Austria is known for its grand architecture and its scenic landscapes. It’s just as you would imagine – with its alpine valleys, snow-capped mountains, sparkling lakes and vibrant city life. Part of this country’s can’t-miss places are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Places recognized for their natural, historic and cultural significance. These sites are selected by representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a way to preserve and protect for future generations. There are 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Austria – nine cultural and one natural. Let’s learn more about some of the best ones you don’t want to miss seeing.
7 Best UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps
One of the highest and most beautiful alpine roads in Austria (and all of Europe) is Grossglockner. It connects Salzburg in the north to Carinthia in the south. The road made the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain, and the Pasterze, Austria’s biggest glacier, easily accessible.
With 36 hairpin bends, the high alpine road weaves its way through the oldest national park in Austria, Hohe Tauern. The Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe lookout point offers breathtaking views over the Pasterze glacier.
The road remains closed through the winter. The best time to drive this beauty is during the spring, summer or autumn when the sun shines bright. That’s when you can witness the fascinating Alpine wildlife!
Built upon ancient Celtic and Roman trails – this engineering masterpiece took five years and about 4,000 labourers to complete. Commissioned in 1935, Grossglockner found a place in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2016 for its cultural and historical significance.
The 48-km long alpine road displays the architectural and technical evolution of high mountain construction and the good governance of tourism attractions in the early 20th century.
Historic City Centre of Salzburg
Salzburg is one of Europe’s most historic and beautiful cities. So, it’s no wonder that the busy Altstadt, or old town, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It centers on a narrow, pedestrian street called Getreidegasse full of local boutique and antique shops. Many visitors stay in Salzburg Airbnb properties in this famous neighbourhood to visit Mozart’s birthplace and enjoy exhibits from the composer’s childhood.
In the picturesque Domquartier you’ll find the domed Salzburg Cathedral, a 17th century gem. It’s also home to the Baroque Residence, a palace formerly occupied by the prince-archbishops of Salzburg. The walls are filled with priceless art including works by Rembrandt. Overlooking the incredible Altstadt is Hohensalzburg Fortress. You can reach the castle by trekking uphill on a steep path or take the funicular. Once there guided tours are available and there are several opportunities to take in the sweeping views of the city.
Another must-see attraction in the Altstadt is Mirabell Palace. The gardens surrounding the ornate structure were featured prominently in a scene of the 1965 musical, The Sound of Music. With so much to see and do in this incredible city it’s easy to see why it became a UNESCO site.
Salzkammergut Cultural Landscape
Pristine lakes, snow-capped peaks, charming chalets…it’s no wonder that tourists and locals alike flock to the Salzkammergut! And you can soak up stunning views of this area during a day trip to Hallstatt.
Visitors can take in remarkable panoramic views of the area at the Hallstatt Skywalk. This observation deck stands nearly 458 metres (or 1,500 feet) over the fairytale village below, and can be reached on foot or by funicular. If you’re keen to explore the region’s famous salt mines, you can purchase a guided tour of the nearby Salzbergwerk (tickets are sold separately or packaged together with the funicular ride).
Historic City Centre of Graz
The jagged rock spires of the Nordkette range are incredibly majestic. This mountain range is the backdrop for Innsbruck – a beautiful alpine town. Although it is not considered an UNESCO World Heritage site, it is definitely worthy of a visit when in Austria.
Historic City Centre of Vienna
The historic center of Vienna made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001 and it’s there for a reason. Even if the area of central Vienna is rather small, it is packed with attractions of big cultural and historical value. You can find amazing remnants of the past, especially three main periods. The Middle Ages as seen in the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Baroque palaces such as Hofburg, and the splendid 19th-century buildings located mostly along Ringstrasse surrounding the center.
Wandering around the historic center of Vienna often feels like travelling back in time to the great period of the Habsburg Empire, with its grand cafes or cultural legacy (both important parts of the Viennese identity). The central part of Vienna is a perfect example of urban planning over centuries, where everything was built in a harmony. Unfortunately, in 2017 the historic center of Vienna, became the endangered UNESCO site due to the projects to build two modern skyscrapers that would detract from the look and feel of the area.
Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn
Schönbrunn (meaning “beautiful spring”) Palace is one of Austria’s most visited tourist attractions and is among the best things to do in Vienna. The 1,441-room palace served as the summer home of the Habsburgs and still maintains the style of the Habsburg monarchs.
Schönbrunn Palace is one of the most important cultural monuments in Austria. With a history spanning over 300 years, and its unique layout and impressive furnishings, Schönbrunn Palace was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1996. Today, the palace and gardens remain a strong example of Baroque architecture. Tour the Palace and explore the lives of the Habsburg royals through the elaborate staterooms and guest apartments and other luxuries of the imperial age.
While you have to buy tickets to tour the Palace, Schönbrunn Palace park is open to visitors free of charge. Wander the impressive fountains, statues, flowers and views of Austria from the Gloriette. The Imperial Carriage Museum, Crown Prince Garden, Orangery Garden, Maze & Labyrinth, Zoo, Palm House and Desert Experience House are also part of the palace park and can be visited for an admission fee. Photography is not permitted inside the palace. However, you are able to take photos in the front grounds and gardens.
Wachau Cultural Landscape
Austria’s Wachau Valley frames a scenic stretch of the Danube River, between the towns of Melk and Krems, and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
The Wachau Valley was recognized by UNESCO both for its landscape and cultural history. Not only is the valley very attractive, it has preserved evidence of the area’s cultural evolution.
Whether you’re exploring the valley by bike or boat, you’ll be able to see how the land has been used for agriculture. Vineyards cover the terraced hillsides and grape growers’ farmsteads dating back to the late Middle Ages still exist.
The valley’s architectural beauty is just as impressive as its natural landscape. Castle ruins overlook the river valley slopes, several small villages with 18th century buildings line the Danube, and artistic monasteries dominate the townscapes. The most prominent tourist attraction in the Wachau is Melk Abbey, a sprawling Baroque construction that looms above the town of Melk and overlooks the Danube River.
As a holidaymaker…
Visiting an UNESCO World Heritage site brings travellers to a country’s top attractions. It instantly gains international attention and recognition for its significance to culture, nature and history. Yes, it does mean they are popular places to visit. But for good reason. These are the 7 best sites in Austria, all worthy of a visit.
Disclosure: As an Affiliate Associate of Booking.com if you click on the link contained in this post, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to book. Thank you.