For a relatively small country, Austria certainly delivers big time. Glorious scenery, delicious food, stunning architecture, history and art are just some of the delights on offer. And to me, the best way to discover Austria is by car.
This 3 week self-drive tour itinerary of Austria visits the country’s major cities, gorgeous lakes and the Danube, making for the perfect Austrian holiday.
Of course you could see a fair portion of Austria in less than three weeks but to my mind, in order to really get the most out of a holiday, you need to spend a few nights wherever you visit. I usually plan my itineraries to include a minimum stay of three nights at each destination which gives me at least two full days to explore.
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My perfect 3 week self-drive tour itinerary of Austria
Bregenz – Innsbruck – Zell am See – Graz – Vienna – Wachau Valley – St. Wolfgang – Salzburg
Day 1 – Bregenz
Start your self-drive tour of Austria in Bregenz. It’s located on the edge of Lake Constance (called Bodensee in German) and is easily accessible from the international airports at Zurich^ (1 hour 25 minutes) and Munich^ (2 hours). where you can collect your hire car. (*I always recommend collecting your hire car from the airport. This article explains why.)
After arriving in Bregenz, enjoy a stroll along the lakeside promenade and wander the Old Town or take a leisurely cruise on the lake, perhaps to the ‘flower island’ of Mainau.. For great views over Lake Constance and Bregenz, take the cable car to the top of the Pfander (the local mountain) where you can see over 200 peaks!
Around Lake Constance are numerous other places worth visiting – Lindau and Meersburg (Germany), Stein am Rhein (Switzerland) and Vaduz (Liechtenstein) to name just a few.
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^A compulsory highway toll applies to all vehicles travelling on Austrian highways. This toll, known as a Vignette, is displayed in the form of a windscreen sticker and can be purchased from service stations in both Austria and its neighbouring countries.
I highly recommend you purchase the Vignette before arriving in Austria or immediately after you enter the country (or at the first service station thereafter) as hefty fines apply for not displaying a Vignette. (We were fined €120 for not displaying an Austrian vignette on our 2015 holiday – ouch!)
Day 3 – Bregenz to Innsbruck
During your two hour drive today you’ll pass through the beautiful alpine regions of Voralberg and Tirol. Once in Innsbruck, prepare to be charmed! The pretty Altstadt (Old Town) is fairly compact but there’s no shortage of things to see and do in Innsbruck.
Be sure to include the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), Domkirche zu St. Jakob (St. Jacob’s Cathedral), Imperial Palace and Church and a walk along the main shopping street, Maria-Theresien-Strasse in your sightseeing.
Other suggested activities include a visit to the Bergisel Ski Jump, the Alpen Zoo (Alpine Zoo) and Ambras Palace.
Day 6 – Innsbruck to Zell am See
A comfortable two and a half hour drive will have you in Zell am See in time for lunch. This lakeside town (the name means Zell on the lake) is the centre of the popular year-round sport region, Zell am See – Kaprun.
I fortuitously booked an apartment at Zell am See over fifteen years ago and have returned again and again to this lovely lakeside town.
My favourite things to do in Zell am See include walking along the lakeside promenade, cycling around the lake, enjoying coffee and cake in the Alstadt and enjoying the views from the Schmittenhohe which you can reach by cable car.
A bit further afield, you can visit ice caves at Werfen, the Gross Glockner High Alpine Road and the Pasterze Glacier, and Salzburg is only an hour’s drive away.
Day 10 – Zell am See to Graz
Today’s driving time is around four hours so break your journey in Klagenfurt for a look around the well-preserved Altstadt. Be sure to see the 16th century Dragon Fountain in Neuer Platz.
You’re also just a few kilometres from Worther See so a lakeside picnic lunch might be in order.
In Graz itself, the highlights include the many baroque and Renaissance buildings, the Schlossberg, from where you’ll enjoy great views over the city, and the many churches, museums and galleries.
Day 12 – Graz to Vienna
It’s just a two hour drive today to Austria’s gorgeous capital, Vienna. You could spend at least a week here and not run out of things to do but in your few short days the sights I suggest you visit Belvedere Palace, Charles’s Church, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and the Hofburg (Imperial Palace).
Schonbrunn Palace, which is located away from the city centre, is well worth a visit, too.
For a taste of Austria’s famous cuisine and culture, take in a Mozart concert at the Musikverein and try Wiener Schnitzel followed by the famous Sacher Torte (or my favourite, Apfel Strudel), at a local restaurant.
TIP: If you have extra time to spare, it is easy to do a day trip from Vienna to Bratislava, Budapest or Prague. Find out more here.
Day 15 – Vienna to Krems (Wachau Valley)
Less than an hour from Vienna is the picturesque Wachau Valley, home to Austria’s ancient terraced vineyards. Make your base Krems, which is perched on the banks of the majestic Danube River, and spend your days relaxing with views you’ll never forget.
Well worth a visit is Melk Abbey, 40 minutes further along the Danube.
Day 18 – Krems to St. Wolfgang
After leaving the Danube near Linz, you’ll pass lovely Lake Traun (Traunsee) en route to St. Wolfgang on the lake of the same name. With numerous lakes and mountains in the near vicinity, St. Wolfgang is a great base for exploring the region.
I visited the Salzburger lakes by bike a couple of years back but a car is a much faster way to get around!
St. Gilgen, Mondsee, Hallstatt and the less-touristy, Altausee, were all favourites of mine. A visit to the nearby spa town of Bad Ischl, with its Kaiservilla, the summer residence of Emperor Franz-Josef, is worth a visit, too.
Make sure you try the delicious cakes and pastries at Zauner’s pastry shop and cafe which is on the river’s edge at Bad Ischl (the Emperor was apparently a regular customer in his day!).
Day 21 – St. Wolfgang to Salzburg
Salzburg is the perfect place to end your self-drive tour of Austria (and it’s less than an hour from St. Wolfgang). Return your hire car and then set off on foot to explore the city that is famous for Mozart and The Sound of Music.
If you’re feeling energetic, walk to the Hohensalzburg, the imposing fortress which overlooks the city – and if not, take the funicular to the top.
There are an endless number of sights in the city, but be sure to Peterskirche, Residenz, Mozart’s birth house (Geburtshaus) and family apartment (Wohnhaus), and Mirabell Palace and Gardens, to name a few.
Useful info for your self-drive holiday of Austria
• Driving times mentioned above are via the most direct route without stops.
• Vignette rates for cars as at January 1, 2020 are: 10 days – €9.40, 2 months €27.40, 12 months €91.10.
• To find accommodation in Austria, read where I’ve stayed and loved or compare hotel rates online.