Nestled between the edge of the mystical shores of Hallstätter See and the dramatic Dachstein mountains lies the small village of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage site and perhaps the most postcard picture perfect village in all of Austria. Hallstatt deserves its place among the covers of travel guides and as one of the most photographed villages in all of Austria. It is one of the most stunning villages I have ever seen.
Located in the district of Gmunden in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, Hallstatt and the rugged Dachstein mountains and caves are a popular destination for tourists and nature lovers alike. You can easily spend a couple of days here exploring the beauty and culture of Hallstatt, hiking high above in the Dachstein mountains and visiting the Dachstein caves. The only downside is that Hallstatt can be crowded and touristy so you have to plan your timing right. Summer is obviously high season yet sometimes the weather can keep the crowds away.
On our first morning in The Salzkammergut, we rose to yet another unfortunate day of rain. Disappointed that we still had not fully seen our supposedly beautiful surroundings at our farmstay near Lake Traunsee, we decided to make the best of the day and plan something indoors. We had wanted to go hiking but not in the rain as we would not have any views. So instead, we decided to drive to Hallstatt and visit the nearby Dachstein Ice Caves later in the afternoon. What we didn’t realize is the it ended up being a blessing in disguise that it was raining because it kept the tourists away and afforded rather magical views of Hallstatt and Hallstätter See.
We set off after breakfast, heading south on B145 for the hour drive from Altmünster to Hallstatt. Cold rain fell against the windshield and heavy clouds blanketed the sky. We hoped that this would be the last of the rain for a while as we were desperately wanting to get up in the mountains and hike. We didn’t come all the way to Austria to be stuck inside!
As we neared Hallstätter See, we were spellbound by the extraordinary view of the clouds hovering over the lake. We pulled over in the tiny town of Steeg where I captured my first few shots of the lake and surrounding area. I was in awe of its beauty.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The scenery was so surreal. I felt like we were in Ireland, not Austria. Without the rainy day which was unusual for early July, the view would have been completely different. I realized how grateful I was for the poor weather as it provided some lovely reflections and mystery in the setting. Obviously if it was rainy every day we were in The Salzkammergut I would have been very disappointed because we never would have seen the snow-capped mountains juxtaposed against the aquamarine lakes and sky.
Hallstatt’s history dates back thousands of years to the days of the Early Iron Age civilization and the Celtics from 800-450 BC and derives its prosperity and name (“place of salt”) due to its production and wealth of salt. Settlers to Hallstatt mined salt for centuries, and visitors today can explore some of Hallstatt’s oldest mines such as the Salzwelten located high above Hallstatt on Salzberg (Salt Mountain) and visit a nearby Iron Age burial ground.
Most visitors like us prefer to visit Hallstatt on foot and if you time your arrival right or the weather, you may be in luck and miss the hordes of tourists who arrive by bus and make your visit a bit unbearable given Hallstatt’s small size and narrow streets. You can also take a boat ride on Hallstätter See which until the late 19th century was one of the only ways to reach the town other than by foot trail. We gratefully found a parking spot after passing town and had a short walk over.
As we headed into the center of town, the clouds became thicker and heavy with rain. I had desperately wished to have the same light we did earlier in the morning before we arrived in Hallstatt but that was not in the cards for the day. Instead, the clouds were going to stay put and wouldn’t lift until the next day. The good news is that Hallstatt’s gloriously colorful buildings and charm could easily lift the darkness of a gloomy day. Hallstatt was just as picturesque as promised and we thoroughly enjoyed strolling through the Old Town and Central Square Marktplatz stopping at the town’s many shops.
Besides salt, Hallstatt is also home to many delightful restaurants and local treasures such as its sweets. My daughter Sophia couldn’t resist indulging in a puffed pastry with homemade whipped cream. I opted for the handprinted jar of salt to bring home as a souvenir.
When we arrived at the edge of town, I realized that I hadn’t yet seen that famousHallstatt view, the one on the cover of my Austria Lonely Planet and on all the postcards and photos. I asked a food vendor where to go and he pointed to a narrow street that continued slightly uphill out of town and said that is where I’ll find my postcard shot. So far I’d been very impressed and delighted by what I saw of Hallstatt but something was missing. That one shot.
Grateful for his advice, we continued on the narrow road and just as I was beginning to wonder where it was, it was there. If I hadn’t asked, I never would have found it and would have left Hallstatt thinking I’d truly seen it. Surprisingly not many other people had found the spot as it is on the opposite end of town from the tourist center and parking lot and in the more secluded residential part of town. There was only one other person there snapping away when we arrived. The view was astounding.
Once again, I counted my blessings that it had been a rainy day. The dramatic reflections of the pastel-colored buildings upon the gray-green water and the lack of crowds meant all the difference in our experience in Hallstatt. Hiking could wait. As we headed back towards the end of the lake, I snapped one more majestic picture of this truly magical place. No wonder so many people from all over the world come to see its splendor. There is nothing quite like it.
If you go:
Hallstatt can easily be seen in a day trip from Salzburg or else you can do what we did and spend a few days in a neighboring town. There are some beautiful albeit expensive places to stay in Hallstatt. Make sure to take a few days and visit the Dachstein glacier, mountains and caves.
Salzwelten Salt Mines www.salzwelten.at/en/hallstatt/
Dachstein Caves www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com
Dachstein Sky Walk www.derdachstein.at/en/dachstein-glacier-world/glacier-experience/skywalk
Austrian National Tourist Office www.austria.info/us/where-to-go/regions/lake-region/a-day-in-hallstatt
There is Hallstatt’s postcard perfect view that I wanted to capture!