Kingdoms of powerful dynasties, monarchs and blue bloods, Austria and Bavaria have long reigned as European crown jewels. Travel with us through this imperial culture of music, art and waltz that flourishes within castles, cafés, opera houses and concert halls. We’ll also visit cozy Alpine villages that beckon with skiing, Schnapps and schnitzel, and drop in on glowing Christmas markets filled with wooden stalls of handmade cheer.
Kitzbühel, Austria – Tyrolean Downhill King
The mountain rising 5,617 feet from the valley floor of the Kitzbühel Alps is as legendary as the resort town at its base. Bearing the tracks of Austria’s vaunted downhill ski racers since 1931, the Hahnenkamm stands resolutely at the pinnacle of Austrian alpine lore. Its downhill course—Der Streif (The Stripe)—is regarded as the most demanding on the World Cup circuit, practically requiring hands and feet to scale in the summer. The medieval town of Kitzbuhel makes a worthy host for the prestigious Hahnenkamm-Rennen (Hahnenkamm Race) that takes place every January. Just 62 miles east of Innsbruck on a direct rail route, the charming Tyrolean village of pastel and muraled architecture attracts an upscale crowd. Fashionable boutiques, chic restaurants and cozy pubs thrive with après-ski activity, while 56 lifts and cableways provide access to 104 miles of snow-covered terrain. Book a room in Kitzbühel or one of the surrounding communities of Kirchberg (Tirol, Jochberg and Thurn Pass) to appreciate the best of Austrian winter tradition.
Gasteinertal (Gastein Valley), Austria – Healing & Skiing in the High Alps
Just one hour south of Salzburg in the heart of Austria’s highest mountain range, Bad Gastein has long been known for its therapeutic waters and unique healing tunnels. The word “Bad” (spa) it its name indicates its standing as a sanctioned health resort. In the 19th century, the exclusive spa town teemed with monarchs, tsars and the upper class, who came seeking the mountain air and healing properties of its hot springs. After miners noted improvements in their various ailments, scientists discovered that the radon, heat and high humidity of the nearby Radhaus Mountain created a natural healing environment for locomotor system diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis), skin problems and respiratory conditions. Established in 1952, the Heilstollen (healing cave) continues to provide hyperthermal radon inhalation therapy by taking spa goers through a multi-station tunnel system in a specialized train. Beyond its spas, the Bad Gastein area boasts a plethora of winter sporting activities. Graced with steep hillsides, rushing waterfalls, mountain and valleys, as well as casinos and turn-of-the-century Belle-Epoque charm, this historic town is the definition of unique.
Kufstein, Austria – Tyrolean Charm by the Glassful
At the gateway to the Alps on the border of Austria and Germany, the small town of Kufstein offers a taste of Austrian flavor. The history of its world-renowned Riedel glassmaking family goes back 250 years and 11 generations. In 1955, Claus Riedel and his father purchased the Kufstein factory with the help of the Swarovskis (the famous crystal makers). Claus led his family brand in the new direction of stemware, introducing the world to the revolutionary concept of developing glass shapes to enhance specific styles of wine. Developing fine, handmade glasses ever since, the Riedel Glas Kufstein factory allows a glimpse into the exacting world of Riedel, letting visitors see how glasses are mouth-blown and shaped using precise methods and traditions. Kufstein is also home to the Festung, an 800-year-old sandstone fortress that looms over the city’s medieval old town, complete with tower prison, antique weapons and period furniture. The oldest wine tavern in Austria is located in the Hotel Weinhaus Auracher Löchl, which fronts the river below the giant fortress rock. Enjoy a bottle while you relax with an atmospheric dinner and live folk music.
Ramsau, Austria – Traditional Winter Woolens
The dense, water-resistant wool of traditional Austrian outerwear is called loden. Manufactured to withstand the damp Austrian cold, loden traditionally comes in forest green or gray and can be found in specialty shops throughout the country. To find it at its source, pay a visit to Lodenwalke, located in a quiet corner of the lovely Dachstein ski region of the Austrian Alps. In the past, wool was sheared from the region’s hardy mountain sheep, spun by local women and woven into rough cloth on looms. It then went to the lodenwalker (cloth fuller) to be pressed and compacted into its durable form. With records of purchase dating back to 1434, Lodenwalke is the oldest company in the province of Styria and still proudly carries on traditional loden manufacture with the motto that “wool needs time.” Set in a traditional Austrian mountain chalet, Lodenwalke welcomes visitors to tour the premises and roam the showroom for sportswear, winter wear, suits, jackets, coats, traditional socks and virgin-wool accessories not available anywhere else. Stop at the traditional restaurant to try the kaiserschmarren (light pancake pieces dusted with powdered sugar and served with fruit sauce).
Schladming, Austria – Skywalking on the Balcony of the Alps
The 9,826-foot Dachstein translates to “roof stone” in German. With a principal peak that marks the border of three provinces (Salzburg, Styria and Upper Austria), it’s home to the eight easternmost glaciers of the Alps and some of the country’s largest caves. Fortunately, visitors don’t need to be mountaineers to make an ascent. The Dachsteinseilbahn (Dachstein cable car) whisks passengers to breathtaking views and the spectacular Sky Walk platform, which is fitted with special glass floors that offer incredible views. Non-skiers can make their way to the Ice Palace, a mystical world of frozen sculptures, light and sound lodged deep in the glacier’s interior. For further thrills, head up the mountain to the platform restaurant at sunrise for a Skywalker breakfast. Late risers can catch a sunset dinner accompanied by music. Either way, be sure to check the forecast before you go to make sure visibility will be good.
Innsbruck, Austria – Charmed Olympic City
As the capital of the Tyrol province in western Austria and the unofficial capital of the Alps, Innsbruck is a fresh breath of city air. Not too big and not too small, the two-time Winter Olympic host deftly embraces the outdoors without losing its cultural appeal. A prime example is the city’s old town, which beckons with intriguing pedestrian alleys, cafés, shops and a cathedral—plus a ski lift that departs from downtown. Wander the central square and admire its famous Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), the three-tiered medieval balcony topped with burnished copper tiles that was built for Emperor Maximilian I in the 15th century to observe tournaments on the plaza below. For grand views of Innsbruck and its surrounding valley, take the Nordketten Bahnen, made up of a funicular and tramway, to the upper station at Haflekar. Stop at the Alpenzoo on the way up for a look at Europe’s highest-elevation animal park. To catch the Olympic spirit, buy a ski pass for area runs or head over to the Bergisel Ski Jump, where a funicular takes visitors to the top. To recharge between sightseeing stops, drop in at Konditorei-Café Valier, an Innsbruck institution. The unchanged old-world interior and its decadent Austrian desserts have beckoned residents and tourists alike since 1896.
Salzburg, Austria – The Charm of Music & Mozart
The birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart virtually sings with culture. A city to stroll in and relish, Salzburg radiates a cozy Austrian charm that emanates from all corners. Palaces, forts, cathedrals and The Sound of Music settingscome to life in this captivating western gateway, with snowy Alps as the background. Hohensalzburg Castle, Europe’s largest medieval fortification and Salzburg’s most notable landmark, has reigned prominently on the hillside overlooking the city since its inception in 1077. A funicular shuttles visitors up the hillside to tour the castle and take in its marvelous views in case it’s too cold to use the walking pathways. Daily concerts in the music chambers and the December Advent market in the courtyard make it easy to experience medieval magic. In the shadow of the castle below, Salzburg’s atmospheric Altstadt (Old Town) bustles with activity along enchanting cobbled streets and alleyways. Wander past boutiques, cafés and well-maintained baroque buildings that include Mozart’s birth house and later residence. To commemorate Mozart’s birth at the end of January, the Mozarteum Foundation (established by Mozart’s widow Constanze) hosts Mozart Week, featuring special opera performances and orchestral, chamber and solo concerts composed by the master himself.
Oberndorf, Austria – A Moving Silent Night
Just north of Salzburg on Austria’s border with Germany, a tiny town resonates with an epic Christmas carol written here almost 200 years ago. As the birthplace of Silent Night, Oberndorf hums with a still, holy presence when thousands gather on Christmas Eve to take part in an annual tradition. According to the carol, disputes between traditional and progressive traditions at the local parish led to an assignment of a new priest, who implemented services performed only in Latin to organ music. When the church organ mysteriously broke down on Christmas 1818, local progressive priest Joseph Mohr and organist Franz Gruber offered to perform an alternative mass. Unacceptable in most situations, the duo performed Silent Night in German to the accompaniment of a simple guitar. Mohr’s original 1816 Silent Night composition was later discovered in 1995, setting the record straight on its true origination. For those seeking a small-town Christmas, make your way to the tiny Stille Nacht Kapelle (Silent Night Chapel) by 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The annual memorial vigil and service held outside the illuminated chapel ends with the ancient version of Silent Night performed by two singers, a choir and the traditional guitar. When thousands sing the carol in their own language, it stirs a moving Christmas spirit.
Vienna, Austria – The Season of Waltzing
Believing the ballrooms of his palace should be accessible to both commoners and nobility, Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) opened Vienna’s Hofburg Palace to public balls in 1773. With tremendous demand, ball season became a splendid Viennese twist on Carnival, the reveling run-up to the Christian season of Lent. The grand Emperor’s Ball (renamed Le Grand Bal in 2012) literally gets the ball rolling on New Year’s Eve in Vienna’s glorious Hofburg Palace. More than 450 balls follow in January and February in venues that range from city hall, the opera house and concert halls to hotels and community centers. Hosted by different professional and social associations and guilds (e.g., doctors, lawyers, hunters, gardeners, engineers, pharmacists, students), the balls vary from private invitation-only occasions to public ticketed events. Balls normally begin with an opening ceremony by host officials and a Viennese waltz performed by debutantes making their entry into the social arena. The rest of the evening is given over to social dancing, including waltzes, foxtrots, tangos, sambas and quicksteps. In opulent Viennese tradition, balls have strict dress codes—from formal ball gowns and tailcoats to extravagantly themed costumes. Some of the city’s most famous fetes include the Vienna Opera Ball, the Vienna Philharmonic Ball and the Viennese Coffee House Owners Ball.
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Vienna, Austria – Where the Café Is an Imperial Institution
Over 2,000 kaffeehäuser (coffee houses) call Vienna home and are such an integral part of the city’s culture that UNESCO lists them as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” The heyday of the Viennese café occurred during the Hapsburg Monarchy, when the artistic, intellectual, scientific, political and economic elite converged in Vienna. Cafés were a place to socialize, network and see and be seen by people of culture and prominence. In such an environment, the Viennese brought the café to an art form. Quite the opposite of grabbing a quick bite, the café experience here is meant to be enjoyed. Waiters expect customers to sit for an hour or two over a newspaper with a frothy Viennese coffee and classic desserts like apfelstrudel mit schlag (apple strudel with whipped cream).
Cafés with elegant old-world décor, live piano music and literary readings bring Vienna’s golden age into the present. Try one of the venerable institutions like:
- Demel (1786), former purveyor of confectionaries to the imperial court, known for its legendary window displays that turn dessert into high art
- Café Central (1876), where the likes of Goethe, Freud, Lenin and Trotsky sat pondering and conversing
- Café Diglas (1923), a 1920s “newcomer”
- Café Sacher, recipe holder of the original sacher torte (1832), Austria’s famous chocolate cake
Vienna, Austria – Habitat of the Hapsburgs
The House of Hapsburg defines a royal family that directed centuries of life in Austria. With roots dating back to 955 A.D., the monarchs reigned as elected Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution in 1806, but continued to rule the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. The remnants of their dynasty remain in the fabulous buildings of Vienna and historical treasures like the Vienna Hofburg (Imperial Palace), which served as the political center of their empire and continues to house Austria’s key political offices. Take a guided tour to see the residential apartments, studies and reception rooms occupied by Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916) and his intriguing wife, Empress Elisabeth (nicknamed Sisi). Schönbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg summer residence just outside Vienna, remains a magnificent showpiece of gilded splendor and is open to visitors year-round. The fascinating Kaisergruft (Imperial Crypt) below the Capuchin Church contains the final remains of 146 Habsburgs—including 12 emperors and 19 empresses. The Capuchin monks continue to safeguard one key for each sarcophagus, while a secondary key is kept in the Treasury of Hofburg Palace.
Nürnberg, Germany – The Spirit of Christmas Cheer
Known as Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) and Christkindlmarkts (Christ Child Markets), the celebrated December markets of Austria and Bavaria radiate the warmth and glow of a glimmering Christmas fairytale. The scents of gebrannte mandel (baked almonds with sugar), lebkuchen (ginger cookies), liebesapfel (caramel apples), glühwein (mulled wine) and sausages of all kinds infuse alleyways filled with specially erected wooden stalls selling handmade ornaments and crafts. Germany’s famed Nürnberg market dates back to at least 1628 and draws two million visitors per year. Staged in the city’s Hauptmarkt (main square) and spilling over into side streets and squares, Nürnberg’s market opens the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent (the four weeks preceding Christmas). The Christkind (Christ Child)—a carefully selected candidate between 16 and 19 years of age—delivers the anticipated opening prologue. If you can’t make it to Nürnberg, the Christmas spirit and its enchanting markets are also held in Vienna, Munich and many smaller towns throughout Germany and Austria.
Munich, Germany – Revving Heart of Bavaria
Gorgeous Alp scenery, castles, quaint townships, chalets with flowered balconies, lederhosen, beer and bratwurst make up Bavaria’s delightful heritage. But within this cozy southeast corner of Germany also lies Munich, the power engine of the Bavarian economy and home to its most recognized export, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” The hub of Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) is signposted by a clover-shaped, cylindrical tower that stands over Munich’s expansive 1972 Olympic Park. Inhabited by top brass, engineers and designers, the emblematic tower overlooks the plant and museum, which draw thrilled enthusiasts from around the world. Customers picking up their shiny new vehicles in person and car fans of all stripes can access BMW World, the gleaming delivery center and exhibit hall complete with latest models and live motorcycle demos. The adjoining BMW Museum and BMW Plant give visitors access to the company’s meticulous world of design, development, robots, assembly, painting and finishing. Advance reservations for English-language plant tours are highly recommended. For a break from machinery, dine at the futuristic upstairs restaurant that complements the stellar facility and BMW’s top-notch precision and handling.
Schwangau, Germany – Land of the King’s Castles
During their 800-year reign, the grand Bavarian kings of the Wittelsbach dynasty created a fairytale kingdom. Their passion for architecture and art extended beyond Munich to the southern forested Alp region, where they created fantastic structures. Towers, turrets, spires, balconies, pillars, portals and parapets set off by dark forests, mountains and lakes create an enchanted fantasy world.
Maximillian II acquired Hohenschwangau Castle in 1832 after it had fallen into disrepair when the Schwangau knights died out in the 16th century. After spending his boyhood years there, son Ludwig II began developing his own castles, Neuschwanstein being his last effort. Hiring a stage designer as architect, Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a refuge. Its fantastic design borrowed heavily from the king’s close friendship with opera composer Richard Wagner. Unfortunately, the shy and reclusive Ludwig—known as the Mad King, Swan King and Dream King—never saw his fantasy completed. He mysteriously drowned in Lake Starnberg south of Munich after being declared legally insane. Ironically, the Nazis later used his refuge to store confiscated cultural treasures during World War II, and millions of visitors now walk through it each year. Visit both castles (Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein) and the recently opened Museum of Bavarian Kings to see the fabulous portraits, porcelain, jewelry and furniture housed inside each location.
Lermoos, Austria – Big Mountain, Tiny Town
The cozy and well-known resort of Garmish-Partenkirchen in the very south of Bavaria draws myriad visitors for winter skiing and summer hiking. To escape the crowds, venture a bit further south into Austria and settle into a quiet valley that shelters a string of tiny noncommercial towns in the shadow of the mighty Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain at 9,720 feet. Check into the warm and welcoming Hotel Post and you’ll find all the amenities you need—great views, wellness and spa facilities, sport and fitness programs, and excellent food and drink. Ski on the Zugspitze by day and retire to the sauna in the late afternoon before ordering a nightcap to enjoy while gazing at the mountain’s majesty.
Travel Tips: Bavaria & Austria
Winter in Austria and Bavaria is known for Christmas markets, Alpine skiing, Viennese waltzing and formal balls held in magnificent venues steeped in legacy. To get in step with a culture defined by former kings and Hapsburgs, read these Travel Tips and prepare for a fabulous journey..
The Sounds of Music
Concerts occur almost every day in Salzburg and Vienna. Soloists, ensembles and orchestras perform lunch concerts, dinner concerts, castle and palace concerts, Mozart concerts, organ concerts, The Sound of Music concerts and more—some even in costume. The fabulous settings make the music even more enjoyable. Check city calendars for Salzburg and Vienna in advance, and plan your visit accordingly.
Attending the Vienna Balls
Tickets and formal attire are a must to get into one of Vienna’s renowned winter balls. Ball season runs from December 31 into February, officially closing the last Monday before Ash Wednesday. The individual guilds (professional and social associations for doctors, lawyers, engineers, firemen, hunters, concert artists, coffeehouse owners and students) hosting each ball provide information and tickets. Check the ball calendar for contact info so you can learn about the dress code, timeline and ticket information. The Vienna tourist office also provides printed copies you can pick up if you’re in town. Advance table reservations and seat/loge tickets for the balls are separate from admission tickets and may have different sale dates.
In addition to acquiring a ticket and a gown or tux, first-time Viennese ballgoers should learn the proper etiquette and a few dance skills. Several schools in Vienna will get you ready to rumba, waltz or tango. The prestigious Elmayer Dance School has been in business since 1919, training many who attend the balls. The third-generation family member who runs the school—Professor Thomas Schaefer-Elmayer—is not only a dance instructor, but Austria’s leading expert in manners, known for serving as master of ceremonies at Vienna’s Opera Ball. Drop-in Ball Blitz lessons at the Rueff Dance School behind City Hall are available for those short on time who want a crash course in dancing.
Standing for Opera
Opera in Vienna is a serious endeavor, and tickets go for a premium at the famous Staatsoper opera house, often selling out. Thrifty insiders know that over 500 stehplatz (standing-room) tickets go on sale 80 minutes before the curtain rises. The better spaces cost only 3.5 euros (approx. $4.34 U.S.). Look for the “standing room” area on the left side of the opera house and plan on lining up early:
- 3 hours prior for regular performances
- By noon for popular operas
- At 6 a.m. for premieres
Once you have a ticket (each person must be present to get one), line up at the appropriate entrance to secure a good spot inside—and bring a scarf to mark it. Tie it around the railing in front of your space so you can check your coat and bag, rent binoculars or explore the building. Don’t worry about having your space or scarf moved or stolen—people in these hallowed halls are widely respectful of this place-holding practice.
The Christmas season in Austria and Bavaria is all about tradition. Besides special concerts, choirs and performances, Christmas markets fill each country with all the best in food, festivity and ornamentation. Bell choirs, special readings, brass bands and Krippenspiele (Nativity plays) grace church services and markets. On Christmas Eve, residents dressed in their finest fill the gorgeous cathedrals to attend candlelight services and mass. Find a service and share the experience—ask your hotel concierge or local tourist office for suggestions.
English & German
As a whole, Germans speak English very well. However, in Austria and deeper in Bavaria (the most southern region of Germany), people may be less likely or less comfortable to speak it. More provincial in nature, residents are proud of their heritage and stick to it. In Vienna and the Bavarian capital of Munich, English is more common, especially at tourist locations, but you shouldn’t count on it. Be prepared with a phrasebook and learn a few key German phrases. Austrians speak with a strong German dialect and use special local phrases. “Grüss Gott” (greetings to God) is a common greeting in both Bavaria and Austria.
The Viennese Café Culture
Besides the bounty of coffee options, a vast array of cakes and pastries complement the traditional Viennese café experience. Sacher torte (chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam) and apfelstrudel (apple strudel) are classics. Good cafés will always provide a small glass of tap water—often on a silver platter—to refresh the palate and enhance the flavors. Feel free to stay awhile. No one will rush you out—it just wouldn’t be proper. To leave an appropriate tip, round up the tab to the nearest euro. Use this primer for café details: www.tourmycountry.com/austria/coffee.htm
In general, Austrians dress more formally than Americans. With the exception of students, local residents dress elegantly to attend operas, concerts, church and special events. Standing-room attire at the Vienna opera is less formal, due to the large student population in the mix. In winter, the Alps make Bavaria and Austria very cold, while Vienna may feel even colder because of the wind. Prepare for snow and ice and dress in layers. Pack boots, a heavy overcoat, a hat and gloves. To find these items and more, see our selection of winter gear.
Classic Austrian & Bavarian Dishes
- Germknödel – Large yeast dumpling filled with plum jam and topped with melted butter and ground poppy seed and sugar.
- Leberkäse – Bavarian meatloaf (usually veal) baked in a loaf pan; sliced and served hot, often in a bun.
- Salzburger Knockerl – Sweet egg and flour soufflé dusted with powdered sugar and served warm for dessert.
- Tafelspitz –Tri-tip beef boiled with herbs and root vegetables, served with horseradish sauce and fried potatoes.
- Weisswurst & Bier – A mild white veal sausage served with sweet mustard, coleslaw, a pretzel and Bavarian beer; traditionally eaten before noon.
- Wienerschnitzel – A wiener (Viennese) specialty; breaded and fried veal; also made with pork or chicken.
The Best of the Mozart Balls
Salzburg’s famous Mozartkugeln (Mozart balls) are a delicious homage to this musical city. Confectioner Paul Fürst originally concocted these chocolate-covered marzipan and nougat treats in 1890. Still in operation, the Fürst confectionary produces and wraps 1.4 million of them by hand each year, adhering to the original recipe and methods. Since imitations abound, look for the signature silver and blue foil-wrapped balls sold exclusively in four Salzburg locations.
Three porcelain and ceramic companies provide unforgettable treasures to take home:
- Augarten– A Viennese institution for fine porcelain since 1718. Over 11,000 hand-painted figurines and dishes come in 150 different patterns. The evergreen “Maria Theresia” and the “Old Viennese Rose” designs are the most well-known.
- Gmunden – Austria’s largest ceramics manufacturer creates rustic, hand-painted pieces bearing brilliant colors, religious motifs, and landscape and flower designs inspired by its Traunsee Lake location. Its “Grünegeflammt” (flamed green) pattern is a classic.
- Nymphenburg – Handcrafting fine porcelain in Munich’s imperial palace since the 18th century, Nymphenburg has produced pieces for high aristocracy, palaces, embassies and churches. All items are marked with a coat of arms featuring a diamond relief on the underside.
Planning for Winter & Holiday Travel
Travelers visiting Austria and Bavaria during the winter should keep in mind that hours may be reduced at many museums and sightseeing locations, and some may be completely closed. Christmas markets usually start at the end of November and run through December 22 (some continue until December 26). Since Austrians and Bavarians emphasize Christmas Eve celebrations, shops and many restaurants close in the early afternoon of December 23 and remain closed through December 27. Check schedules in advance and plan accordingly.