Glorious Alpine scenery, monumental Habsburg architecture, and the world’s favourite musical – Austria’s tourist industry certainly plays up to the clichés. However, it’s not all bewigged Mozart ensembles and schnitzel; modern Austria boasts some of Europe’s most varied museums and contemporary architecture not to mention attractive and sophisticated cities whose bars, cafés and clubs combine contemporary cool with elegant tradition.
Long the powerhouse of the Habsburg Empire, Austria underwent decades of change and uncertainty in the early twentieth century. Shorn of her empire and racked by economic difficulties, the state fell prey to the promises of Nazi Germany. Only with the end of the Cold War did Austria return to the heart of Europe, joining the EU in 1995.
Politics aside, Austria is primarily known for two contrasting attractions – the fading imperial glories of the capital, and the stunning beauty of its Alpine hinterland. Vienna is the gateway to much of central Europe and a good place to soak up the culture of Mitteleuropa.
Less renowned provincial capitals such as Graz and Linz are surprising pockets of culture, innovation and vitality. Salzburg, between Innsbruck and Vienna, represents urban Austria at its most picturesque, an intoxicating Baroque city within easy striking distance of the mountains and lakes of the Salzkammergut, while the most dramatic of Austria’s Alpine scenery is west of here, in and around Tyrol, whose capital, Innsbruck, provides the best base for exploration.
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Without a visit to Vienna you’ll return home with only half the picture. Built on a grand scale as seat of the Habsburg Empire, it’s a place that positively drips with imperial nostalgia.The pickings are rich, with the old palaces of the Hofburg and Schönbrunn high on the list, as are the cultural offerings from the gargantuan art collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum to the new cultural complex of the MuseumsQuartier.
Equally compelling, nowadays, are the ghosts of Vienna’s golden age at the end of the nineteenth century, when the likes of Freud, Klimt, Schiele and Schönberg frequented the city’s cafés.The city boasts some wonderful Jugendstil and early modernist buildings and a bevy of traditional fin-de-siècle cafés patrolled by waiters in tuxedos. Last, but by no means least,Vienna is by far the best place in the country for night- life, and that means everything from top-class opera to techno.
Salzburg is no less intoxicating. Its Altstadt contains the country’s most concentrated ensemble of Baroque architecture, and the Hohensalzburg fortress is arguably the country’s most impressive medieval castle. A substantial musical pedigree is ensured by the city’s status as the birthplace of Mozart and venue of the Salzburg Festival, one of the world’s most renowned celebrations of classical music and theatre.
Of Austria’s other regional capitals, Innsbruck combines both a buzzing 9 nightlife and close proximity to some of the Tyrol’s highest peaks to make it one of Austria’s most popular destinations. Its attractive and largely medieval city centre focuses on the Hofkirche, site of the memorial to sixteenth-century Habsburg strongman Emperor Maximilian I.
In the Styrian capital, Graz, the main attractions are the Altstadt, the fine-art collections of the Landesmuseum Joanneum and the Baroque Eggenberg Palace. Austria’s second largest city is also a good base from which to venture out into the vineyards and pumpkin fields of the rural southeast.
Top image: Hallstatt village © Rastislav Sedlak SK/Shutterstock
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