It may seem an unlikely undertaking, but it's possible to take in "Austria in a Nutshell" in just 2 weeks with some fast moving. If you start in Vienna in the east and head west, via Linz and Salzburg, you can see a lot of the beauty and the attractions that sweep the entire span of the country, all the way to Vorarlberg in the west at the gateway to Switzerland.
Highlights of this vast panoramic trip include not only Vienna and Salzburg, but the other two major centers: Linz and Innsbruck. The most spectacular highlights are the lake district at Salzkammergut and the fabled Grossglockner Road.
Days 1 & 2: Vienna: The Launch Pad
Most motor trips of Austria begin in Vienna, unless you're driving in from the west -- say, after a visit to Switzerland. If so, you can use Innsbruck as your gateway and take this highlight tour in reverse.
Most visitors take a flight into Austria that puts them in Vienna on Day 1. Check into your hotel and enjoy an old-fashioned Austrian breakfast, including some of the fabled Viennese pastries. You might get a good enough "tuck in" that you'll skip lunch.
It would take a few weeks to see all of Vienna's major sights, but you can skim the highlights in just 2 days by concentrating on St. Stephan's Cathedral in the heart of the Inner City (Old Town). Climb its south tower for the most panoramic view. Later that morning, visit the once imperial Schönbrunn Palace, summer seat of the Hapsburgs. In the afternoon call on the Hofburg, visiting its major attractions such as the Kunsthistorisches. In the evening take your choice: an opera or a night spent in a raucous Viennese wine tavern.
On Day 2, take in the glories of the MuseumsQuartier Complex, paying particular attention to the Leopold Museum and the Kunsthalle Wien. Attend a performance of the Vienna Boys' Choir. Try for an afternoon visit to the Belvedere Palace and its fine art galleries. For a typically Viennese experience, spend your final night at one of the wine taverns on the outskirts of the city. They are called heurigen, and some of the best of these taverns are found in the suburb of Grinzing.
Day 3: Danube River
On Day 3, head to Salzburg in the car you rented in Vienna. If you only have a day or two, you can hop to Salzburg on the Autobahn, but you'd miss out on so much. We suggest a 2-day leisurely journey with stops in the Danube Valley and in the lake district of Salzkammergut.
Instead of the Autobahn, take Route 3, called the "Austrian Romantic Road," west from Vienna. On the north of the river you can follow this lovely old road into Krems, the most rewarding stopover in the Danube Valley, with its old churches, ancient houses, and cobblestone streets. The location is 80km (50 miles) west of Vienna. You can use Krems as a base and set out on two side trips; first to the old wine town of Dürnstein, 8km (5 miles) west of Krems. The town still preserves part of its once fortified walls. From Dürnstein, follow Route 33 along the south bank of the Danube to Melk Abbey, the greatest baroque abbey of Austria. The distance is 31km (19 miles). You can double back along the road leading northeast into Krems for the night, or you can also select Dürnstein for an overnight stay, as it has even better and more romantic hotels than Krems.
Day 4: Linz
Instead of heading on to the Salzkammergut, as we did in Day 4 (above), we suggest you leave Krems in the morning and take the scenic Route 3, which meanders along the north of the Danube into Linz, where you can overnight. The distance from Krems to Linz is 254km (158 miles).
After checking into a hotel, set out to explore the attractions of this city, including its newest sights, the Ars Electronica Center and Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz. In the afternoon, take an excursion from Linz to that baroque masterpiece, the Abbey of St. Florian. Since Linz is celebrated for its Linzer torte, sample the delicacy in one of the cafes here.
Day 5: Salzkammergut's Bad Ischl
On the morning of Day 5, leave Linz and head south to the Autobahn (E55), which you can follow to the junction with Route 145, leading south into the spa of Bad Ischl, a good overnight base before you press on to Salzburg. Take in its attractions as outlined under Day 4 in the tour above.
Days 6 & 7: Salzburg
Spend Days 6 and 7 here in the birthplace of Mozart, site of the most famous musical festival in Europe. Occupy your time here as outlined under Days 5 and 6 in the 1-week tour of Austria (above).
Day 8: South to Lienz: Capital of East Tyrol
Leave Salzburg on the morning of Day 8. Head south on Route 150 to the junction with Route 159. Follow this highway south until it merges with Route 311 going west toward Zell am See, a distance of 85km (53 miles) southwest of Salzburg. Make this your luncheon stopover. If you have time, ascend the mountain plateau of Schmittenhöhe for one of the best panoramic views of Land Salzburg.
After lunch, continue south along Route 107 into Lienz for the night, a distance of 92km (57 miles). Not to be confused with the just visited Linz (capital of Upper Austria), the Tyrolean city of Lienz lies at the junction of three valleys. You can spend the rest of the afternoon wandering its old streets and visiting Schloss Bruck.
Day 9: Grossglockner Road: The Greatest Alpine Highway
On the morning of Day 9, leave Lienz and head for the most scenic drive on this tour, the legendary Grossglockner Road. There are several approaches to this road. From our starting position in Lienz, you can drive north on Route 107 to the town of Heiligenblut, where you might stop for a coffee before climbing the mountain in your car. Driving distance between Lienz and Heiligenblut is 48km (30 miles).
The road will lead you to Bruck an der Grossglocknerstrasse in Land Salzburg, near Zell am See. From the Zell am See ski area, follow the signs to Kitzbühel along Routes 168 and 161, which will take you northwest into this ski resort, where you can overnight. From the Zell am See area to Kitzbühel is a distance of 55km (34 miles).
Day 10: Kitzbühel: Ski Circus
Kitzbühel has earned its fame for its winter Ski Circus, but if you're a motorist on a driving tour, chances are you'll be here in fairer weather. Visitors in warm weather can pursue a number of attractions, including the Alpine Flower Garden. See More Winter & Summer Pursuits for a range of other activities. We suggest that you spend the good part of the day at Kitzbühel, enjoying the scenic wonders of this resort before heading out to Innsbruck for a stop of two nights . To reach Innsbruck, a distance of 100km (62 miles) to the west, we recommend a cross-country scenic road, Route 170, cutting through the mountains until it links with E45/A12 going southwest into Innsbruck.
Days 11 & 12: Innsbruck: Fun in Tyrol
On the morning of Day 11, follow the same general plan as outlined for Day 7 in our 1-week tour of Austria (above). As Day 12 begins, leave Innsbruck altogether to see some major Tyrolean attractions in the environs. Visits are possible to Hungerburg, a plateau that's the most beautiful spot in the Tyrol, and to the renaissance palace of Schloss Ambras. In 1 day, you can also work in a visit to the Wiltener Basilica, which is one of the loveliest churches in Tyrol, dating from the 18th century. When you return to Innsbruck for a final overnight, hopefully there'll be an operatic presentation at the Landestheater.
Day 13: West to St. Anton am Arlberg
On the morning of Day 13, head west out of Innsbruck along 171 to the junction with Route 186, at which point you can go south in the Ötz Valley, arguably the most scenic and panoramic in Tyrol. You'll see many waterfalls and snow-covered mountain as you dip past the glaciers and peaks of the Ötzal Alps. The road takes you deep into the heart of what is known as the "Tyrolean Arctic," a glacier region that is among the most beautiful in all of Austria. You can stop at Ötz, the main town for refueling and for lunch. It lies on a sunny slope at 822m feet (2,697 ft.). Before turning back on the main road, you might go as far as Sölden, climbing to 1,342m (4,403 ft.). It is a quaint old village of folkloric charm. After a stopover, head back to the main highway and continue west in the opposite direction of Innsbruck. Arrive in St. Anton for the night, a distance of 100km (62 miles) west of Innsbruck, and reached along Route 171. St. Anton is one of the great ski resorts of Austria. Overnight here before you begin your crossing of the Arlberg Pass in the morning.
Day 14: The Final Scenic Route West to Bregenz
For Day 14, your final day in Austria, head across the Arlberg Pass, a scenic drive of panoramic beauty. Leave St. Anton, heading for St. Christoph at 1,784m (5,853 ft.). It's reached from St. Anton by following Route 316. The location is 8km (5 miles) distant.
Continue west into the province of Vorarlberg (westernmost in Austria) until you arrive at its capital, Bregenz. Follow S19 west until you hook up with the A14 Autobahn heading north. Bregenz lies 150km (90 miles) northwest of Innsbruck along the southeastern shore of the Bodensee (Lake Constance). You can spend 2 or 3 days here taking in both mountain and lakeside attractions, but you may have run out of time. If so, you are only 130km (81 miles) east of Zurich, which, of course, is one of the transportation hubs of Europe if you want to end your Austrian journey.
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.