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Most visitors to Austria tend to stick to the bigger cities like Vienna and Salzburg. While those destinations are well-worth experiencing with their world-class museums and opera houses, the country is also home to some incredibly appealing small towns. These small towns are particularly enchanting – be sure to be at least one of them on your itinerary or you’ll really be missing out.
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One of the oldest settlements in Austria, Hallstat was originally founded in 5000 BC as the early settlers hoped to exploit the vast salt reserves in the mountains that surround this enchanting town that looks as if it came straight from the pages of a storybook. Thousands of years of salt mining resulted in the enduring prosperity Hallstatt enjoys today, something that can be seen in its lovely square ringed with ivy-covered buildings. The town still mines salt, but it also offers a rich history to go along with that extraordinary scenery from the banks of the Hallstätter See, lying between the pristine lake and a lush mountain, dramatically rising up at water’s edge.
The small town of Alpbach, home to just around 2,600, is renowned across the globe for its striking beauty. It sits in on a sunny plateau, tucked between soaring, frequently snow-capped mountain peaks, while its streets are lined with alluring wooden farmhouses. It’s been honored as the most beautiful in Austria and the most beautiful floral village in all of Europe due to its magnificent floral displays. Alpbach also makes an ideal base for hiking, biking and paragliding during the warmer months, and skiing, tobogganing and skating in the winter.
The picturesque village of St. Gilgen sits along the northwestern shores of Lake Wolfgangsee, surrounded by the Salzkammergut Mountains. It’s a popular day trip from Salzburg, though there are many reasons to stay here too. It provides a great base for enjoying all sorts of activities on the water, like cruises, windsurfing and sailing. Visitors can also ride its famous cable car to Mount Zwolferhorn or hop on the cog railway at Mount Schafsberg. Simply taking a stroll around the medieval village with the pretty streets lined with historic colorful buildings is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Heiligenblut, or Holy Blood as it translates to, is home to a 13th-century church that’s said to contain an authentic vial of Christ’s blood. The church, as one would expect, has attracted Christians for decades who come to see this relic of Jesus, though many other visitors come simply to enjoy the stunning scenery, or use the town as a base to drive the scenic Grossglockner High Alpine Road, the highest surfaced road in the entire country. In the winter, it’s a popular ski resort set at the foot of Austria’s highest mountain, Grossglockner.
A picture-perfect town in the Wachau Valley of Lower Austria, Krems an der Donau is situated at the confluence of the Krems and Danube Rivers. Although it officially has been recorded as dating back to the 10th century, archaeological discoveries have shown that it’s been inhabited for thousands of years before. Krems is famous for both its wine production and its attractive historical center, all set within one of Europe’s most beautiful stretches of river valley. While it may be known for its wine, it also produces apricot brandy called Marillenschnaps, considered a must to sample.
The “Pearl of the Dolomites,” as Lienz is often referred to, this town near the border of Italy in the Tyrol province is one of the sunniest in the nation, averaging some 2,000 hours of sunshine every year. It also boasts a charming medieval center, an alpine coaster that allows you to whiz down mountain side and Bruck Castle, which has been transformed into an art museum showcasing the world’s most extensive collection of works by East Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz. As it’s close to one of Europe’s largest nature reserves, Hohe Tauern National Park, you’ll have miles and miles of hiking trails to explore nearby too.
Finkenberg enjoys an especially breathtaking setting with the Zillertal Alps situated directly at the entrance of Tuxertal, which leads to year-round skiing on Hintertux Glacier. With its high elevation, there are good snow conditions with lifts and pistes open most of the year. The small village itself is home to just over 1500 residents, including Olympic downhill gold medalist Leonhard Stock and mountaineer Peter Habler, the first person to climb Mount Everest without an oxygen mask. Finkenberg has a long, rich history too, with its early 18th-century church, dedicated to Saint Leonhard, containing early baroque stucco works. The 1876 Devil’s Bridge provides a unique, rare example of old Tyrolean woodworking.
Tucked in a valley in the Hochkonig region of Austria, Maria Alm is a ski resort town that’s served as a getaway for many of the rich and famous, from a former German president to Formula 1 driver Keke Rosberg. But it’s not just for snow sports, in the summer it’s a fabulous place for outdoor adventure, including hiking, biking and climbing. Yuu can also embark on the famed Almer Wallfahrt pilgrimage which leads from a church, crossing the Berchtesgaden Alps before culminating in St. Bartholomew’s Church on the western shoreline of Lake Konig.
Situated at the base of Schafberg Mountain along the banks of Lake Wolfgang, St. Wolfgang is an especially picturesque town that’s home to a famous 14th-century church. The site of the church is said to have been chosen by Saint Wolfgang, the Bishop of Regensburg. It also happens to serve as the ending point for the popular pilgrimage that brings devoted followers from the grave of St. Wolfgang in Regensburg to the village. The church contains an elaborately detailed altar which some believe is Austria’s most significant work of Gothic art. Not surprisingly, as so many Austrian towns do, St. Wolfgang’s location makes it an ideal base for hiking, biking, skiing and other sports.