Austria in 2020: Beyond Mozart and The Sound of Music
Austria is undergoing a renaissance and travelers are discovering this jewel of central Europe. From the Alps to Vienna, the country is a storybook wonderland replete with castles, palaces, and picturesque alpine meadows.
Whether you want to channel your inner Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and twirl in mountain meadows or explore a country steeped in history and culture, Austria has something for every traveler. This landlocked country is made up of nine provinces that provide a veritable wonderland for those seeking to explore off-the-beaten paths in Europe or those seeking a truly vibrant urban setting, and everything in between.
As the plans began to develop, my wife and I wanted to do a point-to-point trip and Zurich to Vienna sounded like the perfect way to maximize our time abroad. As Austria was also going to be our 20th anniversary trip, I wanted to see and do as much from west to east while allowing time to explore the romantic side of this country.
Ever since my first driving experience in Europe over a decade ago, I have longed to aggressively maneuver the narrow town streets like Jason Bourne as he sought to evade those chasing him. However, all of the rental car companies wanted the car to be returned to its point of origin and that defeated the purpose of a point-to-point trip. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as parking in urban settings would have likely been an issue.
With that said, riding the rails is something that Europe does well and navigating the country from the comfort of a train seat proved to be the right choice. And while we were tempted to utilize larger bags while packing for Europe , it made so much more sense to travel light and fast from terminal to train to trailhead with an international carry-on bag and a waist pack for our personal essentials.
Upon arriving in Zurich, we quickly navigated customs and found our way to the first of three trains that would take us to Bregenz, located on the shores of Lake Constance (Bodensee). In addition to Austria, the lake shares its shoreline with Germany and Switzerland. This would be the gateway to our trans-Austrian adventure highlighted by a casual bike ride along the lake to the German town of Lindau and then taking the ferry back across the lake to Bregenz.
Bregenz, Bregenzerwald, and Lech Zürs are all located in the Vorarlberg region of Austria. The only hiccup to a train-only traverse of Austria lies in the outer realm of the Alps. To reach Bregenzerwald requires a bus or car, but the experience is so worth the effort. There are 22 villages in this very traditional European alpine region. The area is ideal for hiking, biking, and indulging in the renowned mountain cheeses. As you stroll along mountain paths, it’s hard to not be swept away by the idyllic setting as cow bells echo through the valleys and meadows.
Lech Zürs is known as the birthplace of alpine skiing. When the lifts close for the ski season, this tiny hamlet transforms into a hiker’s paradise. Hop on the gondola for a quick trip up the mountain, where you can hike the mountain top trails and grab the gondola back down. Or if you so desire, just follow the trail back down as the town remains in view at almost any vantage point along the summit. Buses run throughout the area and are available to whisk you away to other trails that traverse the region. From here, you can resume your train travel to your next destination.
Located in a separate federated state (province), Innsbruck is located within the Alps and has twice hosted the Olympic Games. This is Austria’s fifth largest city and has been the capital of the region since the early 15th century. The city’s name translates to the “bridge over the River Inn.” In addition to an array of hiking options around the city, the city is a veritable time capsule of history and culture dating back to the time before the Roman occupation. Significant locations within the city include the Hofburg (it was a former imperial palace of the Habsburg family), along with the Golden Roof (located in Old Town), which may very well be the city’s most famous symbol.
This culturally significant city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The name translates to “salt fortress” and like other cities in Austria, its known origins date back to the Romans. The birthplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Salzburg exudes culture around every corner. Perched high above the historical city sits Hohensalzburg Fortress and it dominates the skyline. This is the largest fully preserved castle in Central Europe and the views from the top rival those of any other Austrian city (if not all of Europe).
Wanting more adventurous activities? Rent a bike and ride out of town for a unique treat at the Hellbrunn Palace and Trick Gardens. The palace and its gardens, grottos, and trick fountains have entertained guests for over 400 years.
The Danube River gently flows through yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This historic wine region has been producing wine for over 1,000 years. Located within the wine region sits the tiny riverside town of Dürnstein. While it might otherwise be overlooked, this town sits in the shadow of the ruins of a castle that once imprisoned Richard the Lionheart.
Reserve a room, hike to the fortress, enjoy dinner along the river while raising a glass of wine a thousand years in the making.
This is the crown jewel of Austria. And while almost two million people call this city home, it’s quaint design makes it an ideal destination in which to conclude this trip across the country. Regardless of how long you have to spend in this capital city, it will not be enough. You will be left wanting more. The architecture, the history, culture, food and wine will continue to beckon you back for more. Palaces adorn the city and harken back to a history of emperors and empresses.
Insider Tip: Splurge and acquire the services of a personal tour guide. The extra attention to detail will pay dividends in cities like Innsbruck, Salzburg, and Vienna.
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By Clay Abney on January 13, 2020
Clay Abney is a freelance outdoor and adventure travel writer living in the ‘wild and wonderful’ state of West Virginia, where he spends his days trail running, mountain biking, backpacking, snowboarding, and traveling as often as possible. At 49 (the new 29), he still competes in multi-day adventure races, loves abusing gear, and is always looking for his next great adventure. www.clayabney.com