Austria is a complex country: conservative on the one hand, modern and wealthy on the other. Known for its centuries-long history, fascinating culture, plenty of tourist attractions and last but not least — magnificent Vienna, Austria is a paradise for foreign visitors.
Add to that the Alps, the picturesque region of the Tyrol or all the excellent skiing resorts — and you will soon find out what makes Austria an incomparably attractive country.
For ski-enthusiasts, Austria is one of the finest European destinations possible. Europe’s highest mountains, the Alps, covering most of the country guarantee beautiful, breathtaking views sure to delight even the most experienced skier.
For the best in skiing or snowboarding, head for one of the legendary winter resorts, which include Kaprun, Kitzbuhel, or Zell am See, or choose between a plethora of other attractive ski destinations, such as Ischgl, Mayrhofen, Schladming, Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Solden and St Anton am Arlberg.
Considering the abundance of ski centres, everyone will find a perfect place to stay, no matter if you’re seeking a friendly family atmosphere t or you’re a club-hound in search of exciting night-time fun.
While in Austria, don’t forget to visit its capital — Vienna. This cosmopolitan city on the Danube River offers innumerable historical sights.
A walk through the streets of Vienna will take you back in time to Habsburg monarchy with its ornate palaces, sophisticated gardens and elegant upper-middle class houses.
History of Austria
The Early Days
The area of today’s Austria, that is the fertile Danube Valley and the Alpine valleys, were already settled in the Paleolithic Age (until approx. 8000 BC). Around 400 BC, Celtic peoples from Western Europe settled in the eastern Alps.
A Celtic state, Noricum, developed around the region’s ironworks in the second century BC. From the 7th century BC onwards one of the main regions of Celtic occupation was in modern-day Austria, centered around Hallstatt, a large prehistoric salt-mining area.
The Hallstatt period, 750 — c.450 BC, is named after this region.
The Romans arrived 200 BC and by 15 BC they dominated the entire area. The most important Roman settlement in Austria was Carnuntum (capital of the Roman province of Pannonia in today’s Lower Austria) which became the center of the Roman fortifications along the Danube. Visit the Archaeology Park with a museum and an amphitheater.
From Ostarrichi to Austria
By the latter half of the second century AD, various German tribes were extending their territory making devastating incursions into Roman territories. By the mid-500s, the Bavarians controlled the territory between the eastern Alps and the Wienerwald region.
Around 800 Charlemagne, the king of Franks and eventually Holy Roman Emperor, established a territory in the Danube valley known as the Ostmark (Eastern March). In 996 the Ostmark was first referred to as «Ostarrichi», a clear forerunner of the modern German word «Österreich».
Between 976, when Leopold von Babenberg became the margrave of the Ostmark, and 1246, the Duchy of Austria was one of extensive feudal possessions of the Babenberg family.
The dynasty established their first residence in Pöchlarn before moving it to Melk in the scenic Wachau region. In the 12th century Henry II moved his residence to Vienna which has remained the capital of the country ever since.
Also in the 12th century the Cathedral of Saint Stephan was completed, which became a visible landmark of the city, showing its prominence. Henry II also founded the Schottenstift monastaryin Vienna, in the courtyard of which there is a statue of him to this day.
Beginning of the Habsburg Rule
Some 100 years later Rudolf I emerged with the crown, beginning six centuries of Habsburg rule in Austria. The centerpiece of their realm was the Imperial Palace in Vienna, today accommodating several museums (Treasury, Sisi Museum) providing a good overview of the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs increased their influence and power through strategic alliances ratified by marriages.
Owing to premature deaths and/or childless marriages within the Burgundian and Spanish dynasties into which his grandfather, Maximilian I (1493−1519), and his father had married, Emperor Charles V (1519−56) inherited not only the Hereditary Lands but also the Franche-Comté and the Netherlands (both of which were French fiefs) and Spain and its empire in the Americas.
The Turkish threat, which included unsuccessful sieges of Vienna in 1529 and in 1683, prompted Poland, Venice, and Russia to join the Habsburg Empire in repelling the Turks.
In the late 1690s, command of the imperial forces was entrusted to Prince Eugene of Savoy. Under his leadership, Habsburg forces won control of all but a small portion of Hungary by 1699.
With the end of the Turkish threat, the arts and culture experienced a surge. Splendid edifices such as Schloss Schönbrunn (World Cultural Heritage) or the Salzburger Dom were built; architects like Johann Fischer v. Erlach, Lukas v. Hildebrandt, Jakob Prandtauer, Daniel Gran, Paul Troger, Franz Anton Maulbertsch created exceptional monuments.
Under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1717−1780) the Habsburg holdings were reformed and united. Following Maria Theresa’s death in 1780, her son Joseph II, one of the so-called enlightened monarchs, continued the reforms along the lines pursued by his mother.
From Biedermeier to Jugendstil (Art Nouveau)
The French revolution in 1789 and the rise of Napoleon, who secured French possession of many Austrian territories, proved to be a major threat to the Habsburgs.
During the Congress of Vienna (1814/15), held with the purpose of redrawing the continent’s political map after Napolen’s defeat, Austrian Chancellor Metternich tried to reconsolidate Austrian power.
In 1848 the French philosophy of middle-class revolution reached Austria, but the rebellion was promptly squashed, and Emperor Franz I and Metternich responded by cutting down civil liberties and introducing a strict censorship.
As a result the people retreated to their houses, concentrated on the domestic and the non-political; social life came to a halt. The second part of the Biedermeier period was marked by a growing urbanization and industrialization that lead to a new urban middle class.
People started to meet again, and the arts were cherished. Artists of this time include painters like Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Friedrich Gauermann, the composer Franz Schubert, and the poets Adalbert Stifter, Ferdinand Raimund and Franz Grillparzer.
In the end the Emperor Ferdinand I was eventually pressured to abdicate in favor of his nephew Emperor Franz Joseph I, whose 68-year reign was one of Austria’s longest. Together with his wife Elisabeth, the legendary «Sisi», he shaped the image of the Austrian imperial rule.
Under his rule Vienna became of the Europe’s most important metropolises and the center of a multinational state extending from Hungary to North Italy and deep into southern Europe.
Johann Strauß, the King of Waltz, was celebrated all over the world for his wonderful musical compositions. Sigmund Freud was the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, a movement that popularized the theory that unconscious motives control much behavior.
Around 1900 the Vienna Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) peaked during which forward-looking artists and designers seceded from the mainstream salon exhibitions, to exhibit on their own in more congenial surroundings.
Noted Jugendstil artists include the painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and the architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. A walk along the Vienna Ringstraße boulevard with its splendid buildings, a visit to the Sisi or Sigmund Freud Museum or the Österreichischen Galerie Belvedere provide a good overview of this epoch.
The 20th Century
Brimming with ethnic tensions and locked into a rigid system of alliances from the 19th century wars, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was a catastrophe waiting to happen.
The necessary spark was the assassination of the Austrian archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo. Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia marked the beginning of World War I.
Emperor Franz Joseph dies in 1916 and after the end of the war in 1918 the first Republic of Austria was established, ending the 640-year old Habsburg dynasty. The young republic suffered massive inflation, unemployment, and near economic collapse.
In 1933, the weak coalition government between the Christian-Social and the Social-Democratic parties gave way when Engelbert Dollfuss became Chancellor in 1932 as head of a right-wing coalition government, designed to tackle the problems caused by the Depression.
In May 1934 Doffluss declared martial law in order to protect Austria from Hitler. In July Dollfuss was shot and killed by Nazis in an attempted coup.
On March 12, 1938, German troops marched into Austria and the country was incorporated into the German Reich ruled by Adolf Hitler.
After the end of World War II in 1945, Austria was restored to its 1937 frontiers and occupied by the victorious allies — the USA, the Soviet Union, the UK, and France — for a decade.
The 21st Century
On May 15, 1955, the Austrian State Treaty was ratified, with Austria declaring its permanent neutrality. Thanks to its location near the «Iron Curtain», Austria soon developed into a nerve center between the West and the East.
After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring Invasion, Austria grants asylum to the refugees. Austria is also host country of many international organizations (UNO, OPEC) as well as host of many important conference and summit meetings.
The Iron Curtain fell in 1989/90; in 1995 Austria becomes a member of the European Union.
Austria’s Nature & Climate
There is a predominantly Central European fauna in Austria with species that include deer, stag, rabbit, pheasant, fox, badger, marten and partridge. Native to the alpine regions are the chamois, groundhog, eagle and mountain jackdaw.
Characteristic of the Pannonian fauna is the vast bird population in the reed beds of the Neusiedler See such as heron, spoonbill, scooper, wild goose and many more.
In recent years, Austria has become home again to a small bear population, which can mainly be found in the heavily wooded southern and central mountainous regions.
The diversity of topographical and climatic conditions accounts for the country’s species-rich flora. Austria is one of Europe’s most heavily wooded countries.
Characteristic are the deciduous forest (oak, beech) and the mixed forest (beech, fir) and in the higher altitude regions fir, larch and pine.
Especially diverse and colorful is the alpine flora which includes the edelweiss, gentian, alpine carnation, arnica, alpine rose, heather and much more.
The northern edge of the Alps is especially dominated by grassland. Typical in the Pannonian region are the scrub forest, mixed deciduous forest and the steppe moors. East of Lake Neusiedl one finds a specific salt steppe flora.
Austria’s national parks that stretch across 3 percent of the country document the diversity of the landscape with its in part unique natural landscapes, such as the rain and virgin forests.
What to visit in Austria
You most definitely shouldn’t pass up a visit to Schoenbrunn Palace surrounded by a beautiful park and the Hofburg Palace — the winter residence of the Habsburgs. If historical monuments are you’re thing, don’t miss St Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) and the Town Hall (Rathaus).
Reserve some time to stroll around the streets of the Innere Stadt, the oldest and most interesting quarter of Vienna, which is also a perfect place for shopping, with a range of boutiques, stores and souvenir shops. Vienna is known for its Art Nouveau architecture, with its Secession Building, Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station and the Kirche am Steinhof (St Leopold’s Church).
Art lovers of all stripes will have plenty of occasions to enjoy the most precious masterpieces of European art — just visit the Museum of Albertina and Belvedere, the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Naturhistorisches Museum. These are but the most famous ones, while the total number of museums exceeds a hundred.
Apart from Vienna there are many others cities such as Salzburg — the home town of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Innsbruck in Tyrol — winter sports complexes that are surely worth a well-deserved holiday rest.
And while you’re at it, why not visit some of the other attractive towns in Austria, including Graz, Eisenstadt, Bregenz and Klagenfurt, or some of the picturesque smaller towns.
And if you want to take a break from sightseeing, try one of the national specialities. Take a hefty bite out of a Wiener Schnietzel, or have a hot steaming Apfelstrudel or Austria’s world-famous Sachertorte as a dessert.
For centuries Austria has been an important centre of European culture. Aside from Mozart, Austria is the birthplace of other renowned composers such as Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. Ludwig van Beethoven lived most of his life in Vienna.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries Vienna was a mecca for Art Nouveau artists, such as Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele. Austria is also proud of native sons such as Freud, Kafka, Musil and Rilke, as well as a ton of other illustrious Austrians.
Imposing mountains, great skiing conditions and a well developed tourist infrastructure plus the warm and inviting atmosphere of Austrian winter resorts will captivate every fan of winter sports, while others will appreciate its beautiful cities, interesting people and rich history and culture.
What’s more, Austria offers great museums and numerous festivals. Its excellent location in the heart of Europe makes it an easy-to-reach destination, so why not spend your next holidays in Austria?
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