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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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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Schönbrunn Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn)
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Founded in 1752 as a menagerie by Franz Stephan, Tiergarten Schönbrunn, or Vienna Zoo, is the oldest zoo in the world. It houses some 750 animals of all shapes and sizes; the most recent arrivals to excite crowds were giant pandas in 2003 although lemurs, armadillos and baby Serbian tigers spurred plenty of interest in 2006. Thankfully most of the original cramped cages have been updated and improved, but the odd one still remains.

The zoo's layout is reminiscent of a bicycle wheel, with pathways as spokes and an octagonal pavilion at its center. The pavilion dates from 1759 and was used as the imperial breakfast room; it now houses a fine restaurant (so you can feel regal, too). Feeding times are staggered throughout the day - maps on display tell you who's dining when.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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

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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St. Anne's Church (Annakirche)

St. Anne's Church (Annakirche)

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Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn)

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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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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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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Danube River at Vienna

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 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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Time Travel Vienna

Time Travel Vienna

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For good old family fun and a rip-roaring jaunt through history, Time Travel Vienna is the city’s newest kid on the block, and where great culture meets light-hearted Disney. Housed in the former monastery of St Michael, the history of Vienna from its beginnings as Roman Vindobona is presented in a magical 5-D show featuring animatronics and multi-media special effects. After this, visitors come face to face with the Vienna of Strauss, Mozart and the waltz as well as the great characters in the Habsburg dynasty before experiencing an air raid during World War II. Proceedings come bang up to date with a simulator ride taking in today’s major sights in Vienna. Shows last about 50 minutes and there are several in English per day.

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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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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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St Peter's Church

St Peter's Church

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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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