A small mountainous country, better known for its Alpine scenery, skiing, Mozart and Baroque architecture – but it also has an astonishing array of tourist destinations related to the darker chapters of history.
Of course, today's comparatively small territory of Austria used to be part of large empires in the past, the Austro-Hungarian one until its demise in World War One
, and then that of Nazi Germany
after the "Anschluss
" in March 1938 by Hitler
(who was born in Austria) all the way through World War Two
, Austria became independent again in 1955 and had an officially "neutral" status, and as such was neither part of NATO
nor the Warsaw Pact
. Effectively, though, it was very much part of the Western world – and thus its eastern borders formed part of the Iron Curtain
. Indeed Austria had one of the longest stretches of that Cold War
division line. It was also here that the first "hole" appeared in it (on the border with Hungary
) in the process of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc
. Austria has in fact always had a special role as mediator, interface and crossroads between East and West.
Austria's dark sites are not all related to those 20th century dark periods, however. It also sports, for instance, some of Europe's largest and/or most atmospheric cemeteries and some of the world's oldest and best medical exhibitions too. One of the darkest and most worrying contemporary issues facing civilization, global warming
, can literally be observed in Austria's Alpine glaciers, such as the Pasterze
, which therefore also doubles up as a dark tourism destination of sorts.
Another contemporary dark scare, that created by nuclear power generation, can be studied in complete safety in Austria, namely in the country's only such power plant at Zwentendorf
. This never entered operation so that it can now be visited on guided tours ... which even take in the (never used) reactor core. This is absolutely unique in the world!
Given that Austria is a rather centralist state (despite being a federal republic), it's not too surprising that by far the largest number of the country's dark tourism destinations are to be found in its capital city Vienna.
Travelling to Austria is easy by air, road, rail and even boat; although the latter amounts to little more than river cruises on the Danube
– but there are also speedboat connections to Bratislava, Slovakia, and to Budapest
. It may not be Frankfurt or Heathrow, but Vienna
's airport has excellent connections, especially to eastern destinations! – again proving the country's role as a junction between Western and Eastern Europe. The same is true for train and bus services. Roads are good too, although local driving habits can be a bit "boisterous" for some – speeding and drink-driving are almost a national sport (hence the way in which Austria's notorious right-winger Jörg Haider parted from this world in October 2008 couldn't have been more fitting – but this is about as far as I will go in getting close to touching on politics here).
Language-wise you should more or less be able to get by with English in Austria. Many people know the language sufficiently to be able to help, the younger they are, the more likely this tends to be the case. Be prepared, however, for some deeply Austrianized pronunciations of English, which can take a while getting used to. If you (think you can) speak German, having learned German German, then be prepared for a shock: Austrian German is very different (especially in pronunciation) to most German varieties. It's not quite as severe as colloquial Swiss German (which is really a separate language), but even as a native speaker of (Northern) German I'm still regularly struggling to understand Austrian German even after well over a decade of having lived here.
In culinary terms, Austria may not be the most exciting country – especially vegetarians have a hard time in this carnivorous country (something shared with both its northern and eastern neighbours) – but as a semi-vegetarian like myself you can get by, but have to watch the calories ... for instance: one of the few regularly available veggie staple is cheese deep-fried in fat and with a fatty tartar sauce dip on the side! Deserts and cakes ("Mehlspeisen" - literally 'flour food') are rightly famed but heavily calorific too. Even meat lovers may balk at some Austrian specialities like Leberkäs ('liver cheese' – not a cheese but a meaty loaf made from a sausage-filling-like substance whose smell of pig corpse juice is seriously off-putting) or Käsekrainer, a type of sausage with bits of cheese in it which melt when the thing is fried and then oozes out when cut up; hence it's also known in Vienna as an "Eitrige", literally 'a purulent one' ... you get the picture.
What Austria may lack on the more palatable food front, it more than makes up for on the drinks front. For white wine connoisseurs it is heaven! I would claim that Austria's white wines are in fact the best in the world, especially Rieslings and Grüner Veltliner (the latter something like a national grape), and in particular those from the Wachau region. Reds reach such levels of quality more rarely, but can also be found.
Until recently I used to think that beer in comparison is pretty boring here and that Austria is really a sad "beer desert" – meaning that it's the same as in most countries: industrially mass-produced, faceless and tasteless lagers dominate. That is indeed so – however, the craft beer revolution has reached Austria too, and now there are plenty of excellent brews available, albeit on a small scale and, as usual, for a price ... if you can find them at all, that is. But it's worth the searching.
On the non-alcoholic front it has to be noted that coffee in those famous Viennese coffee houses is most definitely overrated, while tap water, on the other hand, is outstanding. See under food & drink
for more on this.
Overall Austria is a very pleasant country both to visit and to live in (with only some reservations), and I can vouch for that first hand, as I have been living here for many years. Although I can really only speak for my home base Vienna
much more than the provinces, where life is surely quite different.
Being located right at the heart of the country in its capital, I can also offer the most direct consultation services
I'm still exploring and searching for lesser known and/or unusual and dark sites here, and I'm sure these Austria pages will be expanded over time accordingly. So do check back from time to time . . .
- Austria - Alps, glacier
- Austria - Alps
- Austria - Danube - never really blue
- Austria - Gesäuse, railway bridge
- Austria - Gesäuse
- Austria - Linz art centre
- Austria - Linz installation of book art
- Austria - Melk monastery
- Austria - Wachau, Dürnstein
- Austria - Wachau
- Austria - a well-grounded musical country
- Austria - contemporary defence contribution
- Austria - deep Alpine gorge
- Austria - dense forest
- Austria - desperately holding up the flame for catholicism
- Austria - ex-emperor on a smaller plinth
- Austria - marmot
- Austria - modern church window in Linz
- Austria - mountains
- Austria - old and refurbished
- Austria - pretty flower
- Austria - rocks
- Austria - rocky outlook
- Austria - small town quaintness
- Austria - sugary demons
- Austria - vineyard
- Austria - wild garlic
- Austria - wildlife
- Austria - wine