Located at the heart of Europe, dominated by the world famous Alps, and thriving in the midst of breathtaking sceneries and nature. There are very few countries that tick all the boxes, and it's been at the heart of many travel debates. At first glance, it sounds like Switzerland, but Austria can take the claim, too. With so many similarities, it's quite hard to choose which destination promises a more memorable trip.
Switzerland might as well be the tourism capital of the world. It's normal to see this country in almost every avid traveler's bucket list. Austria, on the other hand, is equally beautiful and said to be a cheaper alternative. With well-established tourism in both countries and a world of cultural discovery, which country is better? Where should you go in the summer and where should you go for winter? Is it really that much different?
There will never be one universal answer to end the Switzerland vs. Austria debate, but here's a way to help you decide.
Comparing Countries: At a Glance
Switzerland has been at the heart of tourism in Europe for many years. It's one of those destinations where people feel strongly you have to experience at least once. It's most famous for the spectacular mountains of the Swiss Alps, followed closely by some of the most breathtaking natural sceneries one will ever see. Its topography also makes the country ideal for heart-pumping activities like skiing and paragliding, but there is also no lack of R&R in the many natural hot springs, pools, and luxury resorts.
As home to some of the world's biggest and most recognized international organizations, Switzerland is also where you can meet the world. In Geneva alone, over 190 nationalities live and work in the city and is a true melting pot of cultures. Many areas of the country also proudly exhibit influences from neighboring countries such as Italy and Germany.
Switzerland is also known for quality, from chocolates and cheese to watches and machineries. It also houses worldclass museums and art galleries nestled within perfectly preserved medieval towns and ultra-modern cities. Add to that spectacular castles right out of fairytales and Switzerland has something fro everyone.
Most of all, Switzerland is great for travel. Transportation system is efficent and convenient within the country, but it is also a great jump-off point for trips to neighboring countries as it's right at the center of Europe.
For being such a small country, Switzerland offers a surprising depth of culture, range of activities, and a highly inspiring natural environment that has made it unbeatable as one of the most desired travel destinations in the world.
Austria is one of those countries that embody European charm. With beautiful wooded mountainous landscapes and charming villages, a trip to Austria is a must for would-be travelers to Europe.
The Austrian charm far exceeds its enduring claim-to-fame as the setting for "The Sound of Music". Sharing the Alpine mountains with Switzerland, Austria also boasts of dramatic Alpine summits. It's a great place for hiking through striking landscapes with kilometers worth of natural beauty. This makes the country amazing for winter sports as well with many locals and tourists heading to the hills for all sorts of activities like paragliding and skiing, all for a fraction of the price of Switzerland.
Austria, specifically in Vienna, is also a powerhouse of art, music, and culture. The country has produced some of the world's most prolific names including Mozart, Schubert and Strauss. Most of their works, together with great artists of the modern era, have been perfectly preserved in the many galleries and museums across the country.
Village life in Austria is also an alluring aspect. Dainty wooden Alpine-style houses are nestled within lush meadows and glittering lakes, giving travelers a lot more options for sightseeing beyond the popular Vienna, Graz, and Linz. Add to this the spectacularly diverse architecture across Austria, and Austrian structures and buildings are reason enough to pay this country a visit. Many of these architectural designs have long been considered as innovative and forward-thinking. It also has its own share of fairytale castles for anyone to live out their dreams.
Similar to Switzerland, Austria is also at the center of Europe and makes traveling that much easier. This slightly underrated country offers a feeling of expansive majesty while keeping true to its trademark charm and warmth.
Transportation around Europe is fantastic. Some travelers can even squeeze in as many as seven countries in one week. Switzerland and Austria are no exception.
The Swiss public and transport system has always been considered as one of the best and safest in the world. Between trains, trams, buses and boats, it's quite easy to get anywhere within and past the borders of the country. It's easy to get around Switzerland with a car, but the highly organized transport structure makes for a stress-free travel. There is also much importance on being green, which is reflected in the technology integrated in the transport systems. The Swiss Federal Railways connect to any part of Switzerland and offer a multitude of options in terms of comfort and price. An important note is that train tickets are not bought on Swiss trains and need to be purchased before boarding. The number of passes and discount fares can also be confusing but once you get the hang of it, these passes help you make the most out of public transport.
Austria borders Slovenia, Slovakia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany. Its location alone at the center of Europe makes it an easy gateway to several countries. You can also reach Croatia and Italy with a relatively easy bus ride. The best way to travel is still via train, which allows you to take in Austria's lush scenery. The high-speed OBB Railjet, one of Europe's most luxurious trains, can whiz around up to 143 miles an hour to different parts of Austria. It also connects to neighboring destinations like Zurich, Budapest, and Munich. There are many passenger trains, sightseeing trains, and historic railways for memorable trips. The best part about traveling within Austria is its size - all train rides are relatively short and always at the heart of the cities. If you're aiming for remote regions, buses are pretty easy to come by and always timed to coincide with train arrivals.
A common comparison between Switzerland and Austria is their general disposition as people.
Austria i known to be much more laidback. Austrians seem to rely on self-irony and don't take life too seriously. Sometimes, however, this translates into services and industries. While far from lazy, there is a lack of urgency when it comes to customer service. On the other hand, there is a feeling of strict order in Switzerland. People dress up a lot more and are very keen on style and fashion. There's a sense of OC-ness in the country, which is probably the reason why Switzerland has risen to be one of the top world economies.
Both countries have very long and intriguing histories to speak of as well.
Austria traces back its origins to pre-historic times. The Danube River was populated as long ago as the Prehistoric era. It eventually fell under Roman control, which then led to establishing Christianity as the official religion of the country. The country is made of many ethnic groups, but the strongest one would be the Germans. There are sizeable minorities still, including Croatian, Slovene, Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak, which resulted in a very diverse multi-cultural environment. There is great importance placed in Austrian culture and tradition.
In Switzerland, much of its culture and customs are shaped by the Alps. The Alps dictated the regions and flow of transportation, and in time shaped the minds of the inhabitants of each region. For such a small country, the variety of culture and inhabitants is impressive. It also has a very international feel given that many international organizations planted their homes in this country. Customs and traditions are very wide and varied across the 26 cantons, but are unified by their love for nature and neutrality.
Traveling to Switzerland and Austria as a foreigner is not difficult. Being highly progressive countries, most signs and announcements are translated to English. The standard of education in both countries is very high, so pretty much everyone has a solid grounding in English. Other than that, they have very different official languages.
Switzerland has four official languages. Swiss German is the most widely-spoken. It's a collection of Alemannic dialects that are no longer spoken, so it's quite different from standard German. Even within this language, there are still different variations when you go different regions.
Swiss Italian is spoken in the southern part of the country bordering Italy.
Swiss French in the western part with little difference from standard French.
The smallest national language is called Romansh, spoken by around 37,000 people in the south-eastern canton of Grisons (Graubunden). The language is spoken in some of the most remote mountain regions, which is why it has survived into this century.
The official language of Austria is German, mixed in with several dialects and minor languages. Compared to standard German, Austrian German is softer and more melodious and a little closer to standard German if you ask most people.
Politics and Economy
Switzerland and Austria are both beacons of democratic stability. This relatively peaceful environment has maintained both countries' stance as powerful economies.
Switzerland has always focused on neutrality, and this has benefitted the country a thousand-fold. It's one of the very few countries that didn't participate in both World Wars, and up to this day, Switzerland has successfully maintained its stable democracy. There are still a few factions, but Switzerland is a relative sea of calm amidst the volatile political climate everywhere else in the world. This supports its efficient market economy, bringing many of its cities towards the top of many "best place to live" lists. Switzerland always ranks as one of the highest in terms of standard of living, quality of education and healthcare systems. While the country remains prosperous with a large budget surplus, it's also one of the most expensive countries to live in or travel to. For residents of Switzerland, this high cost of living is compensated by high life qualities and incomparable benefits provided by the government. For travelers, however, it's a steep price to pay for being in one of the world's most beautiful countries. The country deals with Swiss Francs, which has consistently been a stable currency for decades.
Similarly, Austria is also one of the richest countries in Europe and standards of living are very high. It experienced low growth for several years because of the global economic crisis, but recent past saw more than recovering growth. There are many factors that attract a lot of expats to this country including political stability, a safe environment, high standard healthcare, excellent infrastructure, quality education, a wide range of jobs and an impressive collection of multicultural activities. The country uses the Euros, which has been a progressively strong currency. Compared to Switzerland, Austria is definitely less costly in many things, but this doesn't always mean cheap. Similar to Switzerland, however, Austria has a strong commitment to permanent neutrality after they recovered from World War II.
Climate and Location
Switzerland and Austria's locations are pretty close, but their climates vary in several areas. Of course, the mountain regions in both countries experience the Alpine climate with much colder seasons. In higher altitude, the weather changes very quickly and dramatically.
Switzerland has very distinguishable seasons. Autumn happens from September to November, winters during December to February, spring from March to May, and summer June to August. Winter temperatures used to be characterized by freezing temperatures and snow. However, nowadays, the temperatures have gone up and some ski resorts even have to cover their slopes with artificial snow. In the summer, temperatures range from 25-30 degrees Celsius.
Austria is located within a temperate climatic zone in the European heartland. With an intriguing mix of major and minor mountains ranges, hill, and plains, landscapes are very lush and pleasant. Across the country, weather conditions don't vary too much. In general, however, winters are very cold and summers are very hot, especially in the southeastern areas. Winter snow usually covers the country from December to March with January as the coldest month. Summers can be anywhere from 30-35 degrees Celsius with the driest months being May, September and October.
Zurich vs. Vienna
Zurich and Vienna are some of the most popular destinations in each country. Because of the high standards of living, there's a general feel-good factor in both cities. Surrounded by scenic nature, there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy in both cities. Well-organized, clean, and safe, Zurich and Vienna embody what the rest of the country can offer.
Zurich is the financial capital of Switzerland. Home to many financial institutions, it's the center of business for the country. However, unlike other business districts elsewhere in the world, Zurich still imbibes a sense of calm thanks largely to its location on the banks of Lake Zurich and the riverbanks of the Limmat River. It's a beautiful mix of modern structures and medieval houses. Then again, the presence of large banks and expansive shops give a somewhat cold and elitist atmosphere for some visitors. Needless to say, Zurich is a very expensive city. It's tied with Paris in second place as the most expensive city in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Prices are steep, but there is still plenty to do on a backpacker's budget. There is no lack of beautiful parks to visit plus some museums that offer free entry.
Similarly, Vienna ranks very highly in terms of standards of living. Consulting firm Mercer named Vienna as the "city with the best quality of life" several times in a row. While still a prosperous city, cost of living is not as sky high but still punctuated by low crime rates, clean air, and a very rich culture. Vienna is also a great spot to spend a few days visiting. It is known for many coffee houses, embodying the country's love for sweet treats and good coffee. Architecture is also a strong suit in this city, dominated by baroque-style structures and impressive buildings that lasted for centuries. It has two hundred imperial parks and gardens that contribute not only to the beauty of the city but the clean air.
While Zurich and Vienna share many qualities, the biggest difference are price points. Restaurants, supermarkets, services, rent and even language lessons are a fraction of a cost in Vienna compared to Zurich.
Like everything else in Switzerland, food is always of high quality. It's pretty expensive to dine out in Switzerland, but ingredients are always topnotch. Swiss cuisine is a combination of German, French and Italian cuisine. With the diversity of the Swiss culture, the cuisine also varies from region to region, but there dishes that have crossed local borders. Cheese and chocolate are the number one types of food in Switzerland. You'll have cheese fondue and Raclette served practically everywhere. Potatoes are also commonly used as the main dish or as a side to main meals made of veal or stewed beef and sausages. Overall, Switzerland was historically a farming country, and many regions keep up the farming tradition. This means Swiss cuisine tends to be made from simple ingredients commonly found around the farmland.
If you're up for food tripping in Switzerland, here are some of the dishes you can't miss:
Austrians are very much into sweets and coffee. You'll find a bake shop on practically every street. Austrian cakes are typically complex and filled with different ingredients like jams and nougat. Different regions specialize in different cuisines as well. Main dishes are heavily dependent on meat. Sauerkraut and dumplings are popular side dishes.
Go on a gastronomic trip and try these iconic Austrian dishes:
Switzerland and Austria baost of amazing nightlife experiences. There's something for everyone, from wild nights at a club to intimate conversations at a cozy bar.
Nightlife in Switzerland is every bit as posh and cool as anyone would expect. Different cities boast of amazing venues for live music and cool bars. Zurich is well-known for its energetic nightlife scene and has the highest density of nightclubs in the whole country. There are many places to party well into the night and till the next morning. There are many music genres and styles played in very flashy and splashy venues. The biggest club in Switzerland is found in Lausanne. MAD Club has five levels with different age groups and DJs. In Lucerne, there's the 360-degree rooftop Penthouse Bar. It's very stylish with fantastic views of the city. You can even enjoy a mug of hot wine at The Papperla Pub in Zermatt after a day of skiing.
Over at Austria, there is always something for everyone. You have warm and homey to vibrant and lively ranging from cheap to lavish. Techno is the music of choice in many clubs, but there's a lot of different genres to go around. Nights in Vienna are possibly even more lively than days. Visitors are spoilt for choice with a wide collection of concerts, dance clubs like Babenberger Passage, and fine dining experiences. Salzburg is also known for parties that run all night long. Here you'll find more chic bars and Irish pubs like Celtic Spirit. Bars and clubs are located close to each other so you can jump from one to another. Innsbruck, also known as university city, comes to life as soon as the sun sets. Things tend to go crazy as venues like Dachsbau get filled with students and travelers.
Switzerland and Austria offer a wide variety of shopping experiences. Both countries boast of fashion streets with high end brands and local markets with fresh produce and unique finds.
Switzerland is famous for incredible watches and jewellery. It's a great shopping destination with a wealth of unique stores, with Zurich, Geneva, Bern, and Lausanne as the most commonly visited shopping destinations. The world's most expensive shopping street called Bahnhofstrasse and is located in Zurich. Here you'll find chain stores like Mango and Zara as well as every luxury brand you can think of. If you're looking for souvenirs and more local items, just head to any Old Town in any city and you'll find many authentically Swiss items. In Geneva, there's also the Plainpalais Flea Market, one of Switzerland's largest. It first started in 1970 and runs twice a week, offering a sprawling mass of stands abuzz with a community vibe.
Shopping in Austria is also a great experience. The longest shopping mile is located in Vienna and called Mariahilfer Straße, followed by Landstraße in Linz. Almost all major department stores can be found here, such as Gerngross Kaufhaus, Steffl, and Müller. The Maria Theresien-Straße is a very popular shopping street in Innsbruck, though it's difficult to tell what people really come here for. It's lined with splendid local and international shops, but it's also one of Europe's most splendid boulevards. The jagged peaks of Nordkette creates a magnificent background for the small and large shops on the street.
For a very small country, both Switzerland and Austria will keep you busy all day and all night. Hiking, cycling, and boating are top activities given the lush environment and the highly accessible Alps. Both countries also have many options for unwinding at spas, parks and promenades. Whatever you like doing on vacation, there's a long list for you to choose from. Architecture is also very much at the heart of tourism for both countries with well-preserved structures and very intricate designs.
Switzerland attractions are numerous and unforgettable. Everywhere you look, you're guaranteed of a view of spectacular nature. With its diverse culture and geography, every canton has something different to offer, but here are the most popular ones you should visit:
1) The Matterhorn
This iconic peak is one of the highest in the Alps. It's located in Zermatt and filled with luxury resorts, worldclass restaurants, and lots of winter and summer activities. It's also a car-free town to preserve the air quality and peaceful ambience of Zermatt.
In the Bernese Oberland, the train ride to the "top of Europe" is a memorable one. Jungfraujoch is a great jump-off point for many hiking trails and glaciers. There is also a great observation terrace and scientific observatory that gives visitors a view of the Jungfrau region at 3,454 meters.
Summer time in Switzerland must be spent in Interlaken. The town is nestled between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz and bordered by the mighty peaks of Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. There are 45 mountain railways, cable cars, chairlifts and ski lifts to bring visitors around the country and off to very fun activities like skiing, snowboarding, paragliding and lake cruises.
4) Chateau de Chillon
Switzerland is known for the many dreamy castles around the country, but none more popular than Chateau de Chillon. It's not the biggest or the grandest, but its location on the shores of Lake Geneva has inspired many artists of many generations.
This quintessential Swiss town features covered bridges, waterfront promenades, historic buildings and sunny plazas sitting by the river with a backdrop of mountains. It's famous for its music scene, holding large concerts and the International Music Festival. History buffs will have a field day visiting the many museums and the famous Chapel Bridge.
Austria is busy all-year-round. Winter is the time for one of Europe's finest skiing, and summer is great for spending all day under the sun. With the Eastern Alps occupying 60% of the country, this nation of upland areas punctuated by the Danube River in the north is an alluring destination for many travelers. Here are just a few of the country's best attractions:
1) The Vienna Hofburg
The Hofburg, Vienna's Imperial Palace, is the seat of power of Austria. Aside from its historic significance, the architecture and the fronting plaza are a wonder to behold. Almost every ruler of Austria added something to the structure, resulting in an interesting mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Classicism architectural influences.
2) Schönbrunn Palace
The Schönbrunn Palace and its Baroque architecture attracts visitors from all over the world. A tour in the palace goes through 40 rooms open to the public, including the Royal apartments, the Great Gallery and the Hall of Mirrors. The grounds and expansive and feature formal gardens, a labyrinth, and the Palm House. The entire complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3) Hallstatt and Dachstein Salzkammergut
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Dachstein Salzkammergut region is a spectacular destination. It's accessible from Hallstatt, one of the most picturesque small towns in Austria. You can explore the Dachstein Caves, which is one of Europe's most impressive cavern networks. There are many adventures to take both above and underground surrounded by excellent views of the Alps.
4) Burg Hochosterwitz
Sitting on a crag around 160 meters above the valley to the east of St. Veit is the Burg Hochosterwitz. It's the country's most significant medieval castle first mentioned in 860 AD. It was captured by the Khevenhüllers and enlarged in 1570, and has remained in their possession ever since.
5) Salzburg Altstadt
Salzburg was a spiritual center of Christianity in Europe. It's the main residence of Prince Archbishops, who then employed some of the finest architects and artists of their time to build the structures and communities around them. It's a beautiful collection of Baroque architecture that make up the old quarter.
Where to go on your next vacation
Nature, food, views: three things that Switzerland and Austria have in common. With great location and great cultures to explore, it's an equal toss up between two countries.
Go to Switzerland for:
- Luxurious resorts and world-class establishments
- An incredibly diverse cultural experience
- Grand views and Alpine excursions
Go to Austria for:
- Relaxed and laidback atmosphere
- Lush natural sceneries in temperate climate
- Wide range of architecture
It's all a matter of taste (and probably budget), but a trip to the heart of Europe is sure to be a memorable one.