Highlights of Austria
Almost any route you choose to take will be beautiful. It’s one of those countries where you can’t go wrong. Having driven the length and breadth of Austria many times I have planned for you one of my favorite itineraries that will take to one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Europe, to spectacular lakes and to majestic mountains.
Allow for at least three to four days for this trip. You can easily stay longer.
Almost every town and village that you pass along the way will have ski lifts that will take you up the mountain where you can either ski, or watch others doing it while you sip hot chocolate.
In summer you can follow marked trails on top of mountain and finish your walk in a country-style restaurant where you can eat a delicious Austrian meal with views to the valley below. It doesn’t get much better than that. One of the fun things to do in Austria is to purchase walking sticks and take to the trails to enjoy nature up close. When you see the elderly Austrians marching right past you, it inspires you to get into better shape. All the hotels in the Austrian countryside are clean and pleasant without exceptions.
Wedged by the Salzach River on one side and hemmed in on the other by the Monchberg Mountain that rises steeply from the city, Salzburg is a living, baroque style museum so charming that you can meander in it for hours with total delight enjoying the narrow streets, elegant squares, arcaded courtyards and enticing shops with whimsical wrought-iron signs.
The name Salzburg is derived from the word for salt and it is the mining of salt in prior centuries that was responsible for the city’s great wealth and ambitious building programs initiated by the city’s powerful bishops.
Salzburg is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and to this day the city moves to the slow pace of classical music.
Most places are within walking distance and we begin our tour in the main Cathedral, an impressive structure built in the years 1614- 1655 in the late Renaissance style, modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. It has over 4,000 pipes in its organ. The Cathedral’s 36 bells play Mozart tunes at 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
While in Salzburg be sure not to miss the Residenz, an opulent palace once home to the wealthy bishops of Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, now a museum, Getreidegasses, the beautiful shopping street and the Mirabell Gardens .
The Salzburg Music festival in late summer is a good time to be here if you love classical music and don’t mind that the city is crowded and hotels more expensive. If you are staying in the city for a few days there are several excellent day trips to the Dachstein mountains, to ancient salt mines and even a daily tour called The Sound of Music that visits the landmarks in and around the city where the movie was filmed.
A Trip to the Countryside
Just up the road there is an outdoor museum, the Mondseer Rauchhaus, where you can see the long-vanished daily lives of Austrian farmers. A good coffee shop for a well deserved mélange coffee and apple strudel is Cafe Frauenschun in the Marktplatz square.
Don’t linger too long because there are even more beautiful places waiting for you up ahead. Next stop—Gmunden, a town that has not yet been commercialized for tourists. Walk along the lake on the 2 kilometer-long Esplanade with its sculptures, water fountains, flower beds and benches where you can sit and watch the swans swim a ballet in the lake. You can circle the lake on a cruise aboard a wonderful old-fashioned ferry.
Be sure to visit the Schloss Ort, a tiny castle on a miniature island in the lake where you can wander around the pretty courtyard surrounded by arcaded balconies and also visit the small chapel.
Hallstatt—So Tiny, So Beautiful
Pretty villages in this part of Austria are a dime a dozen, but this village of about 1,200 residents is so special that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site.
The main square is at lake level, but the rest of the town, with its quaint houses that date from the 17th century, climbs the hill with narrow, cobbled streets that are the width of an alley. The flower boxes that adorn the windows are packed with huge Geraniums. Here too you can take a ferry boat trip to get a wide angle view of the village.
Be sure to visit the Roman Catholic Church, reached by a winding staircase from the center of town.
Over the centuries the village’s residents have found a unique, if somewhat macabre solution to the scarcity of burial plots. Ten years after burial they remove the person’s remains to make room for new clients and place the skulls one on top of the other in the charnel house. Some of the skulls are decorated and the deceased’s name and relevant dates inscribed on the skull. For practical reasons they don’t put headstones on the graves so the village’s residents plant flowers instead turning the cemetery into a flower garden. (A good thing they don’t grow tomatoes on top of good-old Uncle Johan.)
A wonderful hotel is the Gasthof Zauner. If you can’t get a room for the night, at least make sure to come here for a delicious dinner. With all the beauty that surrounds you from all sides in Austria it is easy to forget the country’s recent malevolent past. On one of the walls at the Zauner they display old black and white photos and documents, including one that shows that the charming square where the hotel is located was once called Adolph Hitler Platz.
A must side trip from Hallstatt is a visit to the ice caves among the largest of their kind, where you take a guided tour. Although at first it seems to be like just another cave, very soon the trail digs deeper into the earth and you enter a magical kingdom where delicate ice sculptures rise from layers of ice up to 25 meters thick. I enjoyed it even though I suffer from claustrophobia.
From Hallstatt out next destination is the breathtakingly beautiful and romantic lake district, known as the Salzkammergut. Here you can find such gems as St. Gilgen, St. Wolfgang and Bad Isch all beautiful resort towns on Lake Wolfgangsee, one of Austria’s most beautiful lakes, 12.5 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide.
You can’t go wrong with any of the towns, they are all appealing with stunning views of the lake. My favorite is St. Wolfgang, the pearl of the towns that hug the lake. It looks like the setting for an operetta, which in fact, it was. If you can afford it, treat yourself to a stay at the Weisses Roessle Hotel, immortalized in Benatzky’s operetta The White Horse Inn.
Even though St. Wolfgang draws tourist in droves, it is still so charming that it is a must on the tour.
Take a ferry ride along the lake on the Kaiser Franz Joseph that has been plying the waters since 1873.
From the area of the lakes you can drive to Vienna or make your way north to Linz, and then back to Vienna.
This itinerary has taken you to places you will never forget and to which you will most definitely want to return.