Despite its small size, Austria has a long-established international reputation, which is why most visitors arrive with heads full of Habsburg, Mozart and Alpine visions. Some expectations are delightfully met – the mountain scenery is breathtakingly real, there are the omnipresent fingerprints of the old empire in Vienna, and home-grown musical icons Mozart, Schubert and Strauss are championed everywhere – but Austria also has a few surprises up its sleeve in the form of contemporary art, cutting-edge architecture and innovative cuisine.
Austria is frequently cited as one of the best places to live in Europe, and it is not difficult to see why. Remarkably safe and clean, it offers plenty of affordable culture, natural beauty and elegant Baroque and neoclassical architecture, as well as an efficient public transport system.
It’s also surprisingly varied. You can hurtle down a black run in the skiing paradises of Kitzbühel and St Anton, or cosy up with a hot drink in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses. You can skate across icy lakes in winter or seek out wildflower meadows on summertime hikes. You can wonder at the intricate church interiors and the ostentatious opulence of the old Habsburg palaces, or indulge in a more low-key aspect of Mitteleuropa culture over a steaming goulash in a rustic country inn. Or you can ride a horse through pretty wooded tracts, get an eyeful of Rubens, Raphael and Rembrandt, and marvel at Hundertwasser House in Vienna – a fantastical housing complex characterised by its vivid patterns and mismatched colours.
Don’t try to squeeze it all in though. More than anything, Austria is a place to recline, relax and relish. Its natural beauty is the result of many millennia of natural activity and its grand art, architecture and culture was painstakingly created by many hands over many centuries. These aren’t sights to be hurriedly ticked off a list; allow yourself plenty of time to luxuriate.