For most of the past 1000 years what is now Austria was the at the heart of the biggest states in Europe, firstly the Holy Roman Empire, and then as the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, both of which covered most of central Europe as well as Italy and much of the Balkans. Austria-Hungary came to a sudden end in 1918 after defeat in World War I and the Republic of Austria that emerged was vastly reduced in both size and power after all the other parts of the former empire gained independence. The inter war years were pretty unpleasant with rampaging inflation and unemployment but things got even worse in 1938 when Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria, managed to incorporate Austria into Nazi Germany (as "Ostmark"). The post-war status of Austria as "first victim" of Nazi aggression was little more than a myth; the majority of Austrians welcomed Hitler's incorporation of their country into Germany, Austrian soldiers fought alongside Germans in the wehrmacht, and many Austrians were deeply involved in Nazi atrocities. After the war Austria was divided up and occupied by the Allies, the occupation only coming to an end with the restoration of Austrian sovereignty (in exchange for a promise of neutrality) in 1955. Austria has been a reasonably stable democracy ever since and in 1990 became a member of the European Union, but its habit of electing right-wing governments (President Kurt Waldheim was suspected of complicity in Nazi war crimes, Georg Haider's "Freedom Party" were accused of stirring up resentment against Austria's immigrant population) has caused some consternation.
Getting to Austria from the UK is reasonably straightforward, and shouldnt set you back an arm and a leg.
If youre flying from the UK, you have choice of airports in Austria. You can fly direct to Vienna from either London Heathrow (BA or Austrian Airlines), Birmingham or Manchester (both direct daily on BA). If you want to fly to somewhere other than Vienna youre going to have to go on RyanAir who fly from London Stansted direct to Graz, Klagenfurt, and Salzburg. Returns on BA can be yours from around £100 (more from Manchester or Birmingham), RyanAir is certainly the cheapest option, especially if you take advantage of one of their regular special offers; our return flights to Salzburg cost us around £25 each (including taxes). Charter airlines (such as Air 2000, Aero Lloyd, and Excel Airways) also fly from the UK to Salzburg and Innsbruck.
If Johnny Foreigner happens to be reading this and hes not flying from the UK Vienna is by far Austrias major airport, you can fly from there to just about any other country in the world (probably not Iraq or Afghanistan though). There are regular flights to just about every major city in Eastern and Western Europe, and further afield direct flights to the USA (New York and Washington), Canada (Toronto and Montreal), Australia (Melbourne and Sydney) and Tel Aviv, among others.
Austrias other international airports (Graz, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Linz, and Salzburg) handle mainly short-haul services, usually to Germany or Switzerland, and bucket-and-spade flights to the Med. for Austrians off on their holidays.
If you dont want to fly youll find that Austria has excellent transport connections, mainly because it is situated on the crossroads of the main travel routes from Northern to Southern and Eastern to Western Europe. Vienna remains one of Europes major railway hubs.
If you really want to you can travel to Austria by coach from the UK. From London you go to Vienna (daily, takes 22 hours), Linz (via Brussels, takes 23 hours), or Salzburg (via Munich, takes 22 hours). Return tickets cost around £100, so it wont be necessarily that much cheaper than flying to justify the journey time, unless youre really cheap.
Austria is part of the Schengen border agreement, which basically comprises all the states of the EU apart from the British Isles and Scandinavia. Basically it's a border-free arrangement; if you're travelling from one Schengen State to another there are (technically) no border controls. If you're travelling from outside the Schengen zone then if you're a EU citizen there are no restrictions on you travelling to Austria, or how long you can stay. Americans and Aussies can stay for up to 3 months; you may have to show a return ticket, and that you have enough funds to support yourself. In truth Western travellers should find entering Austria no more than a formality; most of Austria's efforts go into policing its Eastern border, a major route for illegal entry into the EU.
Those of you who have given any thought to the subject of Austrian cuisine probably aren't expecting too many surprises. This being Central Europe meat, usually pork, is common, usually served with cabbage, potoatoes, dumplings, or a combination of all three. Austria's best-known dish is the Wiener (Viennese) Schnitzel, a pork fillet fried in breadcrumbs. On the meat front veal and, in season, game also pop upon most menus. However, that isn't the whole story. The Austrian Empire at one time covered most of Central Europe, and as a result Austrian cuisine has been influenced in more ways than you might at first think. For a start Italy used to be part of the empire and so pizza and pasta restaurants are common in Austria. Austria also used to rule over Hungary, and so there influences from that direction, noteably ghoulash and a general fondness for paprika. Less exotically Austria's close ties to Germany have resulted in the popularity of the sausage.
Veggies should manage OK. Cheese-based dishes are fairly common, as is fish, especially trout.
If none of that takes your fancy you will find a bit of variety in most cities and large towns. Although Austria hasn't seen the same levels of immigration as, for example, France, Germany or the U.K., Chinese, Indian, and Thai restuarants are fairly common. You'll also find McDonalds to be pretty widespread.
Your average Austrian appears to have an uncommonly sweet tooth. Cakes and pastries are extremely popular, and the sight and smell of them can make it difficult to pass a bakery or coffee shop without popping in for a quick sample. Apple strudel is probably the best known, but most other cakes seem to involve chocolate. They aren't cheap but, like all the good things in life, they're worth paying for. In Salzburg keep an eye out for the local speciality, the Salzburger Nockerl, a giant, sweet, soggy, eggy souffle. Perhaps as a result of the Italian influence Austrians are also generally big icecream eaters.
Right, enough of food, on to booze. Good news! Austrain beer is pretty damned good, and we found it to be cheaper than beer in the UK. Most beers are Czech-style lager-pilseners, common brands being AG, Zipfer and Steigl. All bars and nearly all restaurants have beer on draft. The proximity of Germany has also influenced Austrian beers; German style dark beers, wheat beers, and white beers are also available although these tend to be bottled rather than draft. Imported beers are also available (the usual suspects - Guiness and Heineken being the most common), these tend to be more expensive that their Austrian counterparts, so why bother? You'll also find small scale breweries that serve up their own beer, in Salzburg two such places are Augustiner Braustubl and Die Weisse.
Austria also has a well developed wine industry. Austrian wine doesn't have a particularly good reputation in the UK, probably due to a scandal in the late 1980s when some Austrian wine producers were found to be giving their product a bit of kick by topping it up with antifreeze. Still, don't let that put you off! Austria is best at producing white wine, anything made from the Gruner Veltliner grape should be drinkable. Keep an eye out too for sweet (desert) wines, and ice wines (eiswein), which are made from grapes that have been allowed to freeze on the vine, giving a much more intense flavour (and expensive price!).
The official language of Austria is German, although there are small minority populations of Hungarians, Croats and Slovenes, a legacy of the empire. Austrians tend to speak German with a strong accent that even fluent German speakers have difficulty understanding. Helpful phrases include drei beir bitte (three beers please), Wo bin ich? (Where am I?), Sprechen Sie Englisch? (Do you speak English?), Warum nicht? (Why not?), Was haben Sie während des Kriegs gemacht? (What did you do during the war?), Rufen Sie die britische Botschaft! (Call the British Embassy), and Haben Sie unseren Gefährten gesehen? Er ähnelt einem Affen.(Have you seen our companion? He looks like a monkey)
English is widely spoken as a second language and in most hotels and restaurants you shouldnt have a problem making yourself understood (and if you do remember that speaking to someone loudly doesnt improve their understanding of English). Most major museums and tourist attractions also have translations in English.
Austria is part of the eurozone, meaning that in 2002 they dumped the schilling and adopted the euro. For those of you who have been living on Mars for the last few years, the euro is the common currency of the majority of the states in the European Union. The same notes and coins are used in each country so you can buy a pint in France, a kebab in Belgium, and then get some porn in Holland with the change. If you need to convert your pounds or dollars into euros you wont have any problems; most towns and cities have plenty of bureaux de change. The easiest way of getting hold of cash (apart from theft) is to use your plastic, ATMs are as widespread as anywhere else in Western Europe and you can get cash advances on your credit card, or using a cirrus card if youve got one.