A considerable part of my military service was spent in a mountain village of Bavaria, just a half-hour by car from the Austrian border. And though I spent the weekdays at Army duties, I devoted many weekends to forays into the picturesque and nearby Austrian city of Innsbruck, which resembled – to an uncanny extent – the“Sound of Music” town of Salzburg. I was constantly surrounded by mountains, and it was thrilling to be there.
In fact, nearly three-quarters of the terrain of Austria consists of mountains; it lies squarely in the Alps. As you travel through it, you are only occasionally in flat lands less than 500 meters high. And although those infrequent plateaus are sometimes devoted to industries and commerce, the general picture you receive is that of a tourist’s paradise. Your memories are of villages occupied by country folk wearing dirndls if they are women, and lederhosen (short pants) if they are men – all of them living in the most picturesque, decorated and colorfully painted Alpine-style buildings clustered around the high and narrow pointed spire of a church. Tourism is immensely important in Austria, second only to more general forms of commerce. A huge number of Europeans come here for skiing in the winter and mountain hiking in the warmer months.
The other great tourist draw is culture, especially music. Austria – and especially its capital, Vienna – was the home or second home of Mozart, Schubert, Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr., Haydn, Bruckner and more; the concerts available to you are world famous and are alone a potent reason for visiting what is universally deemed to be the capital of music.
And Vienna! It was the centerpiece of one of the world’s most powerful empires named Austria-Hungary, and in past times it played a major role in the politics of Europe. It was here, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, that the victorious countries held the Congress of Vienna. Immediately afterward, Austria emerged as one of the superpowers of Europe.
That powerful position later disintegrated, and seldom do we any longer hear of Vienna or Austria as having any special importance. But a stay in Vienna is like entering a time machine into the past. The word “stately” could have been coined for that graceful and large city on the Danube. The grand and imposing 19th-century buildings that line the “Ring Strasse” (a wide, major, circular boulevard encasing the central, historic part of the town) were once the commercial and political headquarters of a world giant. And none of them has been altered through removal of a single brick. When you stroll the streets of Vienna, and occasionally stop for a “Sachertorte” (a scrumptious Viennese pastry) with tea, you are in a bygone world of the late 1800s.
And when you gaze at the nearly mile-long grounds that lead to Schonbrunn Palace, you are looking at a royal residence that rivals Paris’ Palace of Versailles in size and splendor. When you go to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, you are in an institution almost as grand as Paris’ Louvre. You attend world-famous operas (grand opera at the Staatsoper and operettas at the Volksoper) and plays presented in four giant theaters in addition to numerous smaller ones.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.