Explore the Austrian capital, old-fashioned yet countercultural Vienna, with world-class museums, hip hangouts and old-fashioned fairground fun that make it perfect for a family city break. Then venture further afield into the surrounding province of Lower Austria, particularly the Mostviertel region west of Vienna, where the UNESCO listed Wachau Valley appeals to romantics with its ruined medieval castles – one of which, Durnstein, served as a jail to Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades – its vineyards and its teetering cliffs. This is a lovely place to cycle: there’s a 40km bike trail between Melk and Krems, along the north bank of the Danube and through pretty villages, and there are boats to bring both you and your bike back. (You can in fact cycle all the way – nearly 300km – from Vienna to Passau in Germany, via Melk and then Linz in Upper Austria, mostly along dedicated cycle paths and tranquil country lanes.)
Upper Austria is little-visited by tourists, although its capital, Linz, is not without its attractions, which helped it to become European Capital of Culture in 2009. The most famous is the Pflasterspektakel street art festival each July, bringing clowns, mimes and acrobats to Linz’s public spaces, including a kids’ program with shows, crafts and activities. Another highlight is taking the historic Pöstlingberg tram up the steep hill to Pöstlingberg, where you can change to the Grottenbahn, a dragon-shaped miniature railway through a world of dwarves and other fairytale creatures. Linz also has a zoo, including a children’s zoo, and some of Europe’s loveliest botanical gardens.
It’s also in Upper Austria that begins the Salzkammergut, former imperial salt-mining territory that is now one of the country’s most beautiful regions, popular for family holidays amidst shimmering lakes, quaint towns and impressive mountains, and with some of the best family ski resorts in Austria. Most of The Sound of Music was filmed in the Salzkammergut, close to the city of Salzburg. See our destination guide to family holidays in Salzburg and its region, including the ski resort of Kaprun. The Salzkammergut also extends into the Styria region (see below).
West after Salzburg comes the Tirol, another famous skiing area with lots of popular family resorts brilliant for family holidays in the Austrian Alps – some of them part of the mighty Ski Welt Austria area. Highlights include St Anton and Kitzbühel. But the region is also well worth considering for summer family holidays in Austria.
The country’s westernmost province is the Vorarlberg, home to further top ski resorts including family-friendly Lech, runner-up in our Best Ever Family Ski Resort Award in the Ages 7 and Under category. A posh, historic spot, Lech has charming, easy runs, some at Oberlech a short cable-car ride above town. Vorarlberg also boasts Lake Constance (also known as the Bodensee), which it shares with Switzerland and Germany – a great place for swimming, sailing and other watersports, and cycling (there are tracks around the shore). Cablecars take you up to various points of the Vorarlberg for views over three countries, while in the town of Dornbirn, inatura is an interactive museum on Alpine plant and animal life, and Feldkirch is a charming historic town with an imposing castle, Schattenburg, housing a museum and a renowned restaurant. If you're wondering where to go in Austria in summer, this is a great choice.
Austria’s belly in the south is Carinthia (Kärnten), another state known both for its skiing and its fabulous lakes (around 1,270 lakes, 200 of them suitable for bathing). Bordering Slovenia and Italy, the country's sunniest province is renowned for its hot summers and bright crisp winters, rugged mountains, gentle hills and family-friendly accommodation. Think watersports including windsurfing, water-skiing and sailing, and great terrain for hiking, cycling and rock-climbing, in some of Austria's best summer resorts. As a respite, head for Minimundus on Wörthersee lake, with scale models of the world’s most famous buildings. In winter, ski, skate and enjoy other wintersports and pursuits including snowshoe walks. Carinthia has 800km of pistes to suit all abilities, good nursery slopes and lots of English-speaking instructors.
To the east, Styria (Steiermark) contains part of the Salzkammergut (see above) as well as Austria’s second-largest city, Graz, home to no less than six universities and a UNESCO World Heritage listed old town. Take Graz’s funicular up to the Schlossberg castle high on its hill, have lunch on its restaurant terrace and feed the tame red squirrels in its grounds, then amble back down via the wooded paths. Many kids also go a bundle for the Landeszeughaus with its display of weaponry down the ages.
Just north of Graz, at Stübing, the Austrian Open Air Museum (Österreichisches Freilichtmuseum) brings together traditional farm buildings from all over Austria in a woodland setting, plus an old school, an old fire station, and a historic grocery where you can buy Krachmandeln and other traditional sweets.
Another great thing to do near Graz is ride the UNESCO listed Semmering Railway between Mürzzuschlag and Gloggnitz – the world’s first true mountain railway, built in 1848–1854 and comprising 14 tunnels and 16 viaducts, some of which are two-storey. (Note that trains between Graz and Vienna also travel along this incredibly scenic stretch).
Last comes Burgenland, a small, incredibly narrow state south of Vienna and Lower Austria (see above). Neusiedl am See is a lakeside city where watersports are popular, and several castles remain as testament to the region’s name, ‘Land of Castles’ (the rest are now in Hungary). One of the best is the 12th-century Burg Güssing, built on an extinct volcano, with a small museum, a restaurant and vinotheque, and open-air theatre in summer. Also worth visiting is Riegersburg, first built in the 11th century and rated as one of Europe’s best-conserved medieval castles.