I'll admit I was a little nervous as a cycled alongside the lake towards Hallstatt. The lake itself (Hallstatter See) was everything I'd imagined it would be but would the town live up to my lofty expectations? For so long I'd wanted to visit the Austrian town of Hallstatt that I was a little worried that I might have been expecting too much and that it might disappoint. I needn't have been anxious, though, for it was everything I hoped it would be - and more!
Listed in 1997 as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Hallstatt is built precariously on the side of the Dachstein Mountains next to the lake of the same name and its unique location is just one of the many highlights of the town which offers heaps of things to see and do.
We arrived by bike from the south, having disembarked the train at Obertraun and cycled the five kilometres or so along the lakeside path.
These days tourism is the main source of income for Hallstatt and many visitors are only in town for the day with bus loads streaming in each morning and departing en-masse in the afternoon.
Luckily for us (and due to my careful planning and choice of cycling tour!), we were spending two nights here, giving us a good day and a half to explore.
Things to See and Do when visiting Hallstatt, Austria
Most of the day visitors to Hallstatt spend their time shopping (there's plenty of souvenirs on offer) or exploring the town and there is no shortage of things to see and do.
Of the two churches in Hallstatt, the Evangelical Church is probably the most photographed, with its position right on the lake making it a focal point for photographers, but the 16th Century Pfarrkirche (Catholic Church) is worth the steep climb.
With stunning views out over the lake and beautiful frescoes over the porch, the church must be one of the most ideally situated in Austria.
Next door to the Pfarrkirche, the charnel house is a museum with a difference. Due to lack of space in the town's cemetery, the bones of dearly departed locals are periodically removed from their place in the earth and moved to the charnel house to allow the more recently passed to rest in the cemetery. Row upon row of bones and skulls are arranged, many inscribed with names and dates.
It’s a solemn but eerie place to visit.
As you walk around town, you can read the history of Hallstatt on signs that have been erected for this purpose. Audio guides and guided tours of the town are also available if you want to really get to know the history of Halstatt.
Relics found around Hallstatt date back to pre-historic times and it was the salt mines in the area that brought it great wealth around 12,000 years ago! When the Habsburgs settled in the region in the 16th Century, it resulted in a real boom and it wasn't long until the mining capacity of Hallstatt became exhausted.
You can learn more about Hallstatt in the World Cultural Heritage Museum which is open daily from May until September.
Central to Hallstatt is Market Square, surrounded by brightly painted buildings which house shops, restaurants and cafes. It's a popular meeting place and the venue for concerts and cultural evenings during the summer months.
A funicular ride takes visitors above the town to visit the oldest working salt mines in the world. If you're game (I wasn't!), catch the train that takes you two kilometres into the mine through the Christina Tunnel, or take in the spectacular views from the viewing platform that hovers 350 metres above Hallstatt.
The lake - with its picture postcard views – is, naturally, the main attraction. Hiring an electric boat was the perfect way to spend an hour and gave us possibly the best views of the town. (Around €20 for one hour).
Hour-long lake cruises and 30-minute gondola rides (€10) are also available. The more energetic can hire a boat without a motor or swim from one of the number of 'beaches' around the lake.
Also on offer by the lake are numerous cafes and restaurants, all well patronised, and no wonder. With views like that to enjoy, it is easy to linger longer over your meal.
If you've got more time on your hands, the mountains call. The Dachstein Caves, Krippenstein Ice Caves, 5Fingers Viewing Platform and numerous walking trails all make a good day out and are within easy reach of Hallstatt.
After a day and a half exploring Hallstatt, I could rest easy. This much-hyped town which I'd seen so many times in travel brochures did not let me down.
I'm always a sucker for lakes but the uniqueness of Hallstatt's position, wedged between the side of the mountain and the lake, and the charming chalet-style houses, make it a clear winner in the 'prettiness' stakes.
I'm not surprised that the Chinese have built an exact replica of the town in their country - I'm just glad I got to visit the real thing!
How to get to Hallstatt
Hallstatt is about 75 kilometres from Salzburg. With the lake on one side of the village and the mountain on the other, road access into Hallstatt is fairly limited so it's one way traffic only through the town.
Car parking is available for visitors on the edge of town and shuttle buses transfer guests between the car park and hotels. Driving time from Salzburg is around an hour and a quarter.
Alternatively, you can reach Hallstatt by train and boat. The Hallstatt station (on the Bad Ischl line) is on the opposite side of the lake to the town but ferries run regularly between the two (at least one per hour during summer).
The journey time by train from Salzburg is approximately an hour with one change required en-route.
If you'd rather have transport arranged for you, you can take a 6-hour private tour of Halstatt from Salzburg.
Where to Stay in Hallstatt
Hallstatt offers a range of accommodation from camping and apartments to guesthouses and hotels. Our cycling tour included accommodation at a guesthouse about 15 minutes' walk from the centre of town.
If I return to Hallstatt I would opt to stay in the town centre, probably at one of Hallstatt's lakeside hotels as I like to be by the water if I'm staying in a lakeside town. Click here for current prices on Hallstatt hotels.
Where to Eat in Hallstatt
We enjoyed a delicious meal at Seehotel Gruner Baum, right on the lakeside. We'd pre-booked an outside table on the deck next to the lake, but with rain imminent, we were moved inside next to the large windows.
The views were still fantastic, the staff excellent and the meal, superb. I opted for Wiener Schnitzel, my husband had fish freshly caught from the lake and we enjoyed apple strudel for dessert. I would definitely eat at Seehotel Gruner Baum again (they also have accommodation available).
For more casual dining, try Cafe Bachts Polreich which is located on the lake front, close to the main promenade entrance. Tables on the terrace are highly sought after! I can highly recommend the apple strudel and the cappuccino is served with whipped cream (a lovely Austrian touch!).
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