Off the beaten path: Tips on visiting and exploring Austria
Austria's capital of Vienna is beautiful, but what about those hidden gems outside the city? Austria is relatively small with many hotspots close to the main airports, which translates to it being easy to travel around. So whether you want to sightsee, ski or just eat and drink, here are some off-the-beaten-path ways to visit the country.
Gastein Valley is home to three different towns flanked by the Hohe Tauern mountains. Each town is magical in its own right, yet very different. Gastein is the longest of the Tauern valleys at almost 25 miles with over 125 miles of pistes, hot springs, Alpine activities and much more. Start in Bad Gastein (the Monte Carlo of the Alps for night-time fun and fairy tale hotels), then exorcise the excesses in Dorfgastein with some hiking and mountain activities. Finally, relax to the max in Bad Hofgastein with a healing spa and fine food.
If you want to travel out of ski season, check out the yoga weeks in spring and autumn. This is also the only place in the world with Healing Caves and the valley has no less than 18 natural springs. Known as the Healing Gallery, the natural radon stimulates the immune system, activating the body’s own self-healing powers. The warm temperatures (between 98 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as humidity from 75% to 100%) makes the Healing Gallery a real one-off.
Hallstatt -- Austria’s most photogenic village
The inspiration behind the kingdom of Arendelle in the popular Disney film Frozen, Hallstatt is just an hour’s drive from Salzburg and would make a great half-day stop for capturing amazing photo opportunities. The village itself was awarded Unesco World Heritage status and you can visit its famous 7,000-year-old salt mine, the oldest on earth. Hallstatt actually means “place of salt” and thanks to the salt industry, the town became rich.
Set between the Dachstein and Salzkammergut mountain ranges and overlooking a glassy lake, the sleepy Alpine village of Hallstatt is a truly stunning sight to behold. After seeing this wonder, you can also check out the fascinating 16th Century buildings and a Lutheran church in place of Queen Elsa’s castle.
After that, make your way to the market square, weave in and out of the streets and visit the shops along the lake for trinkets. Hallstatt is small (end-to-end is not even a mile long), so take your time and take in the views.
Eisriesenwelt ice caves
Discovered around 150 years ago, Eisriesenwelt is a natural phenomenon and also the largest ice-cave system on our planet, extending more than 30 miles into the mountain. Due to the unique conditions in the cave, the spring water freezes into ice sculptures and formations locally known as the ice giants.
Stepping through the imposing entrance, which is 65 feet wide, the first thing you notice in this mysterious ice palace is that the formations glisten to amazing effect in the light of the mine lamps. Winding passageways lead you deeper and deeper into the mountain on a guided tour where even in the summer, you will find yourself in this parallel world of ice.
If you’re feeling fit, you can hike from the visitor area in the valley all the way up to the ice caves in the Tennengebirge mountains. Or let the steepest gondola lift in Austria carry you up to the cave entrance.
Read more: TPG readers' top tips for Austria
The whole of the Alpine region is a paradise for skiers, and we all know Obergurgl. But the place that few people really think of is Hochgurgl, one of Austria’s most snow-sure destinations. Hochgurgl is at a higher altitude with plenty of activities on and off the pistes.
On the pistes, the slopes in Hochgurgl are a combination of skier/snowboarder cross course and terrain park, where kids and adults alike can speed around turns, waves and bridges. Off-piste is one of Austria’s best-kept secrets and a favorite among free riders due to that deep, untouched powdery snow.
Off the pistes, Top Mountain Star is a restaurant and bar that sits at 10,000 feet high. Enjoy panoramic views of the Ötztaler peaks and the rounded Italian Dolomites from the balcony of this architectural masterpiece.
Read more: 9 things I wish I knew before taking my children skiing
Aqua Dome thermal spa
Allow yourself to chill in one of the 12 indoor and outdoor pools heated to a sultry 97 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the coolest thermal baths in Austria is a combination of fun, action, spa, adventures and, of course, relaxation.
In a huge glass crystal there are the two indoor pools that are directly connected to the basins in the outdoor part. Outside, the soul basin has underwater music and the massage basin has healing thermal properties, which is even better when it's snowing.
Sauna-wise, there are seven saunas in the “Gletscherglühen” sauna and the “Morgentau” wellness area where you will find hot stone therapy and much more. You can experience some moonlight bathing every Friday until midnight. A day pass per adult is just $40.
Hohe Tauren National Park
Austria’s six national parks offer the chance to discover nature in a true untouched state. Hohe Tauren is Austria’s oldest and biggest national park and very well known for its biodiversity — 50% of all Austrian animal species (10,000 in total) can be found here including golden eagles. The park covers three Austrian provinces, so is the ultimate off-the-beaten track place and has 266 mountains over 10,000 feet, 551 lakes and more than 200 glaciers.
If you want to explore with a guided tour, a park ranger can help you discover places you would never find yourself and reveal the deepest secrets of this park. While you are here, check out the village of Krimml and the Krimml waterfalls, the highest waterfalls in Europe crashing down over 1,200 feet.
TOP Hotel, Hochgurgl
Atop Hochgurgl sits a five-star resort called TOP Hotel Hochgurgl. Awarded Best Ski Hotel in Austria at the World Ski Awards 2019, this Relais & Châteaux ski-in and ski-out property is proper luxury. Relax in your plush room with the sounds of a crackling open fire and Alpine views. After a day of skiing at the highest non-glacier ski resort in Austria, hang out in a heated outdoor pool with 360-degree views of the piste.
The owners also run a motorcycle museum, the highest in Europe. Have a few rides in the Champagne gondola, which is also owned by the hotel. Being transported from one part of a ski area to another is often not exciting, but now you can partake in a glass or two of Champagne on heated seats. Be sure to ski responsibly! A double room starts at $500 a night.
Relax in Leogang
After all the skiing, hiking and exertion, it's time for some rest in Leogang, a village in the Pinzgau area of Salzburg at Forsthofgut Hotel. This stylish, award-winning nature hotel is surrounded by meadows and forests where in winter, the ski slope runs right past the hotel and in summer, a feast of flowers abounds in its 300,000-square-foot garden.
Dining is based on the best tastes from seven Alpine countries with two distinct options: regional food from a maximum distance of 31 miles and varied vegan fare. You can’t leave without experiencing Europe’s first forest-themed spa. In the huge space you will find an adults-only area and a sauna with a view of the game enclosure, herbal and steam baths and organic saunas. Then take a dip in the outdoor pool with mountain views, relax in a jacuzzi on the edge of the forest and plunge into the organic bathing lake. Contact the hotel directly for costs and packages.
Vienna is an incredible central European city, but there are so many more hidden gems in Austria. From ice caves in the summer to some of the best pistes in Europe, Austria has it all. Some of these hidden gems are unique but it is still smart to book ahead in advance to avoid disappointment.