Exciting day trips on Vienna's doorstep include the Vienna Woods; the villages along the Danube, particularly the vineyards of the Wachau; and the small province of Burgenland, between Vienna and the Hungarian border.
Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), known as the "cradle of Austria's history," is the biggest of the nine federal states that make up the country. The province is 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.
This historic area was once heavily fortified, as some 550 fortresses and castles (often in ruins) testify. The medieval Kuenringer and Babenburger dynasties had their hereditary estates here. Vineyards cover the province, which is home to historic monasteries, churches, and abbeys. In summer it booms with music festivals and classical and contemporary theater.
Lower Austria consists of five distinct districts. The best known is the Wienerwald, or Vienna Woods. Although the woods have been thinned out on the eastern side, they still surround Vienna.
The district of Alpine Lower Austria lies about an hour's drive south of Vienna, with mountains up to 1,800m (5,905 ft.) high.
The foothills of the Alps begin about 48km (30 miles) west of Vienna and extend to the borders of Styria and Upper Austria. This area has some 50 open-air swimming pools and nine chairlifts to the higher peaks, such as Ötscher and Hochkar (both around 2,100m/6,890 ft.).
One of the most celebrated districts is the Waldviertel-Weinviertel. A Viertel is a traditional division of Lower Austria, and the Wald (woods) and Wein (wine) areas contain thousands of miles of marked hiking paths and many mellow old wine cellars.
Another district, Wachau-Nibelungengau, has both historical and cultural significance. It's a land of castles, palaces, abbeys, monasteries, and vineyards. This area on the banks of the Danube begins about 64km (40 miles) west of Vienna.
Lower Austria, from the rolling hillsides of the Wienerwald to the terraces of the Wachau, produces some 60% of Austria's grape harvest. Many visitors like to take a "wine route" through the province, stopping at cozy taverns to sample the vintages from Krems, Klosterneuburg, Dürnstein, Langenlois, Retz, Gumpoldskirchen, Poysdorf, and other towns.
Lower Austria is also home to more than a dozen spa resorts, such as Baden, the most popular. These resorts are family-friendly, and most hotels accommodate children up to 6 years old free; those between the ages of 7 and 12 stay for half price. Many towns and villages have attractions designed just for kids.
It's relatively inexpensive to travel in Lower Austria, where prices are about 30% lower than those in Vienna. Finding a hotel in these small towns isn't a problem; they're signposted at the approaches to the resorts and villages. You might not always find a room with a private bathroom in some of the area's old inns, but unless otherwise noted, all recommended accommodations have private bathrooms. Parking is also more accessible in the outlying towns, an appealing feature if you're driving. Unless otherwise noted, you park free. Note that some hotels have only a postal code for an address (if you're writing to them, this is the complete address).
Burgenland, the newest and easternmost province of Austria, is a stark contrast to Lower Austria. It's a little border region, formed in 1921 from German-speaking areas of what was once Hungary. Burgenland voted to join Austria in the aftermath of World War I, although when the vote was taken in 1919, its capital, Ödenburg, now called Sopron, chose to remain with Hungary. Sopron lies west of Lake Neusiedl (Neusiedler See), a popular haven for the Viennese.
The province marks the beginning of a flat steppe (puszta) that reaches from Vienna almost to Budapest. It shares a western border with Styria and Lower Austria, and the long eastern boundary separates Burgenland from Hungary. Called "the vegetable garden of Vienna," Burgenland is mostly an agricultural province, producing more than one-third of all the wine made in Austria. Its Pannonian climate translates into hot summers with little rainfall and moderate winters. You can usually enjoy sunny days from early spring until late autumn.
The capital of Burgenland is Eisenstadt, a small provincial city. For many years, it was the home of Joseph Haydn, and the composer is buried here. Each summer there's a festival at Mörbisch, using Lake Neusiedl as a theatrical backdrop. Neusiedl is the only steppe lake in central Europe. If you're visiting in summer, you'll most certainly want to explore it by motorboat. Lots of Viennese flee to Burgenland on weekends for sailing, birding, and other outdoor activities.
Accommodations in the province are extremely limited, but they're among the least expensive in the country. The area is relatively unknown to North Americans, which means fewer tourists. Like Lower Austria, Burgenland contains many fortresses and castles, often in ruins, but you'll find a few castle hotels. The touring season in Burgenland lasts from April to October.