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Austria Family Holidays & Breaks

Bathing lake in CarinthiaBathing lake in Carinthia© Kärnten Werbung - Gerdl 
Salzburg Salzburg © Austrian National Tourist Office/ Popp Hackner
St Johann in TirolSt Johann in Tirol© TVB Kitzbühel Alps St. Johann in Tyrol
Stubai Alps southwest of InnsbruckStubai Alps southwest of InnsbruckMatthias Burtscher © 2004 | Tirol Werbung
Capital City Vienna
Timezone GMT +1
Currency Euro

Today

Overview

Picturesque Alpine Austria is one of Europe's winter sports hotspots, with skiing and snowboarding resorts so family-friendly that many have special ‘children's hotels’. But while this landlocked land is less popular as a family holiday destination in summer, its lovely scenery and sparkling lakes make up for the lack of seaside, with outdoors pursuits including swimming, cycling on child-friendly routes, and, for those with older kids, hiking on marked trails, staying in mountain shelters along the way.

Beyond sports and the great outdoors, Austria has a great store of culture – its history-soaked capital Vienna makes for a surprisingly child-friendly city-break destination, with a particularly strong musical heritage that is echoed across the country by that of Salzburg – Mozart’s birthplace but a city perhaps equally well known as the setting for parts of ‘The Sound of Music’.

Things to do with kids in Austria

Explore the Austrian capital, old-fashioned yet countercultural Vienna, with its world-class museums, hip hangouts and old-fashioned fairground fun. 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. Most of ‘The Sound of Music’ was filmed in the Salzkammergut, close to the city of Salzburg. See our destination guide to the city of Salzburg and its region. The Salzkammergut also extends into the Styria region (see below).

West after Salzburg comes the Tyrol/Tirol, another famous skiing area with lots of popular family resorts.

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.

Austria’s belly in the south is Carinthia (Kärnten), another state known both for its skiing and its fabulous lakes.  

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.

Eat

You won’t have any trouble finding Western child-pleasers in the resorts and larger cities, although it’s worth convincing your kids be adventurous and try some of Austrian’s home-grown treats, whether it be hearty sausages that make our version look rather tame or melt-in-the-mouth traditional pastries.

Austrian food is anathema to those on a diet: hearty local specialities include Wiener Schnitzel (veal escalope fried in breadcrumbs), Knödel (savoury or sweet dumplings), Spätzle (egg noodles), superb breads, including Semmeln (white rolls), and Apfelstrudel and other gorgeous pastries and desserts. Würstlstände throughout cities and towns sell hot sausages and hot dogs such as Wiener Würstel, Bosna (with onions and curry sauce), Burenwurst and Käsekrainer (with melted cheese inside).

Large cities and skiing resorts have plenty of restaurants serving the usual gamut of child-family Western staples, as well as Austrian dishes. Some menus have English translations, and tipping is expected. Vegetarians need to be aware that even vegetable dishes such as soup or potato salad often contain meat.

Mums and dads might like to join in with local tradition and round off their meal with a shot of schnaps, a fiery fruit brandy available in a wide range of flavours.

When to go to Austria

The winter sports season in Austria generally lasts Dec–March/April. Though the cities make for good year-round family holiday destinations, they too are their most atmospheric in the festive season – just make sure to wrap up toasty and warm.

Summer is generally pleasantly warm in Austria, although there can be a fair amount of rain, and it’s worth avoiding the cities in sweltering August.

How to get to Austria

For getting to the capital, see our Vienna page. Travellers to western Austria can fly into Innsbruck, Salzburg and Klagenfurt in Carinthia. The German cities of Munich in Bavaria or Friedrichshafen in Baden-Württemberg, and Zürich in Switzerland, can be handy airports for western Austria. Low-cost airlines are active in the area.

Vienna is nearly 500km from Innsbruck in the Tirol by road.

For those seeking more adventure in their family holidays, trains to Austria from the UK take various routes. You can take an afternoon Eurostar to Paris then the overnight City Night Line sleeper train to Munich in Bavaria, then connect to trains heading to Innsbruck, Salzburg, Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. Alternatively, take a lunchtime Eurostar to Brussels and a high-speed Thalys train to Cologne in northern Germany, then the EuroNight sleeper train to Linz or Vienna, arriving in time for breakfast. Or you can use daytime trains all the way, stopping overnight in Switzerland. A great source of practical info is The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com).

Cost

Prices can be high in Vienna and in the more touristy ski resorts, but those who stick to traditional cuisine and accommodation, such as family-run B&Bs, can find tremendous bargains that can help keep family holiday costs down.

By Rhonda Carrier

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