The love of hiking is in Austria’s DNA. In this back-to-nature-obsessed country, just about everyone is into bergwandern (mountain walking), from the tiniest tots clambering over Alpine meadows to 80-year-olds limbering up on mountain passes before breakfast.
If you want to see the real Austria, bring your boots and prepare to get them muddy. Just one glance at this astonishing land, with its vast swathe of glacier-capped Alps, plunging falls, lakes, vineyards, forests and frothing rivers, and you’ll know precisely why the tug of the trail is so strong.
The views from the city are just a tease. To reach the best bits of Austria, you must go on foot, test your limits, breathe deep of the good clean Alpine air, stay overnight at a remote mountain hut, rise at dawn with the backpack rustlers, splash your face with freezing water and set off again on your merry way.
Whether you have a day or a month to spare, there are trails that will leave you on a constant high – just wait till you see the views deep into the glaciated wilds of Hohe Tauern National Park. But don’t stop there: Austria really grabs you when you go beyond the obvious summits.
The perfectly etched valleys with their abbeys and castles, the terraced vineyards spilling down to the romantic twists of the Danube – these too can be magic and are hikable in the quieter months when the snow falls thick and fast at higher reaches. Competition is fierce, but here is our pick of Austria’s best hikes.
Best hut-to-hut walk
218 miles (350km), 1 month, moderate
Hitting the summits is all well and good, but there’s more to the Austrian Alps than simply aiming for the top. Cue the Salzburger Almenweg: a spirit-lifting, 31-stage, moderately demanding romp through the luscious Alpine pastures of Salzburgerland. If you’ve ever fancied skipping through wildflower-freckled meadows like Maria from The Sound of Music, here’s your chance (and indeed many scenes from the film were shot right here).
Running largely above the treeline at around 1,000m (3,281ft) and marked with a symbol of a blue gentian flower, this rewarding trek begins and ends in Pfarrwerfen at the foot of the attention-grabbing limestone turrets and spires of the Tennengebirge and Hochkönig massifs in the Berchtesgaden Alps. From here, you’ll climb up and over cow-grazed meadows to the wild, waterfall-draped Gastein Valley, and beyond to lofty heights. Views survey the glacier-encrusted Hohe Tauern peaks, Austria’s highest, which rise white and radiant above deeply riven valleys and dark spruce forests.
Comfortable huts link up the stages, so there’s no need to lug too much gear, and the route can be fine-tuned according to ability (some sections are even suitable for families). The website has detailed route descriptions and maps.
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Wachau World Heritage Trail
Best cultural hike
112 miles (180km), 2 weeks, easy-moderate
The Austrian Alps get all the fuss, but the Wachau – a sublimely lovely, Unesco World Heritage-listed stretch of the Danube Valley – is a terrific alternative if you prefer your hiking trails with a shot of culture and a good bottle of wine.
This 14-stage hike reveals the Danube from dashingly romantic angles, heading through terraced vineyards and apricot orchards, and ticking off grand abbeys, fortresses and ruined castles like rosary beads. The high point (quite literally) is 966m (3,169ft) Jaurling, with uplifting views of the river snaking through the pleats and folds of wooded hills.
Cultural wonders are plentiful, among them the baroque-gone-barmy majesty of Stift Melk, Dürnstein’s Kuenringerburg – the ruined medieval fortress where troubadour Blondel endeavored to rescue Richard the Lionheart from the clutches of Duke Leopold V – the vineyards of Spitz and the high-caliber museums of Krems. But you’ll be just as touched by the little details: picnicking above the river at sundown, say, or stopping for tastings at small, family-run wineries.
Best high-Alpine hike
53 miles (85km), 8 days, hard
With a week on your hands, and a desire to nail a proper Alpine hike, the Berliner Höhenweg (Berlin High Trail) in Tyrol is the dream. You’ll need a good level of fitness, stamina and experience for this eight-day, hut-to-hut traverse of the ravishing Zillertal and Tux Alps. The ascents can be brutal, the descents thigh-burning and relentless, but boy are they worth it for the top-of-the-beanstalk views of peaks and glaciers. You might even get to share the remote, rocky saddles with the occasional ibex, chamois or golden eagle.
Kicking off in Finkenberg and ending in Mayrhofen, the hike presents one highlight after another; the startlingly turquoise Schlegeisspeicher reservoir; ice-capped, mountaineering magnets like 3,509m (11,512ft) Hochfeiler and 3,476m (11,404ft) Olperer; and overnight stays at some of Austria’s most memorable huts, including the namesake Berliner Hütte (book well ahead in summer).
If you only have a day and fancy fast-forwarding to the best bits, consider hooking onto the 6.8 mile (11km), 6-hour Zillertal Circuit instead – a thrilling loop around the Zillertal Valley.
Best family hike
3.1 miles (5km), 3 hours, easy
With sheer, ragged dolomite cliffs, raging, swirling falls and mossy forests where you can imagine sprites frolicking, this easygoing, three-hour loop trail whisks you up through the wildly dramatic Rosengartenschlucht gorge. Starting and ending in Imst, it picks its way along boarded walkways that ascend gently, revealing the waterfall from every glorious, mist-ensnared angle.
Reach the top and the trail wiggles on through pretty patches of woodland, affording snapshot glimpses of the Lechtaler Alps. You’ll pass the Blaue Grotte, a cave where a pool shimmers a dazzling shade of cerulean blue when the sun strikes it. If kids need a little encouragement to walk, there’s no better motivation than the Alpine Coaster that awaits at the top. Billed as «the world’s longest Alpine roller coaster,» it’s a thrilling, fast-paced, 3.5km dash down the mountains in a track-mounted bobsleigh.
The trail starts and ends at the Johanneskirche opposite the tourist office in Imst, which stocks maps of the walk. From May to October, you can join the tourist office’s guided hike at 2pm on Monday (reserve your place by 10am); it’s free with the Imst holiday pass.
Best hardcore Alpine hike
746 miles (1200km), 2 months, hard
Named after Arno, the 8th-century bishop of Salzburg, the Arnoweg is an epic undertaking, running riot through the rivetingly beautiful mountains and glaciated wilds of the Hohe Tauern National Park, where Austria’s highest peaks pucker up. River-ribboned valleys, thunderous waterfalls, lakes glinting like a thousand jewels, mountains punching above 3,000m (9,843ft), rosy sunrises, rare wildlife up among the ice and rocks – you’ll get the lot on this 60-stage monster of a hike. The route has been cunningly devised, with almost every stage ending at a cozy hut where you can bed down for the night.
Beginning and ending in castle-topped Salzburg, the trek is tough, involving 57,000m (187,000ft) of elevation gain. To put it in perspective, that’s around 10 Everests. But the rewards are many and varied. You’ll take in a vast sweep of karst plateaux and razor-edge peaks in the west of the province, including the highest of the high – 3,798m (12,460ft) Grossglockner.
Things become more remote still in the little-hiked mountains heading east. The trail lies largely within Salzburgerland but deviates briefly to clip the Berchtesgaden Alps and Königssee in Bavaria. The highest point is 3,106m (10,190ft) Sonnblick near the waterfall-draped spa town of Bad Gastein. Given the altitude, this is one for summer only.
Best high-altitude day hike
10.5 miles (17km), 5 to 6 hours, moderate
It’s called a spaziergang (stroll), but this beauty of an Alpine day hike is no walk in the park. Neither is it as hard as the elevations might suggest, as a cable car gives you a head-start to the trailhead – 1,965m (6,447ft) Schmittenhöhe, high above Zell am See. Time it right on a day when the sun is shining, the sky is flawlessly blue and the mountains are tipped pearl-white with snow, and it can feel as though God has touched these landscapes with his own fair hand.
The moderately challenging trek meanders through spruce forest and cottongrass-stippled moors studded with tarns, making its way to a balcony trail, with front-row views of the Kitzbühel and Hohe Tauern Alps. As you trek up and over meadows and saddles and skirt the contours of mountains, your gaze will be drawn to such natural wonders as Grossglockner and the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier.
The trail is fairly easy to navigate using the waymarks but Kompass’s No 30 Zell am See–Kaprun map comes in handy. Bring a picnic for lunch.
Best long-distance hike
186 miles (300km), 3 to 4 weeks, moderate
Ask an Austrian to divulge the country’s best hikes and the Adlerweg (Eagle’s Trail) invariably makes the grade. Setting spirits soaring as high as the region’s most beloved bird, this near month-long trek leads from St Johann in Tyrol to St Anton am Arlberg, knitting together some of the country’s most classic Alpine landscapes. You’ll pass plunging falls and gorges, ice caves, pine forests, foaming rivers and glaciers as you trudge along paths through the limestone peaks of the Kaiser and Karwendel massifs, the Lechtaler Alps and the Inn Valley.
The clincher? It isn’t as tough as you might think. Much of the hike is diligently waymarked, though it’s worth investing in some decent topo maps or Cicerone’s The Adlerweg guide. The route follows well-established tracks, with villages, towns and mountain huts offering respite at the end of each exhilarating stage. The trail is best hiked from late June to mid-September when the huts are open and the passes are snow-free.
Best off-the-beaten-track day hike
10.5 miles (17km), 5 to 6 hours, moderate
Most hikers completely overlook Vorarlberg in the mad dash to hit the heights in neighboring Tyrol. More fool them. The mountains above Lake Constance are some of Austria’s wildest, most rugged and least-explored. Outside of peak summer, the only sound on these high-altitude trails is footfall on rock, the screech of golden eagles wheeling overhead and the distant clang of cowbells.
Delving into valleys and exploring a realm of glaciers and mighty mountains, this moderately challenging day hike in the Silvretta Alps feels thrillingly remote. You’ll begin at the aquamarine expanse of the Silvretta Stausee, 2030m (6660ft) above sea level, which mirrors the great 3312m (10,866ft) fang of Piz Buin on cloudless mornings.
Following red-and-white markings, the hike involves some steep, zigzagging ascents to traverse the saddle known as Radsattel, crossing from one valley to another. It’s tiring at times, but what views! As you climb, an amphitheater of heavily crevassed glaciers opens up. Take a scenic lunch break on the terrace of the Wiesbadener Hütte, before dropping down a boulder-strewn pass (keeping an eye out for rock-hopping ibex) back to the reservoir and Bielerhöhe.
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