Explore Austria: Salzburg, Hallstatt and the Dachstein Ice Cave
Stop number nine (of fourteen) on our nine week summer vacation across Europe found us in Salzburg, Austria. In addition to touring the old town of Salzburg, we also ventured out to the lakeside village of Hallstatt, Austria and toured the nearby Dachstein Ice Cave.
Salzburg’s historic center is the classic Europe you see on postcards. Expansive town squares, a castle high up on a hill, palaces, gardens, a river running through the middle of town, and statues and plaques proclaiming the birthplace of famous cultural icons (like Mozart) and scientists (like Doppler). For those fans of 1960’s musicals, you’ll be happy to learn that The Sound of Music was filmed in Salzburg and the surrounding countryside.
A relaxed hour and a half drive through the foothills of the Alps brought us to the village of Hallstatt. We continued driving a few minutes past Hallstatt where we visited the Dachstein Ice Cave (literally a cave filled with ice year round). After the ice cave tour we returned to Hallstatt for a stroll through town where we saw the houses, businesses, and churches climbing the hillside as if they were trying to escape from the murky depths of Lake Hallstatt.
Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far. We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain. After Granada we visited Seville, Spain. From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice. Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves before we headed an hour north to the edge of Slovenia to Podkoren to explore the Soča Valley and river and the Julian Alps. After Podkoren we headed several hours north to the other side of the Alps to Salzburg, Austria where our story picks up today.
Historic Center of Salzburg
We only had two days in Salzburg. One day we devoted to a walking tour of the historic center of town. The Old Town grew up at the foot of the Hohensalzburg Castle. Eventually the borders of the city expanded to the New Town on the far side of the Salzach River where the Mirabell Palace was constructed in 1606.
Like many European cities, Salzburg is best explored on foot. We walked several miles as we meandered through the winding streets and alleyways and crossed through the large pedestrian plazas.
When initially planning our trip, we considered visiting Vienna, the capital of Austria. We realized we had too many destinations and sadly had to trim the itinerary. Vienna didn’t make the cut. Salzburg, though smaller, is a good substitute to the capital city from what we can tell.
A day is plenty to explore the center of town and see the highlights. However, several days would be better if you want to visit the castle, palace, and museums around town. Add on a side trip or two to the surrounding villages, lakes, and mountains and Salzburg could easily serve as a base camp for a week or longer.
Dachstein Ice Cave
The Dachstein Ice Cave was a must-see on our European summer vacation bucket list. In fact, we didn’t plan on visiting Salzburg until it turned out to be the most convenient and logical place to stay for a couple of nights while visiting Hallstatt and the ice cave.
Upon arriving at the base of Dachstein, we bought combo tickets for the ice cave tour and the gondola (ski lift) up to the trail that leads to the ice cave entrance. We rode several thousand feet up the mountain in a gondola car that seemed to float in the air as it dangled from a two mile long cable. The gondola ride would be amazing even if there wasn’t an ice cave at the end of the journey up the mountain.
The ice cave itself wasn’t as impressive as the two caves we visited in Slovenia, but those weren’t filled with hundreds of feet of ice. The ice cave is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area and a good add-on trip if you’re visiting Hallstatt.
We felt the ice cave tour was rather rushed as we had trouble keeping up with the group at times while also marveling at all the naturally sculpted ice spanning from floor to ceiling. A self-guided tour would have been much more enjoyable, but I guess there’s a high risk of hypothermia and slip and falls.
Since it was summer and we were traveling very lightly with only book bags, I decided to leave my coat at home. To ward off the freezing temperatures, I brought a pair of long socks to wear as sleeves and mittens (which I didn’t need after all). I wore two shirts to keep my core warm. Since we were moving swiftly through the cave with a lot of vertical climbs up stairs, the cool temps were a welcome relief. Of course I’m a weirdo who likes cold temperatures so you might want to pack long sleeve clothing if you plan on heading into this particular ice cave.
We paid about US$90 for the family pass that included the ice cave tour and the lift ticket up to the cave trail. For another USD$15, you can add on a tour of the Mammoth Cave (not to be confused with the US-based Mammoth Cave that we visited in Kentucky in 2016).
Hallstatt is an idyllic village just over an hour from Salzburg. We parked at a city-run lot (USD$6 for a few hours) and headed out for a walk through town. Tons of other tourists joined us on our peaceful stroll.
Since we visited the ice cave earlier in the day, some of the crowds had thinned out by the time of our arrival in Hallstatt. Which is a good thing since on our drive through Hallstatt to get to the ice cave, I noticed that all the parking lots in Hallstatt were full, making a visit to Hallstatt by car rather difficult. We arrived at Hallstatt around four in the afternoon and didn’t have a problem parking at that time.
A slight downside to arriving late: a few tourist attractions closed at five in the evening. Nevertheless, we enjoyed walking along Lake Hallstatt while taking in the town and exploring the alleyways and stairs leading up the hillside to discover hidden squares, churches, and residences.
My inner bargain hunter felt like there’s probably an equally scenic but undiscovered lakeside village elsewhere in this part of the world that would be just as beautiful without the crowds.
Lodging for two nights in Salzburg, Austria with Airbnb
We paid $130 per night for our one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in the heart of Salzburg. We stayed a block from the Hohensalzburg Castle and were able to walk through the historic center of town from our apartment.
Our Airbnb host suggested a few spots to look for free parking and we lucked out, thereby managing to avoid the USD$11 per day paid parking around the corner from our apartment.
This apartment was one of the smallest places we stayed out of the fourteen different apartments we rented during the summer. It was the third most expensive per night with a price tag a bit lower than the apartments in Venice, Italy and Amsterdam, Netherlands. It was nice and clean and the host was incredibly friendly and helpful.
If you want to enjoy the personal connection that comes with Airbnb rentals, click here to take $40 off your stay.
Getting Around the Austrian Countryside
We took the train from Bled, Slovenia across the Austrian Alps into Salzburg, Austria. Along the way we were able to relax and enjoy the scenery while someone else drove for us. All for the bargain basement price of USD$43 total for the five of us!
After taking the train into Salzburg, Austria, we continued on the train one stop further to cross the border into Germany into Freilassing, a suburb of Salzburg, Austria. Since we were renting a car and planning on driving it to Munich, Germany later in the week, we found it was much cheaper to rent the car in Germany instead of Austria so that they would waive the one way rental fee.
It probably took 20 minutes extra to travel to Germany then drive back into Austria but we saved a few hundred dollars on the one-way rental fee. We ended up paying USD$115 for a four day rental of an automatic mid-size car that we picked up on the edge of Salzburg and returned in Munich.
This whole “take a train into the country next door to rent a car for less” is a pretty radical idea for this American. It was easy and seamless, highlighting one of the economic efficiencies of the open borders within the European Union.
The car rental wasn’t without issue, but at least it wasn’t as bad as in Slovenia. We had booked a car for $115 several months in advance. At some point after our reservation was confirmed, the Hertz office where we were supposed to pick up the car closed its doors.
Logic dictates that we would be notified that our reservation was being transferred to the nearest Hertz office that was half a mile from the original office location. Logic would be wrong in this case. Instead, Hertz cancelled our reservation without notifying us. A few days before we arrived to pick up the car I discovered this “issue”.
After trying to get Hertz to honor my quoted price at the location just down the road, I gave up. They were going to “hook me up” by charging an extra $25 for a higher category of car (all they had available they claim). At the time it was the cheapest option by far compared to other rental companies so I said yes, let’s do that and paid up. The travel agent I booked the car through (AutoSlash) refunded the $25 discrepancy because I assume they were somehow at fault.
In the end, we rented a spacious station wagon while paying for a lower category car and we didn’t have to pay a one way rental fee when we dropped it off 70 miles away in Munich.
Maintaining Sanity on a Nine Week Summer Vacation with Kids
Salzburg was stop number nine in our trip across Europe. Key to happy kids (and the resulting happy parents of those happy kids) is to take it slow, and stick plenty of relaxing moments into your daily schedule and your long term itinerary.
Though we only stayed two nights in Salzburg, we squeezed in quite a bit of blissful, wonderful do-nothingness during that short span of time.
Let me illustrate with pictures:
Thoughts on Salzburg, Hallstatt, and Dachstein Ice Cave
Salzburg was initially planned as a stopover point between Slovenia and Germany where we could pick up a German rental car and then visit the Dachstein ice cave and the village of Hallstatt. As it turns out, Salzburg was a beautiful city to explore on foot and we’re glad we ended up booking a couple of nights in town.
Hallstatt was packed with tourists but incredibly beautiful with the charming old buildings built along the lake and into the mountainside. The beauty explains why it was packed with tourists.
The Dachstein ice cave was a novelty – something I’ve never seen before. Water seeps in as a liquid and cold air freezes it in place so that it remains throughout the year. It was freezing even in the middle of summer during our visit.
Though it was a whirlwind tour by the standards of our usual snail-like pace of exploring the world, we all had fun and saw a bunch of cool new things along the way.
Could you endure 40 minutes in a freezing cold ice cave wearing short sleeves? Would you enjoy zipping up the side of the mountain suspended in a cable car? Or are the history-lined streets of old town Salzburg more to your liking?
Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
- Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia
- Explore Austria: Salzburg, Hallstatt and the Dachstein Ice Cave
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