No country waltzes so gracefully between urban landscapes and natural beauty as Austria.
From artistic and architectural prowess to alpine peaks, Austria is a country made for exploration and adventure. And, thanks to its expansive rail network, it’s as simple as do-re-mi to travel by train from one city to the next, taking in all the natural beauty spots in between. Here are some of the best places to visit in Austria for combining city visits with natural wonderlands.
Only 2 hrs 35 mins from Vienna by train, Graz is not only one of Europe’s best-preserved historical cities, it was also named European Capital of Culture in 2003. From its red rooftops to the somewhat alien looking Kunsthaus, Graz is a melting pot of architecture, style and culture. There is, for example, a growing food and art scene thanks to its creative student population. Visit Graz’s old town with its medieval and Italian Renaissance buildings, then walk up to Schlossberg (castle hill) for views from the Uhrturm (clock tower) across the city below.
Graz is the capital of Styria, a region defined by its vine-covered hills, as many as 18 castles and, of course, the ever present Alpine peaks. Rent a city bike from one of 14 locations around Graz and venture out into the Styrian countryside. Take on all or part of the Murradweg, a 360km riverside route stretching south from Salzburg to the Slovenian border in Bad Radkersburg, and, therefore, passing through Graz en route. If long-distance cycling isn’t quite your tempo, tackle the stretch of the Murradweg between Graz and Leibniz instead. This route takes just under 2 hrs following paths through pumpkin fields, vineyards and up to Schloss Seggau, a 13th century hilltop castle.
Capital of the Tirol region, Innsbruck provides ample activities for those wanting to mix a city break with outdoor pursuits. Surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Nordkette range, Innsbruck has a medieval Altstadt, or old town, Baroque cathedral and a Habsburg Palace. One of the best places in Austria for winter sports, keen skiers, particularly cross-country ones, know it well, as it is gateway to the Seefeld region, which has been home to the Winter Olympics twice.
Non-skiers also have easy access to the Alpine peaks. Take the Zaha Hadid-designed Nordkette cable car from Innsbruck’s old town up to Hungerberg station. Then take a short walk across Hermann Buhl Square to the next cable car station up to Seegrube (1905m). The final cable car ride up to Hafelekar station opens up the wild peaks of the Karwendel range and Naturpark Karwendel, Austria’s largest nature park. Hiking trails fan out from here in all directions, including the 10km Goetheweg Trail along the Nordkette, where the hills are very much alive.
Just over 1 hr by train from Innsbruck, Kitzbühel rose to prominence in the 16th century thanks to its silver mining, and today still sparkles with glitterati glamour as they flock to its pistes. With its delicate frescos and buttressed walls, Kitzbühel’s medieval centre has earned a reputation as one of Europe’s most beautiful ski towns. The two main streets, Vorderstadt and Hinterstadt, are set against the jagged backdrop of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains, a craggy limestone range whose name means “Wild Emperor.” If you look closely, you might even be able to spot the profile of Emperor Charlemagne along the Wilder Kaiser’s crest-line.
Kitzbühel offers more than 1,000km of waymarked trails, delighting hikers or cross-country skiers with paths that go deep into the heart of the Kitzbüheler Alps and beyond. Families and hikers enjoy waterfalls, lakes and hilltop churches, while more advanced trekkers take the 2 hrs Karst-Wanderweg up to Kitzbüheler Horn.
World-renowned for being one of Europe’s most picturesque cities, Salzburg is located in the heart of Austria, in the shadow of the Alps’ towering peaks. Besides its two most famous exports, Mozart and The Sound of Music, visitors will find a host of cultural and natural delights. These include the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Mozart’s residence, the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the annual Salzburg Festival and of course, Salzburger Nockerl, a vanilla soufflé dumpling dessert, at the iconic Restaurant S’Nockerl im Elefant. Travel from Vienna to Salzburg by train in just 2 hrs 22 mins.
Just 1 hr 30 mins from Salzburg by train, Zell am See is a chocolate box town best known for its winter sports. Zell am See hugs the shores of the bluer-than-blue Lake Zell and is set against the backdrop of the Hohe Tauern National Park. Enjoy 77km of pistes on the slopes of Schmittenhöhe in winter or myriad watersports on the lake in summer. Experienced hikers can take the cable car up the Schmittenhöhe mountain for high-altitude treks along the Pinzgau Walk.
The Arlberg region
Considered the birthplace of Alpine skiing, the Arlberg region rose to prominence in the 1900s, becoming one of Europe’s premiere winter sports destinations where the snow, pistes and après-ski nightlife are as thrilling as they are top-notch. St. Anton, one of the five villages that make up the region, is nestled at the foot of the Valluga (2811m), the Arlberg’s highest mountain. For unparalleled views, take two cable cars (Vallugabahn I and II) from St Anton’s centre up to Valluga’s summit, where a 360-degree platform awaits.
The Arlberg region offers a wealth of hiking trails for all abilities. For a walk through the lush folds of the Verwalltal Valley, follow the Verwallweg from St. Anton's Hotel Mooserkreuz along the Rosanna river, down to Verwallsee lake. Or, for those with a penchant for peaks, take the Galzigbahn cable car from St. Anton up Galzig mountain (2,085m) to take on the Mutspuren circular trail, a family-friendly walk (2 hrs) featuring interactive activity stations along the way.
You might also enjoy reading our blog on Austrian train travel.
For more inspiration on some of the best things to do in Austria, visit the Austrian Tourist board:
Information on visiting Graz
Information on visiting Arlberg
Information on visiting Innsbruck.
Information on visiting Salzburg
Information on visiting Kitzbühel
Image credits top to bottom: Graz ©ANTO/Kara Mercer, Innsbruck iStock ©KenWiedemann, Kitzbühel Flickr Commons (cropped) ©Anton Seissl, Salzburg iStock ©RudyBalasko, Arlberg ©ANTO/Kara Mercer, Arlberg ANTO/Kara Mercer
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