Nature meets culture in 3 of the best cities in Austria

written by Joanne Owen
updated 5/19/2022
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Where should I go to experience culture and nature at their most spectacular? If that’s the question on your mind, Austria should be thrust to the top of your destination wish-list. While Vienna rightfully attracts attention as the graceful capital of Austria, travellers seeking a refreshing blend of nature and culture would do well to consider visiting three of the best cities in Austria: Salzburg, Graz and Innsbruck.

From uncovering magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites, to hiking splendid mountains, visiting this trio of cities in Austria will leave you well and truly rewarded, and longing to return. Read on to find out why you need to visit the best cities in Austria.

1. Salzburg – one of the best cities in Austria

  • Best for music-lovers, romantics, history buffs and hikers

Offering majestic views of the eastern Alps, and easy access to exhilarating mountain walks, Salzburg sings with the sound of music. No surprise, given that the city provided the unforgettable setting for the Sound of Music movie, Mozart was born here, and it now hosts world-renowned music festivals. 

Present-day Salzburg also sings with the clatter of cups coming from traditional coffee houses, and the clink of beer glasses from 15th-century breweries, with the striking architectural legacies of its former prince-archbishops revealing themselves at every turn. 

Salzburg — where nature meets culture from every perspective © Tourismus Salzburg/Breitegger Günter

Salzburg’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town is an enchantment of lanes and passages, with the five squares at the heart of its heritage area providing the perfect setting to experience the city’s celebrated coffee house culture

To see where it all began, visit Café Tomaselli on Alter Markt. Located here since 1764, the café has been owned by the Tomaselli family since 1852 — expect delicious, elegant delicacies in equally elegant surroundings.

Envisaged as “Rome of the North” by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich zu Raitenau in the sixteenth-century, over centuries Salzburg was transformed into the beautiful baroque city that awaits you today. Follow a UNESCO-themed city walk to see Salzburg’s top historic sites, allowing plenty of time for a rewarding stop-off at handsome Hohensalzburg Fortress

Hohensalzburg Fortress, Salzburg © Tourismus Salzburg/Breitegger Günter

With a panoramic viewing experience to enjoy, and five museums to explore (the city as a whole certainly isn’t short of beautiful museums), visiting the fortress is the ideal way to absorb the splendour of Salzburg’s natural and architectural beauty at one fell swoop.

Meanwhile, on Mozartplatz, the Salzburg carillon is enthroned high above the rooftops of the City of Mozart. With 35 different bells, it enchants the hearts of visitors and locals alike. Before you go, discover more about the sweet ringing of Salzburg's celebrated bells.

Staying on the subject of Salzburg’s most famous son, Mozart was born in Hagenauer Haus in 1756. Take a Mozart City Tour to follow in the great man’s footsteps. Better still, time your visit to coincide with one of the city’s major music festivals — the Salzburg Easter Festival, the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, and the summer Salzburg Festival, arguably the world's most important festival for opera and classical music. 

Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg © Tourismus Salzburg/ B. Reinhart

The good news is, you still have time to book a trip to experience St Rupert’s Day 2022. Each year on 24th September, these folklore-infused celebrations take place around Salzburg Cathedral in honour of St Rupert.

Historic rides, market stalls with regional treats and a beer tent are among the highlights. Read up on the St Rupert's Day celebrations before you roll up to enjoy all the fun and folklore of this traditional fair.

Celebrating St Rupert's Day in Salzburg © Altstadt Marketing Salzburg/Wild&Team

Looking further ahead, visit in winter to see Cathedral Square and Residence Square transformed into the charming stage for the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt, an award-winning Christmas market. At the same time, the Winterfest showcases world-class circus artistry, while advent events around the city ring in the festive season in atmospheric style.

Salzburg cathedral in winter © Tourismus Salzburg/Breitegger Günter

In the mood for romance? Be sure to visit Mirabell Palace and gardens. Built by Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau for his lover, the marble hall on the first floor has to be the most beautiful registry office in the world.

Meanwhile, fans of The Sound of Music will recognise the palace’s Pegasus Fountain as the place Maria and the von Trapp children sang “Do Re Mi”. 

Mirabell Palace garden, Salzburg © Tourismus Salzburg

Alongside all that culture, coffee and cake, beautiful back-to-nature adventures await. Salzburg is a green city, blessed with a bounty of gardens. The Kapuzinerberg and Mönchsberg mountains allow for spectacular city hikes, while a little further afield (we’re talking minutes), Gaisberg and Untersberg offer invigorating hiking and mountain-biking in sublime surroundings. 

Top tip:

Buy a Salzburg Card for free entry to many museums and free travel on many forms of public transport, and read up on more of Salzburg's attractions.

Find the best hotels in Salzburg.

Grossgmain near Salzburg, Austria © Tourismus Salzburg/Albin Niederstrasser

2. Graz – relaxed and elegant

  • Best for foodies, art-lovers, and easy access to outdoor adventuring 

Capital of the southern Austrian province of Styria, Graz is a city that stimulates all the senses. Its elegant architecture is extremely easy on the eye. The fragrance of its glorious green spaces and gardens drift at every turn. Then there are all those bars to chill in, fine food to feast on, and easy access to hiking experiences that’ll give you an energising work-out while taking your breath away.  

Graz — one of the best cities in Austria for culture and nature experiences © Graz Tourismus/Harry Schiffer

Graz really does offer an intoxicating mix of a hip-and-happening, Mediterranean-like lifestyle with wonders of the natural kind.

First-time visitors will want to kick off their Graz experience by getting to know the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site treasures. Ride the funicular railway up to Schlossberg for epic views, and epic legends. The 16th-century clock tower in the castle grounds is an icon of the city, with a somewhat confusing configuration — the function of its hands have been swapped. 

Graz — where nature meets culture and fine food and wine © Graz Tourismus/Werner Krug

Back on lower ground, Graz has plenty more in its arsenal of attractions. It's home to the world’s largest armoury, while the Old Town is a delight of cobbled alleys, red roof-tops, and charming Renaissance courtyards. Meanwhile, Eggenberg Palace houses excellent permanent exhibitions of art and ancient artefacts, with peacocks strutting their stuff in the extensive gardens.

But it’s not all about treasures of the past. In 1999, Eggenberg Palace unveiled the inventive Planetengarten — a modern-day representation of age-old astrological thinking that draws on palace history and sits in harmony with the green surroundings.

Eggenberg Palace in Graz hosts concerts aplenty © Graz Tourismus

In fact, one of Graz’s defining characteristics — and allures — is the way it blends the old with the new. Baroque buildings are just as likely to host modern jazz and electro music festivals as they are classical concerts. And the ultra-cool KunstHaus museum of modern art shows that Graz’s reputation as a city of design is more than deserved. 

Graz is one of the best Austrian cities in which to experience Old Town treasures alongside modern art © Graz Tourismus

Graz also has a reputation for being Austria’s culinary capital. It’s certainly renowned for being one of the best cities in Austria for food. With 300 city farmers in operation, foodies won’t want to miss visiting all those markets and delis to sample a range of regional Graz goodies — from herb-marinated Vulcano ham, to more varieties of organic bread than you can shake an organic breadstick at. 

Graz’s buzzy bars, laidback street cafés and fine-dining restaurants deliver big-time, too. From trying traditional Styrian dishes like beautiful scarlet bean salads and hearty pork knuckle soup, to broadening your palate in world-class international eateries, Graz really is gratifying for gourmands.

Delikatessen Frankowitsch © Graz Tourismus

If you feel fit to burst after enjoying all that food (frankly, it would be rude not to), Graz has a host of gardens and parks in which to enjoy refreshing walks in culturally-significant settings. From the Botanical Gardens and riverside Augarten Park, to forest-surrounded Legensteinpark, lovers of glorious green spaces won’t be disappointed.

If you’re looking for more high-octane experiences. you won’t need to go far, either. Graz is surrounded by wild, romantic landscapes that are ripe for rambling. Why not hike through the primaeval Peggau forest and the Badl gorge, or walk one of the trails to Kesselfall gorge

Top tip

Get yourself a Graz card for convenience and discounts, and discover more glorious Graz attractions. It really is one of the best cities in Austria for travellers who love good grub and the great outdoors.

Find your perfect place to stay in Graz.

Graz is one of the best cities in Austria to get back to nature with ease. Freilichtmuseum Stuebing © Graz Tourismus

3. Innsbruck – a visual spectacle

  • Best for alpine-urban rejuvenation, adventure, and a summer of culture and sport

Capital of Austria’s western Tirol region, alpine Innsbruck has long been a desirable destination for winter sports. But that’s far from everything Innsbruck has to offer. In fact, the city also boasts a host of historic gems, with a programme of summer festivals and sporting events set to put Innsbruck on the map as a destination with something for everyone, for every age. 

Innsbruck panorama © Innsbruck Tourismus/Mario Webhofer

We'll kick off what draws most people to Innsbruck — those awe-inspiring mountains. Whether you’re a hardened hiker, or a family seeking a fun experience in the stunning outdoors, Innsbruck has hiking trails to suit your needs. Looking for a more challenging experience? Try the multi-day Innsbruck Trek

The same goes for Innsbruck’s biking offerings. With terrain spanning gently undulating lowlands and precipitous peaks, you can create your perfect two-wheel trip, no matter what your fitness level. In the market for a leisurely experience? Take a tour of charming mountain inns, or ride the Culinary Cycling Path on the Mieming Plateau. 

If being outdoors is your number one priority, you could consider kipping under the stars (well, kind of). Innsbruck’s camping and glamping options are plentiful, with most sites serving up truly mind-blowing settings — take your pick from fragrant meadows, fairy tale forests, tranquil lakes and mighty mountain scenery. 

Goethe trail © Innsbruck Tourismus/Christian Vorhofer

Staying with the adventure theme, summer 2022 will see Innsbruck host an incredible array of sporting events. The international bike elite will be in town for the Crankworx bike festival from 15th-19th June, closely followed by the Climbing World Cup on 21st–26th June. Meanwhile, 27th August sees the return of the Red Bull 400 ski-jump event. And that’s barely touching the surface of Innsbruck’s sporting events

Fear not if you’re not up for adventuring all the time. If you fancy indulging in some R&R, Innsbruck has plenty of options, from enjoying massages in swish city-centre spas and saunas, to rejuvenating forest-bathing therapies. 

Innsbruck Old Town © Innsbruck Tourismus/Christof Lackner

Another great way to relax is to simply stroll Innsbruck's heritage highlights. The Golden Roof has gleamed at the heart of the historic Old Town for over 500 years. Then there’s beautiful Baroque Hebling House and the Imperial Palace, another of Emperor Maximilian I’s impressive legacies.

Elsewhere, just above Innsbruck, Archduke Ferdinand II’s Ambras Castle is a must-visit for art-lovers and culture vultures. 

Innsbruck's Ambras Castle © Innsbruck Tourismus/Christof Lackner

Talking of culture, the summer season will see the city host an abundance of festivals. Innsbruck Old Town is set to stage a clutch of free pop-up concerts of Early Music in July and September, while devotees of classical music and mountain scenery won’t want to miss Klassik am Berg on 25th June 2022 — an open-air summer concert held on Muttereralm mountain.

Every night in July, classical music fans are treated to Innsbruck Promenade Concerts, performed in a beautiful open air setting in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace.

For something entirely different — Innsbruck is nothing but inventive — 21st July heralds the New Orleans Festival. Bringing together stars from New Orlean’s music scene and local artists, this promises four nights of finger-clicking, hip-swaying rhythm and blues, funk, soul and gospel music.

Innsbruck is also abundant in diverse immersive experiences. Into food? Take an Innsbruck Food Tour in the company of local guide. Choose from a savoury or sweet tour to visit the city’s best markets, shops, restaurants, bakeries, coffee houses and cake shops. Not only can you sample local delicacies along the way, but you’ll also meet the makers. We recommend coming hungry!

Bergiselschanze and Nordkette © Innsbruck Tourismus/Christof Lackner

For another fabulous food experience, you could enjoy a picnic in the heart of the Alps. Just twenty minutes from town, Nordkette Mountain is the perfect place to feast on local sausages, cheese, beer and a whole lot more in Austria’s largest Nature Park, the Karwendel. Contact the Nordkette team to arrange a picturesque picnic that will serve up 360 views across a spectacular conservation area.

Staying on the subject of immersive experiences, you could book a meet and greet with a star ski jumper at Bergisel ski jump. Easily reached on the SightSeer bus, this showcases the uniqueness of Innsbruck’s attractions.

The same can be said of Swarovski Crystal Worlds. Located 20 kms to the east of the city, with a handy shuttle bus to get you there, this unique attraction blends the magic of nature with the marvels of dazzling modern art. 

Designed by world renowned artists, the enchanting Chambers of Wonder that make up The Giant take inspiration from Ambras Castle, while The Garden's sparkling Crystal Cloud, Mirror Pool, and interactive play tower boast sensory delights that'll appeal to all ages.

For more inspiration, explore Innsbruck’s summer programme, peruse the complete events calendar, and discover more Innsbruck attractions

Top tip

If you’re staying for two nights or more, be sure to pick up a Welcome Card from your hotel. It includes all forms of public transport for the entire city and Innsbruck region, plus a guided hiking and e-biking programme — all for free.

If you opt to stay three nights or more, you'll also receive four cable car trips in the surrounding villages at no additional cost.

Plan to do lots of sightseeing? Treat yourself to an Innsbruck Card. In addition to free public transport, it gives access to 22 museums and attractions, trips on the hop-on, hop-off Sightseer bus, and two cable cars that begin right in the city. 

Discover the best hotels in Innsbruck.

Awe-inspiring vistas and walks await around Innsbruck © Innsbruck Tourismus/Markus Mair

Travelling around Austria

With a fabulous transport network, Austria is easy and enjoyable to get around. That’s good news if you’re planning to visit the best cities in Austria.

Read up on getting around by train, and getting around by car. There’s also an affordable network of coach routes to help you explore more of Austria’s undeniable charms.

Top image: Salzburg old town © Tourismus Salzburg/Breitegger Günter

This article is brought you in partnership with the Austrian National Tourist Office.

We may earn commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Travel advice for Austria

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 5/19/2022
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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