If you have never been to Austria, here is a suggestion for an eight-day excursion that will give you a close-up introduction to a country rich in history and beauty with enough time to explore three very different cities. You’ll get to meet the people, visit a number of Austria’s highly accessible sights and treasures and take in the spectacular scenery — and also enjoy a variety of gastronomic and oenological specialties. We recommend starting in Salzburg and staying for two-three days and ending with three days in Vienna with two day-long stopovers in the city of Linz (overnighting there) and along the Wachau Valley, both straddling the storied Danube River.
Salzburg, a riverside city nestled against the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, was founded by Romans and built on the proceeds of a single commodity: salt. Today it is better known as the home of its favorite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the site of one of Europe’s best-known musical festivals, the place associated with the Von Trapp Family and the musical, “The Sound of Music” and, to some, the world’s best-selling energy drink, Red Bull. The city itself is a magical place of fairytale fortresses, chateaus and castles, hundreds of churches, monasteries and convents, handsome gardens, a world-renowned conservatory, new sculptures in almost every district, and wonderful vistas from within town or from the citadel that dominates the highest point in town or from the heights of the nearby mountain known as Untersberg.
It takes only a twenty-minute taxi ride from the city center to get to the base of the Untersberg where a cable car whisks riders to a high point on the mountain from which hikers can climb to the summit and in the winter season local skiers can take to the trails on the German side of this border range.
For an additional treat, a half-day excursion to Salzkammergut, an area of lakes and mountains and charming villages within an hour of Salzburg is highly recommended.
In many ways Salzburg is a small town writ large and a somewhat provincial one. With around 150,000 residents and an average of 5.5 millions visitors a year, it has one of the greatest local-to-tourist ratios of any place in Europe. Most Salzburgers are true natives, having been born and raised in the city or the surrounding area.
Whether decked out in traditional trachten – the men in lederhosen, short jackets and alpine hats; the women in dirndls (and not just on festival days) – or in jeans and t-shirts, many visitors say Salzburgers are readily recognizable. They take particular pride in telling visitors about their hometown. Like the folks in many other tourist centers fill with souvenir shops, fancy stores, numerous restaurants and coffee houses and special attractions on whom much of the wealth of the community depends, patience and tolerance are de rigueur.
People come to visit Salzburg to see the landmarks – the Festung Hohensalzburg, a fortress that dominates the highest point in the city; the Festspielhaus, home of the Salzburg Music Festival; Mozart’s birthplace and museum, and the Mirabell Gardens and also to pay visits to certain already-known venues such as the Schloss Leopoldskron, the palace used as the setting for the Hollywood selected home for the Von Trapp family. (They actually lived on the other side of town.)
There are many places to stay in Salzburg ranging from elegant hotels in the central part of the city to first-class B&Bs in charming settings (such as the Schloss Leopoldskron itself) to the very modern high-rise Eurohotel, located across from the train station and near to several fine restaurants such as the Imlauer, featuring the best in local cuisine. The Eurohotel can serve as a convenient, early morning jumping off point for the next phase of our suggested tour of Austria.
Only an hour by train from Salzburg is the city of Linz, the third largest in Austria.* Linz has its own claims to fame and its own distinguished native sons including Johannes Kepler and Anton Bruckner, both still celebrated for their accomplishments in science and music, respectively.
Long dominated by a hilltop castle (which now houses the very modern Schlossmusuem), Linz like Salzburg, is a city of churches. Most famous are the 8th century Martinskirche (St. Martin’s), said to be the best preserved in all of Austria, and the nearby Neuer Dom (New Cathedral) constructed in the 1860s. Both are in the old town just below the castle and very near the bustling town square.
Linz’s modern Danube-side Lentos museum of modern art, Ars Electronic Center and museum of media art, its botanical garden, and a ride on the tram that runs to the highest point in the area providing great views of the city and the river are not to be missed. There are many other activities for locals and tourists, including boat rides on the Danube and bicycle trips along its banks.
Quite different from the cultural and natural attractions in a huge industrial plant known as the Voestalpine Stahlwelt (Steel World). It is a steel mill that has a very checkered history. Originally known as the Reichswerke Hermann Goering, AG Berlin and developed to provide iron and steel for the Nazi cause — which it did mainly through the use of forced labor, it was a prime target of allied aircraft during World War II. After the war and with assistance of American aid and guidance, it was rebuilt and eventually became a private enterprise. Today it is Linz’s principal industry and one of the largest and most modern steel mills in the world, supplying steel to most of Europe’s automobile manufacturers. Special guided tours of the well-designed exhibition hall as well as of the plant itself are easily arranged.
Like Salzburg, Linz has a number of fine hotels, restaurants and cafes in the city center and in nearby neighborhoods. For short-time visitors, an overnight stay at the Arcotel located next to the handsome new concert hall and riverside park provides great rooms, unimpeded views of the Danube and the city and ample breakfast to fuel tourists as they set out on their further adventures.
The next place on our suggested itinerary is a region rather than a city: the Wachau Valley. It, too is rich in history and culture, especially viniculture! We would recommend taking an early train to the village of Melk, only an hour away, then either joining a tour or renting a car, to get a sense of the richness of the Valley.
One of the richest architectural treasures in all of Austria is the huge, well-maintained Benedictine Abbey located in Melk itself. That should be everyone’s first stop. The next one might few miles from Melk is the hamlet of Spitz. Its attraction is the small Schifffahrtsmuseum devoted to portraying the history of commerce on the Danube, Europe’s second longest river. There, in a building that itself was once also a monastery, one can see superbly carved models of the vessels that plied the river for centuries, the horses that towed them against the current, and the men that manned the boats and drove the teams. The museum’s operators, Karl and Susanne Zanzinger, are engaging historians of bygone days when the waterway, known there as the Donau, was the most important means of transporting goods and people not only in what is called Niederostereiche (Lower Austria) but also to and from many places along its nearly 1800 miles.
Today there are bridges that cross the Danube but they are quite far apart. To save lengthy travel to get to the other side, near Spitz there are several landings where small ferries take cars and passengers across the turbulent river by cable. Doing so is an experience in itself.
On the east side of the river below Spitz are a number of private and several cooperative vineyards and wineries, the largest of which is the Domaine Wachau. And there are also boutique hotels, including the quite unique and particularly gemütlich 700-year-old homestead and now a guesthouse and restaurant owned and operated by Karl and Barbara Holzapfel who are also vintners also grow their own grapes in extensive vineyards and make a tasty variety of their own wines.
The Holzapfels’ place is very old, but even older are the ruins of the still-visible 12th century Dürnstein castle where King Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned by Duke Leopold V. The castle sits high on a hill above the vineyards in the town that is also called Dürnstein.
After seeing the abbey at Melk and the shipping museum in Spitz, having a good lunch and some wine tasting in and around Dürnstein, the last stop on the Wachau Valley tour is Krems. It is a small town within commuting distance of Vienna, housing several universities and two unusual museums. One, the Austrian Cartoon Museum, is devoted to no-holds-barred political art and caricature; the other focuses on digital imagery and modern art.
Some might want to stay overnight in Krems is but, because it is only a 60 minutes train ride to the next stop, Vienna, we would suggest going on to the city and settling into a prearranged hotel for the last part of this odyssey.
Vienna is quite different from Linz and from Salzburg.
While also very old — it, too, has Roman origins — and is also pridefully Austrian, but its chauvinism is far more nuanced – and for good reason. Unlike Salzburg and Linz, whose resident populations are quite homogeneous, Vienna’s is much more diverse. It has been a cross-roads for people almost since its founding. Some claim that today more than a third of the nearly two millions residents were born outside the city, many abroad.
Like Salzburg and Linz, Vienna, which had become a part of the Third Reich after the Anschluss, the annexation by Germany in 1938, suffered the ravages of World War II. After the war, the city was divided into four sectors (American, British, French, and Soviet). As a place strategically located on the border of the democratic west and communist east, it quickly became a strategic center for diplomacy. It remains so today. And as it was during the lengthy heyday of the Hapsburg dynasty, it is once again a major commercial hub, attracting new residents as well as tourists from many former East Bloc countries. Among the latter are many from the eastern part of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.
In addition to those who come to work and often to stay in what has been rated “the most livable city in the world,” Vienna is also a tourist mecca with much to offer its millions of visitors.
Travelers are attracted to Vienna by many things: Hapsburg palaces, bourgeoisie neighborhoods, great museums of classic and modern art and history, concert halls – including the Musikverein, which justifiably boasts the world’s best acoustics, theaters, churches, gardens, all readily accessible by an excellent system of under- and above-ground public transportation. This includes the trams that circle the famed 150 year-old inner loop known as the Ringstrasse. Constructed during the heyday of the monarchy, it is around this belt that one finds the famed Staattsoper (state opera). several of the largest museums, the Austrian Parliament, the Staatstheater, the Rathaus (city hall), the main building of the university – currently celebrating its 650th anniversary, the city’s grandest old hotels and its best known cafés, among them Landtmann of pundits’, professors’ and politicians’ fame.
Inside the Ringstrasse, in what is known as the First District, are royal palaces, the Albertina gallery of art with ever changing exhibitions, the home of the Spanish Riding School where visitors can see training sessions throughout the week and shows on weekends, moving memorials to famous Austrians as well as to the victims of the Nazis, all sorts of shops and restaurants radiating out from a principal landmark, St. Stephens cathedral. Near to the Ringstrasse and to the side of the Mariahilferstrasse, a major shopping street which leads up to the Westbahnhof, is the Museum Quartie. Said by some to be the eighth largest cultural center in the world, it is a huge complex integrating the Baroque buildings of the royal stables with several 21st century museums displaying the art of the Secessionist Era and the work of other modern painters, sculptors and architects.
Outside the Ringstrasse there are many other distinctive neighborhoods, each with its own character. Among them is the Ninth District, home of its famed medical complex and the residence of Sigmund Freud; the Tenth, in the southern part of the city, also known as Favoriten, which has the largest concentration of residents; the Fourth in which one finds the massive Karl’s church, Belvedere Palace, and the Naschmarkt, a great place to eat and purchase all sorts of fresh food, and the recently renewed Second District which not only features the old and famous public park known as Prater with its gigantic Ferris wheel, but, currently populated by thousands of immigrants and students, is rapidly becoming a center of neo-bohemian life Vienna.
Near to all this and an easy tram ride away is the beautiful area known as Wienerwald. En route to the area made famous by Johann Strauss’s “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” it is the custom to stop off at various Heurigen (wine taverns) to sample the local product. We, too, recommend engaging in the tradition.
For visitors to get a sense of the everyday Vienna, in addition to riding the local trains and trams, sampling the wines and eating in the Naschmarkt and enjoying the relaxed ambiance of old-time cafes, we would recommend staying in one of the many boutique hotels that serve the needs of those who eschew the highly expensive grand hotels and seek other amenities than conventional B and Bs. One such place is the recently refurbished Harmonie Hotel, located in a residential neighborhood but only a five-minute tram ride from the Ringstrasse and ten minutes from the center of the city.
When it is time to bid “Auf Wiedersehen” to Vienna – and other parts of Austria, there are numerous ways to get to the very modern airport less than 40 minutes from the city center.
It should be obvious that it is difficult to compare and even harder to rank the different places briefly discussed here. Each is truly unique. But there are some things Salzburgers, residents of Linz and those who live in the Wachau Valley as well as the Viennese do share in common, things that are purely Austrian and can be found at each stop along the tour we have outlined. Among those best loved are schnapps, schnitzel, strudel, Sacher-torte, and kaffee mit schlag.
We bet you will enjoy them, too.
Hedy and Peter Rose are retired professors, travel journalists and photographers. They often teach at the Salzburg Global Seminar and lecture in Vienna but have only visited the Wachau area on two, too brief, occasions. They are eager to return. Peter’s latest books are With Few Reservations: Travels at Home and Abroad (2010), Postmonitions of a Peripatetic Professor (2013), and They and We (7th – and 50th anniversary—edition, 2014).