Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), known as "the cradle of Austria's history," is the largest of the nine federal states that make up the country today. Although the province is located to the east of Upper Austria, it's named Lower Austria because it sits lower on the Danube, which flows through it from west to east. The 19,171 sq. km (7,402 sq. miles) of the state are bordered on the north by the Czech Republic, on the east by Slovakia, on the south by the province of Styria, and on the west by Upper Austria. It lies on Vienna's doorstep and can easily be visited from there.

This historic area was once heavily fortified, as some 550 fortresses and castles testify -- many are still standing, but often in ruins. The medieval Kuenringer and Babenberger dynasties had their hereditary estates here. At the foothills of the Alps is Wiener Neustadt, the former imperial city. Along the Danube, Dürnstein, with terraced vineyards, was where Richard the Lion-Hearted was held prisoner. Many monasteries and churches, from Romanesque and Gothic structures to the much later baroque abbeys, are also found in Lower Austria. Klosterneuburg Abbey dates from 1114, and Heiligenkreuz, founded in 1133, is the country's most ancient Cistercian abbey. The province is filled with vineyards, and in summer it booms with music festivals and classical and contemporary theater.

It's relatively inexpensive to travel in Lower Austria -- prices here are about 30% lower than those in Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck. This price differential explains why many travelers stay in one of the neighboring towns of Lower Austria when they come to explore Vienna.

One of Lower Austria's most celebrated districts is the Waldviertel-Weinviertel (a Viertel is a traditional division of Lower Austria). In this case, the Viertels are the woods (Wald) and wine (Wein) areas. They contain thousands of miles of marked hiking paths and many mellow old wine cellars.

Some 60% of Austria's grape harvest is produced in Lower Austria, from the rolling hillsides of the Wienerwald to the terraces of the Wachau. Many visitors like to take a "wine route" through the province, stopping often at cozy taverns to sample the local vintages of Krems, Klosterneuburg, Dürnstein, Langenlois, Retz, Gumpoldskirchen, Poysdorf, and other towns.

Lower Austria is also home to more than a dozen spa resorts, including Baden, the most frequented. Innkeepers welcome families with children at these resorts, which can be an inviting retreat from the city. Most hotels accommodate children up to 6 years old for free; children ages 7 to 12 stay for half price. Many towns and villages have attractions designed especially for kids. Some hotels have only a postal code for an address, as they do not lie on a street plan. (If you're writing to them, this postal code is their complete address.) When you reach one of these small towns, finding a hotel isn't a problem because they're signposted at the various approaches to the resort or village. Parking is rarely a problem in these places, and, unless otherwise noted, you park for free.