Lush forested hills and crystal clear lakes cover Vorarlberg, the westernmost region of Austria along the Switzerland border. Here you will find cities and towns that are at once medieval and modern: sustainable green roofs overlook centuries-old clocktowers, cobblestone streets and modern architecture live in harmony alongside fairytale-esque castles. And beyond the aesthetic appeal, you’ll find a charming culture with a slower way of life, delicious regional specialties, and wonderful people who can’t wait to show you what makes their home so special.
While you may not have heard much about Vorarlberg or the charming cities and towns that are the heart of this region, you can expect to find plenty of history, art, culture, friendly locals, and incredible food. Although this region is thoroughly under-discovered by most travelers, here’s why Vorarlberg is Austria’s best kept secret!
Psst: Planning a visit to Austria? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip!
But this year, Lia spoke at the conference virtually (because she was knocked up and super nauseous), while I, Richie Goff—the Editor-in-Chief of Practical Wanderlust—went in her place! Talk about a dream job, right??
Truth be told, when I heard I’d be going to Vorarlberg, Austria I was like… “where?” But even though I only had a few weeks to prepare, I knew I’d be eating heavenly cheese (so much delicious cheese!) and wandering around villages much older than anything I was going to find in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Fast forward three weeks and I found myself among flower markets on cobblestone streets, hanging out on mountains with other travel bloggers, and having the time of my life.
I didn’t realize Austria had magic behind every turn and corner, ya’ll!
Everything about my trip to Vorarlberg surprised me, and not just because I didn’t actually have time to do any preparation or research before I packed my bags and left (in my defense, the entire trip was fully and expertly planned by the wonderful Visit Vorarlberg tourism board).
Like, I did not know that Vorarlberg’s capital is Bregenz, which sits on a clear blue, 207-square-mile lake that also borders Germany and Switzerland and provides drinking water for five million people.
Or that there are Umgang Bregenzerwald, aka “Village Walks”, around 13 local villages where you can learn about local history and culture by strolling around and peering into rust-colored steel columns that dispense interesting local tibits and facts.
I returned from Vorarlberg where I spent time in Mellau, Feldkirch, Dornbirn, and Bregenz with roughly a zillion photos, and found myself overwhelmed by the task of paring down my experiences into our usual 10-15 photos.
So I … er, procrastinated for about 3 months… and then got to work. And I ended up with so many stunning, colorful, vibrant photos of beautiful Vorarlberg that I decided to throw them all into one post. You’re welcome.
Vorarlberg Travel Tips & FAQ’s
Let’s start with a few of the important things to know about visiting the Vorarlberg region! Here are all the specifics you’ll need if you’re planning a trip to Vorarlberg.
- When to visit Vorarlberg: The best time of the year to visit Vorarlberg is between June and August, when the high temperatue is in the low 70s and there is little rainfall, and the famous Bregenzer Festspiele is happening on the lake. And because Vorarlberg isn’t a major tourist destination like every other city in Europe you’ve ever heard of, it’s quiet and not crowded at all. So next time you’re booking a summer getaway to Vienna or Salzburg, hop a train to Vorarlberg instead to escape the crowds! The other best time to visit is during the Christmas Market season, in early December. You can find two Christmas markets in Bregenz, and one in Dornbirn and Feldkirch. Might we suggest adding Vorarlberg to your next Christmas trip along with Vienna & Hallstatt?
- How to get to Vorarlberg: While you may think Vienna would be the major city to fly into to reach Vorarlberg, it’s literally on the opposite side of the country and 8 hours away by train. However, Bregenz, Vorarlberg is only 2 hours by train from Zurich, Switzerland through lush, gorgeous countryside! I recommend looking at your train options on Rome2Rio.
- Where to stay in Vorarlberg: I split my week in Vorarlberg between two hotels, one in Mellau and one in Dornbirn. In Mellau, I stayed in the glamorous and luxurious Hotel Hubertus Mellau; while in Dornbirn I stayed in the lovely boutique Hotel Katharinenhof COMFORT, located about a 10 minutes’ walk away from the Dornbin Market Square. I recommend either!
- Do I need a car? You absolutely do not need a car within Vorarlberg! Bregenz, Dornbirn, and Feldkirch are all accessible by train, and you can easily get between the three. The only outlier is Mellau, which is more rural if you’re looking for countryside vibes. You can take an hour bus ride from Bregenz, however, and can check availability on Rome2Rio.
Mellau is one of those little towns that sits between rolling hills, where cows roam in open fields and a river runs through the town giving it that perfect, pastoral centerpiece.
In the first few minutes of arrival, you are immediately overcome with a sense of serenity – there is no traffic, no tall buildings, and barely any people – there are only 1300 residents in the tiny town!
While the town becomes busier in the winter for ski season and fills its 1500 hotel beds (meaning there are more visiting skiiers than the actual population!), coming in the summer allows you to slow down, drink in the nature, and learn that the people of Mellau prefer quality over quantity of life.
Mellau’s claim to fame is the Umgang Bregenzerwald, or “Village Walks”, which takes you around 13 local villages where you can learn about local history and culture. Mellau is part of this route, and along the way you peer into a rust-colored steel column that lights up and gives you a fact about a particular building, a natural feature, or something special about the area.
The path takes you on a loop around the village, over their babbling river and past rolling hills. Stops along the way include Naze’s Hus, a restaurant which is hundreds of years old and has traditional Austrian shingles. What was once a copper workshop belonging to a man named Naze, is now a traditional Austrian restaurant where you can see old wood beams and historic furniture and eat traditional food.
Käsespätzle is a specialty, which is made from pasta, cheese, potatoes, and fried onions. Basically Austrian Mac n Cheese! I mean, how could that be bad? I probably ate it four times on my Austria trip and it was never not exactly what I needed!
And though many of its residents live in farmhouses that have been converted into living spaces for extended families, there is plenty of streamlined, modern architecture dotting this historic village as well.
You’ll find modern architecture in places like Temple 74, a sleek and stylish award-winning apartment complex, that marries the traditional small shingle facade with a minimal yet luxurious interior.
And in the center of town stands the Community Hall of Mellau, where the Propel Conference took place. Light-colored spruce and floor-to-ceiling windows make this space the perfect place to attend a conference, where you feel at once sheltered and connected with nature.
While in Mellau, be sure to check out the Mellaubahn Cable Car, which takes you up into the rolling hills surrounding Mellau on a 6-minute scenic ride.
From the top, you can hike up the Kanisfluh massif, a crag-like mountain that’s a landmark in the Bregenz Forest, or simply enjoy the views of Mellau below or grab a bit to eat or a beer at Restaurant Simma.
All-in-all, Mellau, much like the name sounds, is a mellow and great place to unplug your brain and just enjoy nature as it is intended to be.
Nowhere to rush here, just enjoy the greenery, the flowers, and feeling your feet tread along unspoiled wilderness.
For more Mellau eye candy, check out Kirsten Alana’s photo post about Mellau!
Feldkirch is a beautiful Medieval town that has been wonderfully preserved, and walking around the cobblestone streets really takes you back to 1218 when it was first chartered (though it was mentioned in writing early as 830!).
Though Feldkirch seems small, it’s the second-largest city in Vorarlberg with 34,192 residents – but it doesn’t seem so populous walking around the historic city center.
Walking down the city square, you can expect to find a flower market overflowing with sunflowers, dahlias, and birds of paradise, with an antique water fountain and plenty of buildings painted in pastels or with medieval themes. Markets have been held here Tuesdays and Saturdays since the 13th century!
Here, people sit at street cafes chatting, and the slower pace of life seems just as alive here as in Mellau. Er, unless there’s a spy mission afoot, anyway: this spot appears in the 2008 James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace,” where he drives down this same market square at night!
Once noon comes around, the city streets fill with residents on their lunch break, and you can see what I would call “Austrian babushkas” – grandmothers with scarves on their heads chatting in little groups. The day I was there they were no doubt talking about all the strange English-speaking travel bloggers, with cameras in hand posing for photos in each scenic spot.
When visiting a Medieval town, it’s important to have a very knowledgeable tour guide, and we were lucky to have Felkirch’s very own Countess Mechthild show us around! Don’t know who Countess Mechthild is? I didn’t either! But I was excited to be meeting a real Countess. And she was a real countess… at least, in the middle ages.
The themed tour was led by a very knowledgeable actress in full costume posing as the medieval countess, guiding us down hidden alleyways and pointing out historical landmarks.
We learned about Count Hugo I, who established the town and built Schattenburg (Shadow Castle) in 1265, which still stands today and serves as a museum that you can tour digitally here (or in person, if you are, you know, there).
Though Feldkirch seems idyllic today, it does have a gritty history. The last witch trial was held here in 1649, where the church found a woman named Martha Lochbüchlerin guilty of witchcraft after brutal torture and sentenced her to death.
Luckily for her, she died in prison before the public execution. So that’s… cheery.
We also visited a giant bell tower, built around the year 500, which is one of the most recognizable icons of Feldkirch. Katzenturm, or “Cats Tower”, got its name for once housing cannons featuring the shape of a cat, for some reason. As you can imagine, I was sorely disappointed that the tower wasn’t filled with actual cats.
Katzenturm also has one of the biggest bells in the region weighing 8.5 tons, which chimes out at 3pm every Friday, which I am sure either delights residents or scares the living daylights out of them.
Not that Feldkirch is all gorgeous market places, rustic towers, and actual castles (though it honestly mostly is, not that I’m complaining).
Our conference sessions in Feldkirch were held at theMontforthaus Feldkirch, a sort of space-age conference center that even won a sustainability award in 2017. I imagine this has something to do with their stunning green roof that overlooks the city, where we had wine in the evening after our tour.
Feldkirch is the perfect place to explore if you love old things, really old things. And gorgeous buildings, and history. Really, just come here and tell me how much you love it, okay?
After the three days of conferencing about travel blog stuff, we broke into post-tour travel groups to explore different parts of Vorarlberg, and I headed off to see Bodensee.
Bregenz is the capital of Vorarlberg, and though it has a smaller population than Feldkirch, it feels slightly more metropolitan and city-like with bigger markets, a bustling city-center, and slightly bigger buildings.
Not that it’s lacking in charm! Nooooo, Vorarlberg simply won’t stand for anywhere that isn’t simply adorable.
Bregenz is most known for its giant lake which the city stands on, which is referred to as the “soul of Europe”.
Bodensee, or Lake Constance as it’s called in English, isa clear blue, 207-square-mile lake that also borders Germany and Switzerland and provides drinking water for five million people. No one country “owns” the lake, and it’s enjoyed by residents on each side.
Lake Constance feels like the heart of the city, with a harbor, restaurants, and long promenades stretching along its banks. There’s even a little gazebo bar where you can get a drink over the water!
Along the shore, you can rent little electric or paddle boats and head out on the stunningly clear blue water to get a new perspective of the city.
In the summer, you can treat yourself to milkshakes from a mushroom-shaped stand that really “stands out” against the shoreline (sorry for that terrible pun).
One of Bregenz’s biggest claims to fame is their Bregenzer Festspiele, where elaborate productions (generally Opera) are performed on a floating stage with the most intense, large-scale sets you’ve ever seen.
For instance, a giant mechanical (terrifying) clown head that moved throughout the production of Rigoletto, to three giant dragons and a crystal turtle for The Magic Flute, and even a giant, rotating eye for their production of Tosca (which can be seen in the 2008 James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace”).
They say Vienna is the classical music capital of Europe, but frankly, Bregenz is bringing operatic drama and I am here for it.
The productions are absolutely extraordinary, and the sets are so enormous and expensive the show runs July-August for two successive years.
Though the shows are so elaborate, they still have inexpensive seats towards the back so that everyone is able to have access to the arts.
If you are in town during this time, YOU MUST GO, even if opera isn’t your thing! This is a world-class experience.
Old Town Bregenz is a medieval town, established around 1250, and is just as charming as Feldkirch with quaint cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and lots of charming architectural features.
Along our self-guided walking tour, we strolled across an old medieval wall where you could see Deuring schlössle, which I was convinced was a castle with an epic history. In reality, some fabulously rich person at the end of the fourteenth or early fifteenth century built it, and then a wealthy timber merchant named Johann Albert von Deuring bought it in 1660 and expanded it, adding its very iconic “onion cap” – the better for looking down on the plebes in style, I suppose. It’s definitely one of the most noticeable landmarks in old town, and definitely adds a fairy tale essence to the city!
One of the most weirdly adorable things we saw was a water feature outside of theWeinstube Kinz Restaurant of a peeing man. We were all like “What the hell is that?!“. Our lovely guide Katja with Bodensee Vorarlberg Tourism thought our reaction was hysterical, and pointed out his pee puddle is actually in the shape of Lake Constance. I guess that’s what we call “Art“!
Side note: why are peeing statues a thing in Europe? There are THREE of them in Brussels. I find this so bizarre. Am I just a prudish American!?
For something a little more contemporary, check out the Kunsthaus Bregenz, which is a contemporary museum that allows one artist to take over the entire building and create their own large-scale exhibit.
Past artists have installed carpets of real grass and nature (including bugs that got trapped in the building – for nature realness, I guess) and someone even flooded the place! You never know quite what will be in store here.
Sadly (or not), when I visited, the exhibit did not feature bugs or flooding. I did see a music box-like mechanism that sounded like what I imagine you would hear before being murdered, a giant projection of a man playing the violin with a snail riding back and forth on his bow, and an entire floor that was empty except for what seemed to be quiet elevator music.
Did I think I was losing my mind? Definitely. Was it art? Well, that’s what they tell me.
If empty rooms and snail violins aren’t your thing, you’re in luck because the exhibits change all the time (and the exhibit is already different now). Definitely a place to visit for a wild experience!
Dornbirn is just north of Bregenz, and is easily accessible by a ten-minute train ride. It feels like an extension of Bregenz both because of its proximity and vibe. Both cities exist in the sprawling valley by the lake, and both have that medieval charm I’ve come to expect from everywhere in Vorarlberg.
While in Dornbirn I stayed in the lovely boutique Hotel Katharinenhof COMFORT, located about a 10 minutes’ walk away from the Dornbirn Market Square. It is such a cozy and modern hotel – I wish I could just move into a hotel like they do in old movies and just stay in Austria forever!
The main star of Dornbirn, as we have learned is the case in so many Austrian towns, is the market square.
The history of the Dornbirn area began in 719 when the monastery of St. Gallen was founded by Otmar von St. Gallen, and the “modern market square” began with the Red House, erected in 1639 by a husband and wife to be used as a residence, inn and dance venue.
The rest of the market square sprung from this iconic building, and today it’s a restaurant serving traditional Austrian food, and an ice cream parlor!
One of the most exciting things to do in Dornbirn is to take the Karren Cable Car up to the top of Karren Mountain, where you get sweeping views of Dornbirn and Bregenz on Lake Constance.
At the top, you can walk onto an overlook with a see-through metal grate, giving you a glimpse down 3,202 feet below (eek!).
Though this may not be for the faint of heart, there are also plenty of hiking trails and even a panoramic restaurant on the top of the mountain.
Hiking Karren Mountain is a big thing here too, since it’s not terribly tall or very rugged. At the cable car station you’ll find a machine where you can print out a ticket and then hike to the top of Karren Mountain and see how quickly you can do it!
The total trip is a 3.4-mile loop if you’re feeling athletic – or just take in the stunning views from the cable car!
Exploring Dornbirn is a good opportunity to try some more traditional Austrian food, because if you’re anything like me, your lust for cheese and wine will never be satiated.
Gasthaus Gemsle has an almost 100-year history in Dornbirn, and the cozy wooden decor and hearty Austrian dishes reflect that.
Käsespätzle, a delicious cheese, potato, fried onion, and macaroni concoction, is a must eat while in Vorarlberg. And did I mention, käsespätzle usually comes with a side of apple sauce? I don’t know why, and our Austrian host basically just said “because it does!”. I guess it’s to balance the richness of the cheese with a pop of sweetness. It gives it a bit of a child-like vibe, like you’re ordering off the kid’s menu, only it’s way more decedent and culinary than a box of Kraft mac n cheese.
Why Was I in Vorarlberg, Again?
Lia was invited to speak at the second annual Propel Conference for travel bloggers! Then she got pregnant, and sent me instead, darn.
The Propel Conference consisted of a small and carefully selected group of talented travel bloggers, plus an incredible panel of knowledgeable, talented speakers and veteran industry leaders…. and also Lia! Just kidding, she was a remote speaker this year and did an incredible job.
I was lucky enough to meet many amazing travel bloggers at the conference, all of which have special areas of expertise and talents. Though the travel media industry is pretty small, and the travel blogging sector is even smaller, travel bloggers are always spread out over the world on their own adventures – and something really magical happens when you bring them all together. Ideas are shared, connections are made, and the industry becomes less about competition and more about up-lifting.
We spent 3 days learning, discussing, and practicing advanced travel blogging techniques. We got into some really sexy stuff, like Search Engine Optimization and Long-Term Brand Partnerships and Passive Income Strategies – that last one was Lia’s talk.
Oh, by the way~ if you’re wondering how the heck travel blogs make money, we’ve got a whole guide to travel blog monetization!
For more professional travel blogger insights, read 25 Things No One Tells You About Being a Full Time Travel Blogger or just browse all of our blogging posts.
More Vorarlberg Resources & Travel Guides
Considering a trip to Vorarlberg now that you’ve seen how utterly stunning it is? Or just cravingkäsespätzle? There are a bunch of fantastic blog posts published by the participants in the Propel Travel Conference! Here are some of my favorite resources that will help you plan a trip to Graz.
Ready to pack your bags and take off on a trip to Vorarlberg? Had you ever heard of Vorarlberg before? Did our photos make you want to visit? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Planning a visit to Austria? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip!
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Disclaimer: We were invited to visit Vorarlberg by the Propel Conference, and our entire trip was organized & hosted by Visit Vorarlberg. We are deeply grateful to them, as well as the many local businesses who helped support us during our visit! As always, all opinions, bad jokes, and implications thatkäsespätzle is Austria’s only food are 100% my own and entirely not their fault.