Austria is often overshadowed by its larger neighbors but holds a certain appeal as a quintessentially European travel destination. The glorious cities of Vienna and Salzburg contrast nicely with friendly little towns and farming communities. One can go skiing or hiking in the Tirol or simply meander pointlessly through the country’s many wine regions. Let me fill you in on a budget traveler’s Austria.
The hostels of Innsbruck aren’t up to much, in fact, they’re mostly terrible, but with premier skiing on its doorstep and a lively atmosphere, it’s lots of fun. During the warmer months, the tourism board organizes free guided hikes which include boots and bus transport from town to the mountains. Yes, free transport, equipment, and a guided day-trip in the Alps. This is a dream for budget travelers. Do bring some cash though to buy a drink or some hot food in the mountain houses.
Listen to the Amateur Traveler episode on Travel to the Tyrol (Tirol) Region of Austria.
A little north is Salzburg, most noted as a setting for the Sound of Music, but Mozart also plays an important part in the cultural attraction. There are some cool independent hostels here and one great (or terrible?) hostel, the Yoho International Youth Hostel, plays that film every evening 365 days a year.
There’s enough to capture your heart just walking around the town but you might want to splash out on a visit to the fortress which dominates the skyline. Like most Kiwis, these hulking masses of stone hold both a romantic attraction as well as an amazing quality when one thinks of how they were built and how long they have stood.
Listen to the Amateur Traveler episode on Travel to Salzburg, Austria
Linz isn’t too impressive. Despite being 2009’s European City of Culture, a day trip can easily cover it. Highlights include the Ars Electronica Centre which is a must for any geek. Everything’s hands-on: new media technology and interfaces spring up everywhere. Amongst more traditional displays are plenty of games and other entertainments.
If the weather’s good you can catch a tram up the Postlingberg to look out as far as the Alps or head back 150 years of entertainment and visit the Grottenbahn where mechanical dwarfs loom from the rock.
If you like jazz, Graz (pronounced something like “Gratz”) is a good place to drop by. Add some fantastic new architecture along the river-front to the old narrow streets and there’s something lovely about it. Budget airlines make prominent use of Graz airport so if you land here don’t skip by…stop a couple of days, visit the “friendly alien” and consider heading south into the nearby wine and spa regions of Styria. Be warned: many tourists get off the train a stop early on their way to the airport. You want the “flughafen” stop!
The cities of Austria are crowned by Vienna, home of too much architecture and too many good museums. There is too much to do in one day so consider a 3-day itinerary in Vienna. Guidebook travelers run the risk of severe museum-overuse syndrome. For this, the MuseumsQuartier at the bottom of Mariahilferstrasse is the place. This neighborhood includes 8 museums from art museums to a children’s museum.
Many good hostels abound at the top end of the street near the Westbahnhof, which is the main international train station. My advice? Buy a 24-hour “Vienna ticket” for a couple of euros and get a free tour around the city on one of the city’s circle trams.
Then, on a fine day, buy a picnic lunch and head to the Schloss Schönbrunn. I’ve never been inside the palace, but wandering the gardens and picnicking on the grass overlooking all of Vienna is fantastic. For a couple of euros, you can try your hand at the maze and the labyrinth, which has water and audio challenges and a great playground!
A great way to save money when you visit Vienna is the Vienna Pass. This pass covers more than 60 top attractions including a hop on-hop off bus tour, entrance to the major museums and palaces, the Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel, and more.
Listen to the Amateur Traveler episode on Travel to Vienna, Austria
Get Out of the City
Traveling through Austria at the moment seems like a life-sized art experiment. Spring rains followed by unseasonable sunshine and heat have brought a deep vibrancy to the trees: greens, browns, and yellows sit sharply against each other, especially contrasted with the occasional tree covered in pastel-pink blooms. Lush green fields are interspersed with light-brown patches of dirt where finances or crop management have stopped farmers planting. Every now and again, however, one comes across a field of rapeseed, looking like God decided to draw highlighter-yellow lines across creation.
Easy transport connections and cheap hostels mean most budget travelers are drawn from city to city but, like most of Europe, the “Europe we came to see” is in the towns.
The Mostviertel is a delightful district in Lower Austria (Confusingly, Lower Austria is the area surrounding and to the west of Vienna). Sonntagberg dominates the region with its church being the site of a yearly pilgrimage and market. Named for “most”, a bitter local cider, the farming communities, and industry of the region make for nice walks and towns.
Waidhofen is the place to base yourself for the exhibition; a cute little town with nice cafes and restaurants, it’s been given a comprehensive makeover giving it a modern, arty feel. Linda and I were lucky enough to be there for Waidhofen’s annual night market, see a short slideshow/video here.
Styria, the area south of Graz, suffers from the lack of fast, regular transport between towns but the effort of traveling is often well rewarded since this is a premier wine and spa region. There are several tour companies operating out of Graz, so that makes a good base to explore from…but do try and stay out of the city for a bit!
One of the few places I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in is the area around Bad Tatzmannsdorf. It’s a “wellness” town with accommodation options from campsites to five-star resorts, all based around the natural springs. It also has an interesting outdoor museum and wonderful ice creams!
Neusiedl am See
One thing I miss in Europe is the beach. Neusiedl am See is a popular summer town on the bank of a large lake. Wine is a big part of Neusiedl am See. One of the local high schools offers a winemaking class and there are several vinoteks and heurigers with great local fare. Boats and cycles are available for hire and the cycle tracks are amazing — taking you through farmland, wetlands, and waterfront…or, from winery to winery.
There are plenty of other cool, relaxed places which I haven’t mentioned. Leave a comment below to let us know your favorite out-of-the-way spot.
Getting into Austria
Trains are frequent from all local countries, best to check oebb.at for current schedules. If you’re coming from Cesky Krumlov, we’ve found the shuttle bus to Linz affordable (500kr) and a great time-saver.
Budget airlines fly from many centers into Salzburg, Graz, Linz, and Bratislava. Bratislava? Yes, they fly into Bratislava and you can catch a train or shuttle bus from there to Vienna. Make sure you check your tickets; some people have been surprised!
Getting around Austria
Taxis and buses are cheap enough, but trains are the most convenient way from town to town. They are run by ÖBB (oebb.at) and their red logo is easily recognizable. Many large stations have staff (although your chances of finding an English speaker is 50/50) as well as red touch-screen ticket machines. We’ve found these to be the easiest way to buy tickets – just hit the “English” button first, choose your destination and amount of people then feed in some money. If there are no ways to pay at the station, just board the train and pay for your ticket onboard. It’s about 10% more expensive, but from some rural stations, there isn’t another option.
Under 26? €19 will get you a Vorteilscard which gives you a 45% discount on every train journey for a year. If you’re spending a fair bit of time there or traveling across the country, buy one as soon as you enter the country and you’ll save a ton.
If you’re over 26 a Vorteilscard will give you the same discount, but set you back €99. Vorteilscards are available from any manned station; have some photo ID and a passport-sized photo available. When we caught the train from Venice to Vienna we bought our Italian ticket to the first major Austrian town, disembarked, bought a Vorteilscard and caught the next train…we almost made the cost back on that trip alone!
If you’re not in the country long enough to warrant a Vorteilscard, simply traveling with a friend will save you some cash. You get more of a discount the more people are traveling together, and the ubiquitous ticket machines automatically give it to you.
Getting out of Austria
Graz airport is small and seldom crowded — they also have free internet terminals to help pass the time and expensive wifi if you’re that way inclined. The wine selection after security is small but reasonable. The only other “Austrian” airport I’ve flown into is Bratislava, which is small but efficient.
Why don’t you jump in a shuttle from Linz to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic or head west into Liechtenstein then Switzerland? Germany’s always an option or skip through Slovenia to the Croatian beaches or head into Slovakia or Hungary…There are so many options only a few euros’ train ride away. Enjoy!