AUSTRIA IS NOT Germany. It speaks German, and was incorporated into Nazi Germany during World War II, but it is a very different place with a very different history.
Austria rates a very high 8th on the Top 100 Countries Rating index. It is safe and clean and easy to visit, with the best tourist infrastructure on earth. For a smallish country there is a lot to do. It has great mountains and some very good small cities, but the jewel in the crown is Vienna.
Austria’s fabulous capital was for many years the political and cultural center of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire that stretched from Germany to Turkey.
Vienna is centered around the Ringstrasse, a great circular boulevard regarded by many as the most beautiful street in the world. The old city walls were demolished to allow for its construction, when the empire was at its peak in the late 19th century.
The building of the Ringstrasse transformed Vienna, just as Baron Haussmann’s boulevards did in Paris at around the same time. Most of Vienna’s grand buildings are there: the Vienna State Opera and National Theater, the Imperial Palace, the Parliament and City Hall, the Stock Exchange and the University, and the fabulous Kunsthistorisches (art history) Museum.
But the most impressive building in Vienna is not on the Ringstrasse. The Schönnbrunn Palace, where the emperors lived, is a mile or so away, with very impressive gardens.
All this gives Vienna wonderful streetscapes. It is a great city to walk around. It is famous for its cafés and coffee houses and its gracious lifestyle. Is also a very easy city to live in, and is often placed towards the top of global liveability indexes for major cities. It is an easy and pleasant place to visit, and very cosmopolitan.
The rest of Austria is more straitlaced, especially out of the cities. But Austria’s smaller cities, such as Graz, Linz, Salzburg and Innsbruck, are worth visiting. Salzburg is the best. It is the prettiest and is home of the annual Salzburg Festival, one of the world’s best celebration of classical music. It was Mozart’s hometown, and is one of Europe’s capitals of culture. It’s where you do ‘The Sound of Music’ tours as well, though many of them are a bit of a tourist Trapp.
The old baroque abbey at Melk, on the Danube near Vienna, is one of the most famous and beautiful Europe. It features prominently in the book and the movie ‘The Name of the Rose’. Try to visit when a cruise ship isn’t.
The best skiing is near Innsbruck in the West, where the mountain scenery is some of the most impressive anywhere. The Stubaier Glacier has some of the best ski slopes in any European country. Innsbruck is a great town, with a cable car from the middle of the city up to the heights.
Austria is a bit like Germany, but with more mountains and a softer edge. The wonderful German word Gemütlichkeit could have been coined to describe the Austrian view of the world. It has no direct English translation, but conjures up ideas of friendliness to guests and warmth and comfort and good cheer. But Austria does sometimes seem just a little too comfortable and self assured.