No country waltzes so effortlessly between the urban and the outdoors as Austria. One day you’re cresting alpine summits, the next you’re swanning around imperial Vienna.
Over centuries, the Habsburgs channelled immense wealth into the fine arts and music, collecting palaces and castles the way others do stamps. You’ll still feel their cultural reverberations in Austria today – be it watching Lipizzaner stallions prance at the Spanish Riding School, or crossing the Hofburg to eyeball Rubens masterpieces in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Klimt and Schiele at the MuseumsQuartier. The work of classical pop stars such as Mozart, Strauss, Mahler, Haydn and Schubert echo as loudly as ever at lavishly gilded concert halls, and music festivals like Salzburg Festival and Bregenzer Festspiele are staged against uplifting lakeside or mountain backdrops.
The journey really is the destination in Austria. Perhaps yours will be a meandering one through deeply carved valleys, on railways that unzip the Alps to thread improbably along sheer mountain flanks, past glaciers and through flower-freckled meadows. Chances are, however, that such lyrical landscapes will have you itching to leap onto a bicycle saddle or lace up hiking boots to reach those enticingly off-the-radar corners of the country. In winter, the slopes hum with skiers and boarders, while summer beckons white-water rafters and canyoners to glacial rivers and lakes that sparkle like gemstones. Der Berg ruft – the mountain calls!
Austria might conjure visions of wedding-cake-like baroque churches, dripping with lavish detail, palatial Hapsburg headquarters like Schloss Schönnbrunn, and Gothic crowning glories like the Stephansdom. But the country is more than the sum of its pomp and palaces. A fresh breath of architectural air and a feel of new-found cool is sweeping through the cities, bringing with it a happy marriage of the contemporary and historic. Some of the most eye-catching icons are actually the newbies: Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier in revamped imperial stables, the colour-shifting giant Rubik’s Cube that is Ars Electronica in Linz and the sci-fi ready Kunsthaus Graz. Prepare to see Austria in a whole new light.
Guess what? There’s more to Austrian cuisine than boot-sized schnitzels and dumplings heavier than bowling balls. The country has come on in culinary leaps and bounds recently, while staying true to its ethos of careful local sourcing. Vegan, organic, foraged, Slow Food: they are more than just buzzwords. Whether you’re at a farmers market, a retro-style deli, a cool new brunch spot or a Michelin-starred restaurant, the love of the land shines through time and again. Asparagus in spring, Marille (apricots) in summer, mushrooms, game and new wine in autumn – Austria likes its food to swing with the seasons and taste of the source.