Why is this Bronze Age town so popular today?
Hallstatt is a fairytale Austrian village—and tourists have noticed.
Set foot in the village of Hallstatt and it seems a musical number might erupt at any moment.
Bright reds and yellows paint the Austrian town’s 16th-century architecture; in spring and summer, flower boxes drape windows in geraniums and ivy; and cobblestone streets connect charming cafés, ornate churches, and Alpine inns. Natural wonders await around every corner—from the neighboring Salzkammergut mountains to Lake Hallstatt to the village’s very own waterfall.
Despite being accessible only on foot, the tiny town saw a million visitors in 2018, reports the Washington Post—a staggering 347 times more tourists per capita than Hong Kong, one of the world’s most visited cities. Visit in October to avoid the summer crowds while still making the most of temperate weather on this perfect weekend itinerary.
Explore one of the world’s oldest salt mines
Salzwelten, Hallstatt’s UNESCO-recognized salt mines, date to prehistoric times, possibly even to 4000 B.C. Formed by the evaporation of sea water more than 250 million years ago, the mountain’s plentiful salt deposits led to the wealth that initially put this tiny town on the map. Visitors can take a guided tour of the mine, accessible by cable car. Once you arrive, you’ll explore the way a traditional miner would—donning a jumpsuit and using wooden slides to access different levels.
While you’re there, perched a thousand feet above Hallstatt, it may be tempting to pay extra to take in the scenery from Hallstatt Skywalk. But if you’re going to spend money on a view, save it for the nearby Five Fingers Viewing Platform, where you can access panoramic vistas of the entire region.
Feast on local Austrian cuisine
Start your morning off with breakfast pastries at one of Hallstatt’s many traditional cafes, such as lakefront Seecafe Frundsberg. For lunch on the go, Maik’s Heisse Hutte puts everything from schnitzel to sausage inside a bun for easy portability. For a more leisurely lunch, sit outside at Restaurant am See and treat yourself to a variety of Austrian beers and lagers. Need a coffee break? Try centrally located Café Derbl, which offers a variety of homemade pastries.
The dinner menu at Gasthof Zauner will make a seafood lover’s heart flutter, featuring fish caught fresh from Lake Hallstatt. If wine is your thing, Restaurant zum Salzbaron, located in the Seehotel Grüner Baum, pairs some of Austria’s finest sips with a lakeside view.
Tour Lake Hallstatt by boat
There are no bad views of this idyllic mountain town—but some of the best views are from the water. Hallstatt’s boat rentals include pedal boats, row boats, and electric options, though motorboats are prohibited to preserve the lake’s serenity. Take a trip out on one of Hallstatt’s signature swan-shaped pedal boats, and you’re sure to make some new friends from shore.
Visit a tiny bone house
Stepping into an enclosure filled with more than 600 painted skulls is a dramatic departure from the town’s fairytale charm—but the Hallstatt Charnel House has an intriguing story of its own. Lack of space in the town’s small, overcrowded graveyard posed an issue for early-17th-century residents wanting to pay proper respect to the dead. Villagers began to dig up loved ones’ bones to clean, sun-bleach, and paint them.
The skulls’ floral motifs each have their own meaning: Oak leaves symbolize glory, laurels victory, ivy life, roses love, and so on. Though cremation has since solved the burial space issue, Hallstatt townspeople can choose to send their remains to the charnel house. The last resident to do so was added in 1995 and can be identified by her gold tooth.
Pay homage to historic churches
It’s easiest to take a cable car to get to this dreamlike mountaintop clutch of medieval landmarks often lost in the bank of clouds known locally as the kiss of Venus. Originating as a pagan place of worship, the village stays true to its Sicilian artisan traditions, with goods such as hand-painted ceramics and handwoven rugs sold in its network of workshops.
Religious beliefs shaped the town of Hallstatt. It’s hard to imagine the townscape without the Church of Christ tower, but this Evangelical church wasn’t established until the 18th century, when freedom to exercise religion was granted to Protestant residents. Take in the sight both from afar and up close.
At the top of the town sits the Catholic Church of Hallstatt. This ornate Gothic altar was designed by famed Austrian artist Lienhart Astl in the early 1500s. The church’s artwork is so valuable that a tourist couple once smuggled a painting home in the late 1980s. After decades of investigation, the artwork was finally retrieved and reinstated in the summer of 2018.
Take a hike
The town itself is a thing to marvel at, but you’d be remiss not to explore its surrounding natural beauty. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just seeking easy access to incredible views, you’re sure to find the trail to suit your taste among the town’s 93 options.
For a moderate hike with many rewards, set out on the 4.5-mile Echern Theme Trail through Echerntal Valley, which weaves through scenic spots once popular with Austrian painters working en plein air. Waterfalls and Gletscheröfen (natural pools created by glaciers) are also found along this route.
Shop for traditional wares
For excellent souvenirs, visit the artisan shops situated along the town’s market square. Watch woodworkers craft traditional toys and keepsakes. Sip expertly distilled schnapps in a variety of regional flavors. Bring back the distinct taste of Austrian salt, sourced from Hallstatt’s own salt mines. Whatever you choose to take home with you, Hallstatt’s shop owners will treat you with sincere enthusiasm.
Reach Hallstatt with a two-hour drive from Graz or an hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Salzburg. Though driving affords you the freedom to pull off to explore neighboring towns, mountains, and waterfalls, the village of Hallstatt is accessible only via foot, so you’ll need to use one of the nearby parking facilities. Train and bus options from both cities will also get you there, though direct routes are limited.
Where to stay
Everything in Hallstatt has authentic, old-world charm and the accommodations are no exception. Standout stays include a night at Gasthof Simony, located in the village market square. In operation since 1882, the building still maintains much of its original infrastructure, and a traditional Austrian breakfast is included.
For those seeking more privacy, the secluded suites at Hallstatt Hideaway offer private beach access and incredible lake views. If your travel budget affords it, the lavish lakeside accommodations at Heritage Hotel Hallstatt will make you feel like Austrian royalty.
- Nat Geo Expeditions