What you need to know about Austria
When most people think of Austria, they think of mountains, schnitzel and The Sound Of Music. And if these are a few of your favourite things, you’ll find the Austrian tourist industry has all three well covered, but that’s not all that Austria has to offer – it’s a beautiful country with stunning architecture, sublime scenery, fabulous cuisine and a rich cultural heritage.
Most visitors head for the cosmopolitan cool and historic splendour of Vienna and Salzburg, or into the Alps for fresh mountain air, skiing or hiking. But even Austria’s small towns have plenty to offer – a rich sense of tradition, hearty food and great quality beers and wines. It’s a country that oozes charm, culture and a touch of sophistication.
Food and drink
Most Austrian restaurants serve up traditional dishes, but what a wonderful tradition it is. Schnitzel, strudel, flavour-filled wursts and breads – the quality is usually great, and using local, seasonal ingredients is pretty much the norm. Austrians love their coffee too, and you’ll find plenty of charming cafés where you can relax with a coffee and a pastry, or even a beer and a light lunch. It’s worth remembering that you can still smoke in smaller bars and cafés in Austria, and even in larger venues the smoking ban is often disregarded, but during the summer months there are plenty of pavement cafés and beer gardens to enjoy. Wine and beer lovers will find plenty of options to sample – Austrian wine is superb, and the country’s beers are varied and good quality. You’ll find a traditional tavern in pretty much every town, so head in and share a drink with the locals.
Vienna is the place to go for shopping, particularly if you love a bargain. On Saturdays, thousands of Viennese locals head for the Naschmarkt for one of the best flea markets in Europe, offering a great selection of antiques, vintage goods and second hand junk. It’s a big tourist attraction, so expect some vendors to inflate their prices when they realise you’re not local, and be prepared to haggle! If you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated, Vienna also has a great selection of boutiques, furniture stores and department stores, and you’ll find great places to shop for lovely local crafts and foods in smaller towns and cities like Salzburg, Graz and Innsbruck too. Of course there’s plenty of tourist tat as well, particularly if you want a Mozart souvenir in Salzburg. If you’re looking for a traditional edible souvenir, take home some Mozart chocolate balls – they taste delicious, and are a little slice of Austrian tradition.
Austria has its feet firmly in two camps, clinging on to the remnants of its imperial past, and wanting to be recognised for its progressive attitudes and innovation, much like its neighbours Switzerland and Germany. The evidence of former Habsburg splendour is everywhere, along with celebrations of the nation’s many famous composers, artists and writers like Mozart and Klimt. But you’ll also see plenty of evidence of new Austria, which makes the most of its unique landscape whilst protecting the country’s traditions and heritage, and which is honing the talents of a new generation of musicians, artists, actors and inventors. Austrian people are hugely proud of their traditions and culture, and generally conservative and moderate. Small things like punctuality and smart dress are a great start when it comes to making a good impression.
Austria’s public transport is outstanding – the country’s trains are fast, efficient and good value, and cover all the major towns and cities. The more remote villages and Alpine areas are served by a reliable network of buses, and the roads are kept in good shape in all but the hardest of winters. If you’re touring by public transport, you can buy a weekly travel card that will cover buses and trains in most regions. It’s a lovely country for cycling too, with dedicated cycle lanes in all the major towns, and the Alps and Tyrol are perfect for walking and hiking – many of the ski routes become fabulous hiking paths in summer.
Things to watch out for
Sunday is an important family day in Austria, and with the exception of the odd shop in railway stations, you’ll find nothing open. If you’re visiting for the weekend, make sure you get all your shopping and souvenir hunting done on Saturday!