When I think of the Alps, Switzerland most often comes to mind. This summer however, I trekked over the Austrian Alps and realized what a hidden gem this country is! Austria has it all, from amazing hut-to-hut trekking to musical Salzburg to the charming salt-mining village of Hallstatt, which is like stepping into a fairytale.
This city is divided by the Salzach River, with medieval and baroque buildings of the pedestrian old city on its left bank, facing the 19th century new town on its right. The old city or Altstadt is famous for genius composer Mozart and you can even visit his house, and museum, displaying his childhood instruments. Salzburg is also the setting for the immensely loved and popular movie, the Sound of Music. Ironically, the Austrians are not really aware of the movie or the story of the Von Trapp family.
The Hellbrunn Palace and Trick Fountains: This palace was built as a day-use residence and is famous for its trick fountains. The games were thought of by Markus Sittikus, a man who loved to play practical jokes on his guests. For example, as you stroll the gardens as part of the tour, you’ll sit on a stone seat around a stone dining table through which a water conduit sprays water into your seat when the mechanism is activated, unknown to you. The hidden fountains throughout the gardens surprise and spray guests as they stroll through. There’s also a mechanical, water-operated, music-playing theatre with fountains that can sprout up at any time.
The Salzburg Cathedral: The cathedral is adjacent to the Residenplatz and Domplatz squares in old town. In the summer, chairs are setup for live concerts in front of the cathedral square. The interiors are absolutely stunning and will delight.
The Hohensalzburg Fortress: The fortress itself sits atop the Festungsberg, which is a small hill. Always a visible landmark anywhere from new and old town, the castle is an unmistakable part of the skyline. The funicular ride up to the fortress is fun while the views from the fortress are priceless.
The Mirabell Palace & Gardens: This palace is iconic because some of the Sound of Music movie scenes were shot here. In the summer, you can easily stumble upon free concerts, while the gardens are a spectacular vision. The Mirabell Palace & Gardens is listed as a cultural heritage monument and part of the Historic Centre of the City of Salzburg UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mozart’s House: You can visit the famous yellow house in old town. His family actually lived in this house for 26 years and Mozart spent much of his childhood and youth here. You can also visit the Mozart Residence, the house to which the family moved later, on Marketplatz Square. The year-around museum allows you to take an hour-long tour through the original rooms, where you can discover items of everyday life as well as furniture from the 18th century, including the historical instruments like Mozart’s violin. You will feel like you are transported back to the days of Mozart!
Residenplatz: Old town enchants with its multiple squares, fountains, houses, “horse ponds” and stores such as Café Konditorei Furst that sell the famous Mozart chocolates called Mozartkugel. Don’t miss the Egg Souffle or the famous Salzburger Nockerl, a culinary specialty made of egg yolk, flour, sugar, and vanilla mixed into a thin dough. Fabrizi coffee shop is one of the best places to try this!
The Gastein Valley
The valley is home to three different communities called Bad Gastein, Dorfgastein, and Bad Hofgastein. I feel like these towns are still rooted in centuries-old traditions which is what makes it so charming to visit. My first afternoon in the valley began with a cable car ride up to the Stubnerkogel in Bad Gastein. The views on this ride are fantastic but not as breathtaking as a walk on the 140-meter long suspension bridge that sways gently in the wind.
Following this heart-stopping walk, we zipped through the mountains in a car, climbing upward until we came to a beautiful house overlooking the Alps. I met a lovely lady who, along with translation assistance from the VisitGastein Tourism Office, explained the importance and popularity of local herbs in local cooking. I had the most delicious herbal ice tea with apple mint and rose water. She uses fresh, local ingredients from her garden to address many common mental and physical ailments. She loves to use vinegar from Elderflower for salads, Malven (a purple flower) in tea which helps coughs, and insect bites, Dandelions for salads and the flower for syrup for digestion especially post winter to cure depression blues. Daisies are frequently used in salads and to help cure a bad mood. Nettle, which is found throughout the year, is used in bread and healthy for its omega fats inside the seeds. Wondering what to use for weight loss? She suggests Dandelions, Nettle and any bitter herbs such as Vermouth, as a bitter taste reduces hunger for foods. Marigold in oil is used to cure a sunburn, while Amber is helpful to cure body wounds. Poppy flowers in almond oil is also another soothing concoction for improving the mood. Lavender oil or cooking milk in Lavender is great for the skin, while Yarrow can help against pain as well as digestion.
After an insightful visit, I met my badass guide Tom, who owns an outdoor family business in the area and specializes in trekking tours over the mighty Austrian Alps! My early evening climb with Tom starts off tame enough, as we tackle a somewhat steep climb toward a mountain hut for the night that is hidden deep inside the valley. We hike for a few hours, during which he pulls out his binoculars and shows me my first sighting of Chamois! Chamois is an agile goat-antelope with short hooked horns, found in the European Alps, the Pyrenees etc. I also had my first taste of Chamois meat that night as we settled into our mountain hut, Heinreichalm, overlooking the gorgeous Alps. The hut is located in the middle of nowhere, has a cozy dining room as well as a lovely outdoors patio with a view. Leaving the hut was hard as I was enjoying the solitude and the scenery way too much. But we had miles to go, or rather I should say peaks to summit, before we reached town again and so we started off at 9am after a leisurely breakfast in the morning.
With Tom, I summited five different peaks that day, at times climbing steeply uphill, and at other times strolling through flat terrain. Once he even had me scampering down the face of a mountain like a goat. I freaked out for about five minutes, then realized you could really stomp through the vegetation without slipping and sliding and falling off the mountain. The scariest moments were when I was standing on the ridge of a mountain top on a narrow path with the towering alps around me, but Tom was there to boost my confidence and guide me through those moments.
I successfully conquered my fear, the heat, and came away deeply inspired by Tom’s life stories. Tom was in the corporate world for many years, before he quit to pursue his passion – leading fearless tours across the Alps. After about 8 hours of trekking, we walked into the Bieberalm mountain hut for a deliciously late lunch of hot cheese dumpling soup, and some local cheese and meat before heading back through forestland into town.
Arriving at the wellness Hotel Das.Goldberg is the perfect way to wind down after a trekking expedition with Tom! The hotel is set on a hillside above the town of Bad Hofgastein and actually right on one of the ski slopes. The rooms are spacious, while the spa and the view from the heated pool area is breathtaking.
The third leg of my Austrian trip had me arriving into this gorgeous lakeside village called Hallstatt. If you’re like me and often peruse social media tools such as Instagram for travel destination ideas, you will understand why my desire to visit Hallstatt was fueled simply by pics of this pretty town on Instagram. I felt like I had landed right smack in the middle of a fairytale complete with a lake, two churches, lakeside restaurants, an active salt mine and the Dachstein ice caves that lie high above the Trauntal valley.
VISIT THE VILLAGE
The 16th-century Alpine houses and alleyways of Hallstatt can be explored in a day, but try and stay two to three days to immerse yourself in this village. The Chinese were so smitten with this town that they re-created part of the town in China. I don’t blame them. If I could live in Hallstatt forever, I would! Since 1997, this village has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The village is home to two churches, one being the Hallstatt Catholic Church, near the 12th century St. Michael’s chapel. Near the chapel lies the small cemetery and the Charnel House, where real skulls are preserved, some of which are even decorated and painted. Also called the Bone House, it’s one of Hallstatt’s treasures as it is among the last of such places in Austria. In the 1700s, it is said that the church began digging up the corpses to make space for the newly dead. Once the skeletons were exhumed and properly bleached in the sun, the family members would then stack the bones next to their nearest kin. As you can imagine this practice has been dying out since the 1960s.
Wandering through the streets, stop by the small main square for an ice cream or some people watching on one of the many benches strewn around the statue in the center. Or why not drop in at Dirndl to go and try on a traditional pretty Austrian dress typically worn in Austria, South Tyrol and Bavaria. Nothing like donning a local dress to feel local!
Visit the Salt Mine
A funicular railway connects to one of the oldest known salt mines in the world and is well worth exploring (only possible with a guided tour) to better understand the history of this village. The process to get into the mines includes wearing overalls which will make you feel like you are going inside the mine as a worker. You first walk through a tunnel, which keeps getting narrower and the most fun element of this mine is getting to then slide down the heavy wooden slides built between the different levels. As tourists, we only have access to two levels. During the tour, you will learn about the salt formation in this region via a fun multimedia light show in a large subterranean salt-lake. You will see giant salt crystals on display inside the mines. After the tour, you will hop on a miners’ train to exit the mine, which is a real treat as you zip through the tunnels. Post tour, don’t miss the Hallstatt Skywalk nearby for exhilarating views of the lake and the town.
VISIT THE ICE CAVES & THE FIVE FINGERS LOOKOUT
The final must visit attraction is a 4-hour excursion into the Ice Caves and the 5 Fingers lookout, which is a 20-minute walk from the entrance to the caves. Hallstatt has one of the best ice caves in the world in the nearby Dachstein Alps. The Dachstein Ice Cave is closed in Winter (October-May) and the best way to reach these caves from Hallstatt is by Postbus 543. Buy your tickets at the Dachstein Visitor Center and take the cable car up the mountain. Once you get off the cable car, walk about 15 minutes uphill to the entrance of the cave. Needless to say warm clothes is a must, gloves are definitely useful. The ice in the cave is formed by water which seeps from the Dachstein plateau down into the cave through small cracks and joints in the cliff. When outside temperatures are above freezing the caves still contain really cold air, so the penetrating water freezes and forms magnificent ice shapes and frozen waterfalls. The 50-minute guided tour is informative, fun and allows you to take pictures of the ice shapes. The fantastic formations have names like the “ice palace”, “Tristan Dome”, “Big Ice Chapel”, and the 30 foot tall phallic shaped “Big Ice Mountain.” “Castle of the Holy Grail,” which shimmers in colors from white to dark blue, depending on the lighting, is gorgeous. As you exit the cave, the Alpine view doesn’t get any better!
In August, they have 4-5 nights with special below ground piano concerts inside the ice cave with the frozen formations for a back drop. If you go, drop me a note to let me know how it was!
From the Ice Caves, take the cable car to the level 2 Station and follow the walking trail to the 5 Fingers. The walk time is about 20-30 minutes one way. The viewing platform reaches out like a 5-fingered hand over a 1300-foot vertical drop and is one of the most spectacular viewing platforms in the Alps. You can see tiny Hallstatt almost 5,000 feet below. The 5 platforms have different exposure to the heights and unique views, for example one of the platforms is made entirely from glass and another one enables you to gain your own personal view of Hallstatt through a large Baroque picture frame.
Standing in the train station, waiting for my train out of Hallstatt, I gazed wistfully at this magical town, the church spires rising across the lake, and I realized this little village has got me, hook line and sinker!