Photo Courtesy of Haitao Zeng
Austria was once part of a mighty empire, which the Habsburgs ruled over from Vienna for some seven centuries. Although Austria today is just a fraction of its former glory, it still maintains its rich cultural and artistic heritage. Vienna is one of Europe’s most attractive cities, combining histor…ic sites with a vibrant creative scene. The city is justifiably famous both for its classical music pedigree and for its elegant grand balls. With two-thirds of the country's landscape shaped by the Alps, Austria is paradise for anyone eager to explore the mountains—or nature in general. Some of the world’s top ski resorts can be found in the western part of the country. The regions around the Danube, as well as south of Vienna, are known for their many family-run wineries. Austria is also a leader in the farm-to-table movement, and has over 20% of its agriculture, and more than 20,000 farmers, committed to organic farming.
What to know before you go to Austria
Temperatures in spring and fall are usually milder, making it a great time to visit. Winter sports are a major draw to the resort towns in the Austrian Alps, and the skiing is consistently ranked as some of the best in the world. The season lasts from December through late March. Vienna and Salzburg tend to be more crowded in July and August, and during major festivals. Temperatures vary by region and elevation, but averages do not climb above a comfortable high 70s in Vienna during summer.
Vienna can be reached via direct flights from several North American cities, including New York (JFK and Newark), Washington D.C., Miami, Chicago, and Toronto, though it is often practical to fly through Munich or Zurich—especially for a trip to Austria’s western provinces. Smaller airports in cities like Salzburg, Graz, Klagenfurt, and Innsbruck can be easily reached. High-speed trains connect Vienna and Salzburg with cities like Munich and Zurich. A hydrofoil travels between Bratislava and Vienna on the Danube. U.S. visitors can stay up to three months with just a passport, after which time a visa is required. If you are entering Austria using a rental car, make sure there is a Vignette (toll sticker) affixed to the windshield.
Cities in Austria are linked by a fast and efficient rail system, with Vienna to Salzburg taking as little as two-and-a-half hours. To explore large towns and cities, public transportation (bus and tram), biking, or walking is best. Driving on Austria’s highways requires a toll sticker—available in ten-day, two-month, and twelve-month increments—which can be purchased at gas stations, post offices, auto clubs, and even in neighboring countries. Renting a car is another great way to explore rural regions and high Alpine routes.
Austria’s cuisine reflects heavily on its imperial past, with influences from Hungary, Italy, and the Balkans. Classic dishes like Tafelspitz (beef, root vegetables, and sauerkraut), Wiener Schnitzel (veal cutlet, flattened and fried), and Gulasch (rich meat stew, often with paprika) can be found throughout the country, while every region is proud of their speciality dishes. But, let’s face it, the major food draw is really the delectable cakes and pastries, including the famous apple strudel and Sachertorte. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Vienna is the only world capital producing significant quantities of wine within its city limits. White wines dominate the vineyards of the Wachau Valley, while reds prevail in Burgenland and Styria.
Some consider Vienna the cultural capital of Europe. The city has been synonymous with the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss, to name a few, as well as painters like Klimpt. Elegant balls, nights at the Vienna State Opera (one of the world’s best), and hours spent in coffeehouses are quintessential Vienna. The 640-year legacy of the Habsburg dynasty, which officially ended in 2011 with the death of Otto von Habsburg, can be found throughout the city. Oh, and let’s not forget the Boys Choir. Austria has nine inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the Historic Center of Vienna, Wachau Cultural Landscape, Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps, Historic Center of Salzburg, Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut Cultural Landscape, Graz Historic Center and Eggenberg Palace, Fertö/Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape, and the Semmering Railway.
The year waltzes in with Vienna’s Ball Season in January and February, during which time “Fasching,” Austrian Carnival, also begins. The world famous Salzburg Festival takes place July–August, culminating with a performance of Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s Everyman. Summer sees a variety of music festivals, from classical to rock (Nova Festival) to avant-garde (Styrian Fall), as well as wine festivals extending into the fall. Austria’s Christmas markets round out the year. Vienna alone lights up with 20 official Christmas markets selling seasonal gifts, decorations, and sweets.
Austria has nine provinces: Vienna, Burgenland, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, Tyrol, and Vorarlberg. While German is the official language, there are regional dialects that German speakers from outside may have trouble understanding. In some cases, totally different words are used. The German Krankenhaus, for example, is Spital (hospital), and a Brötchen is a Semmel (roll). But language shouldn’t be an issue; English is widely spoken. Austria is a parliamentary democracy, and its national holiday falls on October 26—a day of free entry to state museums and many government buildings.
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Zac Steger is a freelance writer and photographer who has traveled extensively through the German-speaking countries. His credits include AFAR, German Life, AAA Highroads, Upsala Nya Tidning, NUVO and The Globe and Mail. View more of his work at zacsteger.com and follow on Twitter @zacsteger.