Read an Excerpt
WHERE TO GO
There's a lot to be said for concentrating on just one or two regions, rather than trying to cover a bit of everything in one trip � you could happily spend a week or two in any one of the Austrian provinces, or L�nder. Austria's unique combination of outdoor attractions and classic urban centres ensures that you can pack a lot of variety into your stay: take in some fresh air at a high altitude, linger over one of the country�s world-class art collections, make the most of a musical heritage second to none, or select any number from the list of recommended highlights below.
Without a visit to Vienna you'll return home with only half the picture. Built on a grand scale as seat of the Habsburg Empire, it's a place that positively drips with imperial nostalgia. The pickings are rich, with the old palaces of the Hofburg and Sch�nbrunn high on the list, as are the cultural offerings from the gargantuan art collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the hi-tech applied-arts displays of the MAK. Equally compelling, nowadays, are the ghosts of Vienna's golden age at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the likes of Freud, Klimt, Schiele and Sch�nberg frequented the city's caf�s. The city boasts some wonderful Jugendstil and early modernist buildings and a bevy of traditional fin-de-si�cle caf�s patrolled by waiters in tuxedos. Last, but by no means least, Vienna is by far the best place in the country for nightlife, and that means everything from top-class opera to techno.
Salzburg is no less intoxicating. Its Altstadt contains the country�s most concentrated ensemble of Baroque architecture, and the Hohensalzburg fortress is arguably the country's most impressive medieval castle. A substantial musical pedigree is ensured by the city's status as the birthplace of Mozart and venue of the Salzburg Festival, one of the world�s most renowned celebrations of classical music and theatre. Of Austria's other regional capitals, Innsbruck combines both a buzzing nightlife and close proximity to some of the Tyrol's highest peaks to make it one of Austria's most popular destinations. Its attractive and largely medieval city centre focuses on the Hofkirche, site of the memorial to sixteenth-century Habsburg strongman Emperor Maximilian I. In the Styrian capital, Graz, main attractions include the town centre, the fine-art collections of the Landesmuseum Joanneum and the Baroque Eggenberg Palace. Austria's second largest city is also a good base from which to venture out into the vineyards and pumpkin fields of the rural southeast.
Explorations down back streets of Austria's small medieval towns, many of which are still enclosed by their original walls, will reward you with hidden arcaded courtyards, tinkling fountains and overflowing flower boxes: Freistadt in Upper Austria, Hall in the Tyrol and Friesach in Carinthia present the pick of the bunch. Lower Austria has the country's highest concentration of monasteries, ranging from the Baroque excess of Melk, Altenburg and Zwettl to the likes of Heiligenkreuz, built on the cusp of the stylistic transition from Romanesque to Gothic. For unadulterated Romanesque architecture, head for Gurk in Carinthia; for Rococo floridity, Wilhering in Upper Austria is hard to beat. Austria also holds a bewildering variety of castles and chateaux, from fortified seats such as Forchtenstein in Burgenland to luxury aristocratic piles like Artstetten in Lower Austria. The two finest imperial palaces are the magnificent Baroque residence of Sch�nbrunn, on the outskirts of Vienna, and Schloss Ambras, the archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol's Renaissance treasure-trove near Innsbruck.
Musical pilgrimages are possible to the birthplaces or resting places of such luminaries as Beethoven, Bruckner, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Sch�nberg and Schubert. The country's top music festivals, among them the Salzburg Festival, the Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt and the chamber music festival in Lockenhaus, draw international performers and audiences alike. At both the Bregenz Festival and the operetta festival in M�rbisch, floating stages host top-class performances against a shimmering backdrop.
Austria's main lakeland area is the Salzkammergut, where the Wolfgangsee, Mondsee, Traunsee and Hallst�ttersee offer a combination of water-based pursuits and stunning scenery. To the south, the Carinthian lakes of the W�rthersee, Ossiachersee and Millst�ttersee boast good bathing, boating and windsurfing facilities. In the far east of the country, the reed-encircled Neusiedlersee, Austria�s only steppe lake, provides a total contrast, and an opportunity to marry beach culture with a spot of bird-watching.
Austria forms one of Europe's most mountainous countries, yet an excellent network of transport links puts even the dizziest of heights within reach. Key summer hiking areas are the alpine regions of western Austria, stretching from northeastern Styria and eastern Carinthia through the Salzkammergut, Salzburger Land, Tyrol and Vorarlberg. For snow sports, the Salzburger Land, Tyrol and Vorarlberg boast the highest concentration and widest range of modern, fully equipped resorts.
Finally, a great deal of Austria's industrial heritage has been put to good touristic effect, and many of the show-mines count among top attractions. If you have time to visit only one of them, pick from the following: the iron-ore workings at Eisenerz in Styria, the salt mine at Bad D�rrnberg in the Salzburger Land, the salt mine above Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut, the lead mine at Bad Bleiberg in Carinthia, and the silver mine at Schwaz in the Tyrol.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Austria depends on whether you're aiming for urban or rural parts. Most of the mountain resorts, for example, have two distinct tourist seasons, one for winter sports enthusiasts, the other for summer hikers. In between times, you may find many of the tourist facilities closed. More urban centres, however, act as year-round tourist destinations, with the number of visitors swelling during peak holidays and annual festivals � Vienna pulls in crowds over Christmas, New Year and, of course, Fasching (the ball season), while the Salzburg Festival ensures a steady stream of well-heeled visitors in July and August.
For the best of the warm weather, plan to go between April and October � Austrian summers, in particular, are reliably warm, but not overpoweringly so. If you're skiing, you can pretty much guarantee a good covering of snow from November onwards to April. Away from the ski resorts, winter travel can't really be recommended, since the weather can be pretty wet and miserable. Weather conditions vary only slightly across the country, with the alpine regions decidedly cooler, the lowland regions in the north and east enduring more continental conditions of colder winters and hotter summers, and the southeast of the country enjoying longer, warmer, almost Mediterranean summers. Be aware that whatever the season, if you're at a high altitude, the weather can change quickly and dramatically. The possibility of a thundery shower exists at any time of the year.