Yesterday, I enjoyed another daytrip – this time, to Hallstatt, a small alpine town in the Salzkammergut – Austria’s Lake District. Traun is the primary river in this area of Upper Austria. The region stretches across the Austrian Alps on the border of Styria and Salzburg. It’s one of the most remote places in Austria, 150 miles from Vienna.
It was a congenial tour group, mostly European, and we had a great guide who educated us with clear, detailed narrative. We made up for our sedentary driving time by walking around Halstatt. The trip began at 7:00 a.m., and we returned to Vienna at about 8:30 p.m. It was a long but interesting day.
A small country of about nine million people, Austria is forty percent forest. Not surprisingly, pristine scenery in the Austrian Alps is jaw-dropping spectacular. It’s one of the “most scenic regions in the country”. The Lake District has over seventy lakes, and the city of Hallstatt (population about 800) is positioned between the southwestern shore of Lake Hallstatt and the slopes of the Dachstein massif”. Tons of fish are caught in the lake every year. It’s the fifth largest lake in the Salzkammergut. Mt. Gamsfeld, the highest mountain in the range, had fresh snow on its summit.
In the winter, Hallstatt is extremely cold, and because it’s surrounded by steep mountains on both sides, there’s very little sunshine. The region is known for its mountain biking and hiking trails, fly fishing in the summer, and skiing and snowshoeing during winter. Trails pass waterfalls with incredible mountain and lake backgrounds. The weather was cool and rainy, with a few bursts of sunshine. I was glad for my woolie long johns and warm clothing. We fancied a 30-minute boat ride to admire the landscape from a lake perspective.
The Austrian Alps formed about 80 million years ago. Before that, Hallstatt was a shallow ocean bed with salt shields. Hallstatt salt mines “are the oldest on Earth”. Archeologists found artifacts from the mines “dating back over 7,000 years to the Neolithic period”.
I took the funicular to Rudolfsturm (Rudolf’s Tower) and continued along the skywalk via a pine forest path. The medieval defense tower dates back to the late 13th century. It was built by Duke Albert I of Austria to protect salt mines and buildings from invaders. Until 1954, the tower was a residence for mining managers. It was later renovated and converted to a restaurant. The sweeping panoramic views from the top are dynamite! I passed on a salt mine tour, as there wasn’t sufficient time.
My photographs don’t do Hallstatt justice. The “iconic photos” appearing on social media are taken from a specific vantage point north of town. In this location, light exposure is the best for getting a quality photograph. Since I hiked, there wasn’t enough time to experience that. Although the number of Hallstatt tourists is now limited, it was still hectic, with people wandering around taking selfies – the hike was a better use of time.
Despite its incredible beauty, Hallstatt is best known for salt production. It has the world’s oldest working salt mine, dating back to prehistoric times and comprising twenty-one levels and several smaller shafts. Culture in the area is “linked to Celtic people of the Early Iron Age in Europe, c. 800–450 BC”.
“Hallstatt, at the core of the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut Cultural Landscape, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.”
Salt mining has been a major source of income for the wealthy since the Neolithic period from the 8th to 5th centuries BC. The salt mines were exploited by Babenberg and Hapsburg Dukes, archbishops, and others. There was even a “Salt War” with the Habsburgs fighting bitterly against the Salzburg Archbishop between 1291 – 1297. Today, annual salt production in the area is an incredible 1.2 million tons!
“Every year, four-million cubic meters of brine are extracted at the Altaussee, Hallstatt, and Bad Ischl salt mines, and processed to produce an impressive 1.2 million tons of salt.”
Today, salt production and tourism are the major factors affecting Hallstatt’s economy. In 1595, the laborious transport of salt from lakes to rivers to land was improved with the genius creation of a 25-mile wooden “brine pipeline”. Known as a “technical masterpiece,” the 400-year-old pipeline still exists and is the oldest pipeline in the world.
Archeological finds at Hallstatt extend from 1200 BC until around 500 BC. Some of the oldest finds, such as a shoe-last celt, date back to around 5500 BC. The first humans settled in the area 12,000 years ago, Large prehistoric cemeteries and thousands of burials have been discovered. “Grave goods” found – jewelry, gold, and bronze – suggest a “life well above subsistence level”. There’s a wealth of detailed information available about Hallstatt on the Internet. Originally a part of Bavaria, at one point in its medieval history, the area became the Duchy of Austria (1156–1246), an “independent dominion” of the Holy Roman Empire.
Halstatt tourism began in the 19th century but increased significantly after it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Our guide said during his childhood, his family went to the lake district for holiday almost every year, but they never actually visited the town of Hallstatt – it’s almost hidden.
“Social media images of Hallstatt captioned ‘the most Instagrammable town in the world,’ went viral in Southeast Asia. In 2011, a replica was planned and then built in Huizhou China, Hallstatt’s twin town.”
Hallstatt became a “prime example of over tourism in Austria and led to controversies around limiting the number of tourists”. The Austrian Public Broadcasting Organization created several documentaries about the situation. Consequently, beginning in 2020, Halstatt began focusing on “quality” tourism, limiting the number of tourists. I don’t think Hallstatt is where most people would want to spend a winter. Although I’m glad to have visited the beautiful place, an extended stay wouldn’t be appealing, unless you planned hiking, mountain biking, or skiing in the remote areas. Hiking “themed trails” in Hallstatt sounds interesting. Be aware that prices for everything in Hallstatt are very high.
It was another satisfying day of exploring and learning about Austria. I’ll be spending the rest of my time here enjoying Vienna proper. I’m looking forward to a Mozart concert tomorrow night at Golden Hall (Große Musikvereinssaal), the home of the Vienna Philharmonic and considered a “crown jewel among European concert halls“!