Austria’s small size belies the enormous influence it has had on world history. Once part of the massive Austro-Hungary empire, Austria has given the world some of its best and worst moments. It gave birth to such musical greats as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Liszt and Strauss, and it was in Vienna that Sigmund Freud changed the way people think about mental health. But it was also in Austria that the seeds of both World Wars were planted — the assassination of Austro-Hungary’s archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I, and Adolf Hitler was Austrian-born.
Today, Austria has left its tumultuous past behind, though visitors will find remnants of both its grand and dark history in the imperial city of Vienna, in the smattering of castles that dot the smaller cities and in the stark Holocaust memorials at Mauthausen. But Austria has more to offer than just Austro-Hungary and Third Reich-era leftovers. Go further into the country’s past at the salt mines in and around Salzburg, or fast forward into the years to come at the Museum of the Future. Or just let loose by snowbiking in the Alps or sampling some 100 flavors of chocolate at the Zotter Chocolate Factory.
Click through our slideshow to see all the surprising experiences you can have on your trip to Austria. Then check out our advice on where to stay and how to get around.
Explore an Ice Cave
With so many mountains in Austria, it’s no surprise there are lots of caves as well. The Eisriesenwelt (or Werfen Ice Caves), considered the largest known ice cave system in the world, encompasses more than 25 miles of caverns. Visitors may explore the cave’s interior via a tour that goes more than half a mile into the cave and more than 1,000 feet underground, passing through stunning natural hallways and rooms, and past massive ice formations. A cable car ride is necessary to get to the mouth of the cave. (Some of the walking is over steep paths; a visit is not recommended to folks with mobility issues.)
Located about an hour and a half from Salzburg, it’s easy to get to the Eisriesenwelt by car or public transport (train, then shuttle). Eisriesenwelt is open from May through October.
Visit a Chocolate Wonder World
If you’ve ever watched “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and wondered what it would be like to wander through a fantastical chocolate world, then a day trip to Riegersburg is for you. At the Zotter Chocolate Factory you can embark on a 90-minute tasting expedition that follows the chocolate-making progress from bean to final product. Be sure to pace yourself — if you stop at every tidbit station, you’ll have had the opportunity to try more than 100 chocolate samples by the time you’re done.
The tour features several educational highlights (like a short film about cocoa farmers in India and Latin America), but it’s the interactive moments that really bring the tour to life. At the cocoa roasting facility you can taste freshly roasted cocoa beans from different countries, while at the smelling and curiosity cabinet you’ll play the “guess the aroma” game. Among the many tasting opportunities are the nougat-spoon fountain for liquid nougats, the BASiC-filling station where chocolate fountains await your cups and the Mitzi Blue turntables where record players present visitors with round chocolate bars.
Discover the Future
One of UNESCO’s 69 designated Creative Cities, Linz has one of the most active music and art scenes in Austria. In particular, the city prides itself on being ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, media and art. At the forefront of the city’s efforts to push the boundaries when it comes to electronic arts is the Ars Electronica Center, also referred to as the Museum of the Future.
Part art museum, part research facility, Ars Electronica examines how humans influence the world though technology and explores the links between technology and art. Among the most popular attractions at the museum is the 3D theater, but there are also lots of interactive exhibits to keep visitors busy. Make your own music, interact with a robot, see what life would be like with a tail — there are dozens of “experiments” to try out. Time your visit for the afternoon so that you’re still there in the early evening; during this time, visitors can control the museum’s funky outdoor lighting (the building’s facade is one big LED screen!) to create cool light shows.
Hike the Styrian Wine Country
Austria has a 4,000-year history of producing wines, and oenophiles visiting the country will find lots of opportunities in Vienna and Salzburg to sample the many varietals on offer. But if you’re up for a ramble outside of the cities, the 44-mile South Styrian Wine Road in southeastern Austria provides a deep dive into the country’s wine culture, along with great food and beautiful scenery.
While you certainly can drive the route, we recommend doing at least part of it on foot for the full experience (no designated driver required!). One option is the well-marked, 6.5-mile Glanzer Weintour, which begins in Glanz an der Weinstrasse and passes through forests, meadows and vineyards. You’ll be able to stop at several wineries, including many with small taverns. Several inns are located along the route, so day trips with little to no driving are easily doable.
Bear Witness to a Dark Past
During World War II Austria was part of the Nazi regime and, as such, was home to labor and concentration camps like all Third Reich territories. Though not as well known as Auschwitz, the Mauthausen-Gusen complex operated from 1938 to 1945 and by 1940 was the largest labor camp complex in all of German-controlled Europe. Tallies vary, but according to most sources between 122,000 and 320,000 people died at Mauthausen.
Today the main Mauthausen camp houses a memorial and museum chronicling the history of the camp. Visitors can see the prisoners’ barracks, SS quarters, rocky quarry and gas chambers. Audio guides are available. Visits by children under the age of 14 are not recommended.
Mauthausen can be easily reached from Linz by car or public bus. Many tour companies also offer guided visits to the site including Limello Tours and Linz Tours (from Linz) and Salzburg City Tours (from Salzburg). Viator also offers small-group tours (eight people or fewer) to Mauthausen from Vienna.
Enter the World of the Third Man
Post-World War II Vienna features prominently as the grim backdrop for the movie “The Third Man,” considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the greatest 100 American films ever made. In the movie, pulp writer Holly Martins travels through the seedy underbelly of Vienna as he tries to solve the mystery of a childhood friend’s death. Fans of the film can visit the Third Man Museum, which houses a large collection of movie memorabilia in 13 rooms. The museum is open every Saturday afternoon or on select days for guided tours.
For those who want something more experiential, Vienna Walks offers a Third Man walking tour that visits some of the most memorable locations used in the film. Learn about the shooting of the film and what Vienna was like back in the 40s as you peek into hidden courtyards, dip down into the sewer system and go for a ride on the giant Ferris wheel. Tours take place every Monday and Friday at 4 p.m.
Be Dazzled at Swarovski Crystal Worlds
Perhaps the most famous producer of sparkling crystals in the world, Swarovski was founded in Austria in 1895. One hundred years later, the company opened the bedazzling Swarovski Crystal Worlds attraction (known as Kristallwelten in German) to celebrate its centennial. Lovers of everything glittery will want to visit the site, which is more an art museum than anything else. Inside visitors will find works by artists, designers and architects who interpret crystal in their own ways. There also are several outdoor art installations, as well as an indoor/outdoor playground and a landscaped labyrinth.
Crystal Worlds is located some 20 minutes away from Innsbruck and is most easily visited by car or taxi. Postbus also offers shuttles four times a day from three points in Innsbruck directly to Crystal Worlds. If you want to visit from further afield, both Edelweiss Tours and Viator offer a full day Innsbruck and Swarovski Crystal Worlds tour from Salzburg.
Go Deep Underground
People have been sourcing salt from deposits in and around Salzburg for more than 7,000 years. Salt was so important to the growth and economy of the city that it’s actually named for the stuff! The nearby Salzwelten salt mines in Hallein are some 2,500 years old and are famous for the tunnel slides down which visitors glide to get from level to level.
A visit to the Salzwelten mine begins with a railway ride deep into the mine until you get to the first miner’s slide. Once down the slide, you’re 164 feet underground and standing on the banks of a subterranean salt lake, where you’ll watch a multimedia presentation about the mine. A tram will send you back above ground.
Hallein is easy to get to via the suburban S-Bahn railway; purchasers of the Salzburg Card get a 20 percent discount on the entry fee. For those who want something more guided, Viator offers several tours that include a visit to Salzwelten including the four-hour Bavarian Mountains and Salt-Mines Tour, eight-hour Sound of Music and Salt Mines Day Trip and nine-hour Austrian Lakes, Mountains and Salt Mines. Gray Line also offers a four-hour trip solely to the salt mine.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Oberammergau & Beyond/Part THREE – Salzburg by Lisa C.
“Beginning the tour by straddling original mining wagons and chugging along in the dark tunnels, we shortly disembarked the wagon only to be guided over to a padded stopping arm set up to hold you from sliding too soon down the 100-foot wooden slide (faulty bladders beware!) where you land unceremoniously within the grottoes here the salt was mined; along the route many graphic displays and miniature replications gave one the idea of the hard work that is salt-mining, as well there was a film showing the origin of the salt deposits and a murky, sporadically illuminated boat ride across an underground salt lake which was quite fun.” Read more!
Visit a Viennese Coffee House
Vienna’s coffee houses are more than just a place to get a cup of joe; they are meeting places for writers, artists and intellectuals. Though the first coffee house opened in Vienna in 1685, the heyday for the coffee house began in the early 19th century and continued through the mid-20th century. During these years Austria’s most famous writers, politicians, scientists and artists would gather together to write and talk.
Notable coffee houses that still exist include Cafe Landtmann, which opened in 1873 and was a popular hangout for Sigmund Freud; Cafe Griensteidl, a favorite of composer Arnold Schoenberg and writer Arthur Schnitzler during the early 20th century; and Cafe Sperl, founded in 1880 and featured in the 1995 Ethan Hawke movie “Before Sunrise.” Visitors to Vienna can pick and choose which coffee houses they’d like to visit or join a guided tour like Vayable’s three-hour Viennese Coffee House Tour. Another option is Vienna Unwrapped’s Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations tour, which pairs visitors with locals at a coffee house for food and, of course, conversation.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Prague, Vienna and Budapest by David Guarino
“We participated in the included city tour, which was a combined bus ride around the city and a guided walking tour of the downtown areas. The guide pointed out showcases of gilded architecture, including the neo-renaissance Vienna Opera House [and the] Hofburg Imperial Palace complex with the stables for the Lipizzaner stallions. As the tour ended, we entered St. Stephen’s Cathedral, walked along the delightful pedestrian Karntnerstrasse [and] stopped to enjoy a piece of decadent cherry strudel in a Viennese coffee house.” Read more!
Have Fun in the Snow
With the Central Eastern Alps concentrated in Austria, winter is not an off-season here. Snow sports are a main driver of tourism, and there’s much more on offer than just skiing and snowboarding. Swap your snowboard for a snowbike, a bike on which the wheels have been removed and skis added. Just hop on and head downhill, no pedaling necessary. Another option is snowkarting (the winter version of go-karting).
For snowbiking, head to the Schischule Koch ski resort in Obertauern, which offers rentals, a snowbike-specific course, lessons and guided tours. You’ll also find snowbike rentals and lessons at St. Martin Chalets in the Lungau ski region near Salzburg. Another ski region near Salzburg is Saalbach-Hinterglemm, where you’ll find Kartbahn Saalbach, with its two miles of snowkarting courses.
Best Time to Go to Austria
Peak tourist season in Austria is the summertime, when the weather is pleasant for sightseeing in the cities and towns. In mountainous ski areas, of course, the winter is the most crowded and expensive season, though summer hiking is also popular in these areas. Consider traveling in late spring or early fall to take advantage of lower prices, reduced crowds and temperate weather.
Austria on a Budget
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