On track: a tram rolls through the city centre

This forward-thinking Austrian city offers cobbled streets and chocolate shops alongside cutting-edge art institutions, discovers Chris Leadbeater

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

Austria's third biggest city (after Vienna and Graz) is an arty option for a weekend. It was one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2009 and has continued with its forward-thinking mind-set, offering a raft of dynamic galleries and institutions.

Chief among these is the Ars Electronica Center (1), a museum of science, technology and digital media whose glass walls flash in different colours after dark (Ars-Electronica-Strasse 1; 00 43 732 72 720; aec.at/center; €8). It is open daily except Mondays. From 1-3 November it will host Space Days: Astronomy – a feast of star-gazing and sharp images of the great beyond.

Touch down

Blue Danube airport (00 43 7221 6000; linz-airport.com) sits nine miles south-west of the city in the town of Horsching. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies the sole direct link from the UK, three times a week from Stansted.

Bus 601 (00 43 1 71 101; postbus.at) runs once an hour, Monday to Saturday, from 6am-7pm, taking 20 minutes to the main railway station (2) on Kartnerstrasse; €2.80. Taxis take 15 minutes for €25.

You can also fly to Salzburg (00 43 662 85 800; salzburg-airport.com), 80 miles south-west, served by Ryanair from Stansted (three flights a week) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick (at least four flights per week).

Trains (00 43 5 1717; oebb.at) from Salzburg to Linz take 75 minutes and cost €24.

Get your bearings

Linz is located in the north of Austria, 20 miles below the Czech border. It is the capital of Oberösterreich (Upper Austria) – one of the nine länder (states) into which the country is divided.

The Danube flows west-to-east through its heart, separating the Altstadtviertel (the medieval core) and the Innenstadt (inner city) on the south bank from areas like Urfahr to the north.

Public transport (00 43 732 3400 4000; linzag.at) consists of buses and three tram lines, which all meet in the main square, Hauptplatz (3). Single fares €1, day-passes €4.

The tourist office (4) is at Hauptplatz 1 and is open daily (00 43 732 7070 2009; linz-tourismus.info). It sells the Linz Card, which covers museum entry and transport: €15 for one day, €25 for three. More information: austria.info.

Check in

A simple mid-range option south of the centre, the City-Hotel (5) (00 43 732 652 622; cdhotel.at) at Schillerstrasse 52 has double rooms from €106, including breakfast.

Hotel Zum Schwarzen Baren (6) at Herrenstrasse 9-11 (00 43 732 772 477; linz-hotel.com) is a comfy four-star with a peaceful roof terrace and doubles from €58, including breakfast.

Finally, the Hotel am Domplatz (7) (00 43 732 773000; hotelamdomplatz.at) is a stylish four-star at Stifterstrasse 4 with a spa and double rooms from €160, including breakfast.

Day One

Take a hike

Begin at Theatergasse 1, outside the Landhaus (8) – the impressive 16th-century structure which acts as the parliament for Oberosterreich. Its ornate clocktower is a city symbol.

Walk east towards Hauptplatz (3), but take the first left onto Altstadt and head north into the old town – though you may wish to halt at number 13, where Madame Wu Teesalon (9) (00 43 732 781 718; madamewu.net) is an alluring café and tea stockist.

Continue up Altstadt into Alter Markt (10). Walk through the square and turn left into Hofgasse, which climbs steeply. At the top of the stairs, you can peer at the Danube as it flows below the city's 16th-century Schloss (11) (castle).

Window shopping

Landstrasse is the commercial drag, forging south through the Innenstadt. Its key retail option is the shiny Passage (12) mall at 17-25 (00 43 732 798 180; passagecitycenter.at). At number 22 on parallel Herrengasse, Jindrak (13) (00 43 732 775 258; linzertorte.at), is a patisserie that dispenses the Linzer Torte – a sweet lattice tart heavy with honey and almonds. At number 5, Xocolat (14) is an Austrian chocolate specialist (00 43 732 770 989; xocolat.at).

Elsewhere, Geko (15), just off Hauptplatz at Rathausgasse 6 (00 43 732 774665; geko-linz.at) is quirky, with everything from soft scarves to hand-painted bird-boxes.

Lunch on the run

The third floor of Passage (12) comes with a trendy eatery, Sky Garden (00 43 732 770676; skygarden.at). A bowl of thick tomato soup with pesto is €5.20. The cocktail list includes the Sky Punch – pineapple, orange, rum and triple sec for €8.80.

A walk in the park

Strung along the south bank of the Danube between the bridges of Nibelungen (16) and Eisenbahn (17), the Donaupark (18) is an alfresco slice of Linz's artiness. This near-mile-long strip of grass is dotted with large iron and steel sculptures – a tribute to the city's factories and dockyards. These chunks of metal provide an angular backdrop to a stroll next to the river.

An aperitif

Tucked into the shadow of the Ars Electronica Center (1) at Kirchengasse 4, Stadtwerkstadtt (19) (00 43 732 731 209; stwst.at) is a cultural centre that puts on art shows and DJ nights. Its Café Strom is part of the package, with half-litre beers for €3.40.

Dining with the locals

The Ars Electronica Center (1) has an excellent house restaurant, Cubus (00 43 732 944 149; cubus.at), which serves pork fillet with cognac pepper sauce for €15.90.

Elsewhere, Riva (20) is the pick of the eateries on the main square, with pizzas from €7.50 at Hauptplatz 13 (00 43 732 781 238; www.riva-linz.com) and Café Traxlmayr (21) is a classic Austrian salon at Promenade 16, where you can try veal in a mushroom sauce for €8.50 (00 43 732 773 353; cafe-traxlmayr.at).

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

At Herrengasse 26, the Mariendom (22) (00 43 70 777 8850; mariendom.at) is the biggest cathedral in Austria. A 19th-century Gothic masterpiece, it has shrugged off the damage it sustained from a direct bomb strike in 1945. Sunday mass is at 10am and 11.30am.

The Mariendom is known as Linz's "new" cathedral because it has an "old" counterpart – the 17th-century Ignatiuskirche (23), which is almost lost in the narrow Domgasse (at number 3; 00 43 732 770 8660; ignatiuskirche-linz.at). Sunday mass is at 7.30am and 10.30am.

Cultural morning

The Ars Electronic Center (1) is decidedly of-the-now. Exhibits include the "Password Hacker" computer.

The Lentos Kunstmuseum (24) is also up to the minute. A striking slab of glass which glows at night, it preens on the riverbank at Ernst-Koref-Promenade 1 (00 43 732 7070 3600; lentos.at), open daily 10am-6pm except Monday. The contemporary art inside includes Warhol prints of Marilyn Monroe.

Tabakfabrik Linz (25) continues the cutting-edge ethos at Peter-Behrens-Platz 15 (00 43 732 772 272; tabakfabrik-linz.at). It was a cigarette factory until 2009, but now stages temporary exhibitions. From 24 October to 24 November, this will mean Kiss My Art, a collection of the work displayed by British gallery owner Nick Treadwell (who is now based in Austria) – open daily except Monday; €5.

The past is visible at the castle's (11) Schlossmuseum (00 43 70 774 4190; schlossmuseum.at; €6.50). Open daily except Monday, it mixes regional history with 18th-century art.

Out to brunch

Try Austrian fast-food favourite leberkas – a peppery pork paté, served warm in ciabatta for €2.70 at Leberkas-Pepi (26), at Rathausgasse 3 (00 43 732 796 868; leberkaspepi.at).

Take a ride

Catch the Postlingbergbahn tourist tram (tram 50) from the top of Hauptplatz (3). Leaving every half hour (returns €5.60, but included in the Linz Card). It will take 18 minutes to carry you to the summit of the Pöstlingberg (27) – the 1,768ft hill to the north of the city. Here, you can enjoy ice creams from €4 at the Café Linzblick (00 43 732 922 774).

Icing on the cake

Pitched at Am Volksgarten 1, the Landestheater (28) is Linz's ultra-new opera house (00 43 732 761 1400; landestheater-linz.at). It will prove its versatility on 24 November (3pm; from €14) with Honk! – a musical reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling.