Music, mountains and mouth-watering food: Discover Austria’s hidden gems

written by Daniel Stables
updated 7/9/2021
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Explore the culinary delights, jaw-dropping mountain backdrops and centuries of ­European history and culture, away from the tourist crowds, in three of Austria’s finest cities

Savour delicious food and stately architecture in Graz

Graz is known as Austria’s City of Culinary Delights, and for good reason. This elegant city in the southern province of Styria is a place where the finer things in life are close at hand, with the fertile farmland of the surrounding countryside producing an overflowing bounty of Graz truffles, East Styrian apples, Vulkanland cured ham, and much more. Browse the famous Farmers’ Market on Kaiser-Josef-Platz, pausing to pick up some freshly baked bread, ham and cheese, and seasonal salad – all nutrient-packed, health-giving produce, brimming with the essence of life and sure to give you a boost. Pack a picnic basket and make for the tree-lined lawns of Augarten Park for a languid lunch on the banks of the River Mur.

Classic view of the historic city of Graz with main square, Austria © canadastock/Shutterstock

Also not to be missed is a walking tour through Graz’s historic, UNESCO-listed Old Town, which is rich in stately European beauty, but minus the tourist crowds of some of the continent’s better known cities. Take in the medieval stylings of the main square, the Hauptplatz, with its coming together of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, then ascend to the magnificent Schlossberg, where a fortress has stood guard over the city since at least the 10th century AD. A ride up to the hilltop on a funicular railway, followed by a walk around the pretty park containing the elegant Uhrturm clock tower, is a supremely relaxing way to pass an afternoon – and the views over Graz, from its medieval core to the trendy neighbourhoods of Lend and Gries, are magnificent. Although it’s Austria’s second-largest city, Graz has an overwhelming atmosphere of calm, and that’s never more evident than when you’re enjoying a mindful moment, taking in the panorama from the Schlossberg. One thing you definitely won’t miss from up here is the Kunsthaus, the city’s eye-catching art museum. A space-age construction resembling some strange creature of the deep – it’s known to locals as the ‘Friendly Alien’ – the gallery somehow complements its historic surroundings. Built as part of Graz’s coronation as European Capital of Culture in 2003, it houses contemporary artworks from the 1960s to the present day; linger in its futuristic corridors and admire works by artists at the cutting edge of modern European art.

While Graz itself has enough cultural, historical and culinary delights to divert you for your entire stay, don’t miss the chance to get out into the Styrian countryside and enjoy lunch at a buschenschank, a traditional tavern where platters of the region’s finest produce are served alongside the best Styrian wine; an unbeatable way to spend a few hours.

Enjoy world-class music in Baroque palaces in Salzburg

What Graz is to food, Salzburg is to music. Austria’s fourth-largest city was the birthplace of perhaps classical music’s leading luminary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose legacy still echoes throughout Salzburg’s Baroque residences, auditoriums and dining halls. It’s hard to imagine a more refined or relaxing way to pass an evening than in the company of a Mozart opera or symphony.

This quintessential Salzburg experience can be enjoyed at the magnificent Mirabell Palace, where Mozart himself once performed, but with Salzburg being all about a break from the everyday, why not elevate the experience even further by combining a concert with a gourmet meal? The St. Peter Stiftskulinarium sits within St. Peter’s Abbey, and is said to be Europe’s oldest restaurant, with a history dating way back to 803 AD. Sitting amid its vaulted stone arches and rich dark wood panelling is a transporting experience in itself, but the exquisite Mediterranean food and fine wine selection – all soundtracked live by a Mozart opera – will take the evening to new heights. Mozart’s Salzburg isn’t all about the music, either – be sure to tour the Mozart Birthplace, where the great man was born, and the stylish Mozart Residence, where his family lived for 14 years.

Salzburg skyline with Festung Hohensalzburg herriage © Rasto SK/Shutterstock

If Mozart’s not your thing, Salzburg’s other great musical offering might be more up your street. This is where Maria von Trapp established one of music’s most recognisable families, who in turn went on to inspire the famous musical The Sound of Music. A tour of the famous locations from the film is a great way to get to know Salzburg, taking in locations such as the Residenz Palace, Salzburg Cathedral and St. Peter’s Monastery. These venues will also host some of the events at the Salzburg Festival, which in 2020 celebrated its centenary. Summer 2021 sees the return of the festival’s classic performances, such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play Jedermann, staged in the elegant surrounds of Cathedral Square, among many other world-class opera and theatre performances.

Whether you visit during festival season or not, you’ll quickly realise why Salzburg has long been a mainstay on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The cathedral, the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey, and the Felsenreitschule theatre are among the most famous structures in Salzburg’s Altstadt (Old Town), and a walking tour is the best way to immerse yourself in their Renaissance and Baroque splendour – ending at the impressive Hohensalzburg Fortress, which looms imperiously over the city.

Tour Innsbruck’s historic Old Town and roam its mountain landscapes

If you find mindfulness and relaxation in the cathedrals of nature rather than theatres and opera halls, look no further than Innsbruck. This picture-postcard city – the capital of the state of Tirol – almost has to be seen to be believed. Stately avenues are lined with elegant pastel-hued buildings, while unexpected architectural delights like the glittering Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) oriel window add a touch of the exotic. Presiding over it all is the natural majesty of the Karwendel Alps, especially the Nordkette mountain range, which constitute a veritable playground for lovers of the great outdoors. Nowhere than here better distils Austria’s speciality in stunning natural landscapes and health-giving microclimates, immersion in which is sure to make you feel invigorated and present. While the snow which blankets the mountains turns this area into one of the world’s premier ski and snow sport destinations in the winter months, come spring the ice thaws to reveal a wonderland of alpine meadows alive with wildflowers, and mountain hiking trails suitable for all ability levels.

Innsbruck Old town in Alps mountains, Tirol, Austria © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

A good place to start is by taking the Nordkettenbahn cable car from the Old Town to the top of Innsbruck at Hafelekar mountain, where an easy hike takes you the summit and spectacular views over Innsbruck sprawled in the valley below. You can even rent your own picnic backpack, including all sorts of food, drinks and even a blanket, from the Nordkette Seegrube station. Just tell them a day in advance. Another beauty spot not to be missed is Lake Lans, where you can hike through the trees before taking a dip in the calm water in the warmer months.

After a day’s exploration in the fresh mountain air, the coffee shops and strudel houses of Innsbruck’s Altstadt have never looked more inviting. Head for Café Katzung, overlooking the famous Golden Roof and near the grand Hofburg Palace, for a slice of apple strudel, some ice cream and a coffee before heading out to explore the Old Town.

Pack your walking shoes, because Innsbruck is a place best explored on foot. Take a walk in the footsteps of the Habsburgs, whose mighty royal dynasty was expanded here by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The family are associated with some of the city’s most famous sights – not only the Golden Roof, but Leopold’s Fountain, the Tyrolean State Theatre, and the Cathedral of St James, to name a few of those which can be toured on a walking route through the Altstadt. For trips further afield around Innsbruck, the Welcome Card affords you free travel on buses and trams for stays of two nights and more, and on four cable cars for stays of three nights and more, alongside discounts on the area’s pools, lakes, and other attractions.

Find out more at www.austria.info

Top image: Salzburg skyline with Festung Hohensalzburg herriage © Rasto SK/Shutterstock

Travel advice for Austria

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written by Daniel Stables
updated 7/9/2021
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Daniel has authored, co-authored or contributed to more than 30 travel books for Rough Guides, Insight Guides, DK Eyewitness and Berlitz, on destinations as far afield as Indonesia, Nepal, Oman, Mexico, Tokyo, Thailand and Spain. He regularly writes articles for a variety of travel publications, online and in print, including BBC Travel, The Independent, Lonely Planet, and National Geographic Traveller. You can find Daniel on Twitter @DanStables, Instagram @DanStabs, and read more of his work at danielstables.co.uk.

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