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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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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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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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St. Anne's Church (Annakirche)
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St Anne's Church (Annakirche) in Vienna’s city center is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture paired with Baroque-style artwork. One of the church’s main attractions are the exquisite frescoes, created by Daniel Gran, which adorn the ceilings of the chapel.
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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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Danube River at Vienna
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Until the late 19th century the Danube River, or Donau Kanal, was unregulated and formed a 5-mile (8 km) wide wetland which regularly flooded nearby villages around Vienna. In 1870 the river was dammed and a new river channel formed for shipping. The mighty river continued to flood periodically and after 1972 a new flood-control project was started. This resulted in the creation of the Danube Island and Danube Canal or Little Danube, which runs past the old town. Both are now popular as picnic areas. In June, the annual Danube Island Festival attracts over three million visitors. In summer, the Viennese flock to the Old Danube to swim, sail, row, paddleboat and even surf! Okay, so that's in a wave pool but there are still three surf and sail schools, plus beaches including a nudist area. Something for everyone.
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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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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)
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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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Nonnberg Abbey (Stift Nonnberg)
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Nonnberg Abbey is a Benedictine nunnery with a landmark spire in the center of Salzburg and is perhaps best known throughout the world as the home of the troublesome novice nun Maria in The Sound of Music, the magical movie that celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015. The nunnery sits tucked under the Hohensalzburg Fortress and was founded somewhere around 715 AD; it is the oldest constantly inhabited convent in Europe and its complex of buildings consists of the abbey, convent, chapels, church, cloisters and refectory, all built in a charming jumble of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles.

Nonnberg’s main church of Maria Himmelfahrt is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is Gothic in style, adorned with gleaming stained-glass windows and a series of biblically themed paintings. Largely rebuilt after a fire in 1423, the church nevertheless retains fragments of its original Byzantine and Romanesque frescoes in the choir.

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More Things to Do in Austria

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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St Peter's Church

St Peter's Church

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Also known as Peterskirche, St Peter's Church in Vienna is the second oldest church in the city. The original church building was rumored to have been established by Charlemagne, but it burned down in 1661.
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Hofburg Imperial Palace (Hofburg Wien)

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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Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)

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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Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere)

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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House of Music (Haus der Musik)

House of Music (Haus der Musik)

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The House of Music, or Haus der Musik, rates among the best museums in the city. Spread over 4 floors (the 5th is a café and restaurant), it helps explain sound in an amusing and interactive way, accessible to both children and adults.

The 1st floor houses the Vienna Philharmonic's historical archives, where a shortened version of the world famous New Year's concert can be heard and you can compose your own waltz with the interactive roll of a die. The 2nd floor's "prenatal listening room" re-creates noises heard by babies in the womb. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and Mahler each have a room on one level and yet another floor deals with experimental and electronic music. Displays are very interactive.

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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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Salzburg Cathedral (Dom zu Salzburg)

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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St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom)

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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Schlumberger Cellars

Schlumberger Cellars

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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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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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Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Museum of Fine Arts)

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Museum of Fine Arts)

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The Museum of Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum, houses the fabulous art collection of the Habsburgs, the royal dynasty of Austria for over 600 years. Emperor Franz Joseph I commissioned the building as part of his expansion of Vienna in 1858 and it took twenty years to build, opening in 1891. Inside you'll find amazing art treasures including Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, European paintings and sculptures, a coin collection which is one of the 5 best in the world, and a library specializing in Austrian Theater History of around 90,000 items. The building itself is also worth seeing with its sweeping staircases and murals.
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