Vienna is a wonderful city to visit on an Austrian vacation, but so are destinations such as Salzburg, Innsbruck, and Graz… and they are very convenient to reach.
This article is aimed at non-winter sports enthusiasts. That is a subject which should be explored totally separately. The intention here is to highlight other cities which can be enjoyed by the average traveller on a trip to Austria. Vienna is a city of culture but so are Salzburg and Graz. Let’s examine the merits of visits to these delightful cities.
What comes to mind when you think about Salzburg? The birthplace of Mozart? The Sound of Music? For sure, these are part and parcel of the city and you will not escape many allusions to them on a visit. The first thing to strike you could be the Baroque architecture or the surrounding scenery. After Vienna, although a reasonable-sized city, Salzburg will seem much more sedate.
On your Austrian vacation, a good place to start your visit in Salzburg is in the Altstadt (Old Town), the city’s historic centre. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is located on both sides of the pretty Salzach River, which dissects Salzburg. The architecture is a mixture of Medieval and Baroque styles. It does encompass a large number of Salzburg’s attractions but just to walk around it, you can stroll through narrow lanes and small squares while observing the many churches and old elegant houses. One street to make special note of is Getreidegasse, the heart of the old town. Note the houses which are decorated with important dates in their history, together with the names of their former owners. You can also do some shopping here at international fashion houses or traditional shops. You can’t miss the 17th-century Baroque Salzburger Dom (Cathedral) where Mozart was baptized. It has a magnificent façade, a large dome, and a long history.
Close by is the Residenz Palace, probably the most important historic building in Salzburg, built in 1600. It was originally the official residence of the Archbishops of Salzburg. You can tour the building and view the excellent state rooms adorned with tapestries, stucco, and frescoes. There is an art gallery, the Residenzgalerie, which contains paintings by Flemish and Dutch masters.
The third important venue in the Altstadt is Hohensalzburg Castle. You absolutely have to be impressed with this fortress/castle as it is perched high up on a hill which is called the Monchsberg Mountain and is the city’s most dominant feature. The view alone of the city below and the surrounding area is worth the visit on an Austrian vacation. This 900-year-old castle is one of the largest and best preserved in Europe. You can reach it on foot up a steep slope or take a funicular. Highlights include the Golden Hall where huge banquets once took place, the Marionette Museum with its puppet show, and the Fortress Museum which has on display a 17th-century model of Salzburg as well as medieval musical instruments, armour, and torture equipment.
We now come to Mozart, Salzburg’s most famous inhabitant. His birthplace (he was born in 1756 and spent the first 17 years of his life here) is still intact and is now a museum. You will be able to see a collection of musical instruments, documents, and portraits. The Mozart family moved in 1773 to another house which can also be visited and where you will find family portraits and documents plus Mozart’s original piano.
One beauty spot is the Mirabell Palace and Gardens built in 1606, once home to princes, now the home of the mayor of Salzburg. The Marble Hall is a venue for weddings, concerts, and conferences. The gardens were designed in the 1600s and contain a grand fountain, a sculpture of Pegasus (the winged horse), and a theatre. There is also a rose garden and an orangery. A little further out from the centre is Hellbrun Palace, once the summer palace of the archbishops. It is a large Baroque villa surrounded by large gardens. One popular attraction here is the “Jeux d’eau” (water games) where, if you sit on one of the nearby stone seats, water can suddenly and surprisingly be sprayed over you.
Salzburg has a number of museums and art galleries, the most notable being the Salzburg Museum (history of the city), the Toy Museum (the largest collection in Austria of European toys), the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Natural History.
If you are a Sound of Music fan, you can, while on an Austrian vacation, take a tour with commentary which explores the original shoot locations of the movie. There are many other interesting venues and sights to keep you well occupied in Salzburg.
Innsbruck is probably best-known as the host of the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976. However, as stated earlier, this article is aimed at “non-winter sporters.” One advantage the city has, it lies in a wide valley and is surrounded by the Alps, giving it an enviable setting.
Like many other cities you may explore on a Europe vacation, Innsbruck has an Old Town (Altstadt). Some of the buildings are over 500-years-old and are designed in both Gothic and Baroque styles of architecture, including medieval houses painted in bright colours. This is where you will find the majority of the city’s main attractions. Your first sighting might well be the Golden Roof, Innsbruck’s most famous landmark. It derives its name from the over 2700 copper tiles that adorn the roof of this 500-year-old building that was built by Emperor Maximilian I. Below the roof are a variety of figures and images. The front of the building is decorated with a man and two wives. Emperor Maximilian is portrayed next to his wife of the time whom he didn’t like very much and that is why his first wife has joined them. Adjoining the roof is a museum concerned with the life and times of the Emperor.
The Imperial Palace was completed in 1500 under Emperor Maximilian I. Almost 250 years later, Empress Maria Theresa deemed it to be out-of-date so she arranged for the palace to be rebuilt in the Viennese late Baroque style. Today, you can visit the state rooms, the Giant Hall, an important banquet hall, the Guard Hall with its paintings of battle scenes, the Council Chamber, the Imperial Apartments, and the Chapel. The Imperial Gardens border onto the Imperial Palace. They have existed since the early 15th century when, at the time, only royalty and members of the court were allowed in. Now accessible on your Austrian vacation, you can play a game of open-air chess or listen to music in the pavilion. You can also visit the beer garden.
The City Tower, which is older than the Golden Roof, looks over the rooftops of Innsbruck as guards once did in the Middle Ages. These guards kept watch from the City Tower for almost 450 years, warning citizens of fire and other dangers. 133 steps lead up to a viewing platform which overlooks the medieval streets of the city and also offers great views of the surrounding mountains.
Innsbruck’s main thoroughfare is the Maria-Theresien Strasse. This is where you can shop or sit at one of the many outdoor cafes and take in the surrounding Baroque architecture. This street is 700-years-old. During the Baroque period, many of the houses were converted into magnificent palatial residences. The street also is home to St. Anne’s Column, the Chapel of St. George, and the Triumphal Arch. Today, it is an elegant promenade and a pedestrian zone.
It is obvious the nearby mountains will be a magnet on an Austrian vacation. So, simply head to the Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen, a cable car that takes you up to the Nordkette Mountain which looks down on Innsbruck. The journey takes 20 minutes and the views, once up there, are definitely breathtaking. If you are into hikes, there are several you can undertake from here.
The Alpine Zoo in Innsbruck is Europe’s highest situated zoo. It specializes in alpine animals that live in mountainous areas such as the brown bear, wolves, and birds such as the golden eagle. The zoo also helps the biodiversity of the area and provides some of the more endangered animals with a home.
A popular attraction in the vicinity of Innsbruck is Ambras Castle. This Renaissance castle was once the home of the Archduke Ferdinand ll (1529 to 1595). The Spanish Hall is an intricately decorated hall which hosts classical music concerts. There is also an excellent display of arms and armoury.
Graz is Austria’s second largest city and is one of the best-preserved historical cities in Europe, famous for its elegant architecture. Although it could be compared to Vienna in size, it is a much more sedate city. The Altstadt (Old Town), which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a mixture of buildings in Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance styles. The heart of the old city is the Hauptplatz, the main square where you will find the city hall. At Christmas time, there are colourful Christmas markets which are held here offering not only stalls for seasonal gifts but also mugs of Gluhwein (mulled wine). Walk along the nearby Herrengasse and turn down any of the small alleyways. You will discover many attractive cafes and small boutique stores. You will also find a pharmacy shop dating from 1535 that still dispenses prescriptions, and a bakery dating back to 1569 that still sells bread.
Some other principal attractions in the old town include the 17th-century Armoury Museum, Archduke Ferdinand ll’s Mausoleum, the Landshaushof, which dates back to 1557 and features a beautiful Renaissance courtyard reminiscent of a Venetian palazzo with a clock tower and a copper roof green with age, and the Schloss Eggenberg, a 17th-century palace with 24 state rooms full of original tapestries and furniture plus 500 ceiling paintings.
Overlooking Graz is the Schlossberg (“castle mountain”), originally a fortress. Visible from all over town is the 300-year-old Uhrturm (clock tower). Be careful when checking the time because the longer hand indicates the hours and the shorter hand the minutes. The Glockenturm, a 16th-century bell tower rings out 101 times at 7am, noon and 7pm. To reach the top of the Schlossberg, you need to climb 250 steps, ride the 100-year-old Schlossbergbahn funicular, or take the glass elevator inside the hill.
Another attraction in Graz is the Murinsel (Island of Mur) which is actually not an island but a floating platform in the centre of the river made of steel and glass. It measures 50 metres/164 feet by 20 metres/66 feet and is a seashell-shaped structure connected to both banks of the river. Designed by an American artist, it consists of a dome under which are an amphitheatre and a cafe.
The Kunsthaus Graz, the city’s art gallery, opened in 2003 for the city’s reign as European Capital of Culture. It offers regularly-changing exhibitions which concentrate on contemporary, often way out, art from 1960 onwards. It is a uniquely built edifice and you can take the Travelator up to the fourth-floor Needle, a long, glassed-in viewing deck which has excellent panoramic views of Graz.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum is located in the childhood home of the Austrian-born movie star. Numerous exhibits show his remarkable career including important stages in his life such as his childhood and adolescence before becoming the world’s great bodybuilder, movie star, and the Governor of California.