With Europe largely off-limits for more than a year, Americans have been eager to get their continental culture fix. And, as they begin returning to Europe, savvy travelers are thinking less about the Louvre, and more about getting off the beaten path. Perhaps there’s no better place to discover than Austria.
Roughly the same size as Maine, Austria — which borders eight European nations, including Italy and Germany— is a small, easily explored country with a big reputation. Capital city Vienna is unmissable: arguably home to the best of Europe’s art and music, from Mozart to Gustav Klimt. But to sample a little bit of everything Europe has to offer, make time for second city Graz, a mix of Mediterranean-style street life and Copenhagen cool. Just as essential is a trip to Arlberg, where sensational, “Sound of Music” scenery meets farm-fresh food and unique Alpine heritage. Better still, one of the most convenient ways to travel between all three destinations is by ÖBB Austrian Railways, watching green peaks and glacial lakes glide past the window of your comfy, state-of-the-art car as you go.
Here are our top tips for getting the most from your trip.
See the best of Europe’s art and culture in Vienna
Vienna has everything you could ask from a European capital: awash with palaces and castles; steeped in a rich history of cultural greats like Schubert, Beethoven and Strauss; yet at the forefront of the world’s contemporary art and creative industries, too. It’s also an impressively green city, with almost half of its land made up of parks, forests and vineyards. (Fun fact: Vienna has more urban vineyards than anywhere else in the world.)
To experience the best of Viennese culture, you’ll need to dive into its world-class museums. Leopold Museum houses the largest collection of art by Austrian modernists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Meanwhile, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, see some of Europe’s most important paintings, as well as opulent ivory carvings and intricate sculptures from the time of the Habsburgs (one of Europe’s most powerful royal dynasties).
Next, get a modern take on a classic at MAK Vienna. Here, Klimt (the Andy Warhol of Austria) is centerstage: the gallery’s immersive 3D experience, “Magic Garden,” is like stepping into a world wallpapered by his masterpieces.
Indulge your senses further at a royal residence: first by heading to Liechtenstein City Palace, Vienna’s most lavish (it was recently refurbished with 150,000 pieces of gold leaf), and then onto the Imperial Palace, to catch a glimpse of courtly life in the luxurious Imperial apartments (see: the dedicated silver chamber). Finally, find past and present combined at the Belvedere museum, with its magnificent state rooms and stables-turned-modern-art-galleries — and most importantly the famous painting, “The Kiss,” by Klimt.
In Innere Stadt, Vienna’s old town, you’ll find two of Austria’s finest cultural institutions old and new. Albertina Modern, opened in 2020, is a tour de force of pop art and post-war Austrian creativity, while its older sibling, Albertina Museum, is a 17th-century Cinderella-palace housing Picassos, Monets and Magrittes.
Last but not least, set some time aside for Austria’s most famous son: Mozart. His story is brought to life at the Mozarthaus Vienna, his residence from 1784-87. Here, you’ll learn about the man behind the name: from his infamous gambling to an affiliation with freemasons.
Explore the best of Europe’s outdoors in Arlberg
The Arlberg region is the ultimate Alpine fantasy: from sophisticated ski resorts to off-the-beaten-track outdoor adventures; intriguing Alpine traditions to some of Europe’s finest farm-to-table food. Plus, this collection of five charming villages — St. Anton, Lech, Zürs, St. Christoph and Stuben — aren’t only winter wonderland perfection: they offer amazing escapes into nature with hiking and biking in the warmer months, too.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful introduction to these mountains than riding the cable car from St. Anton up to Valluga, the Arlberg’s highest peak. The view will take your breath away — and not just because of the elevation. Afterwards, fairytale-pretty Verwalltal valley isn’t just all babbling brooks and fir forests; it’s also synonymous with dirt biking, zip lining and wild swimming.
Lech is ground-zero for incredible Alpine hikes punctuated by stops at traditional mountain huts, where you’ll find fantastic seasonal cooking and show-stopping vistas. Some of the best hikes include the Körbersee Lake loop, a snakes-and-ladders-like route up, over, and down wooden bridges, floral meadows and forest paths; and the two-day Green Ring, an epic 17-mile journey from Lech to neighboring Zürs.
One of the best ways to experience Arlberg’s landscape is to taste it: the region is justifiably proud of its fragrant mountain cheeses, cured local meats, rustic breads and ubiquitous dumplings (knödel), all seasoned with local herbs. For something extraordinary, try a brettljause platter — a sort-of Alpine smorgasbord — at Sennhütte in St. Anton. Or sample 400-year-old tradition at Lech’s 17th-century Bodenalpe mountain hut: you’ll certainly feel like a local when ordering the fat-spitting bacon and potato gröstl.
But Arlberg has more than fresh mountain air and hearty meals: there’s a fascinating culture to explore here, too. This is, after all, the birthplace of Alpine skiing: a story detailed at the St. Anton Ski and Local Heritage Museum. Dig further into the past by exploring the deep underground warren of Gand’s 15th-century ore mines, then leap into the present at Skyspace-Lech, an Instagram-worthy art installation by American artist James Turrell, where sky and earth seem to collide.
Soak up the best of European street life in Graz
Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, is all about food, wine and living well. Though the Renaissance courtyards and terracotta rooftops give it a classic European feel, a vibrant arts scene and hip, emerging districts such as Lend also impart some cutting-edge cool.
Mediterranean-style street life buzzes along Graz’s cobblestone streets, where pretty storefronts and old-world buildings house designer buys and bakeries, while public squares fill with people eating and drinking al fresco as evening draws in. And speaking of eating and drinking, Austria’s culinary capital is surrounded by a patchwork embrace of pastures and vineyards, which explains its multitude of farmer’s markets. Delve into riverside market Lendplatz for fresh local snacks and be sure to make a reservation at Der Steirer, home of Southern Austria’s favorite delicacy: a regional spin on fried chicken. Or consider splurging at Salon Marie, with perfectly hammered schnitzels served under sumptuous chandeliers.
Historic highlights include the funicular joyride to the top of Schlossberg, Graz’s “city mountain,” and a visit to UNESCO site Schloss Eggenberg, a Baroque palace with a twist. The architecture is — incredibly — entirely designed in homage to the Gregorian calendar and Enlightenment astronomy. Later, browsing the narrow alleys and tiny historic shops of the city center’s Franziskanerviertel quarter feels like being dropped into the Middle Ages.
Want to hang out with the cool kids? Head for Lend, with its design stores, craft coffee shops and striking rail station covered in bright graphic art. It’s here you’ll also find Kunsthaus, an architecturally extravagant modern art museum that rises out of the streets like an enormous UFO. Finally: don’t miss Murinsel. This steel and glass island-bridge in the middle of the Mur River is studded with paths, tunnels, a café, a playground, and performs an impressive neon light show at night.
Note: Always check the latest CDC guidelines and travel advisories for international travel. Some countries may require additional tests or proof of vaccination.
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