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A Guide To Austria’s Provinces

Hiking at Hochschwab © Austrian National Tourist Office/Tom Lamm

Pen portraits, ideas for outdoor activities and what to taste to fuel adventures – all nine provinces in a nutshell.

Vienna

One of the world’s grand capitals, Vienna was the seat of the Habsburg Empire for six centuries. Though it has been a United Nations city since 1957, cultures have converged here for untold generations.

Vienna’s legendary 1st District (Innere Stadt) is encircled by the Ringstrasse Boulevard and home to the lion’s share of ‘must-see’ landmarks: St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Hofburg, Karlskirche, City Hall, Kärntnerstrasse, the Graben, Vienna State Opera, Museum of Fine Arts, the Albertina, and much more. Nearby highlights include the magnificent Belvedere and Schönbrunn Palaces, the trendy 2nd district, the MuseumsQuartier arts complex, and cutting-edge design in the 7th district.

Known for its Ball season and Coffeehouse culture, Vienna is also a celebrated wine destination with Heurigen (wine taverns) concentrated in Grinzing to the northwest. In recent years, new restaurants, bars and even beaches have made the Danube Canal a popular hangout.

TERRAIN: Urban, edged by forests and modest mountains

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: A romantic rowboat ride on the Old Danube

WHAT TO TASTE: a Tafelspitz at Plachutta

Lower Austria

This is a region of fertile valleys and plains, ideal for those seeking a more authentic, rustic getaway. Along the Danube River Valley between Melk and Krems lies die Wachau, a picturesque wine region graced with formidable castles, abbeys, and medieval villages. Check out the walled town of Drosendorf and the beautiful Baroque abbey in Melk.

TERRAIN: Valleys, plains

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Wachau World Heritage Path

WHAT TO TASTE: Mohnnudeln (Poppy seed noodles)

Burgenland

Burgenland literally means ‘Land of Castles’ and, centuries ago, this area protected nearby Vienna from marauding Turks. As one of Austria’s best wine-producing regions, its Heurigen are well worth visiting. Bird lovers flock to Lake Neusiedel and Seewinkel National Park hoping to spot storks among the rich diversity of waterfowl. Two truly inspiring destinations are Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, long associated with Joseph Haydn, and the medieval town of Rust with its charming church dedicated to fishermen.

TERRAIN: Farmland, vineyards

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Birdwatching in Lake Neusiedl/Seewinkel National Park

WHAT TO TASTE: Blaufränkisch red wine

Upper Austria

Upper Austria is marked by rolling hills rising from the plains of Lower Austria to the mountainous regions farther west. The capital, Linz, is a bit of an upstart that has experimented more freely than Vienna or Salzburg, with technology and modern design a mere stone’s throw from such historic treasures as the Abbey of St. Florian.

Upper Austria is known for medieval towns like cobblestoned Steyr, the thermal baths and orchards of Bad Hall, the impressive limestone formations of Kalkalpen National Park and the Bohemian melancholy of the Mühlviertel.

TERRAIN: Hills, mountains

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Bike the Danube Bicycle Path (Donauradweg)

WHAT TO TASTE: Linzer Torte; savory dumplings 

Styria

Styria is the great ‘green’ heart of Austria with an Italian feel—particularly in the south where vineyards and rolling hills have earned it the title of ‘Styrian Tuscany’ (even though Styria actually borders Hungary and Slovenia). The north and west of the province run rugged with churning rivers and the Dachstein mountain’s impressive glaciers; to the east are thermal spas and all the castles you could ask for.

Once a major Catholic pilgrimage centre, Mariazell is now prized for its excellent bike trails. The charming university town of Graz is typically Austrian and boasts a thriving arts and culinary culture.

TERRAIN: Rolling hills, mountains

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Bike tour through Styrian wine country

WHAT TO TASTE: Kürbiskernöl (pumpkin seed oil)

Salzburg

Picture Maria singing in an alpine pasture in The Sound of Music and Salzburgerland is all at once familiar. As the name suggests, rich salt mines are central to Salzburg’s identity; they allowed it to remain an independent state for quite a long time. Salzburg, the capital, is the place for arts and cultural happenings, with a medieval centre ideal for strolling.

Head to the countryside for the bucolic charm of natural beauties like the lake resort Zell am See or the breathtaking gorge and waterfall at Liechtensteinklamm.

TERRAIN: Mountains, Alpine pastures

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Hike up the Krimml Waterfalls, the highest in Europe

WHAT TO TASTE: Salzburger Nockerl (Sweet meringue dessert)

Carinthia 

The rugged beauty of Carinthia is shaped by hundreds of splendid lakes in a landscape of deep valleys and high peaks—most notably the Grossglockner, Austria’s largest mountain. The nearby Pasterze Glacier can be reached by funicular railway. A wonderful summer destination, Carinthia’s charming villages host festivals complete with folk music and performers from nearby Italy and Slovenia. The walled villages of Friesach and Gmund are a treat, as is the impressive hilltop fortress in Hochosterwitz.

TERRAIN: Lakes, mountains

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Horseback riding, Nockberge National Park

WHAT TO TASTE: Carinthian cheese noodles

Tirol

Tirol exudes charm in its familiar chalets and such revered Alpine traditions as thigh-slapping, an honoured form of dance here. Innsbruck and Kufstein are gems, where mountainside castles and medieval backstreets compete with the jaw-dropping Alps for attention. One of the great skiing centres of the world, Tirol boasts legendary ski resorts in Kitzbühel, Mayrhofen and St. Anton.

TERRAIN: Mountains

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Skiing, of course!

WHAT TO TASTE: Tiroler Gröstl mit Spiegelei (Roasted Potatoes with minced meat and fried egg)

Vorarlberg

Independent-minded Vorarlberg conjures a scene of castles amid tranquil lakes and thundering rivers, densely wooded hills and wintry crags. Throughout the Bregenzerwald are villages studded with granite church spires and dairies. This region is famous for its cheese. And, increasingly, architecture.

Nudging up against bucolic farmhouses are the Bauhaus offspring: modernist houses with pale wood, glass walls, and clean lines. Bregenz and its legendary stage on Lake Constance reflect a glorious blend of the old and the new.

TERRAIN: Mountains, lakes

BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Bike along the shores of Lake Constance

WHAT TO TASTE: Käsknöpfle (Spaetzle)

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