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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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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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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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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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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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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)
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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)
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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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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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More Things to Do in Austria

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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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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St. Charles's Church (Karlskirche)

St. Charles's Church (Karlskirche)

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The Church of St Charles Borromeo, or Karlskirche, is the finest baroque church in Vienna and was built between 1716 and 1739, after a vow by Karl VI at the end of the 1713 plague. It was designed and commenced by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and completed by his son Joseph. Although predominantly baroque, it combines several architectural styles.

The twin columns are modeled on Trajan's Column in Rome and show scenes from the life of St Charles Borromeo (who helped plague victims in Italy), to whom the church is dedicated. The huge oval dome reaches 236 ft (72m); in combination with the church's large windows, the dome's height creates a bright, open nave. There is a small museum with a handful of religious art and clothing purportedly from the saint, but the highlight is the lift to the dome for a close-up view of the detailed frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr. The altar panel is by Sebastiano Ricci and shows the Assumption of the Virgin.

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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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University of Vienna (Universität Wien)

University of Vienna (Universität Wien)

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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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Schlosspark Schönbrunn (Schönbrunn Palace Garden)

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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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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Danube Tower (Donauturm)

Danube Tower (Donauturm)

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Natural History Museum Vienna (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien)

Natural History Museum Vienna (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien)

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With a history dating back to 1889 and a permanent collection made up of over 20 million objects, the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) is one of the largest and most renowned natural history museums in the world. The counterpart to the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum), both museums are located on Maria Theresien Platz in central Vienna and rank among the city’s top attractions.

Based on the collected works of Emperor Franz Stefan, husband of Empress Maria Theresia, Rudolph II and Prince Eugène of Savoy, exhibits include a vast assemblage of minerals, rocks, fossils, meteors and flora specimens; a zoological display featuring a series of rare stuffed animals and extinct species; and a Dinosaur Hall, which houses the skeleton of a Diplodocus.

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Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule)

Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule)

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The world famous Spanish Riding School, or Spanische Hofreitschule, is a Viennese institution truly reminiscent of the imperial Habsburg era. This unequaled equestrian show is performed by Lipizzaner stallions, a crossbreeding of Spanish, Arab and Berber horses. The horses were first imported from Spain (hence 'Spanish') by Maximilian II in 1562, and in 1580 a stud was established at Lipizza (hence 'Lipizzaner'), now in Slovenia. A Lipizzaner performance is pretty impressive. These graceful stallions perform an equine ballet to a program of classical music while chandeliers shimmer above. The mature stallions are all snow-white (though they are born dark and turn white at age four) and the riders wear traditional garb, from their leather boots up to their bicorn hats.
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Leopold Museum

Leopold Museum

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Filled to bursting with Austrian art from the early 20th century, the Leopold Museum has an appropriately contemporary design. Constructed in Vienna’s innovative MuseumsQuartier by design partnership Ortner & Ortner, the museum opened in 2001 and is essentially a gleaming white, limestone cube that contrasts neatly with the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Imperial Vienna.

Named after philanthropist and art collector Rudolf Leopold, who died in 2010, the museum holds around 5,200 works of art; the permanent exhibitions displayed around the vast atrium and open galleries range from masterly silverware and ceramic decorative arts from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) of 1903–32, to stylish Art Nouveau furniture designed by Kolomon Moser, and some rather brutal portraits by Expressionist Oskar Kokoschkar.

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Mozarthaus Vienna

Mozarthaus Vienna

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Mozart had multiple residences in Vienna, but only one survived to the present day. The Mozarthaus Vienna at Domgasse 5 served as the composer’s home from 1784 to 1787, during the height of his musical success. Within his first-floor apartment, Mozart penned some of his most iconic works, like the opera The Marriage of Figaro.

Audio-guided tours of the house begin on the building’s top floor, where exhibits explain the lifestyle and prominent figures of society life in eighteenth century Vienna. Heading down a floor, visitors are immersed in all things music; a highlight is a holographic performance of a portion of The Magic Flute. On the ground floor, visitors enter Mozart’s bedroom, furnished with pieces from the time to give a sense of what his living quarters might have looked like.

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Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (the MAK)

Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (the MAK)

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With an extensive collection, large exhibition halls, themed special exhibits, and a rich program of events, Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (commonly called MAK) is a great place to spend an afternoon. The museum is located in the ‘Innere Stadt’ (Vienna’s First District), and combines the applied arts, contemporary art, design, and architecture under one roof. The MAK boasts a unique collection of applied arts and is known worldwide as a first­ class destination for contemporary art. The museum’s spacious halls in the impressive Ringstraße building have been redesigned by contemporary artists to best showcase the MAK’s permanent collection, keeping the artistic heritage of the building as part of the viewing experience. The windows of the MAK are distinctively illuminated by James Turrell’s light sculpture, which was permanently installed in 2004.

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