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Updated: 11th February 2024
Austria might be landlocked, but it doesn’t disappoint. There’s no time to miss the ocean when you’ve got a plethora of panoramic peaks, cultured cities, and shimmering lakes to experience. But being “stuck” in the heart of Europe is also the country’s best asset for travellers: a two-country, twin-city break in Austria is a dreamy breeze.
Sharing a border with eight different countries and boasting some of Europe’s best-quality day and night train services, hopping across to a neighbouring nation is seamless. You can easily spend a morning exploring Vienna’s culture before enjoying the sunset from Bratislava Castle. Or sink lunchtime pints in Munich’s beer gardens before catching an evening orchestra performance in Salzburg.
With just a couple of hours between the best city breaks in Austria and their border-hopping counterparts, there’s perhaps no other country that offers such a decent choice of twin-city breaks. Whether you’re looking for a long weekend in Austria or are keen to tour three European capitals back-to-back, here’s where to go and how to do it.
Paired with Bratislava (Slovakia) or Budapest (Hungary)
Vienna, Austria’s capital city, is an open-air museum. Walking these storied streets, the nation’s Imperial past unfurls in statues, palaces and overflowing art galleries. Most attention goes to the Habsburg dynasty, the dukes and emperors who ruled Austria for some 500 years. Spend a couple of days touring the Schönbrunn or Hofburg Palaces, catching a performance at the world-class Vienna Opera House, and gawping at the art and architecture of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and you’ll soon see Vienna is arguably Austria’s best city for a historic deep-dive.
But Vienna isn’t all old. It’s also an ever-evolving creative hub. Don’t overlook the city’s youthful energy found in organic wine bars, abundant street art and inside (and on the funky facade of) the Kunst Haus Wien. When you’re ready to continue class in another country, hop across the border to Slovakia or Hungary. These two nations don’t just share a frontier with Austria, but a long Habsburg history, including the more recent Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Make Vienna a twin-city break with Bratislava (Slovakia) or Budapest (Hungary)
From Vienna, it only takes around an hour by train to reach Bratislava. You can even take a ferry along the Danube if you wish. If you’re not flush on time, a long day trip will cover the highlights of Slovakia’s fairly compact capital. Start in the pretty cobblestoned Old Town, flitting between the medieval Michael’s Gate (you can climb the tower for fantastic views), the main square, and the cluster of statues dotted around the city. Then, head over to Bratislava Castle to enjoy some more panoramas of the city and river.
Alternatively, getting to Budapest will take around two-and-a-half hours by train. Again, there’s a longer ferry option along the Danube. For Budapest, a day trip simply won’t cut it. You’ll want to spend at least a night or two here as the second half of your Austrian city break. This will allow enough time to explore both sides of the city: Buda and Pest – especially as there is some top-notch nightlife to enjoy.
Budapest’s grand architecture hogs the spotlight, with the mighty Fisherman’s Bastion and (even more beautiful by night) Hungarian Parliament Building taking top billing. But once you’ve got the major sights out the way, you can flit between street art, soothing outside thermal baths – there are heaps in Budapest, but the Széchenyi baths are the most famous – and quirky, cool bars. Some of the best nightlife happens on barges in the river.
Make it a road trip: If you’ve got a bit longer to spare, why not string these three cities into a road trip, allowing you to see a little beyond the capitals? Logically, it might still make sense just to do Bratislava as a day trip and then drive to (or loop) from Vienna to Budapest to explore a bit more of Hungary and some of Europe’s hidden gems. Just keep in mind when hiring a car, you’ll need to ensure you are allowed to drive it cross-border and be aware that if your rental company doesn’t supply it, you’ll need to get a Hungarian Vignette online before departure – this is essential for paying the e-tolls.
Paired with Ljubljana (Slovenia) or Zagreb (Croatia)
Graz is Austria’s second city, yet it remains one of Europe’s most underrated for reasons I don’t understand. It’s got a gorgeous Altstadt (Old Town) where pretty streets and free electric trams make it a joy to explore. Some of the best attractions to visit include the unusually stumpy Uhrturm (Clock Tower), the world’s largest armoury, and a cluster of impressive courtyards that feel more Mediterranean in their design than Austrian. The design credentials don’t stop there, though, as Graz also holds a UNESCO City of Design title, and when you see the funky, alien-like art gallery, you’ll understand why.
But more than that, it’s a really green city. Graz is sustainable and proud. You’ll notice this at all of the farmers’ markets, parks, flower gardens, and along the River Mur, which slices through the student-heavy city. Across the other side, the trendy districts of Lend and Gries are packed with independent boutiques, zero-waste restaurants, and decent nightlife. Put all this together, and Graz is arguably one of the best Austrian cities to visit for a laid-back break, with the bonus of it being just across the border from Slovenia.
Make Graz a twin-city break with Ljubljana (Slovenia) or Zagreb (Croatia)
To make your Austria city break a two-country option, hop on a train or bus, and in just over three hours, you’ll arrive in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s pretty, pedestrianised capital city. This is absolutely one of my favourite European capitals, and you’ll want to stay for at least one night to take it all in. The Old Town is anchored around the jade-green canal, with coffee shops and cute wine and cocktail bars along the banks. From the castle above, you’ll get some fantastic views and see why this is known as one of Europe’s greenest cities. Then, in the trendy Autonomous Metelkova quarter, you’ll find Ljublajan’s creative streak in street art and outside art installations.
Alternatively, if you want to twin Graz with Croatia, reaching the capital city of Zagreb will take around three hours by bus or four by train. Often overlooked in favour of Croatia’s gorgeous coast, Zagreb is a surprisingly fun city break. You’ve got all the normal European capital stuff: grand plazas, cathedrals and churches. But there are also some quirky and fascinating museums to visit, such as the Museum of Broken Relationships and the Zagreb Ethnographic Museum. Around the medieval Upper Town, there are some cracking little bars to sample Croatia’s unsung wines.
Make it a road trip: If you have the time, then linking these three cities (and some detours) together as a road trip is a fantastic way to explore. The landscapes around these cities are superb, with Styria’s rolling farmlands and Slovenia’s lush topography, there’s plenty of chances to stop at gorgeous lakes, rivers and caves. You’ll want to ensure that your car rental allows travelling across all three countries, and while Croatia’s toll roads can be paid in cash, making a Croatia road trip straightforward, you’ll want to ask the rental company in Graz about sorting out a Slovenian vignette.
Paired with Munich (Germany)
The mere mention of Salzburg usually conjures up thoughts of the Sound of Music, and it’s far from a cliche. Salzburg is certainly Austria’s best city for classical concerts and learning about the country’s most famous composer, Mozart. But what makes Salzburg standout compared to other Austrian cities is just how handsome it looks from every angle. In summer, the streets really come alive for the Salzburg’s Summer Festival, while winter can often bring a sprinkling of snow. It’s one of Austria’s best city breaks year-round, and there’s no shortage of things to do in Salzburg.
Grand architecture is abundant, with the Hohensalzburg Fortress high above the city, the cave-like oldest serving restaurant in the world at St. Peter Stiftskulinarium – which itself is inside an abbey – and heaps of churches, often holding their own concerts. On the city’s outskirts, the magnificent lakes and mountains of the Austrian Alps offer amazing side trips. Although, you’re also only a short hop from one of Germany’s best cities: Munich.
Make Salzburg a twin-city break with Munich (Germany)
From Salzburg, getting to Munich will take you around 90 minutes by train, and it’s a fairly scenic ride. Of course, Munich is most famous for Oktoberfest, the Bavarian beer-guzzling festival that starts in September. But like Salzburg, you’ll find plenty to entertain here any time of year. Plus, the beers and hearty dishes keep on flowing long after the festival is over. The Old Town is as pretty as you’d expect, with its Glockenspiel clock tower and the standout Town Hall.
If you prefer museums, you’ll be equally spoiled, with plenty of options packed into the Kunstareal cultural quarter. And being Germany, you can’t have a city break without visiting an elaborate palace, something Schloss Nymphenburg is happy to oblige. For this Austrian city break, you’ll want to make it a four-day weekend at least, to allow at least two days in each city.
Paired with Zurich (Switzerland) or Vaduz (Liechtenstein)
Innsbruck is one of Austria’s best city breaks year-round. In winter, this snowy wonderland is a dreamy place for skiing, snowboarding and Christmas markets. However, if you ask me, summer in Innsbruck is even better. You’ve got the fairytale Old Town, with palaces, landmark buildings like the shimmering Goldenes Dachl, fantastic museums, including the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum, and plenty of al fresco dining opportunities. But there’s also the Nordkette range just a short funicular away. Getting into the Alps here is a breeze, as magnificent mountains cradle the whole city. On a weekend break in Innsbruck, it’s just as easy to experience Austria’s culture as it’s the country’s nature.
If you’re looking for the best city in Austria to visit for hiking, this is arguably it. Even if you’re not an avid mountaineer, the two main ranges around Innsbruck have easy access and trails of different abilities. You can tackle the more extreme rock climbing routes in the Karwendel – Austria’s largest natural park – or enjoy easier ambles with views of the emerald-tinted River Inn slicing through Innsbruck from the Bergstation. Once you’ve lapped up everything Innsbruck has to offer, you’re well-placed to hop across to not just one but two other countries.
Make Innsbruck a twin-city break with Vaduz (Lichtenstein) or Zurich (Switzerland)
From Innsbruck, it takes a little over two hours by train to reach Vaduz, the capital of micronation Lichtenstein. Set along the Rhine River, Lichtenstein’s main pull is its nature and excellent biking routes. On foot, the 75km route along the Liechtenstein Trail will give you an overview of nearly the whole country. In Vaduz itself, the 12th-century hilltop castle above the city and the excellent Modern Art Museum can be a decent day trip from Innsbruck. Be sure to get a unique passport stamp from the tourism information office.
Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, is another fantastic twin-city break from Innsbruck. The train will take between three and four hours, though, so it’s best to spend a couple of nights in each and forget doing a day trip. Wrapped around Lake Zurich, you might imagine the city to be something of a sterile business district, but it is actually rather quaint, with its fetching Old Town and lake views. Museums are plentiful, and while this isn’t the capital of Switzerland, it’s decked out with some of the country’s best cultural institutions – the Swiss National Museum is certainly worth making time for.
Make it a road trip: Nature is the biggest pull for all three of these cities, so you might want to consider taking a road trip from Innsbruck to Zurich, crossing Lichtenstein en route. This will allow you to see more of Tyrol’s spectacular landscapes and mountains before hugging a couple of gorgeous lakes on the final route into Zurich – perhaps even detouring to Lucerne. Again, vignettes for driving are a hassle, so check with the car rental company – I believe these can still be purchased in person near the border.
Paired with Český Krumlov (Czechia)
Often overlooked, there are plenty of things to do in Linz. Linz is famous for being one of Austria’s best cities for concerts and cultural events; you’re much more likely to find locals enjoying these festivities than fellow travellers. The pretty cobbled streets of the Old Town, soaring spires and the New Cathedral (the stained glass is incredible) are typical Austria, but there are also a few excellent spaces dedicated to modern art and futuristic architecture.
Yet, what makes Linz one of the top cities to visit in Austria is what is found on its peripherals. The city is right on the banks of the Danube. From here, it’s easy to explore the surrounding wine region by car, train or (even better) ferry. The views as you sail along the Danube are beautiful, especially when you reach the UNESCO-listed Wachau Wine region. I’d suggest taking the ferry one way and then riding the train, flanked by vineyards on either side, for the return. The hulking UNESCO-listed Melk Abbey is also well worth a visit – just be warned, it can feel a bit cramped mid-day when all the river cruises dock to take tours.
Make Linz a twin-city break with Český Krumlov (Czechia)
From Linz, you’re well placed to hop across the border to the Czech Republic. Český Krumlov is one of the prettiest medieval towns in Czechia, and it’s only 75 minutes by train. Like a scene straight from a fairytale, Český Krumlov hugs the Vltava River, rising magnificently on either side of the riverbanks. The 13th-century Castle is the main draw, but everything about this timeless town is enchanting. Kayaking or rafting along the river is one of the best ways to see it from a different angle, and being Czechia, there are plenty of decent bars to enjoy a beer pit-stop.
While you can easily visit Český Krumlov as a day trip, I’d really suggest staying at least one night so you can enjoy this popular town after the day-trippers have left. If you have a few spare days, stick around to explore the other cute towns, lakes, and mighty castles of the South Bohemia region.