West of Vienna, the Danube snakes through the Wachau, one of its most scenic stretches, where castles and vineyards cling to steep slopes above quaint villages. The western end of this 40km stretch is marked by a stunning Baroque monastery in Melk. Further west the river steadily loses charm, though it’s still a focus for several towns and cities, including Linz, whose high-tech Ars Electronica museum is particularly enjoyable. South of the Danube region, the land slowly climbs and rolls into the hills of Styria, with its attractive and bustling capital Graz. Northwest of here, the land rises again up to the Salzkammergut, a region of fine Alpine scenery and pretty lakes within easy reach of Salzburg. Southwest of the Salzkammergut the peaks really start to soar and resorts like Zell am See take full advantage of the landscape to offer great skiing and first-rate outdoor activities.
Top image: Graz © Khirman Vladimir/Shutterstock
Combining the quiet elegance of an old nineteenth-century spa destination with modern trappings and reasonably modest price tags, the resort of Bad Gastein, 94km south of Salzburg, is one of Austria’s best budget mountain getaways. Note, however, it’s a seasonal destination for winter skiing and high-summer hiking only.
Boats can be rented from the boatshed just south of the landing stage (1hr/€15). The tourist office can advise on hiking routes and sell local hiking guides. At the southern end of town in Lahn is a “Badinsel”, an artificial island for sunbathing and swimming (changing facilities nearby).
For real High Baroque excess, head for the early eighteenth-century Benedictine monastery at Melk – a pilgrimage centre associated with the Irish missionary St Koloman. The monumental coffee-cake monastery, perched on a bluff over the river, dominates the town. Highlights of the interior (daily: April–Oct 9am–5pm; tours in English 10.55am & 2.55pm; Nov–March guided tours only 11am
& 2pm; €11, €13 with guided tour) are the exquisite library, with a cherub-infested ceiling by Troger, and the rather lavish monastery church, with similarly impressive work by Rottmayr.
With its impressive fortification and spectacular ice caves, WERFEN, 40km south of Salzburg, offers a great day of sightseeing, but arrive early to comfortably see both. The moody castle Festung Hohenwerfen (April Tues–Sun 9.30am–4pm; May–Sept daily 9am–5pm; mid-July to mid-Aug daily 9am–6pm; Oct daily 9.30am–4pm; €12, €15.50 with lift), on an outcrop above town, lies a thirty-minute signed walk from Werfen’s train station. Though much modified over the years, it has eleventh-century origins, with all the usual components – ornate chapel and torture chamber included – neatly gathered around a courtyard.
There are daily falconry displays (April to mid-July & mid-Aug to Oct 11.15am & 3.15pm, mid-July to mid-Aug 11.15am, 2.15pm & 4.30pm) too.
Up the road from Werfen’s castle, you can explore the first kilometre of a 40km underground network at the Eisriesenwelt ice caves. The caves are more than two hours’ walk from the entrance building, so most visitors take a cable car. Tours run every 30min (daily: May–June, Sept & Oct 8am–3.45pm; July & Aug 8am–4.45pm; ticket office closes 45min before last tour; €12, €24 with cable car) and last around 75 minutes. It’s cold, so take a jumper.
Trains from Salzburg frequently arrive at Werfen’s station, from where buses
(€7 return) to the caves depart daily at 8.18am, 10.18am, 12.18pm & 2.18pm; more buses leave (around every 20min) from the official Gries car park departure point across the river – it’s signposted from the station and not far.
Some 80km south of Salzburg, ZELL AM SEE is a pretty old town wedged between a perfect alpine lake and an impressive mountainous hinterland. The quintessential Austrian resort, it’s busy with skiers in winter and hikers in summer