The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Austria: Gwen Kozlowski of Exeter International.
Gwen has been masterminding custom trips for independent travelers to Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe for more than a decade. She’s based in the U.S. but heads to the region at least twice a year to suss out new hotels and restaurants, test driving and train routes, and add to her ever-growing list of local experts—from museum curators to pastry chefs to artisanal vodka makers—who provide access and insights that you could never get otherwise. Unflinchingly honest and obsessively detailed-oriented, she prides herself on knowing exactly where to find the best food—and drink—in every town from Innsbruck to Budapest to Krakow, and she has such strong relationships with local hoteliers that her guests frequently receive preferential rates and VIP treatment at the most atmospheric four- and five-star hotels.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
In the city: The Sacher Hotels, in both Vienna and Salzburg. No other hotel in Vienna comes close to the Sacher’s location, luxury, and family-run atmosphere, and there is simply no competition in Salzburg either, especially now with the Salzburg property’s complete renovation. My travelers get bed-and-breakfast rates a bit lower than published, an upgrade if available, and a few extra perks, such as early check-in or late checkout. Sometimes, in off-peak seasons, the Vienna property has a fourth-night-free offer.
In the countryside: Schloss Dürnstein, a historic castle hotel that hugs a cliff over the Danube. It’s a family-run property that’s all about tradition, views, and first-rate service. It isn’t perfect—it lacks air-conditioning, and the decor is a bit stuffy—but no other hotel in the Austrian countryside has such a sense of place, especially if you book a room with a balcony overlooking the Danube. My travelers usually get an upgrade to one of the balconied rooms and, if you stay at least two nights, you get a complimentary private walking tour of Dürnstein and a wine tasting at a local vineyard.
Restaurants the locals love
In Vienna: Glacis Beisl, a tiny little beisl tucked away behind the Museum Quarter, offers excellent local cuisine in a beautiful space but with a casual feel. An even more secret find is Gmoakeller, on a side street near Stadtpark. It, too, is small and always packed with locals, so reservations are essential. Ask for the German menu, since the English one is missing half the menu (“We save all the best stuff for us!” explains the management).
In Burgenland: The Tavern Schandl is a particular favorite and serves simple regional cuisine and wines from the owner’s vineyards.
The Wachau Valley: The family atmosphere and delicious home cooking at Weingut Jamek are a cut above; in warmer months you can sit on the patio and look out on the vineyards. They even have a few simple guest rooms above the restaurant.
In Vienna: Schnitzel at Gmoakeller. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted—even better than my German grandmother’s.
In Salzburg: Save up your calories so you can blow them on dessert at St. Peter Stiftskeller with the traditional Salzburger nockerl, a light and airy meringue-like confection with fruit sauce. Sigh.
Restaurant worth the splurge
Steirereck, in Vienna. The menu changes all the time, so I can’t recommend one dish, but it’s the best meal I’ve ever had in my life (twice!). From the abundant varieties of bread (the dedicated bread server is scarily knowledgeable) to the petits fours at the end, it’s all unbelievable.
What to Do and See
Burgenland, Austria’s easternmost state. It’s full of tiny villages, cute inns, Michelin-star dining, and good wine (including the locally produced red Blaufrankisch). And even though it’s only an hour outside of Vienna, it’s yet to be discovered by American travelers. There’s an abundance of outdoor activities on Lake Neusiedl: You can go hiking, biking, wind-surfing, boating, bird-watching, or do water sports. There’s also a very cool outdoor opera in a Roman quarry at St. Margarethen.
Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museum is a must for art lovers but is often overlooked, since people tend to shortchange their time in Vienna. The museum has a meaty collection—with works by the Italian masters, Bruegel the Elder, and Vermeer, among others—and a fantastic Thursday-night program that includes gourmet dining in the beautiful rotunda and evening access to the museum. The new high-tech Kunstkammer (Chamber of Art and Wonders), in the same building, has a very cool display of all the treasures of the Hapsburgs, including intricate automatons that you can see operated on video (iPads are strategically placed for visitors to use).
The Prater, the historic amusement park in Vienna, may have a nostalgic allure and a (very big) Ferris wheel, but it’s probably not a good use of a family’s time in Vienna, as most American kids are too jaded by high-tech amusement parks to enjoy it all that much.
The Grassmayr Bell Foundry in Innsbruck. A bell foundry may not sound exciting, but this is a wonderfully authentic family-run workshop (and shop) that’s been handed down from one generation to the next since 1599. The workers cast and restore bells using age-old techniques. There’s also a sound studio for a (surprisingly fun) hands-on lesson in bell ringing.
From March to June and again in September, the Vienna State Opera (where the best tickets can be more than 200 euros per person) broadcasts up to 70 live performances on an exterior wall of the opera house. You can sit in the square in front of the opera house and watch the entire production in real time without spending a dime.
The Salzburg Music Festival gets the most press (and crowds and highest ticket prices), but smaller festivals throughout the country have excellent concerts at low prices (10–50 euros) in scenic spots that make great bases for exploring the countryside. In the Alps, for example, there’s the Carinthian Summer Festival, where music venues might be in an ancient abbey or a mountain church. Since Carinthia itself is known for its natural beauty, you might take a day off between concerts to go hiking or to the picture-postcard lakes nearby. There’s also the open-air Grafenegg Festival, in the Wachau Valley; it’s held in late August through early September and books top international orchestras and soloists. The real steal are the lawn seats—about 10 euros a pop.
Take a private tour of the stables at Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School. The school dates back some 400 years, making it the world’s oldest classical riding school, and its classical dressage performances are one of Vienna’s star attractions. Not only do you get to see the rare Lipizzaner stallions (known as the horse of royalty) up close, and their groomers at work, but you can sit in on a practice session and have priority seating at one of the shows. It’s a fascinating look into a lost world, and I have the connections to arrange it.
How to spend a Sunday
Sunday is a day of rest in this predominantly Catholic country, so most shops are closed. Do as the locals do and enjoy the parks and the great outdoors. One fantastic way to spend the day is on a leisurely bike ride in the Wachau Valley, with its small wineries and charming villages. The most scenic towns—Melk, Dürnstein, Krems—are all connected via the car-free Danube Cycle Path. Bike shops will be closed in the small towns but, if you’re staying in Vienna, Pedal Power will deliver bikes straight to your hotel, so you can head to the station with your bike and take one of the local one-hour trains to Krems. Another fantastic place to bike is Lake Neusiedl. There is a flat bike trail around the lake and, again, you find little restaurants and villages. Nonbikers might consider a Sunday cruise through the Wachau Valley: The ship departs Vienna at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays and cruises through the valley, stopping in Dürnstein for a couple of hours.
In Vienna: An angled shot of either the Kunsthistorisches Museum or the Natural History Museum—they’re mirror images of each other—fairly early in the morning. In summer at about 8 a.m., you get great light, a blue sky if you’re lucky, and no tourists. They’re impressive buildings on their own—Hapsburg grandeur at its grandest—but when you add in the statues and landscaping, you get a quintessential shot of Vienna. Then, before sunset, head to DO & CO, the hippest hotel in town, for drinks and an in-your-face shot of St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
In Salzburg: In the early evening, the rooftop bar at the Hotel Stein yields unparalleled views of the old town. It’s a postcard shot with the Hohensalzburg Fortress and mountains in the background.
In Hallstatt: It’s hard to avoid the crowds when you visit the ancient village of Hallstatt, unless you’re sleeping in the town. If you arrive early enough in the morning and stand just a bit away from the main market square, you can capture the most beautiful vista, including the lake, town, and mountains.
Vienna: For kids, cool (small) local games, puzzles, and books at Kober toy store, on Graben (Vienna’s main shopping street). For grownups, the requisite Klimt-everything (scarves, posters, umbrellas, tote bags, etc.) and interesting jewelry (mimicking Empress Sisi’s) in the gift shops at Belvedere Palace and Kunsthistorisches Museum. For foodies, treats at Demel, a gorgeous chocolate and sweets shop. For more affordable foodie gifts: Grocery stores such as Billa and Spar supermarkets, with outlets all over the country, have great supplies of local chocolates and candies.
Salzburg: Mozartkugel (chocolate and pistachio-marzipan bonbons) from Café Konditorei Fürst, the place where they were invented.
Eisenstadt: Wine from the wine store at Esterhazy Palace. You’ll find wines from every region in Austria, even the smallest vineyards, and you can taste many of the samples before you buy.
April. Springtime flowers. Mild temperatures. No summertime crowds! And most years, when Easter falls in April, you’ll be there in time for Vienna’s charming holiday markets and festivals.
July through August: Sure, it will be crowded, but the days are long and the weather is great, and there are music festivals—especially opera—all over Austria. And you can usually find good hotel deals, except in Salzburg, when the city hosts its six-week classical music festival (one of the biggest in Europe).
October. It’s at the end of the peak season, there’s gorgeous fall scenery, and it’s harvest time in the vineyards, which means that the Heuriger (wine taverns) are especially fun and lively and you’ll probably get to try new wines. More important, especially for wine buffs, many of the smaller (and better) Heurigers aren’t open year-round, but they’re all open in October.
December. Cold, yes, but the cities are all decked out for the holidays, Christmas markets abound, and snow makes the palaces look like they’re straight out of a storybook.
March and November. It rains. It snows. It’s cold and gray.
Not making dinner reservations in Vienna. If you don’t plan in advance, you’ll be stuck with mediocre, touristy restaurants or lousy times and tables.
Don’t be tempted by the people hanging out in front of the Vienna State Opera in period dress hawking concert tickets. There are so many great performances to see in Vienna, and these concerts are generally super-touristy and not memorable.
My Table, the European version of Open Table, is indispensable for restaurant reservations.
iAustria has info and maps on everything from restaurants to wineries to hikes to city walks. Its geo-location feature will even alert you to a good restaurant nearby.
Austria: Unique Like You has some terrific suggestions for things to do, but I like it especially for the “German for Your Vacation” feature, which lists common words and phrases and lets you listen to their pronunciation.
Many restaurants now have a tip line on the invoice. The waitstaff at several restaurants have told me that they actually do get the tips when paid via credit card. Generally, 10 percent is fine.
Trains take you straight from Vienna’s airport to the city center. And, before your departing flight, you can happily kill time at DO & CO, the fabulous restaurant at the hotel of the same name, since it has an outpost at VIE.
Bubble wine bags to bring back your haul (safely!), since you’re bound to find a great bottle of Grüner Veltliner or the Gemischter Satz whites at one of the family-run wineries you visit in the Wachau Valley. (Many of these wines are either not exported to the U.S. or not easily found.)