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Austria: Hitting the High Notes

Lake Vilsalpsee in the Tyrol, Austria. Image: GettyLake Vilsalpsee in the Tyrol, Austria. Image: Getty

From historic musical cities to epic Alpine scenery, Austria has plenty to sing about, says Jeannine Williamson

The birthplace of Mozart and setting for The Sound of Music, the breathtaking Alpine landscapes and cities of Austria are alive with a host of vacation options. Situated in the heart of Europe, the year-round destination offers everything from cultural stays in the grand capital of Vienna to land tours, winter sports and river cruising, so it’s no surprise more travelers are discovering the delights of Austria.

The tourist board reports 2010 saw the strongest increase in US visitor arrivals, a rise of 14.4%, and 2012 numbers to date show an increase of 7.4% for January to October. Trends include a growth in outdoor vacations for families, and wine and culinary tourism in the red-wine growing region of Burgenland and white wine area of Wachau.

There are direct flights to Austria and this May Austrian Airlines, also refurbishing its long-haul aircraft, launches a new five times weekly service from Chicago to Vienna.

Lavonne Markus, leisure travel specialist with Market Square Travel, says: “Austria is a great country with so many areas to choose from. There’s Salzburg, with Mozart’s home, the Old Town and castle; and Vienna, where you can have a coffee at a sidewalk cafe, do some shopping and see the Lipizzaner horses.

“You can also travel to the town of Piber to visit the horse stud farm, and in Gmunden visit the lake area where The Sound of Music was filmed. Other options include the spa town of Bad Ischl and picturesque town of Hallstatt.”

With its clean air and pure waters Austria is a fantastic outdoor destination for activities such as hiking, biking, swimming, golf and horseback riding in summer. Green in more ways than one, the country is a great choice for environmentally conscious travelers and Kinderhotels are excellent for families with babies and young children. In winter Austria’s ski villages offer a very traditional Alpine experience while cities and towns host atmospheric Christmas markets.

“River cruising may be the best way to appreciate the nooks and crannies of Austria,” adds Warren Turner of Luxury Cruise Counselors. “Austria may not be the first destination choice for American travelers, but offers so much history and music, from Mozart to the vineyards of Wachau Valley. River cruises take guests to the heart of Austrian towns and cities.” Here we take a look at some of the country’s numerous highlights.

The Great Outdoors

Thanks to strict environmental regulations Austria’s lakes are among the cleanest and purest in Europe and the mountains really do provide a breath of fresh air. Clients looking for a taste of the outdoor life will find everything they’re looking for.

Austria has long been associated with snow-covered slopes and the country’s highest peaks can be found in the Tyrol, the largest skiing area in the west of the country. Austrians don’t go in for the purpose-built ski towns found in other parts of Europe so resorts such as St Wolfgang, with its historic cobbled streets, have grown out of traditional villages and are packed with Alpine charm.

Regions famous for winter sports have plenty to offer in the summertime, with areas such as Zell am See-Kaprun boasting scenic hiking routes through lush mountain pastures. The lakes provide idyllic swimming conditions and many have diving schools. For those who prefer to stay on dry land the flat routes around the lakes are perfect for cycling and walking, from leisurely strolls to more strenuous excursions.

And when it’s time for tee Austria has more than 100 golf courses, the majority set against the background of breathtaking lake and mountain scenery, and many with adjoining four- and five-star hotels.

Food & Drink

Austrian cuisine is rich and hearty, from the Alpine fare of cheese soup, meat and dumplings to the world famous breaded veal escalope, Wiener schnitzel, and apple strudel. It’s the ultimate comfort food and each region has local specialties, many based on recipes handed down through the generations.

The coffee culture and relaxed atmosphere that goes with it, called gemuetlichkeit, is legendary and found in all the large cities. No visit would be complete without sampling one of the tempting confections such as the delicious Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with apricot jam filling served with whipped cream. It was invented at Hotel Sacher, the landmark hotel by Vienna’s State Opera House.

Brewing is an ancient trade and beers come in a wide variety of styles from light to dark. An extra small glass, or Pfiff, is a good way to find out what you like. Austria also has a flourishing wine industry, mostly dry and fruity whites, and Vienna is one the world’s only capital cities with an appreciable wine growing reputation. You can recognize a Viennese Heuriger, or wine tavern, by the sprig of pine hanging outside

Art & Cuisine

Cultural travelers are spoilt for choice in Austria’s cities, home to world-class museums and magnificent architecture spanning all the major periods, from Gothic and Renaissance to Baroque, Jugendstil and Post Modernism.

Attractions in Vienna, where the composer Mozart spent most of his creative years, include the opulent Hofburg Palace, home of the ruling Habsburg Empire for more than 600 years, and the MuseumsQuartier which is among the world’s 10 largest cultural complexes with exhibitions to suit all tastes.

Known as the ‘stage of the world’, sophisticated Salzburg has a reputation as Austria’s most cultured city. Mozart was born here in 1756 and classical concert venues abound. In more recent times it formed the backdrop for the classic film The Sound of Music and there are guided tours of locations, including Leopoldskron Palace used as the facade for the Von Trapp family home.

Graz, the second largest city after Vienna and a former European Capital of Culture, boasts beautifully preserved medieval buildings. Dominating the town is the Schlossberg, a high hill topped by fortifications, and for the best views over Graz visitors can climb the 260 steps to the top or take the funicular railway.

River Cruising

Rising in the Black Forest Mountains of Germany and flowing for 1,770 miles to its mouth on the Black Sea, the Danube is Europe’s second longest river, with some of its most scenic stretches running through Austria. A major historic working waterway, the Danube has shaped Europe both socially and economically, so a cruise adds up to a fascinating cultural experience. Danube cruises typically include days in the cities of Vienna and Salzburg, with guided tours of the highlights, and take in the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley, a dramatic 24-mile stretch between the towns of Krems and Melk. In Melk passengers visit the vast Benedictine abbey perched on a rocky outcrop and in pretty Durnstein there’s the chance to sample some local vintages from this famous wine-producing region.

Festivals & Events

From the New Year’s Day concert showcasing the Vienna Philharmonic to the atmospheric Christmas markets, Austria’s year-round program of events includes more than 200 festivals.

Schubertiade Festival, staged on dates between April and October, celebrates the work of composer Franz Schubert in the westernmost state of Vorarlberg where he was born.

First held in 1920 and running from July through to September, the Salzburg Festival is one of the year’s cultural highlights. The 2013 event will focus on composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, who would have both celebrated their 200th birthday in 2013.

Every July the Upper Austrian capital of Linz hosts Pflasterspektakel, where more than 500 performance artists from all over Europe take to the streets of Linz to stage a spectacle of acrobatics, juggling, magic and mime.

Throughout the year visitors can see the snowy white Lipizzaner stallions at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, whether at one of the gala dressage performances or during morning exercise sessions in the indoor riding arena.

PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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