Austria, one of Europe's most popular holiday destinations, attracts tourists year-round, and winter is almost as busy as summer in the spectacular mountain regions. Visitors are drawn as much for the scenic beauty of this Alpine republic's provinces as they are for splendid cities like Vienna (Wien), the historic capital, and beautiful Salzburg, birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One of Europe's smallest countries, Austria is predominantly a nation of upland areas and high mountains, with the Eastern Alps occupying a good 60 percent of its territory. The River Danube flows for about 350 kilometers from west to east through the northern part of the country, adding to its attraction as a tourist destination
The Vienna Hofburg: Austria's Imperial Palace
The spectacular Hofburg Palace in Vienna was for centuries the seat of Austria's monarchy, the powerful Habsburgs. Now the President conducts state business in the same rooms that once belonged to Emperor Joseph II. Nearly every Austrian ruler since 1275 ordered additions or alterations, resulting in many different architectural influences, including Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Classicism. Together with its squares and gardens, the entire Hofburg complex occupies 59 acres encompassing 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms. Highlights of a visit include the Imperial Silver Collection and an array of dining services giving a taste of the lavish imperial banquets that once took place here; the Sisi Museum, focusing on the life and times of Empress Elisabeth; and the Imperial Apartments, a series of 19 rooms once occupied by Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife.
Numerous cities claim a connection to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but few were as important to the famous composer as Salzburg. It's here you'll find No. 9 Getreidegasse, the house where Mozart was born on January 27th, 1756. Now a museum called Mozart's Birthplace, the rooms once occupied by his family are full of mementos, instruments, and portraits. Another address associated with Mozart is Makartplatz 8, where he took up residence in 1773. Mozart's Residence contains many interesting artifacts related to his life and times, and was where the composer entertained Europe's musical elite and wrote many of his symphonies. Afterwards, head to Mozart Square with its large monument to the city's favorite son. Salzburg also hosts a number of music festivals in honor of the composer, including Mozart Week (Jan-Feb) and the six-week long Salzburg Festival (June-Aug).
The Emperor's Tomb: Hofkirche and the Museum of Maximilian
Innsbruck is home to the Hofkirche, or Court Church, with its spectacular Tomb of Emperor Maximilian I who died in 1519. Widely considered the finest work of German Renaissance sculpture, the monument's central feature is the massive black marble sarcophagus with a bronze figure of the Emperor. On the sides of the sarcophagus are 24 marble reliefs depicting events in the Emperor's life, and around it stand 28 larger-than-life-size bronze statues of the Emperor's ancestors and contemporaries (look out for King Arthur). Other pieces of sculpture include 23 bronze statues of saints from the Habsburg family and 20 bronze busts of Roman emperors. Innsbruck also has the Maximilianeum, a museum of collectibles from the life of Emperor Maximilian including original documents and belongings.
Dachstein Salzkammergut and the Giant Ice Cave
Hallstatt, undoubtedly one of the most picturesque small towns in Austria, is a good place from which to explore the spectacular Dachstein Salzkammergut region, a UNESCO World Heritage site. You'll be rewarded with a chance to explore the Dachstein Caves, one of Europe's most impressive cavern networks, which are, in places, up to 1,174 meters deep. Highlights include the Giant Ice Cave with its sub-zero summer temperatures and huge caverns with magnificent frozen waterfalls, and the Mammoth Cave with its huge pipe-shaped galleries formed by an ancient underground river. Above ground, visitors can tackle the superb 5 Fingers viewing platform, an incredible metal structure hanging over a 400-meter sheer drop with excellent views of the surrounding Alps.
The Spanish Riding School, Vienna
The Spanish Riding School dates back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the man responsible for introducing the famous Lipizzaner horses into Austria in 1562. Today, it's the only place where the Classical style of riding preferred by aristocracy is still practiced. Viewing the famous equestrian displays in the Baroque Winter Riding School - held here since the time of Charles VI - is a must when in Vienna. Built in 1735, the magnificent hall was designed for the nobility to demonstrate their riding skills. Tickets are sought after, so book online as far in advance as possible.
The Styrian Armoury (Landeszeughaus)
In the heart of Graz is the Landeszeughaus, the Styrian Arsenal. Built in 1644, the building houses a spectacular collection of completely preserved 17th-century arms and armor - enough, in fact, to arm 32,000 men, including helmets, and weaponry. While in Graz, check out the Landhaus. Built in Renaissance style in 1557-65 and with a main facade dominated by rounded windows and a veranda, it boasts a lovely arcaded courtyard with three-storied pergolas on two sides and a Renaissance fountain, while in the Knights' Hall there's a splendid stucco ceiling from 1746.
At 1,998 meters, the Kitzbuheler Horn in the Tyrol region is one of the most picturesque of Austria's many summits. Accessible by cableway via the Pletzeralm or by climbing from the village of Kitzbuhel, the summit affords glorious views: to the south from the Radstadter Tauern to the Otztal Alps; to the north, the nearby Kaisergebirge; to the west, the Lechtal Alps; and to the east, the HochkOnig. To the south of the Kitzbuheler Horn rises the 1,772-meter-high HornkOpfli, also reached by cableway. In addition to the great views, on the summit, you'll find the Gipfelhaus, a unique mountaintop home; a chapel; a restaurant; and an Alpine garden. During the ski season, the mountains in the immediate vicinity of Kitzbuhel bustle with skiers from all over the world.
Melk Benedictine Abbey
Melk Abbey is one of the world's most famous monastic sites, and its spectacular buildings are laid out around seven courtyards. The most prominent part of this massive 325-meter-long complex is the west end and its twin-towered church rising above a semicircular terrace range. Perched on a rocky outcrop high above the town of Melk and overlooking the Danube, the abbey contains numerous other great reasons to spend a few hours touring it: the tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau; the remains of Austria's first ruling family, the House of Babenberg; the superb 196-meter-long Imperial Corridor with its portraits of Austria's rulers, including one of the Empress Maria Theresa; and the Imperial Rooms with their displays relating to the abbey's history, along with statues and paintings.
Krimmler Ache: Austria's Tallest Waterfalls
The Krimmler Ache plunges 380 meters in three tremendous cascades and makes for an excellent excursion from the nearby village of Krimml. At an altitude of 1,076 meters, Krimml - perched high above the Salzachtal in a wooded valley - is a wonderful place to stop for a few days if you're into hiking. In addition to various excellent walks to the waterfalls, there's a rewarding climb to the Schettbrucke and continuing to the spectacular Krimmler Tauernhaus. From here, expert climbers can tackle the 2,911-meter-high Glockenkarkopf on the Italian frontier.
The Hohe Tauern and Franz-Josefs-HOhe
In the massive Hohe Tauern mountain range, Franz-Josefs-HOhe is famous across Europe for its spectacular views. Named after a visit paid by Kaiser Franz-Josef in 1856, this wonderful vantage point stands 2,422 meters above sea level and offers incredible vistas of the surrounding country, including the Grossglockner which, at 3,798 meters, is Austria's highest mountain. Be sure to stop at the visitor center for its detailed displays relating to the area's history, as well as exhibits focusing on its glaciers and general tourist information. Getting there is half the fun, as you'll drive along the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, one of the most thrilling alpine routes in Europe.
Medieval Burg Hochosterwitz
To the east of St. Veit, on a crag rising some 160-meters above the valley, sprawls the imposing Burg Hochosterwitz, Austria's most important medieval castle. After a turbulent history, the castle - first mentioned in 860 AD - was captured by the Khevenhullers, and was enlarged in 1570 in the face of Turkish invaders. Never captured by a foe, the castle has remained in the Khevenhuller family since. The steep access road to the castle, the Burgweg, winds its way up through the 14 defensive gates to the beautiful arcaded courtyard where you'll find the little chapel with its wall and ceiling paintings from 1570 and the church at the southwestern end of the castle with its high altar dating from 1729.
The Pilgrimage Church in Maria Saal
The Church of Maria Saal, perched on a hill high above the Zollfeld, is one of the leading places of pilgrimage in the state of Carinthia in southern Austria. It was here around 750 AD that Bishop Modestus consecrated a church from which the surrounding area was Christianized. The present twin-towered church was built in Gothic style in the first half of the 15th century on the foundations of a Roman basilica, and was remodeled during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Highlights include the west facade with twin towers and its fine old gravestones. Particularly interesting are the 16th-century Keutschach Epitaph depicting the Coronation of Our Lady, and a Roman stone relief from around 300 AD.
Klosterneuburg Abbey and the Verdun Altar
A flight of steps in lovely Klosterneuburg Abbey leads down to the 12th-century St. Leopold's Chapel where Leopold III is buried. It's also where you'll find the famous Verdun Altar. Perhaps the finest existing example of medieval enamel work, the altar consists of 51 panels of champleve work on gilded copper depicting Biblical scenes by Nicholas of Verdun from around 1181. Originally on the reading pulpit of the former Romanesque church, the panels were put together to form the present winged altarpiece after a fire in 1329. Four painted panels affixed to the altar in 1331 and the oldest in Austria - they were painted in Vienna before 1329 - are now in the Abbey Museum.
Eisriesenwelt: The World of the Ice Giants
Found on the western edge of the Tennengebirge, the spectacular World of the Ice Giants is the largest system of ice caves in the world. Covering some 30,000 square meters, the caves were carved by an underground river in the Tertiary period. Discovered in 1879, they were opened to the public in 1912, and to date, an amazing 45 kilometers of the network has been explored. After winding along the Great Ice Wall, you'll be confronted by the massive Hymir Hall with its impressive ice formations and icicles. Stone steps lead to the Eistor, or Ice Gate, a spectacular 1,775-meter-high wall of ice, and the great Ice Palace. Conducted tours last two hours, and the trip to and from the caves takes a few hours, so expect to spend the best part of a day exploring the area.
The Grossglockner Road
The Grossglockner Road from Bruck, in the Pinzgau, to Heiligenblut, at the foot of the Grossglockner was constructed between 1930 and 1935 and is one of the most magnificent mountain roads in Europe. Although its importance as a route through the Alps has declined, it's still a splendid highway through the Hohe Tauern, Austria's highest mountain massif and one of the country's outstanding attractions. Originally a Roman road, it was "rediscovered" with the advent of the automobile due to its numerous panoramic views. Running for 22 kilometers through the mountains at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, the road consists of a long succession of turns leading up to the summit tunnel on the Hochtor at 2,506 meters and then down into the valley on the far side.
Built between 1140-1200, Gurk Cathedral is the final resting place for the remains of St. Hemma, moved to the crypt in the 12th century. The large twin towers, 41 meters high, had onion domes added in 1682, and the barrel-vaulted porch with its 13th-century doorway has been enclosed since the Gothic period when its interior was richly decorated with wall paintings and stained glass. The cathedral's most impressive features are its wall paintings: St. Christopher, dating from 1250; the Downfall of Saul from 1380; and Death and Assumption of the Virgin from 1390. Also of note are six painted wooden reliefs depicting the legend of St. Hemma, and the Baroque high altar from 1626 with 72 statues and 82 angels' heads.