The forests, mountains, and lowlands of the Austrian landscape were divided early in their history into nine distinctly different regions. In addition to their topographical diversities, each region has its own history, cultural identity, and -- in some cases -- oddities of language and dialect.
Austria's capital, the former hub of a great empire, and a province in its own right, Vienna is one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Images spring to mind of imperial palaces, the angelic voices of choirboys, the Spanish Riding School, and rich cakes served in cafes. In this former seat of the once-powerful Hapsburg dynasty, you follow in the footsteps of Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Mahler, Mozart, and Beethoven, among others. Of course, the Blue Danube (even if it's not blue) cuts through the city that controlled a great deal of Europe for more than 6 centuries until it suffered humiliating defeats in both world wars of the 20th century. After a long, dreary slumber during the postwar years, Vienna has regained its old joie de vivre and is now one of Europe's most vital capitals. Today, this economic power stands at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe.
Set at Austria's northeastern corner, bordering the Czech Republic and Slovakia, this is Austria's largest province. Known for its fertile plains, renowned vineyards, and prosperous bourgeoisie, it's very different from the alpine regions of western Austria. Although the region's administrative capital is the culturally ambitious city of Sankt Pölten, most of the region directs its focus toward Vienna, which it completely surrounds. Visitors to Lower Austria typically come on a day trip from Vienna to explore the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), romanticized in operetta, literature, and the famous Strauss waltz. One of the best places to explore the Vienna Woods is Klosterneuburg, a major wine-producing center. Other places to explore include Mayerling, in the heart of the woods, and Heiligenkreuz, one of Austria's oldest Cistercian abbeys. The district's leading spa is Baden bei Wien, a lively casino town in the eastern sector of the Vienna Woods.
The other major attraction of Lower Austria is the Wachau-Danube Valley, rich in scenic splendor and castles. In the valley, you can visit the ancient town of Tulln, the early-12th-century Herzogenburg Monastery, the 1,000-year-old city of Krems, and the lovely town of Dürnstein. Melk Abbey is one of the world's finest baroque buildings.
The newest of the Austrian provinces was formed in 1921 from the German-speaking region of what had once been part of the Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary. Located at Austria's southeastern tip, its plains, reef-fringed lakes, and abundant bird life resemble the landscapes of Hungary. Its capital is Eisenstadt, the native city of composer Franz Josef Haydn. Largely agricultural, with an unusual demographic mixture of Hungarians, Croats, and German-speaking Austrians, Burgenland lacks the visual drama and grand alpine scenery of other parts of Austria. Lakes remain its primary attraction, and they are best visited in summer.
A city rich with the splendors of the baroque age and the melodies of Mozart, Salzburg is one of Europe's premier architectural gems. It's also the setting for Austria's most prestigious music festival. Its natural setting is panoramic -- hugging both banks of the Salzach River and "pinched" between two mountains, Mönchsberg and Kapuzinerberg.
Many travelers come here to follow in the footsteps of Julie Andrews in the fabled 1965 musical The Sound of Music. The von Trapps and Mozart have put Salzburg on international tourist maps.
The only area of Austria that can compare with Tyrol in outdoor activities and scenic grandeur alike is Land Salzburg, which lies at the doorstep of Salzburg. It's easy to spend weeks in this mountainous area. In summer, the greatest attraction is the Grossglockner Road, Europe's longest and most splendid highway. In winter, Zell am See is the most popular resort in the region, located on a lake against a mountain backdrop, but there are many other options to consider. Golling, in the Salzach Valley, south of Salzburg, is one of the most inviting. Visitors frequently visit the winter and summer spa resorts of Badgastein and Bad Hofgastein in the Gastein Valley. Two major ski resorts are Saalbach and Hinterglemm.
Tied to the Danube's fertile plains, which straddle that famous river, this region produces much of Austria's agricultural bounty. Its capital is the historic but heavily industrialized city of Linz, famous for a raspberry-chocolate concoction known as the Linzer torte. Upper Austria doesn't offer the resorts and attractions of Tyrol, Land Salzburg, or Vorarlberg, but there's charming scenery here, especially in summer at Attersee, the largest lake in the Austrian Alps. Another major summer resort is Mondsee (Moon Lake), the warmest lake in the Salzkammergut. Also in the Salzkammergut, St. Wolfgang, one of Austria's most romantic lakes, draws visitors to its White Horse Inn, the setting for the fabled operetta of the same name. Bad Ischl, once the summer retreat of Emperor Franz Josef, is one of the country's most fashionable spas. Hallstatt is the best center for exploring the province's major attractions: the salt mines of Salt Mountain and the spectacular Dachstein Caves.
One of Austria's most historic and colorful provinces, this breathtaking mountainous district was once the medieval crossroads between the Teutonic world and Italy. Its capital is the beautiful city of Innsbruck, both a summer resort and a winter ski center. Filled with attractions, it's the third-most important city to visit in Austria (after Vienna and Salzburg). But the glories of the Tyrolean country hardly end in Innsbruck. The province is riddled with valleys, each filled with resorts drawing summer and winter visitors alike. These valleys include the beautiful Stubai and Wipp, where the major resorts of Fulpmes and Neustift offer vistas of glacier tops and alpine peaks.
The Upper Inn district is also worth a visit. The old market town of Imst makes a good stop along the Upper Inn. On the eastern side of the Arlberg are the resorts of St. Anton am Arlberg, an old village on the Arlberg Pass, and St. Christoph, the mountain way station of St. Anton. Seefeld is also a great ski resort, offering both summer and winter outdoor activities. In the Ziller Valley is another sophisticated resort, Zell am Ziller. The Kitzbühel Alps offer some of Austria's best skiing. If you have enough time, journey to East Tyrol to Lienz, a rich, folkloric town on the Isel River with romantic old inns and guesthouses.
Vorarlberg, located at the country's westernmost tip, shares most of its borders with the wild and mountainous eastern border of Switzerland; it's home to some of Austria's most sophisticated ski resorts, highest alpine peaks, and most beautiful scenery. Its capital is Bregenz, a pleasant town at any time of the year, although it hardly competes with the scenic grandeur of the province's resorts, such as Lech and Zürs. In winter, Lech and the even more chic and elegant Zürs, on the western side of the Arlberg, are among Europe's leading ski resorts.
The Montafon Valley, known for its powdery snow and sun, has been called a winter "ski stadium." The best places for skiing here are the hamlets of Schruns and Tschagguns. If you're here in summer, you might want to explore the Bregenz Forest (Bregenzerwald), although it's hardly the Black Forest in Germany. The northern part of the Vorarlberg alpine range is a prime place for outdoor activities. You'll want to dine and stay at Bezau. If you have time, the towns of Dornbirn, Feldkirch, and Bludenz are interesting to explore.
Noted for its forests, rolling hills, and hundreds of freshwater lakes, Carinthia shares most of its border with Slovenia. Although landlocked, the province has just a hint of Mediterranean flavor, which permeates its gardens, lakeside resorts, and the verdant capital city, Klagenfurt. Outside the capital is the striking hilltop Hochosterwitz Castle. The province's biggest alpine lake is Wörther See, where you can stay at the idyllic summer resorts of Krumpendorf or Pörtschach. The sophisticated resort of Velden, at the western end of Wörther See, is called the heart of the "Austrian Riviera." In the center of the lake district, Villach, with its nearby warm springs, is another major destination.
One of the most heavily forested of the Austrian provinces, Styria has landscapes that rise from lush valleys to towering alpine peaks. With a strong medieval tradition, this area originated the loden-colored jackets and felt hats with feathers that many newcomers assume are the Austrian national costume. The district's capital is Graz, boasting one of the best-preserved medieval cores of any Austrian city. You'll also want to visit Bad Gleichenberg, the province's most important summer spa, and Mariazell, a major pilgrimage site because of its Mariazell Basilica. Another spa, Bad Aussee, is in the "green heart" of the Salzkammergut, in an extremely beautiful part of Austria. You'll find the area's best skiing in the Dachstein-Tauern, where you can stay at the twin resorts of Schladming and Rohrmoos.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.