The Pearl of Austria - Lake Hallstatt
From the first time I saw an image of Lake Hallstatt I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I could feel the almost eerie calm of the deep dark water and when I closed my eyes I could envision myself there floating in the middle of the lake on a boat in the windless quiet. A place where fairy tales are born... a prince riding along the river’s edge in search of his lost princess. At least that is what my mind conjured up as I dreamed about this place. There is something magical in the images of Lake Hallstatt that captured my soul and this is how it got on our list of places to visit in Europe.
Hallstatt was the site of an early Iron Age culture from 800 to 400 BC, which is known as the Hallstatt Era. Hallstatt is considered to be the oldest still-inhabited village in Europe. In addition to its ancient history, Hallstatt is wedged between sheer mountains and Hallstatter See and is self labeled as the “Pearl of Austria”.
The village of Hallstatt itself is very touristy with shops and restaurants that attract tour buses each day during the season. Obertraun, the village across the lake is less touristy and a weekend destination for those living in cities like Munich or Vienna. It’s homes adorned with flowers in the window boxes and neatly stacked piles of wood ready to burn sitting next to most of the village homes. A small number of local restaurants with hearty Austrian food and your favorite mass of beer. There are only a few ways in by road and there is also train service from Vienna or Salzburg. The train station is on the eastern side of the lake which requires train arriving passengers to take a ferry across to the village of Hallstatt.
There are numerous things to do in the area. We rented a cabin in Obertraun for our stay which was both modern and rustic with all of the amenities that we needed and views of the mountains that we will never forget.
If you have never been to Lake Hallstatt & either you are planning a trip there, or you just want to know more about it, here are some good sources of information;
How to drive to Lake Hallstatt from Vienna International Airport
It is worth nothing that the route we took was not only very scenic, but that it was faster than attempting to drive "around" the lake to reach the western side first. Our goal was Obertraun where our cabin rental was located, which means that we wanted to arrive on the eastern side of the lake.
Once we picked up the rental car and exited the airport, we drove west on the Austrian A-4 autobahn to the S-6 where we headed south to the A-9. This took us northwest & just west of Stainach we exited onto the Austrian route 145 (Salzkammergut Strasse). At Esselbach, we exited onto the westbound Koppenstrasse which brought us into Obertraun. The Koppenstrasse rolls through some incredible mountains & forests, and sometimes had the appearance of a bicycle path!
Driving in Austria: Drivers are disciplined and even though the autobahn (Bundesstraßen) speeds are faster than here in the USA, drivers are very cautious about lane changes and passing. As in Germany, the autobahn left lane is for passing only and not for cruising! The maximum speed limit in Austria is 130 kilometers per hour (not quite 81 miles per hour) and adherence to that speed limit is enforced.
Since 1997, the use of all Autobahnen and Schnellstraßen requires the purchase of a vignette (toll sticker) for passenger cars up to 3.5 tonnes or a GO-Box (electronic toll system) for trucks and buses. Your rental car company may, or may not, have already equipped your rental car with a vignette. Be sure to inquire, or you will possibly be ticketed. Note further that "speed cameras" are to be found in various locations throughout Austria.
It is still important to have a mapping system (we used our cell phone) but be prepared with a paper map backup if you find yourself out of cell tower range. Because the area we were headed to is mountainous, we knew that cell phone coverage could become erratic in various locations.
Lake Hallstatt village is like a living postcard, pretty from just about every possible angle. This was the farthest north spot we walked to in the village, and we noticed this "lookout point" where we could look back along the lakeside at the village. You have no doubt seen this view if you have ever seen any Lake Hallstatt images, which was another reason we felt we had to get this picture!
Cabin rental exterior view: nice sized, quiet and comfortable. We made really good use of that great patio area! Cold beers and an awesome view of the mountains.
Cabin rental interior view: it had everything we needed to make our stay comfortable; small kitchen but fully equipped, small washing machine, dishwasher and even a small TV.
The Obertraun area is super quiet; the cabin was surrounded by small farms and guest houses and there was just no noise to be heard. An occasional train would come by, but the trains there are all electric, so all you heard was the clacking of the train wheels.
Please bear in mind that even though I have titled this section as "Lake Hallstatt", we were actually staying across the lake in Obertraun. Less crowded, less expensive, has it's own beach, and it has some very nice bicycle trails that you can use to pedal around the lake. As you can see in the image to the left, we had rented a cabin very similar to our own cabin in Lake Anna. The view from the deck in back of this cabin was stunning, you can see the cable car system that goes all the way up to the Five Fingers Mountain.
This is the view from the cabin we rented in Obertraun. Five Fingers is the mountain to the right, and the Dachstein Krippenstein cable car is in the center of this image.
Obertraun Bicycle Trail: It was hot that morning, and because there were so many steep hills, we stopped for a drink of water. The bicycle route going north from Obertraun is a really nice trail, with it's own bridges. This trail is also known as "Eastern Shore Cycle Path" and is just one section of the Salzkammergut Cycle Way which passes through this "Land with 76 Lakes", and covers a total of 184 kilometers.
Most of the bicycle trail went through heavily forested areas like this, occasionally the trail would parallel the lake and we frequently had great views of the lake and the village.
Evangelische Pfarrkirche (Church) in the village, and the Heritage Cafe & bar on the right side. Doesn't this village look like something that Disney would have created?
Dachstein Giant Ice Cave
Our visit to the Dachstein Giant Ice Cave required a drive from Obertraun to their parking lot, where we jumped onboard the cable car. This brings you to the mid-point station where you get off the cable car and follow the sign up the mountain side to the ice cave entrance.
The proper Austrian name for the ice cave is "Dachstein Riesen-Eishöhle" and the cable car is "Dachstein Krippensteinbahn 1". The "one" designates the cable car from the parking lot to the ice caves and of course "2" designates the cable car from the ice cave area to the top of Five Fingers.
Ascent to the Ice Cave entrance: The cable car from valley floor up to the Ice Cave area was quick & simple, but the walk up to the ice cave entrance was very steep! Here I was admiring the fact that they had thoughtfully provided places for one to stop and catch their breath!
Dachstein Giant Ice Cave entrance: See how everyone is dressed? It is seriously cold inside, yet outside it is hot & muggy, so the cold felt very good. When I said "seriously cold inside" I meant every word, everything inside is frozen solid ice and the temperature descends quickly the farther you go into the cave.
This picture demonstrates how cold it is inside the cave, everywhere you look is solid ice and the temperature was near 30 degrees farenheit.
As our tour group descended deeper & deeper into the ice cave, it felt like we had somehow gone to the North Pole - ice covered every square inch!
End of Ice Cave Tour: I'm not sure whether we are all admiring the beautiful view of the lake, or perhaps we are all just thawing out after being inside the ice cave? In either event, the view was stunning and everybody stopped for a few minutes to remove their heavier clothing because it was much warmer outside!
Five Fingers Cable Car : The mid-point station is where the Dachstein Giant Ice Cave is located, this is the final cable car up to the top. Not everyone went to the top as some families were only interested in the ice cave. We felt we had to partake of the entire experience, as we might never get back here!
Five Fingers is southeast of Lake Hallstatt, so the village is actually around the corner of that mountain in the left center of this image. We are walking along the path to the observation platform and continuing to be amazed at the views in the areas below.
Once you reach the top of Five Fingers and exit the cable car, the observation platform is approximately a 1.5 kilometer walk. Along the way, the views of the lake and the valley below are amazing. As you can see in this picture, the cable car continues onward (Dachstein Krippensteinbahn 3) to a ski area named Gjaid Alm.
Five Fingers Observation Platform: Even though the hike to reach this platform was decidedly a steep downhill hike, getting here provides you with a stunning view of the valley & lake below. It is probably best to not stand on these platforms if you have a problem with heights!
We had just arrived at the Five Fingers Observation platform and we saw a parasailor flying by!
This is the Five Fingers cable car on it's way to the top, we have just departed the Ice Caves station.
That station we are coming up on in this video, is the Ice Cave mid-point cable car station. We were descending back down to the valley below.
Like we said previously, the entire village is like a living postcard. This is a typical Austrian home, with numerous flowers in window flower beds. Note that the first floor is a set of shops, the floors above are where the shop owners live.
This is the Gasthof Hollwirt in Obertraun, Austria. It is a family owned & operated restaurant, with outdoor seating and with a menu that is incredible. Their beer selection was quite good, included Weiss Bier, and the service we received was top-notch. We had some of our favourite German dishes there, and wound up eating several dinners as the food was excellent!
This is their outside seating area, which on a nice day was an excellent place to enjoy a cold beer! In fact on nice days at meal times, it is going to get crowded because this is a popular place to eat & drink.
If you are ever in this part of Austria, do yourself a favor and try to have a meal here and you will be glad you did.
This is the Seecafé Obertraun am Hallstätter See, right on the Obertraun Beach with a stunning view of the Lake and Hallstatt village on the western side of the lake. We spent some time on the Obertraun Beach, for example, after our bike ride we came back to the beach to soak away our tired leg muscles (the Lake is incredibly cold for a Floridian!). At approximately 40 degrees farenheit the lake water was quite a bit better than caffeine!
You cannot see it in this picture, but the bicycle trail we followed to get to the Obertraun Bicycle Trail is behind the Seecafé.
Warning: Due to its proximity to Obertraun Beach & because there are very few places to eat or get a snack nearby, this restaurant can get seriously crowded when the weather is nice!
The neighbors near our rental cabin have made keen preparations for winter and it is no doubt a safe bet that they are ready for the cold! This kind of "winter preparedness" was to be seen throughout the area, as the permanent residents made sure they had a good supply of firewood for the next winter.
A set of great views of Lake Hallstatt village from the Obertraun side of the lake. In image #1 you can see the funicular track marching up the hill to the salt mine on the left center of the picture. We took this picture while at the Obertraun Beach.
Image #2 was taken during our bicycle ride on the Obertraun trail going north along the lake. Since the bicycle trail was parallel to the lake for a few miles, the views of the Lake Hallstatt village were constant!