Which are the best cities to visit in Austria? This is a question I often get, especially from first-time visitors. My short answer is Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck. Read on for the long one.
Vienna – the imperial city
Why visit Vienna?
There is a reason why Vienna was named the world’s best city to live in for nine consecutive years (2010 to 2018) in Mercer’s annual quality of living survey. Therefore, it’s also not surprising that Vienna ranks among the top 10 most visited cities in Europe. Naturally, it should be on your list of top cities in Austria to visit this year.
So what attracts people to the city on the banks of the Danube from where the Habsburgs once ruled the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire.
Well, it’s precisely this legacy and remnants of its glorious past that give Vienna its unique character. There are glittering palaces, fabled art collections, and an exceptional musical heritage.
Then there’s the distinct Viennese way of life – the coffee houses, the concert halls, the horse-drawn carriages. And don’t forget the Vienna Woods (Wiener Wald) and other big green expanses such as the Prater. They all contribute to put Vienna on top of the list of cities to visit in Austria.
Top 10 Vienna attractions
|1||Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn)|
|2||Imperial Palace (Hofburg)|
|3||St. Stephen’s Cathedral|
|6||The Vienna Prater with giant ferris wheel|
|8||Vienna Ring Road (Ringstraße)|
|9||Spanish Riding School|
|10||Natural History Museum|
When is the best time to visit Vienna?
As a capital city with a busy events calendar and numerous attractions, Vienna is a year-round destination. The peak tourist season is in the summer holiday months of July and August as well as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. In November and December, the Christmas markets are a big attraction.
Good months to visit when it’s not that busy but not too cold either, are April to June and September and October.
Where to stay in Vienna
|For 5 star imperial treatment
Experience what it must have been like to be a Habsburg in the Hotel Imperial Vienna, a Luxury Collection Hotel. The hotel was originally built as a royal palace and is ideally located in the heart of Vienna.
For the budget traveller
The Hotel Haydn is a family-run hotel in the Mariahilfer shopping street. It’s not only walking distance from shops, restaurants and some attractions but also easily reached via public transport.
For those who like to self-cater
Best Apartments offer great value for money in a pretty Viennese neighbourhood less than 1 km away from the historic city centre.
Getting to Vienna
Vienna is in the north-east of Austria and easily reached from the rest of the world by air, and also by rail and road from within Europe.
Austrian Airlines and other major airlines such as Lufthansa, British Airways and KLM fly to the Vienna International Airport from various destinations. Budget airlines with regular flights to the Austrian capital include easyJet and eurowings.
Tip: Use the city airport train (CAT) to get from Vienna International Airport to the city centre in 16 minutes.
By train and bus
The main railway route from Zurich to Budapest via Innsbruck and Salzburg passes through Vienna. The city is also reached in under 5 hours from Munich and Prague. You can click here to find connections and compare prices.
Buses travel to Vienna from most big cities in neighbouring countries like Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia. While they are cheaper, they also take longer.
Getting around Vienna
Like most cities in Austria, Vienna has a well-developed public transport network. Trains, an underground, trams, and buses take you almost anywhere in the city.
You can buy single tickets which are valid in the core Vienna city zone. They cost €2.20 if you buy them in advance at a ticket machine or any other point of sale.
It’s also possible to buy public transport tickets directly on the bus or tram but it will cost you €0,30 more. Tickets must be validated.
Vienna transport tips
· If you’re in Vienna for a day or more, it makes better sense to buy the red Vienna City Card which includes unlimited use of public transport for either 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours. Prices range between €17 and €29.
· The Vienna City Card also comes with a coupon book with discounts to more than 200 attractions. On our last trip, we used these for a discount at the Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel, Time Travel Vienna, and to buy delicious Trzesniewski sandwiches. Read more about these sandwiches in my detailed guide about what to eat in Vienna.
· There is also a white Vienna City Card. Instead of giving you free use of the public transport system, it gives you unlimited travel on different routes of Big Bus Tours.
· Kids up to the age of six travel for free on Vienna public transport, while those under 15 don’t pay on Sundays, public holidays, and during the Viennese school holidays. Proof of ID may be requested. This is just one of the reasons why Vienna is also one of the best cities in Austria to visit with kids.
Salzburg – the city of music
Why visit Salzburg?
Salzburg is known internationally as the city of both Mozart and The Sound of Music. Within Austria, very few people have watched the movie and couldn’t give a damn about the songs. They do love Mozart, however 😊.
But Salzburg is about more than music. There are other reasons why it’s among the top 3 cities to visit in Austria. Its historic old town with the Hohensalzburg Fortress guarding over it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The well-preserved medieval and baroque old town provides a glimpse of Salzburg’s economic heyday when salt and gold were mined in the area (Salz means salt in German).
The Salzach River separates the old town from later additions to the city. With around 150,000 residents, Salzburg is also the capital of the Austrian federal state called Salzburger Land.
Top 10 Salzburg attractions
|6||Mirabell Palace & Gardens|
|7||St. Peter’s Monastery & Cemetary|
|9||Getreidegasse (beautiful street)|
When is the best time to visit Salzburg?
Salzburg is always pretty to visit despite the time of year. Generally, the temperatures are moderate although the summers can get hot (up to 40 °C) and the winters cold (down to -20 °C).
A weather phenomenon the city is known for is called “Schnürlregen” which roughly translates into “rain in strings”. Salzburg gets about 1,350 mm of rain a year, so take an umbrella!
The Salzburg Festival, celebrating music and drama, is held each year between July and August. From late November to the end of December, visitors are attracted by the atmospheric Christmas market.
Where to stay in Salzburg
|In the heart of the old town
If you want to know what it was like to live in Salzburg during the age of Mozart, there is no better place than the Hotel Goldener Hirsch. The Luxury Collection Hotel is a stone’s throw from the composer’s birthplace in Getreidegasse.
Good value for money
The Altstadt Hotel Hofwirt is excellent value for money at the start of the pedestrian zone in and walking distance from both the train station and the old town. You can also read my review of the Altstadt Hotel Hofwirt
Best self-catering option
Apartments Wolf Dietrich are wonderfully located at the foot of the Kapuziner Mountain and within walking distances of literally everything. You can even have breakfast on site if you don’t want to bother with grocery shopping.
Getting to Salzburg
The Salzburg Airport, also called the W.A. Mozart Airport, is the 2nd largest international airport in Austria. Most major airlines offer direct flights to and from Salzburg from cities like Berlin, Brussels, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Istanbul, London, Split, and Vienna. You can check connections and compare prices here.
The airport is only 4 km from the city centre, with bus lines 2 and 10 running between the two at least every 10 minutes (except on Sundays when no 2 departs every 20 minutes). The journey takes between 15 and 23 minutes. A single ticket costs €2.50 and can be bought in the Newscorner shop in the terminal building, at the ticket machine near the bus stop or directly from the driver.
Tip: You can buy the Salzburg Card at the airport. It not only gives you free access to all the best attractions in and around Salzburg for 24, 48 or 72 hours but also to the public transport network.
By train and bus
Salzburg is one of the most accessible cities in Austria. It’s reached in under 3 hours by train from Munich, Vienna and Innsbruck.
The fastest connection from Vienna takes about 2 h 20 min. Apart from the ÖBB, the Austrian national railway, the private Westbahn rail operator also runs trains on this stretch of railway. Which one is cheapest depends on when you book. Standard Westbahn tickets from Vienna to Salzburg cost €26.90, while last-minute ÖBB tickets can set you back at least €54.
The train from Innsbruck to Salzburg takes just under 2 hours. Take my word for it that you won’t get there faster by car.
Munich and Salzburg are about 1h30min apart by train. Tickets are available for under €20. Click here to search and compare prices for trains to Salzburg.
Getting around Salzburg
Buses are the main form of public transport in Salzburg. They include regular buses as well as environmentally friendly electrical “Obuses”. Tickets can be bought at tobacconists (called Trafik) or on the bus. 24-hour or weekly tickets are a good idea if you’re spending more time in the city and don’t have the Salzburg Card. All tickets must be validated on the bus (there’s a stamp machine) when used for the first time.
Tip: Of all the cities in Austria, Salzburg is closest to the pretty lakeside town of Hallstatt. So, if you want to do a day trip to Hallstatt, this is where to do it from.
Innsbruck – the city in the mountains
Why visit Innsbruck?
Innsbruck is different from Vienna and Salzburg in that it lies in the heart of the Alps. The Nordkette mountains make an immediate impression as soon as you step out of the plane, train or car. You’ll understand why the locals think Innsbruck is the most beautiful city in Austria.
The mountains keep watch over a historic old town with cobbled streets and a market square with a riverside setting. In the heart of the compact, walkable old town the famous Golden Roof waits to be photographed. There is also a city tower to climb for great views of the mountains and down the valley.
The rich history of the area is evident when visiting the Bergisel Hill (also home to the Olympic ski-jump), Ambras Castle, and the neighbouring medieval town of Hall in Tirol. For a modern touch, the Swarovski Crystal Worlds has something for old and young to marvel at.
Top 10 Innsbruck attractions
|4||Bergisel hill with ski jump and Tirol Panorama|
|5||Swarovski Crystal Worlds|
|6||Market square with view of colourful houses across the river|
When is the best time to visit Innsbruck?
If you’re visiting for the sole purpose of sightseeing, Innsbruck is a year-round destination. In winter, the mountain tops are likely to be covered in snow and you can combine sightseeing with visiting the Innsbruck Christmas markets. The latter are generally open from middle November to the end of December.
In summer, a day of sightseeing is rounded off perfectly with dinner and drinks at one of the many cafes and restaurants in the historic old town.
Skiing and other winter sports around Innsbruck are best planned from the beginning of December to the end of March. For summer hiking and visiting mountain attractions, the best months are from the end of May to mid-October. Many cable cars stop running for maintenance in spring and autumn, with the Innsbruck cable car the only one that’s open all year.
Where to stay in Innsbruck
|In the historic old town
Innsbruck’s historic old town is within easy walking distance from both the train station and the Congress station of the Nordkette cable car. There’s no better place to stay if you’re in the city for sightseeing. A good choice near the Golden Roof in the very heart of the old town is the Hotel Innsbruck. It’s on our list not only for the great location but also because it has an indoor swimming pool and wellness area that guests can use free of charge.
On the edge of the old town, in the shadow of the triumphal arch, is the Hotel Goldene Krone Innsbruck. It’s a 5-minute walk from the train station and close to the Innsbruck Casino if you like a bit of gambling while on vacation 😊.
For the budget traveller
For a simple but clean hotel on the banks on the Inn River (including a good breakfast), you can’t go wrong with the Garni-Technikerhaus. Even the shared bathrooms on each floor don’t put people off from staying here.
In a mountain village
There are several quaint villages in the so-called “middle mountains” which are only a 10 to 15-minute drive away from the city. They are also easily reached by public bus or tram. Choose between Igls, Sistrans, Aldrans, Lans, Rinn, and Tulfes. Both Igls and Tulfes are good choices if you want to combine your visit to Innsbruck with some skiing. They are home to the Patscherkofel and Glungezer ski resorts. Hotel options near the slopes are Hotel Gruberhof and B&B Apartments Glungezer.
Getting to Innsbruck
The approach to Innsbruck is beautiful from the air, with stunning views of the mountains on both sides of the Inn Valley. There are regular flights to Innsbruck from London, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam with seasonal flights from various other European cities including Rotterdam and Manchester.
The Innsbruck Airport is only a 10-minute bus ride away from the city or 20 minutes from the main train station. Bus F travels between the airport and the station every 10 minutes. Tickets cost €2,60 if you buy them at a ticket machine before you get on the bus, or €3 on the bus.
If you don’t fancy getting on a bus with big suitcases after a long journey, you’ll find taxis waiting outside the airport building. The average rate for a trip within the city is around €15. You can also book a transfer to most ski resorts.
By train and bus
Innsbruck is centrally located within Europe and a railway hub for trains passing through Austria to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe. Munich and Salzburg are about 2 hours away by train, while Venice and Zurich can be reached in under 4 hours.
You can catch a train to Innsbruck from Salzburg or Munich for under €20 if you book a saver ticket in advance. However, this requires careful planning as you are bound to a specific date and time. Standard tickets are closer to €50.
Getting around Innsbruck
Frankly, if you’re staying in the city you only need your own two feet. It’s a pleasure walking around Innsbruck, with the Nordkette mountains always in view.
If your time allows you to explore outside the city centre, there are several public transport options. One is the hop-on-hop-off Sightseer Bus which stops at top attractions like Ambras Castle and the Bergisel Ski Jump. The bus ticket is included in the Innsbruck Card.
For excursions further afield, an extensive network of buses, trams, and trains connect Innsbruck with the surrounding villages and towns.
Visiting all 3 major cities in Austria
You won’t regret including all 3 top cities in Austria in your itinerary of the country. Thanks to good road and rail connections, it’s easy to visit Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck in one go. You can start in Vienna in the east and make your way to Innsbruck in the west or the other way around. Salzburg lies comfortably in the middle.
While it’s easy and convenient to travel by train between Austrian cities, you can also consider renting a car for more flexibility. This option is ideal for travellers who like exploring off the beaten path, stopping by small villages and attractions along the way.
Joining a small, organized tour is another alternative to seeing the best cities in Austria in one go. This way you are sure not to miss any of the highlights. Plus, you can sit back and enjoy while someone else does all the planning. This one, which includes 3 nights in Vienna and 2 nights each in Salzburg, Innsbruck, and Munich is the perfect length for an introduction to the cities of Austria. It includes transport, hotels, breakfast, and tour guides.
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