Intro to Austria
Austria is a landlocked country in central Europe. It’s best known for its beautiful Alpine scenery, heavy Germanic influence, great skiing, the Habsburg’s, and The Sound of Music. Modern day Austria was once part of the powerful Habsburg Dynasty and Holy Roman Empire. Its capital, Vienna, also served as the Hapsburg capital for over 400 years. During this time Vienna was built into a grand city. In the 18th century Vienna (and other cities around Austria) were amongst the finest cultural hot-spots in Europe, where rooms full of aristocrats in powdered wigs were serenaded by the sounds of Mozart and Beethoven. When the Habsburg Dynasty fell at the end of WWI, modern Austria was officially born.
When we went
September 2011. The itinerary was: fly to Berlin (2 nights), fly to Salzburg (1 night), train to Lake Halstatt (2 nights), train to Melk (1 night), train to Vienna (2 nights), fly home with over night layover in Amsterdam (1 night).
Vienna has some non stop flights from the U.S., figure 8.5 hours from New York. Vienna for a long weekend is stretching it unless you really love classical music. Anything outdoors in Austria is worth it, whether its skiing, hiking, or just enjoying the Alps. Vienna is best as the ending or beginning of a week in Austria. Consider flying into (or out of) Milan or Munich on the other end of your Austrian trip.
What we did
Salzburg is the home of Mozart and The Sound of Music. It is also quite possibly the most beautiful baroque city north of the Alps. Be warned, we came in September and there was already snow on the mountains making a chilly 2 night stay. We arrived into Salzburg in the evening and had to find something to eat. We walked just outside of the old town to visit an old monastery, Augustiner Braustubl, that operates a beer and food hall in its basement and outdoor beer garden. Austrian food is similar to German. Pretzels are big and there is lots of alpine cheese and pork.
On our one full day in Salzburg (and one full day is enough), we went explored the city’s market, hiked up to the Hohen-Salzburg fortress high on the city’s hill and explored the cobbled lanes of the old town. Don’t miss Getreidagasse, an old shopping lane off the main cobbled lane..
From Salzburg we took a train into the middle of Austria to the lakes district and its prettiest town of Hallstatt. The town of Hallstatt sits alongside a lake of the same name. The train station is across the lake so there is a little ferry that awaits every arriving train to take you to the town.
While we haven’t seen every alpine village, we can’t imagine that any could be cuter than the town of Hallstatt.
Aside from enjoying the pleasant little town, the one thing everyone needs to do is a hike around the lake. Early in the morning, we took the ferry back across the lake to the train station. We started our 9 mile hike by following the lake shore into the forest, under waterfalls, alongside cow fields, and through charming villages. At about the halfway point, there is a little town called Steeg which makes a great lunchtime stop.
On the southern bank of the lake the terrain is flat and the trail leads you north through pastures where you are sure to be serenaded by the bells of grazing cows. The trail on the western bank is higher up in the woods and further away from the lake. Walking back into the town of Hallstatt, you are actually following an ancient salt trail, which is what attracted people to this region in the Bronze age.
The Wachau valley, along the Danube river in northern Austria, is known for its many wineries using the Gruner Veltliner grape. Many of the towns and vineyards are laced to together by bike paths. We spent a day peddling from Melk east to the town of Krems. While biking in either direction is relatively easy there is slight downward slope that makes going east (towards Vienna) that much easier.
September was an ideal time for this part of the trip. The weather was perfect (long sleeve shirt, no jackets), and the harvest had just finished up. We coasted from winery to winery paying one euro per small glass. Somewhere between our starting point in Melk and final destination of Krems we had a most perfect lunch of wine, schnitzels, and wieners under a chestnut tree in a medieval courtyard. There is also a chance to park your bike and hike up to the ruins of Durnstein Castle.
Instead of biking back to Melk from Krems we took a train with the bikes, dropped them off in Melk, then got back on the train and headed for Austria’s capital city of Vienna. It was a little bit of backtracking but helped maximize site seeing time in Vienna.
Vienna still looks like the grand city it was when the Habsburg empire ruled much of the known western world. You’ll need at least one day to explore St. Stephens Cathedral (above), Schonbrunn Palace (below), and the Hofburg Palace. After a busy sightseeing day try and get dinner at a Heuriger, a kind of wine garden restaurant out on the outskirts of town. We took the tram out to a heuriger named Schubel-Auer Heuriger in Nussdorf.
Hohensalzburg Fortress; Salzburg. A short hike up from the old town is the imposing fortress that once defended it.
St Sebastian Cemetery; Salzburg. Baroque cemetery featured in The Sound of Music.
Salzburg Cathedral; Salzburg. Beautiful baroque church in the middle of the old town.
Hiking in Hallstatt; Hallstatt. Hiking around the lake as described above.
Melk Abbey; Melk. Massive abbey overlooking the Danube River and town of Melk.
Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna. Great collection of Habsburg art including a fabulous Bruegel exhibit.
Hofberg Palace complex; Vienna. Includes the treasury, imperial apartments and new palace museum.
Schonbrunn Palace; Vienna. Summer residence of the Habsburgs. As European palaces go, this is second only to Versailles.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral; Vienna. The gothic cathedral in the center of Vienna.
Schubel-Auer Heuriger; wine garden restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna in Nussdorf; Vienna
Restaurant Braugasthof; Hallstatt
Danieli Ristorante; Italian dining on a cobblestone street; Vienna
Gasthaus zum Wilden Mann; Salzburg
Augustiner Braustubl; Salzburg
Goldengasse Hotel; Salzburg
Gasthof Simony; Hallstatt (grandmotherly with lake views); also has a lakeside terrace restaurant
Gastho Goldener Stern; Melk (offers bike rentals too)
Pension Aviano; Vienna
Pension Suzanne; Vienna