Most Austrian castles could have been plucked from a fairytale.
Alpine Austria, nestling at the very heart of Europe, is studded with beautiful Medieval castles and grand old palaces, ripe for us tourists to explore.
Austria isn’t just the geographical heartland of Europe. For more than 500 years, it was the seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire, and so home to the the Hapsburg and Badenburg dynasties that held power over European soil.
This helps explain the plethora of bejewelled palaces and fearsome Medieval castles in the country.
Undoubtedly Austria’s most famous castle is the stunning Burg Hohenwerfen – as seen in the Sound of Music. However, the 14 gates of Hochosterwitz Castle make this Medieval fortress one of the most impregnable in the whole of Europe.
Burg Hohenwerfen: One of the Storybook Austrian Castles, as Seen in the ‘Sound of Music’
Burg Hohenwerfen a spectacular Austrian castle that’s around 45 minutes by train from Salzburg. The fortress is dramatically sited on a rocky plinth in the heart of a deep green pine-valley, and it’s surrounded by the jagged snow-capped Alps which spring out from every side.
The first fortifications of Hohenwerfen were built in around 1077. The reason for building here was purely defensive, designed to protect the city of Salzburg.
You see, Salzburg lies protected between two Alpine ranges. You therefore can’t attack from the side – you must approach the city by marching through the valley.
Consequently, Hohenwerfen was founded on a dramatic rocky outcrop that juts into the valley. It was the first line of defence for Salzburg.
Brilliantly, the castle was featured in ‘The Sound of Music’ (what could be more Austrian?!) – it’s used as a backdrop during the classic ‘Do-Re-Mi’ segment.
In the early 1500s, rioting miners and farmers approached Salzburg, dissatisfied with social conditions at the time. Hohenwerfen stood between them and the city – and they succeeded in burning most of the castle down the the ground.
Resultantly, the castle was rebuilt in the 1560s (those who rioted were forced to help rebuild it!). It was later used as a prison, and a military fortress during Nazi times.
Nowadays, the castle has rather capitalised upon its romantic setting, and hosts historical tours and falconry demonstrations. It remains one of Salzburg’s foremost tourist attractions, and one of the prettiest castles in Austria.
Higgeldy-piggedly Hochosterwitz: a spell-binding Austrian Castle
Hochosterwitz Castle, in the southern-most Austrian province of Carinthia, is an almost unrivalled example of Medieval castle architecture, with foundations from the 800s.
This is a huge fortress – it’s visible for more than 20 miles around – and is a reasonably honest example of Medieval design, as it’s been relatively untouched since the 1600s.
Hochosterwitz sits upon a rocky hill, and a path winds around the hillock and up towards the fortifications. Along the steep path to the castle lie the fabled 14 gates of Hochosterwitz – and it’s these 14 layers of defence which this Austrian Castle truly unique.
The 14 gates have been successful. Hochosterwitz was never captured; and assailants only ever managed to reach gate number four!
Each of the 14 gates, created from 1570 onwards, presents a different obstacle to intruders, ranging from hidden spikes to huge drawbridges or even chutes for boiling oil.
Each of the gates is individually named, and elaborately decorated. The most magnificent – and the most fearsome – was the Khevenhüllertor (named after the castle-owner, and positioned at gate number seven). It is bedecked in marble, and has an ingenious two-way door system that lures assailants into the perfect firing-lines of defending archers.
Since 1571, Hochosterwitz has been owned by the Khevenhüller family – and it remains in their hands today. The family open up the castle to tourists during the summer, and have amassed a significant display of Medieval weaponry to keep visitors occupied.
Note that, as the castle has never been truly inhabited, the interior is a a little sparse – but the views more than make up for it.
Schattenburg Castle: The ‘Shadow Castle’ Guarding Feldkirch, a Perfect Medieval Town
Feldkirch is a sleepy little Medieval town that nestles upon Austria’s Western borders with Switzerland. The town is dominated by the Schattenburg Castle, a small-but-charming fortress built in the late 1100s.
Schattenburg means ‘Shadow Castle’, and our understanding is that the name comes from its position on a rocky precipice above the town – it literally cast much of Feldkirch into shadow.
The castle was built by the town founders, the Earls of Montfort-Feldkirch, and was besieged twice in 1269 and 1345 – although it was never captured.
In the early 1400s, this little Austrian castle was severely damaged during the ‘Appenzeller Kriege’, a series of bloody conflicts between local workers and the ruling elite.
However, it was rebuilt in the mid 1400s and, despite a brief spell as a military barracks and a workhouse, remains to this day.
Nowadays, the castle hosts a small but interesting museum of Medieval life, and the Keep offers impressive views across the entire town of Feldkirch.
Hohensalzburg Castle: A Mighty Fortress Guarding the City of Salzburg
The vast bulk of Hohensalzburg Castle looms over the city of Salzburg. I visited this vast military complex back in 2013 – it’s one of the very biggest fortresses in mainland Europe.
The vast fortress was started back in 1077, and has been progressively enlarged over the last 950 years. Unsurprisingly – given its tremendous size – it’s never fell to attackers.
Even so, the fortress seriously threatened twice – but both occasions were rather remarkable. In 1525, the place was seriously damaged by its own townspeople. They were protesting against the harsh rule of the city by the local archbishops; and inflicted some severe damage upon the castle.
Curiously, during Napoleonic wars in the 1800s, after hundreds of years of impregnable self-sufficiency, the fortress gave itself up without any attempt at defence. It was quickly taken by the French forces and used as a prison.
Any modern visitor to the castle can’t help but be impressed by its staggering panoramic views over Salzburg, which span out to the distant Alps beyond. It’s a steep climb to reach the fortress, though, and many tourists rely on the funicular railway.
This little railroad climbs precipitously up cliff-face to the castle, and is one of the oldest working railways in the world.
A rudimentary version was built in Medieval times to carry construction materials up to the fortress; and this was replaced in 1860 with a funicular line, which has ferried tourists up to Hohensalzburg for more than 150 years.