numerous buildings and courtyards that compose the complex and one could easily spend the better part of a full day to see it all. It exudes a regal elegance which is appropriate to the station of its residents. Of note are the Imperial Treasury (one of the greatest in the world), the Imperial Apartments (with their tapestries, silver, and porcelain), the Chapel, the New Chateau (Neue Burg), the National Library, and the Albertina (a museum of graphic arts and other artworks).
Schonnbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs, was originally a hunting lodge, but has evolved into a palace along the lines of Versailles, with 1441 rooms, vintage furnishings, and elaborate, formal gardens. It is located on the outskirts of Vienna, conveniently accessible via mass transit from the inner city. It, like Versailles, contains a Hall of Mirrors. Much of the tour of the interior chronicles the life and times of Maria Theresa, who ruled for 40 years. The State Apartments are perhaps the most impressive (and also the most ornate) rooms in the palace, especially the “Room of Millions”.
The grounds of the mansion are Romanesque, elegant and extensive, from the flower gardens, nearest the residence, to the “Roman Ruins” a huge collection of fountains and sculptures, to the Gloriette, a marble villa with a stone canopy displaying the Imperial Eagle. Be aware that the walk up to the Gloriette is rather steep and lengthy.
Included in the price of admission at Schonnbrunn is a demonstration of the art of strudel-making, done in the Imperial kitchens. The program is fascinating, informative and ends with a sample of some of the best strudel in the world.
Salzburg, Austria, is the birthplace of Mozart and, more recently, the setting for the movie, “The Sound of Music”. These two connections seem to be the major themes of visits to Salzburg these days. However, there is more to Salzburg than this. It is a quaint, old, Medieval town with narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants, each with their own distinctive sign. Streets empty into numerous squares, many with fountains and street performers.
Notable attractions include Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birthplace), Hohensalzburg (the white fortress at the top of the hill), Getreidegasse (the main shopping street and gathering place), and Mozartplatz (Mozart Square) where the chimes of the Glockenspiel play a Mozart melody several times during the day.
A walking tour of the city should also include a stop at the Mirabell Gardens, on the other side of the river from the Old Town. The gardens are beautiful with fountains and statues, plus they appeared in the Sound of Music, so are part of any tour of movie sights. The gardens also provide a beautiful view looking back toward the fortress.
After visiting Mirabell Gardens, walk back to the Old Town via the footbridge over the Salzbach River for a postcard view of the city with its many church spires and the castle above it all.
Just outside of town, Hellbrunn Castle is a great stop, especially for children. Besides the Sound of Music gazebo which is on the grounds, the palace is noted for its trick fountains, found throughout the gardens, which spray water on the unsuspecting.
3. Tyrolean Villages
The Austrian Villages of the Tyrol are world famous for skiing and are also significant because of their lovely setting, nestled among the Austrian Alps.
Innsbruck, Austria has long been recognized as one of the premier skiing venues in Europe, but this beautiful town is attractive and worth visiting at any time of the year. The Old Town has some striking architecture (check out the Golden Roof and the Heilbing House) and numerous shops offering a multitude of items. Another interesting sight is the Hofkirche, which contains the elaborately decorated mausoleum of Maximilian I, flanked by 28 bronze, life-size statues representing his real and legendary ancestors. His Imperial Palace, the Hofburg can also be visited.
The view from St Anne’s Column, in Innsbruck, looking back toward the Golden Roof is positively spectacular.
Some other towns that merit a visit while in Western Austria include the following:
Igls, just south of Innsbruck, is very popular with skiers and was used extensively during the 1964 and 1976 Olympics for Alpine events. Mutters is another picturesque village a short distance from Innsbruck. Solden, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Innsbruck, has a cable car to the top of Geislachkogel for great views and is also the beginning of the Ortzal Glacier Road, a panoramic alpine scenic drive. St Anton am Ahlberg is one of the best ski areas in the Alps and is extremely popular, even with the rich and famous. Seefeld was the setting for the Nordic events during the 1964 and 1976 Olympics. It is an extremely popular resort area and even boasts a theme park, Play Castle Seefeld, which is set in Medieval times. Zell am Ziller lies 60 kilometers (36 miles) east of Innsbruck, in the Ziller Valley, one of the prettiest in Austria. Kitzbuhel, besides its winter and summer recreational activities, has an adorable town just made for walking. Hall im Tyrol is another quaint village, just east of Innsbruck, which is great for walking. Visit Hasegg Castle and the Parish Church. Lienz is farther a field, in East Tyrol, on the northern side of the Dolomites from Italy. In the Hauptplatz, the main square, check out the Liebburg Palace.
4. Melk Abbey
Austria’s Melk Abbey is one of the most beautiful, Baroque buildings in the world. It sits dramatically atop the edge of a promontory over the Rhine River. The overall impression the visitor receives is one of great wealth — everything in the abbey and its church, the Stiftskirche, is gilded and incredibly ornate. The library is famous the world over for the over 80,000 volumes in its collection and its beautiful wooden decor. The church, itself, is lavish in its ornamentation, with numerous gilded statues and frescoes.
For a postcard view and photo-op of the abbey, visit the village of Melk below and walk along the river. The Abbey dominates the ridge above the town.
Graz, Austria, is a pleasant mix of old and new. The major tourist attractions are centered in the Old Town, which lies along the eastern bank of the Mur River. The lively heart of this area is the Hauptplatz, or main square (note the House of Luegg with its ornate stucco facade at the northern end). The best way to see the sights is by walking. Take the pedestrian-only Herrengasse which is lined with shops and restaurants and is the location of the tourist information office where visitors can obtain a map of the city center.
Notice the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the Landhaus, an outstanding example of Italian Renaissance architecture, and the Landeszeughaus (Armory) which claims to display the largest collection of weaponry in the world (over 30,000 pieces). Also of note are the Burg (not open to visitors), a castle/palace built in the 15th century, the nearby Domkirche (Cathedral), the Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II (he’s not buried here), and the lovely Statuary (City Park) with its splendid fountain.
Spend some time in Schlossbergplatz (the square at the base of the castle which dominates the highest spot in town) before taking the funicular or climbing the steep stairs up to the Schlossberg, the citadel of the city. Note the famous and distinctive Bell Tower, with its bell known as “Liesl”, the Stallbastel, the former prison and storeroom, and the Clocktower, the symbol of the city.
Outside the city center, about 2 miles (3 kilometers) west, is Schloss Eggenberg, which is loaded with astronomical symbolism. The palace has four towers, to represent the seasons, twelve gates, the months of the year, and 365 windows, one for each day.
Two of Graz’s tourist attractions strikingly dramatize the mix of ancient and modern. Check out the Kunsthaus, the exhibition center, which has been nicknamed “the friendly alien” as well as the Murinsel, the island in the river which is supposed to resemble a huge, opened mussel shell.