Road-tripping around Austria is all about the freedom of the open road and landscapes that will leave you breathless. The view through the windshield will be of alpine peaks, wind-buffed meadows, silent lakes and historic mountain towns – definitely worth getting into the car for!
A bonus in Austria is the easy proximity of nature. Across the country, you can park up and take to the mountains – on foot, by bike, or on skis – or plunge into Austria’s gorgeous lakes. Numerous town and city stops along the way will keep passengers entertained and kids can enjoy everything from theme parks to adventurous activities like tree canopy walks and tobogganing.
There’s more good news: Austria is one of the easiest places in the world to drive. Roads are always in excellent condition, petrol stations and charge points are easy to find, and facilities such as rest stops, roadside restaurants and toilets are everywhere. If you’re feeling flush, why not rent a sporty Porsche for your journey? There’s a reason Porsche has its design studio close to the winding mountain roads at Zell Am See.
Whether you drive a sports car, a camper van or a Tesla, here are the seven best road trips in Austria.
Best for bird’s eye views
Königsleiten to Wald im Pinzgau – 18km (11 miles)
One of Austria’s most scenic high mountain roads, the Gerlos Pass climbs through epic alpine valley scenery on the Salzburg and Tyrol border. At the high point of the route, there’s a spectacular switchback bend where the road travels under itself in a tunnel and emerges right on top of the mountain, to be greeted by views of vast landscapes and birds of prey circling in azure skies
Drivers need to buy a €10 (US$11.50) ticket to drive the road, starting from either Königsleiten or Wald im Pinzgau, but the views from the top across the Zillertal valley are a just reward. There’s another lookout over the Krimmler Wasserfälle, one of Austria’s most dramatic cascades. Note that the road is only open when there’s no snow and is unusable by trucks – even campervans may struggle.
Goldeck Panoramic Road
Best for alpine meadow scenery
Schwaig to Goldeck – 14km (9 miles)
This winding mountain road is called panoramic for a reason; climbing to a lofty height of 1895m (6217ft), it cuts between some unforgettable alpine peaks. Hairpin turns reveal meadows of wildflowers, cutesy old-fashioned farmhouses, mountain springs gushing with crystal-clear water and huge hardwood trees clinging to sheer mountain slopes.
Plan to drive the Goldeck Panorama Road on a spring or summer morning, so you have the whole day to make stops for photos along the route. One must-snap photo is the view down to Lake Millstatt; its shimmery surface entices many to go down for a dip but swimmers beware – the water temperature never rises much above 15ºC (59°F) and it gets even cooler in winter.
A quick spin around Vienna
Best for city sophistication
Karlsplatz to Liesing – 16km (10 miles)
For downtown drivers, a road trip through the Austrian capital will reveal the imperial splendor of Vienna, with time for stops at some of the city’s architectural highlights. Start at the Secession Gallery, just off Karlsplatz, an art nouveau humdinger in bright white, topped by a golden globe. Pass by the Albertina art museum, the former royal palaces and the Spanish Riding School before cruising past MuseumsQuartier, Vienna’s famous ensemble of art, design and history museums.
Head southwest across the famous Ringstrasse – traversed by Vienna’s famed red trams – and continue through the suburbs and out towards the edge of the city, where you can find many vineyards edging into the city limits. On the mountainside at Liesing you can detour to the weird and wonderful brutalist chapel created by sculptor Fritz Wotruba from striking brushed concrete, looking like a load of Jenga bricks against the forested edge of Vienna.
Villach Alpine Road
Best for lunch with a view
Villach-Möltschach to Rosstratte – 16.5km (10 miles)
With 10% gradients at some points and plenty of hairpin bends snaking up the mountainsides, this is a classic road route across the roof of Europe. Cut through the mountains in 1965, this ambitious stretch of tarmac rewards drivers with expansive views towards the Julian Alps and Slovenia as you climb to a height of 1200m (4000ft).
The restaurant at the summit – the Rostratte – is an exercise in making alpine dreams a reality. The pine interiors exude the scent of resin and sap and filling local dishes such as cheese noodles will set you up nicely for a long walk or skiing session. Non-drivers can sip big glasses of beer and kids can burn off energy in gardens with views all the way down into the valleys.
From the capital to the classical
Best for high-speed vistas
Vienna to Salzburg – 300km (190 miles)
You’ll get to tear along some of Austria’s most famous high-speed autobahns on this trip, which runs from the heart of Vienna to the soul of Salzburg. Begin on the banks of the Danube at the Gänsehäufel Lido, one of the largest outdoor swimming complexes in Austria, set on an island along the old course of the river, now an oxbow lake with very clean water.
From here, you can get straight onto the A22 autobahn, then the B227 and B221 to the A1 which will whisk you past amazing scenery and through dramatic tunnels, whizzing over rivers all the way into downtown Salzburg. En route, you’ll pass trucks loaded with timber from the country’s managed forests, picturesque churches, castles and tiny villages, and country farms filled with lowing alpine cows.
On arrival in Vienna, sample some of the city’s famous deserts in a downtown cafe or head to a beer garden, then spend your afternoon exploring the ramparts of Festung Hohensalzburg, a 900-year-old clifftop castle, and wandering the streets where Mozart once walked, studied and composed.
Best for motorcyclists
Innerkrems to Ebene Reichenau – 34km (21 miles)
With wide vistas and steep climbs, this splendidly scenic mountain road ticks all the boxes for a great road trip on two wheels. Motorcyclists are big fans of this route as it demands much of the rider and is a real thrill to ride, winding in and out of partly forested valleys that are the postcard image of Austria.
The route passes the Nockberge Biosphere Reserve, famed for its wild spike lavender; nature lovers often stop off here for hikes that start right from roadside car parks. Don’t miss the Karlbad Spa, with its rustic hot springs bathhouse and mineral-rich waters – a great place to stop to recharge after the ride. Another recommended stop is the Tangernerhütte dairy hut, serving tasty local cheeses and strong schnapps.
Best for mountain vistas
Bruck to Heiligenblut – 48km (30 miles)
Chances are if you go road-tripping in Austria, you’ll be asked if you’ve driven the legendary Grossglockner Road, one of the most legendary high pass trips in the Alps. With a bumper 36 turns and numerous steep inclines, this is a drive that will test your skills and the handling abilities of your car – make sure you have a good one, and plenty of tread on your tires.
You’ll want to stop along the way to marvel at the views, especially the ones towards the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain at 3798m (12,461ft). This snow-capped beast looks majestic at any time of year, as do the verdant valleys which sit below it. Many of the stopping points along the route make great stops for picnics with elemental views of mountains, forests and sky.
Hacked through the mountains in 1935, the road winds its way from Heilingenblut in Carinthia to Bruck near Salzburg. The cost for vehicles is €36.50 (US$42) for cars and €26.50 (US$30.50) for motorcycles. Start out early in the day to beat the rush – it can get pretty crowded up here in summer. Check the snow reports as fresh falls can often close the road to traffic.
Family fun at Fieberbrunn
Best for families
Salzburg to Fieberbrunn – 75km (47 miles)
One of the best Austrian road trips with kids on tow is the drive from Salzburg up to the low-key winter skiing and summer hiking resort of Fieberbrunn, where kids (and big kids) can blow their tops at Timok’s Wild World. This summer-only theme park sprawls up a mountainside and features a lake with a watery assault course, petting encounters with reindeer and other forest animals, a rope climbing adventure course and a hilltop inflatable which will make the kids squeal as they bounce above the landscape.
The coup de grace is the alpine coaster course – like a track-mounted luge – which zips back down to the valley floor at giddying speed. To make a family adventure of it, spend a night in the Fieberbrunn ski area before heading back to Salzburg. At 76km (47 miles) each way, the journey is short enough to avoid too many arguments in the back seat!
Tips for driving in Austria
- Many Austrian autobahn rest stops have picturesque picnic areas with seating and toilets. Stop off here, rather than eating in overpriced highway restaurants. Mountain rest stops on high-altitude routes are also great stops for picnics.
- Pick up picnic goodies for your road trip at branches of Billa Corso, an excellent upmarket spinoff of one of the country’s leading supermarket chains, famed for its fresh food and deli provisions.
- Respect road conditions – winding mountain roads can be dangerous after rain and are often closed by snow (or only passable with snow tires) in winter. When winter driving, carry food, water and blankets in the car for emergencies.
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