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Things to Do in Austria

Often known for the musicians and films it inspired, Austria mixes quaint Alpine charm with abundant opportunities for arts and culture, set against a sweeping Sound of Music landscape. The capital, Vienna, beckons with its rich musical history, plentiful cafes, and emphasis on the arts. A walking tour through the city reveals a mix of architectural styles, from Gothic to Renaissance to art nouveau, which serve as testament to Vienna's ability to seamlessly blend old and new—St. Stephen's Cathedral is a must-see sight, with its fairy-tale appearance. In the city center sits Wiener coffeehouse, where artists and thinkers such as Beethoven, Sigmund Freud, and Gustaf Klimt have all assembled masterpieces while eating apfelstrudel and sipping famously thick hot chocolates. If music is on your mind, a nighttime visit to the Schonbrunn Palace or the Opera house shows the immortality of classical tunes. The smaller city of Salzburg, the picturesque birthplace of Mozart, is just a three-hour trip away. From Salzburg—with its river cruises and fortresses—the mountain landscape of Bavaria unfurls. Many tours take travelers through the valleys, with visits to salt mines, wine tastings, and bicycling; and nature is a year-round option, with ski opportunities in the winter and hikes in the summers. And many visitors to Austria opt for a train trip through the country to see the imposing Austrian Alps, deep lakes, and idyllic villages in one of the world's happiest countries.
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Salzburg Old Town (Salzburger Altstadt)
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Lovely Salzburg’s enchanting medieval heart lies along the southern bank of the Salzach River; the Aldstadt is an enclave of winding cobbled alleyways, airy piazzas and many fine Baroque churches.

The wealth of Salzburg originated in the 14th century when it became an independent principality ruled by powerful prince-bishops, and thanks to its glorious architecture it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The Old Town’s many highlights include the massive Baroque Salzburg Residenz (Prince-Bishops’ Palace) in Residenzplatz and the landmark Dom (cathedral), majestically gilded inside and with a dramatic Baroque façade rearing up over Domplatz. St Peter’s Abbey is a Benedictine monastery with a fine, frothy rococo interior and a gastronomic treat in its cellars; Stiftskeller St Peter is one of Salzburg’s oldest restaurants.

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Vienna Musikverein (Wiener Musikverein)
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With a capacity of 2,854 between two concert halls, the Musikverein is home to the renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It was constructed on the Vienna Ringstrasse, in elegant Neo-Classical style, by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, and as well as having some of the best acoustics in the world, it is considered one of the loveliest concert halls in Europe. Inaugurated in 1870 by the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, the Musikverein is famous for its elaborate Golden Hall, the ornate, gilt-clad auditorium with a frescoed ceiling, dripping chandeliers and luxurious balconied stalls. The Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year concert has been broadcast all around the world from here since 1959. A chamber-music hall is used for smaller events.

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Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn)
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Schonbrunn Palace, or Schloss Schonbrunn, means 'beautiful spring' and was a royal hunting park when plans were made to build a sumptuous palace to rival Versailles. Queen Maria Theresa's architect, Nicholas Pacassi, is responsible for the eventual design of a long, symmetrical palace full of gilding and crimson displays drawing on Japanese, Italian, Persian and Indian works of art. There are ceiling frescoes celebrating the Habsburgs and 18th century furnishings. It was finally finished in 1749.

The gardens are huge and beautiful. There is a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze and labyrinth, and a viewing terrace. Since the end of the monarchy the Viennese people have flocked to these gardens for recreation. The palace is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

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Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere)
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The two Baroque palaces were built in the 18th century as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy. They are known as the Upper Belvedere - full of huge rooms for entertaining - and the Lower Belvedere - the former living quarters - and are set in huge and magnificent gardens. They are considered to be the best Baroque palace in the world. The Upper Belvedere is now a gallery showing Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present day, including the world's best collection of Gustav Klimt. Klimt's famous golden The Kiss is here. In The Orangery next to the Lower Belvedere houses changing exhibitions, and in the Lower Belvedere you can see the prince's living quarters and staterooms, plus the stables.
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Salzburg Cathedral (Dom zu Salzburg)
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Salzburg’s Cathedral, or Dom, is a restrained exercise in classic Italian Baroque, topped with green bronze domes. Mozart was baptized here, and the building was completed in 1628.

Highlights include the light-filled atrium and dome, the crypt with its Romanesque foundations and tombs, and the statues of angels surrounding the altar. The Cathedral Museum tells the history of the Cathedral’s construction and artworks.

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Schlosspark Schönbrunn (Schönbrunn Palace Garden)
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Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is the former summer residence of the royal family. The gardens at Schönbrunn Palace were opened to the public at the end of the 1700s and since then have been a popular recreational area, both with the Viennese population and international visitors alike.

The palace and its immaculate grounds made it onto the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1996. Spanning some 1.2 kilometers from east to west and approximately one kilometre from north to south, these are no ordinary gardens; they house a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze, and a viewing terrace. The original Baroque-style layout, along with the additions made during the last decade of Queen Maria Theresa’s life, has more or less been retained.

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Hofburg Imperial Palace (Hofburg Wien)
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The House of Habsburg was one of the most important royal dynasties in Europe and ruled Austria for six centuries. Through prudent marriages they managed to also gain Spain, Hungary, parts of France and many other lands. They built many fine churches and residences and rarely finished any of them. The Hofburg was the Imperial Palace until 1918, although strictly the Habsburg dynasty had died out and been succeeded by another by then. The palace remains the center of government for Austria but these days the occupier is a democratic republic rather than kings and queens. The palace is an amalgam of eras and styles, much of it rich 17th and 18th century Baroque. Don't miss the Renaissance wing Stallburg where the famous dancing horse, the Lipizzaners, are stabled.
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St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom)
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The St Stephen's Cathedral, or Stephansdom, is the heart of Vienna both geographically and emotionally. It is a magnificent dark Gothic church, beloved and unmissable in Vienna.

A church has stood on this site since the 12th century, but little remains of the original structure aside from the Riesentor (Giant's Gate) and the Heidentürme (Towers of the Heathens). Both features are Romanesque in style. The Riesentor (rumor has it that the gate was named because a mammoth's tibia, mistaken for a giant's shin, once hung here) is the main western entrance, topped by a tympanum of lattice patterns and statues. Stephansdom's Gothic makeover began in 1359 at the behest of Habsburg Duke Rudolf IV, who earned the epithet of 'The Founder' by laying the foundation stone.

The church's dominating feature is the skeletal Südturm (south tower). Standing 450 ft (136.7m) high, it was completed in 1433 after 75 years of hard labor.

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Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)
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Staatsopera, the Vienna Opera, began in the early 18th century. Since then it has continuously produced performances every year. The building was opened in 1869, part of Franz Joseph's expansion of Vienna which has left such a magnificent legacy of grand buildings in the city. There are guided tours, or, better still, attend one of the 300 performances held every year in an every changing program.

A visit to the new Viennese State Opera Museum can be combined with a guided tour of the Opera House. The museum has photos, costumes, playbills, models of stage sets and information on every performance of the last fifty years.

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Burggarten
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Designed in 1818, the Burggarten park served as a private royal garden for the Habsburg family until the end of the empire in 1918. It has an English layout and is a popular place to relax. Many locals come here for a break during or after their workday. There are many statues and monuments in the park, including the Mozart Memorial in the southwest section of the garden. The memorial uses plants that form a musical clef in front of the statue of Mozart. Monuments honoring Goethe and Emperor Franz Joseph I can also be found in the park.

There is also a fountain with a statue depicting Hercules fighting with a lion. In the northeast section of Burggarten is the Palm House. It is an elegant glass building that contains a tropical environment with waterfalls and exotic plants, and it is home to hundreds of free-flying tropical butterflies. There is also a cafe inside the Palm House.

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More Things to Do in Austria

Beethoven Pasqualatihaus

Beethoven Pasqualatihaus

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Built into Vienna’s old city fortifications, the Beethoven Pasqualatihaus was named after its 18th-century owner, Josef Benedikt, the Baron Pasqualati. The musical prodigy Ludwig von Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 but made his residence in Vienna for 35 years; for eight years from 1804 onwards, the fourth-floor apartment of this whitewashed townhouse was his home. The Romantic composer wrote several symphonies, his opera Fidelio and the famous piece ‘Fur Elise’ while living here. His light, airy suite of rooms have now been transformed into a museum of his life; highlights of the displays include copies of his instruments, various imposing marble busts, manuscripts from the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, personal papers and family paintings as well as the renowned portrait by German artist and musician Willibrord Joseph Mähler in 1804.

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Kursalon Vienna (Kursalon Wien)

Kursalon Vienna (Kursalon Wien)

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Vienna’s most beautiful concert hall was completed in 1867 on the edge of the Stadtpark (City Park), close to the gilded statue of composer Johann Strauss, whose music is enjoyed there nightly. The Kursalon was designed by Austrian architect Johann Garben in Neo-Renaissance style and its original use was as a spa; just a year after it opened it was given over to music and became the meeting place of choice for Viennese high society.

Recently given a facelift, the Kursalon is now returned to its gleaming, romantic best and its halls once more drip with chandeliers and elegant stucco decoration. It is known for its nightly repertoire of favorites from Strauss, Schubert, Mozart and other Baroque musicians, played by the Salonorchestra Alt Wien, which was founded in 1994.

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Ringstrasse

Ringstrasse

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Marking the boundary of the First District, where the old city walls once stood, the series of boulevards that make up the Ringstrasse trace a 5km scenic loop around the historic center of Vienna. Created in the late 19th century to replace the fortification walls demolished under Emperor Franz Joseph, the Ringstrasse was designed to accommodate some of the city’s most spectacular works of architecture.

For visitors to Vienna, following the route of the Ringstrasse is a popular way to take in the sights, starting with the dramatic neo-Gothic Rathaus, or City Hall, set in the landscaped Rathauspark and the neighboring Parliament buildings. The magnificent Burgtheater and Volksgarten park stand opposite, and heading south, the ring road passes Maria Theresa Square and Franz Joseph’s elaborate Kaiserforum, now home to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History).

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Rathaus

Rathaus

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For sheer grandness, the Neo-Gothic Rathaus, or Vienna City Hall, steals the Ringstrasse show. Completed in 1883 by Friedrich von Schmidt, it was modeled on Flemish city halls. Its main spire soars to 335 ft (102m) if you include the pennant held by the knight at the top. You're free to wander through the seven inner courtyards but must join a guided tour to see the interior, with its red carpets, gigantic mirrors, and frescoes.

Between the Rathaus and the Ringstrasse is the Rathauspark, with fountains, benches and several statues. It is split in two by Rathausplatz, which is lined with statues of notable people from Vienna's past. Rathausplatz is the sight of some of the city's most frequented events, including the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market), Musikfilm Festival and the Wiener Eistraum.

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Historic Center of Vienna

Historic Center of Vienna

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Hemmed in by the famous Ringstrasse, which marks the route of the former city walls, and encompassing the majority of the capital’s top attractions, the historic center of Vienna is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Europe. Known as the First District, or Inner City, and inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list, a walk through historic Vienna reveals enough landmark sights to keep your camera snapping all day long.

The central district is characterized by its breathtaking architecture, from medieval hangovers like St. Stephen's Cathedral through the golden age of the Habsburg Empire, represented by the grand Imperial Palace. The 19th-century Ringstrasse is also lined with iconic buildings, with the Vienna City Hall, the Parliament buildings and the Kaiserforum all within close proximity, and the lively Museum Quarter adding a modernist flavor.

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Mirabell Palace and Gardens (Schloss Mirabell und Mirabellgarten)

Mirabell Palace and Gardens (Schloss Mirabell und Mirabellgarten)

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Mirabell Palace is a fine example of high Baroque architecture, surrounded by formal gardens, statues, flower beds and grand walkways. The palace was built and remodeled in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and today it houses the city’s administrative offices. Decorated with marble angels, frescoes and gilt, the palace’s Marble Hall makes a pretty grand backdrop for civic meetings and regular evening concerts of Mozart. The beautifully landscaped gardens appeared in The Sound of Music as the location for the Von Trapp children’s rendition of 'Do-Re-Mi.'
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Hellbrunn Palace (Schloss Hellbrunn)

Hellbrunn Palace (Schloss Hellbrunn)

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Fun fountains and Baroque style are the attraction at Hellbrunn Castle, or Schloss Hellbrun, on Salzburg’s doorstep. The palace was built in 1619 as a summer residence for Salzburg’s Archbishop, and the gardens are filled with ingenious landscaping, featuring trick waterworks. Visit on a warm day when you don’t mind getting wet!

Highlights of the water park include the outdoor dining table with jets of water shooting from diners’ seats, a water-operated theater, Gothic grottoes, splendid statues and colonnaded promenades.

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Heroes’ Square (Heldenplatz)

Heroes’ Square (Heldenplatz)

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A colossal piazza right at the heart of Imperial Vienna, Heldenplatz stretches out in front of the sweeping arcs of the Hofburg Palace, which was commissioned for the Habsburg Imperial Family in 1881. Constructed under the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph II as part of the city’s elegant Ringstrasse thoroughfare in the late 19th century, the square is dominated by two vast equestrian statues of Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy, and completely surrounded by the Baroque beauty of Vienna’s most important landmarks.

The Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived on this spot in various palaces from the 13th century until its demise in 1918; now the palace is home to several sublime Imperial collections in the Neue Burg, Sisi and art museums; the Imperial Apartments; the office of the Austrian President; the National Library; the Hofburgs’ private chapel; and the Augustinian Church, parish church of Vienna’s aristocracy.

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Hohensalzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg)

Hohensalzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg)

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Perched on its craggy mountain lookout, Salzburg’s famous castle, Festung Hohensalzburg, dominates the city and its Old Town. Surrounded by walls and dotted with towers and battlements, Festung Hohensalzburg is one of the largest and best preserved castles in Europe.

The fortified castle was built in 1077, from its lofty position protecting Salzburg, with cracking views of the surrounding countryside. Take a guided tour around the palatial state rooms, Gothic torture chambers, lookouts and museum collections. Keep an eye out for more than 50 examples of the castle’s symbol, a regal lion holding a beetroot – or is it a turnip?

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Naschmarkt

Naschmarkt

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If you’re looking to sample authentic Viennese cuisine or soak up some local culture, pay a visit to the Naschmarkt, the oldest and most beloved of Vienna’s many markets. Dating back to the 16th century, the Naschmarkt has occupied its present location since 1793, stretching for more than a kilometer along the Wienzeile, just south of Vienna’s historic center. Over 170 stalls take over the vibrant market hall each day between 6am and 6.30pm, selling an array of food produce from around the world.

Visiting foodies will be in heaven here, with stalls heaped with fresh meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, international wines and artisan cheeses. Most notable is the variety of ethnic cuisines, from an Indian and Middle Eastern section dotted with kebab and falafel huts, to a spread of stalls devoted to Oriental cuisine and a colorful array of exotic spices.

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Vienna Prater (Wiener Prater)

Vienna Prater (Wiener Prater)

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The Vienna Prater is both a huge outdoor area and an amusement park. Once the Emperor Maximilian II's hunting ground in the 16th century, in 1766 Emperor Joseph II declared it open parkland for everyone. Coffee-houses and cafes sprang up and nobody seemed worried that it continued to be used for hunting until 1920! It was also around the 18th century that the Wurstelprater began - an amusement park which continues to this day and includes the giant ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, one of Vienna's famous sights. There are also bumper cars, a roller-coaster, and carousels.

The Prater also houses a planetarium and the Prater Museum, a little disappointing as museums go although the antique slot machines are worthwhile.

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Hundertwasser House (Hundertwasserhaus)

Hundertwasser House (Hundertwasserhaus)

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Standing in stark contrast to the baroque palaces and grand plazas of historic Vienna, the colorful facade of the Hundertwasserhaus is one of the city’s most unique works of architecture. Unconventional and somewhat eccentric, the apartment complex is the masterpiece of 20th century Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, one of the country’s most imaginative and controversial contemporary artists. Mimicking elements of Gaudí’s Art Nouveau style, Hundertwasser’s designs marry whimsical shapes and curved lines with a bold color palette, resulting in some of Austria’s most recognizable and most visited landmarks.

The Hundertwasserhaus was finished in 1986 and features a playful mix of painted mosaics and different sized windows, spread over the 52 apartment buildings. The organic theme even goes one step further, with a grass-covered rooftop sprouting with trees that appear to be grown from within.

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Albertina Museum

Albertina Museum

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Founded in 1768 by its namesake, Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, son-in-law of Empress Maria Theresa, Vienna’s Albertina museum is renowned for housing the world’s most prominent collection of graphic art. Displayed in a former residential palace on the tip of the vast Hofburg Imperial Palace complex, the grand Albertina is among the city’s most notable attractions, home to an incredible 1.5 million prints and over 50,000 drawings.

The Albertina’s gigantic permanent collection is broken into 4 principal departments, most notably the aforementioned Graphic Art Collection, of which highlights include the world’s largest collection of Dürer drawings (totaling around 145) and a large number of works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Schiele.

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Golden Roof (Goldenes Dachl)

Golden Roof (Goldenes Dachl)

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Innsbruck’s iconic Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) is found on Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse, the main square in Innsbruck’s charming Gothic and Baroque Altstadt (Old Town). The three-story, gold-topped balcony is tacked on the Neuhof (New Court), which was built by Archduke Friedrich IV in the early 15th century as a residence fit for kings. The Golden Roof was constructed in 1500 at the behest of Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I in celebration of his second dynastic marriage, this time to Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan. The roof glitters with 2,657 sparkling gilded copper tiles, apparently placed there to confound rumors that the Imperial Family was running out of money.

Intricate carved wooden reliefs and frescoes painted on to the balcony show the emperor’s many coats of arms, and his likeness alongside that of both his wives. The structure also provided Maximilian I with an appropriately regal spot from which to observe tournaments and festivals in the square beneath.

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