Austria, in the heart of mainland Europe, looks a bit like a hand pointing to Switzerland, and the two countries have plenty in common: ice-fissured mountains, pretty villages set in alpine meadows, thermal springs, and spectacular skiing. But there’s far more to Austria than winter sports and biscuit-tin landscapes. The country as we know it today was for more than six centuries the heart of the vast Habsburg Empire, which at its height straddled 270,000 square miles of territory and reached from the outskirts of modern-day Italy to the eastern borders of Transylvania. Vestiges of empire, grandiloquent castles, palaces and summer retreats still dot the former haunts of the Habsburgs; and the balls, operas and the architecture of modern Vienna recall the glamorous aristocratic days of the nineteenth century when the capital was one of Europe’s first cities.
Hark back to Austria’s glory days on a trip to Vienna, where you can ride around the elegant Ringstraβe boulevard in a horse-drawn carriage, visit lavish Sch?nbrunn Palace, a favorite with Empress Maria Theresa, or experience some of the still-vibrant spectacles that once delighted the imperial court: winter balls in the Vienna Opera House, performances by the dancing white stallions of the Spanish Riding School, and concerts of classical music by native Austrian composers including Mozart himself. For real Mozart aficionados the obvious choice is Salzburg, the pretty baroque town where the great composer was born; 1965 blockbuster ‘The Sound of Music’ was filmed in and around the city, too. Medieval Graz, lakeside Klagenfurt and Linz on the blue Danube combine historic Austria with trendsetting fun, from wakeboarding festivals to armories built to keep out the Ottoman Turks. And then, of course, there’s the countryside: woodland spa towns like Baden bei Wien, stunning scenery in Austria’s Salzkammergut lake district, and skiing and tobogganing on the pristine slopes of the Tyrolean Alps.