With a history of business networking to rival any in Europe, Austria’s historic ability to make advantageous royal matches once made it one of the most powerful Empires in Europe. And whilst her territories may have been somewhat diminished by WW1, it’s position bordered by Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Czech Republic still affords it a panoramic sweep of Europe’s cultural highlights.
With Swiss-style scenery, a German menu of hearty meals, Italian café culture and more chocolate-box architecture than anywhere else in Europe, Austria manages to incorporate the best of its regional neighbours – and that’s before you’ve even mentioned Mozart.
Austria’s Habsburg Empire saw successive generations of royalty offer strong patronage to Europe’s most talented musicians, and was the reason why Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms and Mahler all decamped to her capital city.
Teaming their interest in talented musicians with strong investment in stunning buildings to host music events it’s not wonder that the tuneful context also gave birth to the country’s ‘favourite son’ in the form of composer Mozart.
Whilst rococo Vienna might be the capital of all that royally appointed melody, lovely Salzburg also manages a rather less official claim to musical fame in its devotion to The Sound of Music. Outside the cities Austria manages to sustain some gratifyingly rural and highly scenic villages and landscapes. Whilst its mountain ranges house some incredible ski resorts, boasting un-crowded slopes and an après ski unique to Austria.
Vienna is a superbly pretty city, whose cobbled streets lead visitors a winding path through innumerable back streets and ancient houses before propelling them out again onto the grander walkways. It’s a city which benefited enormously from the Hapsburg influence, which built music halls, theatres and opera houses throughout the city. You can’t miss the references to Mozart either, sign-posed on every major road, and the subject of a large number of restaurants cafes and bars.
Once you’ve accepted that classical music will form a meaningful part of your visit, Vienna also has a great deal to offer in terms local places to eat and drink. Whilst most European city centres are populated mostly by eateries designed to snare tourists, Vienna’s bars and cafes are a great tribute to the city as a whole.
Most of the other city attractions are within easy walking distance and located well within the ‘ringstrasse’ or ringroad which encircles the city.
Besides the attractive Danube Canal to the north-east, visitors can easily stroll past the inner baroque edifices, taking in St Stephens Cathedral, the Imperial Palace, the Art Nouveau Secession Building and the Museum Quarter which warrants a guidebook all of its own.
Salzburg is one of Austria’s top spot for attracting visitors, and given its perfectly preserved old town centre, it’s no wonder that guests come in their droves to marvel at the 250 year old UNESCO Heritage site. It may not claim as many visitors as Vienna, but at peak times of the year (during the summer months) Salzburg actually has more tourists than locals, making it arguably more wedded to visitors than the capital.
Whilst the plethora of day-trippers can make the streets crowded, it’s still well worth taking a walk around some of Salzburg’s best. In the centre these include the Residenzplatz which houses the majestic cathedral, the thousand year old St Peterskirche abbey and the almost excessively baroque Universitatskirche church, on the Universitats Plaza.
Besides well preserved architecture, Salzburg’s next claim to fame is its ties to popular musical The Sound of Music, which was based in the city and filmed several key scenes at iconic landmarks. Even if you’re not a fan of the film, the Nonnberg Abbey which is the backdrop to Maria’s first scene is well worth a visit, and for more dedicated devotees, several companies run Sound of Music Tours through the city.
Whilst Vienna and Salzburg may have the classic frilly cityscapes one might expect of Austria, the southern city is a woefully unknown treasure amongst visitors. Most people outside of Austria haven’t even heard of Graz, and yet it is in fact the capital of the southern part of the country, technically placing it higher in status than well-known Salzburg.
A claim to fame which the city is hoping will help catapult it into the geography lessons of non-natives is that it is actually the birth-place of arguably Austria’s most famous export – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whilst local claims that the Californian ‘Gubernator’ has become better known than Mozart may be somewhat exaggerated, there is no doubt that in America at least, Arnie has helped raise the capital’s profile.
But Graz has considerably more appeal than links with the ex-bodybuilder.
Starting life as something of a retirement home in the 19th century, it’s an Austrian region which benefits from a definite Italian holiday feel. Whilst its nearest neighbour is actually Slovenia, the scattering of renaissance buildings lining its historic streets and squares could convince the casual visitor they were in a part of alpine Italy.
Since the Latin architects made their mark, however, Graz has taken several steps towards making it a thoroughly modern sort of place. The advent of a large university now means that 20 percent of the population are students, bringing with them a creative bent to the nightlife and café culture. The addition of the Jazz University means that Graz’s stature as a city with a bohemian edge is assured, and the usual straight-laced Austrian austerity is decidedly shrugged off in favour of a much funkier vibe. Not to mention the best buskers this side of New Orleans.
So whilst there may be slightly less prettiness, and much less classical music than other parts of the country, those ensconced in Graz for business purposes may find themselves enjoying a better social scene than anywhere else in the country.
With a small airport serviced by a handful of budget airlines, Innsbruck is becoming an increasingly popular landing spot for visitors to Austria. And whilst the usual choice of cheaper airlines tends to be rather charm-less industrial towns, this is certainly not the case with Innsbruck. Like a bite-sized summary of all that’s good about Austria, Innsbruck has lovely winding cobbled streets, historic municipal buildings, and a slew of well-appointed coffee shops serving mouth-watering cakes and all kinds of strudel.
It’s also only a half hour drive or so from some of the country’s best ski resorts, which partially explains the town’s growing popularity as a flight destination. But if you mange to drag your eyes from the snow-capped mountains in the distance for long enough, it’s a town with more than enough charm to keep you occupied.
In terms of historic buildings, the well-preserved Old Town showcases the Goldenes Dachl or ‘Golden Roof’ – an imperially appointed creation topped by no less than 2657 highly polished copper tiles. And if this brilliant display fails to dazzle, the same emperor responsible for the latter works is immortalised in a bronze sarcophagus in the nearby church. Innsbruck’s bordering mountains are also the home of Swarovski crystals, whose legacy is showcased perfectly in the town’s ‘Crystal Works’ (Kristallwelton).
If your winter business trip allows you to drag yourself away from the capital cities, then you should definitely head to an Austrian ski resort.
This tiny country has arguably some of the best ski resorts in Europe, with St. Anton and Kitzbuhel in Tirol and Lech am Arlberg. The resort town of Mayrhofen is also home to an annual ski and snowboard Snowbombing festival which combines big music events with access to the slopes. Sponsored by Microsoft, the festival champions ‘moofing’ or ‘Mobile Out of OFice’ working, and so is wired for business travellers to plug in their laptops and get online between trips down the slopes.
Besides the larger resorts, Austria has also championed lesser known boutique spots and less crowded ‘valley-skiing’. So those looking for some clear open spaces to recover from the daily commute can get away from the hoards and still enjoy quality ski experiences.
Eating and drinking
This being Austria, coffee culture is superbly executed in more or less every café on every street corner. The trend began in the 18th century where the unheated homes of impoverished artists drew them to while away a day by the fireside of a local café. The tradition continues and whilst a coffee might set you back €3.50 or more, you can easily sit out an entire afternoon with no-one to suggest you move on. This being the millennium, laptops are more often seen than artists pads and writer’s notebooks, but if you’ve work to do and are bored with the inside of your hotel room, they’re the ideal spot to decamp for a day.
Part of coffee house culture is Austria’s legendary predilection for cakes and pastries, which for the most part eclipses their more workmanlike savoury dishes. Classic strudel comes in every fruit flavour, whilst impossibly rich chocolate cakes are also favourite. In Salzburg (and beyond) a fluffy soufflé dessert titled Salzburger Nockerl is also popular.
Main meals are usually hearty, combining pork of some description with dumplings, potatoes, and cabbage. The classic Austrian dish is veal or wiener schnitzel – pork or veal battered flat and deep fried in bread-crumbs.
Drinking in Austria is a very civilised affair. And in fact, depending on what kind of atmosphere best suits your mood, you have the pick of several rather rigidly wrought locations for which to head. First up is the traditional inn, known as beissel or stuberl, which is similar to a British pub in origins. These convivial spots came about as the result of entrepreneurial hosts opening their homes up to guests, along with a barrel or two of good local beer sold by the glass. Then as today the emphasis is more on drinking, and although food forms an indispensable part of the format, it is secondary to whatever brews the landlord has to offer.
Heurigan are rather delightful local wine taverns, which produce their own ‘new’ wine on the premises from Austria’s wealth of vineyards. With wine on sale for around €2.50 a litre, they’re understandably lively places, where the usual formality accompanying wine tasting mercifully dispensed with.
Instead you can enjoy decidedly young tasting wine by the carafe, often along with piano accordion accompaniment to set the food, and a buffet meal to take the edge of more tart offerings on the drinks front. You can spot Heurigan by the wreath of vine-leaves hanging from the door, and they often cluster in one spot, making a sampling of several in one evening imminently possible.
Fast business facts
If you’re doing business in Vienna, it pays to remember your manners.
Austrians, and older Austrians in particular set a lot of store by formality and courtesy, and in a business setting this will be much appreciated.
Smart dress is generally well-received, although there are some younger companies with a more smart-casual policy. If in doubt, opt for formal attire, impeccable manners, and save the risqué jokes for Mexico.
Leadership skills the Austrian way
Walking is a very popular activity in Austria, and with such spectacular scenery on display, can form a very attractive alternative to the clichéd round of golf on a business trip. If you’re looking for a walk with something more unusual thrown in, Austria is one of the growing number of countries which now offers llama trekking through its spectacular scenery.
Walkers are matched with a likely llama to carry their packs as they traverse the hillier inclines of the native landscapes, and before you write off the idea as an Austrian oddity, there are actually a number of advantages to this mode of transport. Llamas can be stubborn animals which require considered leadership ability (not to mention patience) to behave as instructed. So in addition to getting some spectacular views and healthy outdoor exercise you’ll also be brushing up on your ability to mentor that difficult staff member when you get back to the office.