Ladies, this is it. This is where the hills are alive with music.
Most travellers who come to Austria stop by in Salzburg for that sweet, sweet taste of the real Sound of Music (for this is where the musical was filmed), but if you are searching for the real deal, look a little further – to the Salzkammergut. The region, filled with impressive mountains and lakes so clean you can drink from them, spans three different federal states and will transport you right into your most vivid dreams of singing alongside Maria and the Trapp family, traditional dress and catchy tunes included. In English, Salzkammergut means Estate of the Salt Chamber, and the experiences there are just as exquisite as that name would have you believe. Here’s a look at the eight places you definitely shouldn’t miss.
1) Castles, lakeside strolls, and modern architecture around Lake Fuschl
Coming from Salzburg, Lake Fuschl (or Fuschlsee, as it is properly called) is your gateway to the Salzkammergut region. The lake is overseen on one side by the Renaissance castle of Fuschl – which, incidentally, owes its current popularity to having been featured in yet another movie (“Sissi”, a widely popular trilogy about Empress Elisabeth of Austria). On the other end lies Fuschl am See, a good starting point for a small hike around the lake. Follow the signs that will lead you around the 10km-route and enjoy the views of water so turquoise it could rival the Caribbean. If you look closely, you might even stumble upon the headquarters of Austria’s biggest export – Red Bull energy drinks. It’s easy to recognize – just look for the modern building sitting in the middle of an artificial lake a little way off the main road around the lake. If you’re up for a bigger challenge, hike up to the ruins of Wartenfels and continue to one of the most picturesque peaks of the region, the Schober (1269m).
Oh, and one other thing – it’s pronounced Foo-sh-l.
2) A famous church, the wall of a dragon, and a village in the water in Mondsee
Let’s get the one big elephant in the room out of the way straight away, and then we’ll be done with the actual references to Sound of Music: yes, the church in the small town Mondsee is the church where the wedding took place in the movie.
Great! Now on to the other treasures that the small town holds. Just like most places in the region, Mondsee sits right next to a lake of the same name and is surrounded by mountains. If you are into climbing, check out the Drachenwand – the via ferrata (category B/C) up the “wall of the dragon”, as the literal translation into English would be, is hugely popular for a reason. You can rent equipment at the bottom of the trail, and there is an alternate route for hikers. The views from the top are the same amount of amazing for both groups, though.
If chilling on the shore while sipping a cool beer or lemonade is more your thing, pick one of the many open beaches around the lake. The main beach in Mondsee (small entry charge, Alpenseebad Mondsee, Seebadstrasse 3) has a water sports center which offers various activities. And who knows, while in the water, you might just come across some of the ancient stilt houses that were found in the lake (and have since been added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites).
3) Boat tours, ropeway trips, and rack railways in St. Wolfgang
St. Wolfgang, one of the few main towns in the Salzkammergut that does not have “See” (lake) or “Bad” (bath, spa) in the title, is best reached by boat. Not having the word lake in your name does not mean that you cannot sit on the shores of one! Take the ferry from nearby St. Gilgen or Strobl and enjoy the view – the backdrop is truly amazing. St. Wolfgang is perched at the foot of Schafberg, the “mountain of sheep”, which, with its distinctive sharp peak, makes for easy recognition. Growing up in the area, I learned that the true sign of a local is that s/he will be able to point out the names, altitudes, and shapes of any of the surrounding mountains without hesitation – Schafberg makes the whole endeavor a little easier.
You can hike up the mountain in around four hours, or you could take the old rack railway up all the way to the top. If you are not a hiker, this is one of the best places to get a good view from the heart of the Salzkammergut. And if you are a hiker, don’t be put off by the many people at the summit – the way up is completely worth it. Another popular option is to take the ropeway from the St. Gilgen, on the other end of the lake, up the Zwolferhorn peak.
4) The breeze of roses, classical music, and the mountain range of hell around Lake Atter
Attersee, or Lake Atter, is the biggest lake that is entirely in Austria – the only two that are even bigger, Lake Constance and Lake Neusiedl, go across the borders into Germany/Switzerland and Hungary, respectively. Attersee is extremely popular with water sport enthusiasts, especially sailors. It is known for its “Rosenwind” – the breeze of roses, which is a wind from the East that crosses a castle’s rose garden and brings with it a delicious smell that you can experience all around the lake. Despite sailing, Attersee is also a good spot to try some diving, or even get your certificate.
Each August, the Attersee Klassik Festival turns the lake and the surrounding hills into the playground for musicians and artists alike. The main focus of the festival is on classical music – listening to works of famous Austrian composers in beautiful countryside locations, such as old barns and stables, is one of the best cultural experiences you can get in the area.
It is hard not to find a good mountain experience in the Salzkammergut, so of course, lake Atter has some of its own. One of the best is the two-day crossing of the Hollengebirge, or the mountain range of hell. You can spend the night in one of the two alpine huts in the mountains for a small amount of money, which is usually where you get the best taste of Austrian dishes.
5) The guardian of the Salzkammergut, nights of fairytales, and well-hidden lakes around Traunsee
Traunsee, yet another lake, is known for its spectacular clearness – and maybe also for its cold temperatures. Jumping in the dark black waters is sure to be a refreshment any time of year. Go to check out the famous pottery in the North-side town Gmunden, or stroll around the little Traunkirchen. From any point around the lake, you can see the Traunstein, a mountain that is often called the guardian of the Salkammergut – if you are feeling adventurous, take a day to climb the steep rock. Two huts and breathtaking views wait from the top for those who dare to do the trip.
Each year in August, the entire lake turns magical with the annual night of fairytales. Join any of the many boats going out to the lake at night to marvel at the lampions and candles that the locals are putting in their windows and on the shorelines. The night is concluded by a grand display of fireworks, carefully orchestrated to go around the entire lake, with the boats usually trailing along to get the best views in each stop.
If you have a few more days to spend, head up to the surrounding mountains and search for the many hidden lakes. The easiest to reach are the Langbathseen or the Laudachsee, but the Offensee or the Almsee are beautiful as well.
6) The emperor’s mansion, famous pastries, and spa time in Bad Ischl
Remember that empress that the whole of Austria is so obsessed with, Sissi? Well, her husband Emperor Franz Joseph I and her had a summer mansion in Bad Ischl, which is why the town continues up to this day to call itself “imperial”. It really is majestic, though – walk through the huge gardens of the mansions, enjoy the view over the small spa town, and you might get lucky and meet the empress herself (okay, I admit, an impersonator, but let’s dream a bit, shall we?). After your visit to the royal dwellings, stop by Cafe Zauner to enjoy their famous Zaunerkipferl – a croissant rolled in a lot of nuts. The pastry chef who founded the popular confectionary was brought in to town specifically to cater to the empress, who was known to have a sweet tooth.
Bad Ischl is also known for its spas – at the end of the day, relax in the warm waters, get a massage, or sweat off the stress of real life in one of the many saunas.
(Not enough mountain love in this section? Don’t worry – if you are looking for a good hike, start early and head up mount Katrin. There is a cable car service as well. On the top, follow the “Route of the 7 lakes” for views of, well, seven lakes).
7) Peaceful lakes, spas, and Conchita Wurst in the Styrian Salzkammergut
You can’t really call the Styrian part of the Salzkammergut off the beaten track, but still, there are somewhat fewer tourists around than in the more Northern regions. If you’re looking for a little peace and quiet, check out the small lake Grundlsee, perfect for an enjoyable, easy walk around the shores. Unwind in the excellent spas of the region, like in Bad Mitterndorf – which, by the way, just happens to be the birthplace of Austrian Eurovision Song Contest Winner of 2014, Conchita Wurst.
If you want to escape a little bit further into the woods, take the short trip to the Salza reservoir a few kilometers South from bad Mitterndorf. During the summer months, you can rent little boats and paddle around the waters.
8) The town the whole world wants to photograph, salt mines, and cave exploring around Lake Hallstatt
If you search for Austria on Instagram, chances are that you’ll see at least twenty pictures of Hallstatt in the first minute of scrolling through your feed – the small town at the shores of lake Hallstatt is too picturesque not to photograph. In fact, the town is considered so pretty that there is an exact replica with the same name in China. It was built in 2011 after Chinese tourists had taken such a liking to the original place that there absolutely had to be one just like it across the world.
While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the nearby salt mines, hidden in the Salt Mountain (Salzberg) that towers over the small town. Salt used to be a big deal here – not only is the whole region named after it (“Salz” means salt in German), but the next biggest city, Salzburg, literally means fortress of Salt. The precious commodity was mined in an underground salt lake in Salt Mountain and then brought downstream to the bigger towns.
If you can’t get enough of creepy caves, take the short trip from Hallstatt to the Dachstein Ice Caves. They are located very close to Obertraun, another town on the shores of lake Hallstatt, and reachable by cable car.
Oh, and didn’t I promise you catchy tunes and traditional dress? Just go to any of the weekend markets in the small towns of the Salzkammergut and look around: women will wear colorful Dirndl (dresses with aprons and white blouses, think: Oktoberfest), men will come in their Lederhosen, and if you’re lucky, a traditional concert band will walk through town, blowing their horns. The hills are aliiiiiiive with the soouuuund of muuuuuusic!
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