If you or one of your clients is searching for a European destination that is a teeny-tiny bit less touristed yet still filled with all the magic of Europe, then it’s time to start thinking about Austria.
In this interview with Michael Gigl, Region Manager USA & Australia, Austria Tourism Office, we discuss what makes this Central European nation so special.
From details on its acclaimed cuisine & wine to the country’s underrated second city and breathtaking far western state, you’re bound to learn a few new things about Austria.
Scott Hartbeck (SH): To start things off, what makes Austria special compared to other European destinations?
Michael Gigl: Austria is everything we love about Europe, in one country. Opulent palaces, cinematic mountain villages, stunning scenery, a thriving culture and art scene, a distinct and always evolving cuisine, Austria is in many ways the perfect European experience in a nutshell. And all that in a country the size of Maine, meaning short distances and easy to navigate.
SH: Obviously, Vienna’s reputation precedes it and Salzburg is also famous around the world but could you tell us a bit more about a few places in Austria that may be a bit off the beaten path?
MG: As far as cities, I would mention Graz, a lively Renaissance town just two hours south of Vienna, and Innsbruck, truly the Capital of the Alps, with its unique combination of city life and alpine outdoors fun. And for a true insider’s tip, the Bregenzerwald region in the far west of Austria. This is an area that is not only stunningly beautiful, but also manages to preserve hundreds of years of traditions, and be utterly progressive and creative at the same time.
SH: If you were planning a perfect week in Austria for someone who had never been before, what would that week look like?
MG: For first-time visitors, I would suggest to plan at least three days in Vienna and getting to know this amazing city. Then head to Salzburg, and include at least one overnight to truly take in the special vibe of the city. And then spend a few days in the countryside and the mountains, like the nearby lake district. For the perfect places to stay, take a look at our highly curated Austria Hotel Collection.
SH: I have to know, is Hallstatt as pretty in person as it looks in all the pictures?
MG: At least as picturesque, yes, especially if you have a chance to view it from a boat on a lake. It is one of the most photographed places on the planet, for a reason. If you have a bit of time, also head up to the Dachstein mountain nearby and the Five Fingers viewing platform to give you a unique view from high above as well as a visit to the Dachstein Ice Caves, a truly unique experience.
SH: Austrian food, beer & wine can get overshadowed at times by its neighbors, but there’s no doubt that it’s a fantastic foodie destination. Could you tell us a bit more about some of the “must-try” meals and drinks we should have when visiting?
MG: Whatever you do, do not mix up Austrian cuisine with German cuisine (even if we share some similarities). Austrian cuisine is actually regionally very varied, with Viennese cuisine being shaped by the influences of regions of the former Empire, with Bohemian, Italian and Hungarian influences most pronounced. Today’s Alpine cuisine is shaped by a real focus on regional ingredients, be it meats, fish or produce from small-scale farming. Austria, in fact, has the highest concentration of organic farmers in the world, with over 20,000 organic farmers in our small country.
As for must trys, a classic Wiener Schnitzel should be part of any Austria trip. For drinks, don’t leave without trying a typical Austrian Grüner Veltliner, which also happens to be one of the most versatile food pairing wines there is. And ask for a good Austrian Schnaps (a clear fruit brandy, not to be confused with Schnapps), at the end of a perfect dinner.
SH: I understand that Vienna is the only European capital to have vineyards within the city limits. How important is wine to Viennese culture?
MG: In 1784 Emperor Joseph II decreed that wine makers were allowed to open taverns and serve their own wines in what became known as ‘Heuriger’ (literally meaning this year’s wine). These wine taverns are still an important part of Viennese culture, mostly found in the little wine villages on the outskirts of the city. Vienna indeed is the only major city in the world with its own significant wine production. The quality of Viennese wines is excellent; If you want to impress your waiter, ask for a glass of “Gemischter Satz”, a uniquely Viennese field blend.
SH: Due to its rich cultural & intellectual history, stately royal palaces and grand cafes, I feel like Vienna has picked up a reputation as a regal, cultured and perhaps even reserved city. But I’ve always found it to have a really youthful, hip buzz, am I off the mark or picking up on something?
MG: Vienna manages to be both, extremely vibrant and youthful while preserving and building upon its amazing historic and cultural heritage. If you think of Vienna as somewhat stuffy, then you probably haven’t visited in quite some time. There is a reason why Vienna has been named the most livable city in the world several times (well there are many, really).
SH: Is it true that due to the recent route additions by Austrian Railways (including many night trains), Vienna is now the most connected city in Europe?
MG: Vienna opened a new Central Train Station in 2012 and is positioning itself as a major train hub in Europe. The öBB Nightjet re-invents the idea of a sleeper car train for today’s environmentally conscious traveler, connecting Vienna with cities like Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Rome or Zürich to name a few.
SH: What’s the best way to get the full “Alps experience” while visiting Austria? I’m talking colorful shutter-covered chalets, cows wearing bells and small alpine villages?
MG: More or less 2/3rds of Austria are Alpine country, and there are numerous picture-perfect Alpine villages in Austria. I already mentioned the Bregenzerwald Region with villages like Schwarzenberg. Or the Arlberg Region with the picture-perfect town of Lech. Or take St. Wolfgang, only a short drive from Salzburg in the picturesque Lake District, right on Wolfgangsee.
SH: Last but not least, if there was one thing you would want travel advisors to remember about Austria above all else, what would it be?
MG: Austria is a perfect choice both for a singular country immersion, as well as easily combined with any of our neighbor countries. We highly recommend an immersive land experience, as opposed to a River Cruise (or in addition to). Allow your clients the time to explore one of the most fascinating European destinations, they will thank you for it.