Travel in Austria: Five Coolest Places Not Called "Vienna"
When I'd originally proposed my grant project for the Fulbright-Botstiber Fellowship, I'd envisioned travel around Europe--day trips to Italy, Germany, Czech Republic--corona, as with so many things, changed all that. I'd made my peace that my time in Austria would be solely about Vienna but miraculously this spring things turned a corner I found myself able to travel around Austria.
Now looking down the barrel of leaving in 4 days (!) it is worth rounding up some of my favorite spots in the country. Now that I've been able to travel, I'd much more aware of all the places I still haven't seen, but happy for the places I have. Aside from Vienna, here are my top 5 for Austria:
The Mirabell Gardens and the Hohensalzburg Fortress were particularly highlights for me on this trip. The kids and I did our first salt mine tour here as well. The city has really taken advantage of its two claims to fame: Mozart and the Sound of Music. Statues of Mozart and tourists shops in his names dot the city.
The famous Austrian delicacy "Mozart krugels" were developed here and the Salzburg also hosts the expensive "jubilee" release krugels--in silver and blue packaging as opposed to gold and red. I can't taste a difference, but the jubilee release krugels are more expensive.
The Sound of Music--to the shock of every American I've spoken to--is really not popular here, which makes sense when you think about it: it's an American-made movie, starring Americans, playing Austrians, speaking in American English....Yeah. So most of the people I've met here haven't seen the movie which understandably make the Salzburg-Sound of Music media empire a head scratcher for most Austrians.
Graz is a beautiful city, bite-sized and charming. It's a livable city. Highlight here is a giant slide that goes from the top of the Schlossburg to the town square. When I got up to the slide, the young woman running it could obviously tell I'm a thrill seeker because she gave me a piece of advice in crystal-clear English "if you want to go faster, just pick up your butt." It worked! I think I got up to 5 kmh on that slide (they measure your speed).
Very interesting historically here as well given that Graz was central to stopping the Turkish invasion with its impenetrable walls.
Melk is just about an hour outside of Vienna and well-worth the day trip for the experience of seeing one of the worlds oldest monasteries. As is true of many place in Europe, it was a fortress, turned monastery, turned government center (its now predominantly a school). It's a smaller town, littered with hiking trails and history and great cafes.
As my list may indicate, "touristy-ness" doesn't do too much for me so I suspect that under normal circumstances I would have appreciated Hallstatt much less. My understanding is that during most of the year, Hallstatt is, as Austrians have told me, "tourist hell." It's a beautiful little village, frozen in time, that is normally home to a small band of locals and tens of thousands tourists every day. Thankfully, I went during a global pandemic. I found the streets to be mostly empty in the mornings until the mid-to late afternoons really. Even then you always had enough space to walk around, explore and breathe. And you'll need to breathe because scenery takes your breath away.
You can cross the town in about 20 minutes, but the real value is in eating up the mountains and the beautiful lake. My kids went to their second salt mine here. (Side bar: local legend has it that when Hitler was near defeat and trying to "ruin" this part of the world so that it could never be rebuilt, he had secret Nazi treasures hidden somewhere in Hallstatt. People differ on whether the treasure was hidden in the salt mines or dumped into Lake Hallstatt). Our favorite evening was actually spent across the lake in Obertraun: sitting at the playground/waterpark with a bottle of wine and a pizza, watching the kids play in the lake and waiting for the sun to set over the mountains.
Zell am See
We didn't mean to "save the best for last" but it definitely turned out that way. This tops the list for me, simply for the array of fun, outdoor activities. Great scene in the documentary “Band of Brothers” where the narrator notes that at the end of World War II, American troops were reluctant to leave Berchtesgaden, “but that was before they saw Austria.” And the troops are placed in Zell am See where they found peace and solace. Such a great scene and I can understand why they found peace—it would be hard not too.
The best part about Zell am See is probably the amazing skiing in the winter (there are many ski lodges all around the city) but during the summer its all about the lake. Kayaking, paddle boarding--it's hard to beat a lake with drinking quality water. It's a crystal clear, meticulously cared for lake. You'll find solace here too.