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.

The backdrop of Salzburg: Hohensalzburg Castle staring down at the city from high up on a hill.

 

Residenzplatz

 

Statue of Mozart, born and raised in Salzburg.

 

The Old Town on the far side of the Salzach River

 

Graveyard in Salzburg

 

Mirabell Palace

 

Mirabell Palace Gardens. I’m assuming a clever landscape architect aligned the central garden path so that the Hohensalzburg Castle and the Salzburg Cathedral steeples serve as a focal point in the background.

 

Green “tunnel” in the Mirabell Palace Gardens.

 

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 gondola up the side of the mountain.  It dumped us at the visitor’s center and the trail leading up to the Dachstein Ice Cave

 

It’s quite a hike up the side of the mountain to get to the ice cave entrance. Fortunately it’s chilly year round so you’ll hardly break a sweat on the climb regardless of season.  Great views from up here with Hallstatt Lake and village in the background.

 

 

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).

 

HUGE sheets of ice inside the cave that persist year-round. The ice formations grow in winter as colder air and water enter the cave and shrink slightly in summer as the ambient air and water temperatures climb just barely above freezing.

 

An ice stalagmite

 

Hallstatt Village

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.

Hallstatt – a lovely little village nestled between a lake and a mountain.

 

 

Gravity-defying construction

 

 

View of Hallstatt from the other side of the lake

 

Dining options

 

 

Hallstatt town square

 

Lakeside swan feeding

 

Not a bad view from our parking lot in Hallstatt. Actually, not a bad view from almost anywhere in Hallstatt.

 

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.

 

A small but serviceable kitchen in our Airbnb.

 

The living room and dining room. Also where the kids slept on the fold out sofa bed and futon.

 

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!

Second class compartment aboard the Eurocity Express. Hard to believe second class comes with lay flat seats and private compartments.

 

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.

On our last day in Salzburg, we checked out of our Airbnb, packed all our gear into the back of the Opel station wagon, then headed out on foot to spend the day exploring Salzburg.  By the way, check out my sweet parallel parking skillz.

 

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:

 

Lake? Check. Peace and quiet? Check. Hammock? Close enough.

 

This was one of those moments where I stood alone basking in the glory of nature while high-fiving myself for making the right choices that got me to this exact spot in life.

 

You know what kids love 1,000 times better than touring another baroque European palace? Climbing trees.

 

Making time for rest and silliness.

 

Lunch on the go. We packed gourmet sandwiches and snacks and found this deserted lakeside park just across the water from the village of Hallstatt for a perfect picnic.

 

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:

 

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24 comments

  • I love the picturesque version of Halstatt. There’s something incredibly idyllic about tiny houses being in all differen colors on the side of a mountain and lake. Love the series!

    If you loved the ice caves you should check out the ones in Bermuda on your next trip! Or are you going to the Bahamas? I always get those two mixed up.

    • We’re going to the Bahamas. I don’t think they have many caves like this since they’re mostly at sea level, though I think I saw they have some underwater caves somewhere in the islands??

  • These posts are amazing Justin. You are giving us lots of great ideas for travel in the future. Keep it up!

  • Cable cars simultaneously freak me out and psych me up. It’s weird. We took the Schauinslandbahn (outside of Freiburg, in the Black Forest) and it took some getting used to. I’m glad the kids did alright.

    Thanks for writing all this up and sharing it with us! It’s nice to sit at my desk with spreadsheets open in the background and dream.

    • I’ve been there in the cube looking out at the world in a similar fashion before. Aim high!

      Yeah as a recovering engineer I was in awe and also thinking “hope this thing is put together well because it’s a loooooong way down”.

  • nice vacation pictures. In your story what interests me is that your ER lifestyle inspired your wife to quit her lucrative fulltime career at fidelity investments and made her join your journey. Keep posting more posts Justin This is a request from a fan of yours

  • Dude the ice caves are like something out of the dragon age video games!!!! So cool!! I bet that’s how people kept their ice cream back then!

    Everything looked decently inexpensive for an old European town! Europe is never usually on my list because there’s such a bang for your kind of bucks in Asia that I can’t look awayyyy!

    • Hallstatt looked expensive (which is to say normal prices for Europe) since it was so tourist-focused. Tons of Asian tourists there FYI 🙂 Most signs were in German, English, and what I’m assuming was Chinese (only place that was common in Europe from my experience). To do Europe on the cheap, skip far western Europe like France, London, Amsterdam. Skip Scandinavian countries. Almost everywhere else is rather affordable. We paid under $100 per night for lodging in 13 out of 16 cities and usually rented 2-3 BR places, so if it’s just the 2 of you, you could do much much better I imagine.

  • Looks like I live less than fours hours away from Hallstatt, and I’ve never heard of it. I will be trying to get there soon, thanks for the tip. This is funny/coincidental, because I had just looked at go curry cracker’s instagram before reading your post, and of all the beautiful places pictured, I clicked on the one of Hallstatt because I just had to find out where it was.
    I have lived here so long, I am used to the sights, but beautiful photography sure makes you take a second look.

  • Was your train direct from Bled to Salzburg? We are tempted to add Slovenia to our 3 week trip next year to Prague, Budapest trip. I’m finding that there is a lack of direct bus/train route to some of the locations that I want to see on our trip.

    • Yes, direct. I think it was 4 hours or so. This train came through Lubljana then went north to several other stops including Bled before entering Austria.
      There’s only a couple of the express trains each day, and some other routings with connections (though European train connections are incredibly simple – like walk 30 seconds from one platform to another). Book way ahead and you can get super cheap rates.

  • That is some hardcore relaxing, Justin. Nice work!

    I’d never heard of Hallstatt until now. Beautiful. We’re going to have to put that on our list as well. This year, since we have the German Visa, we’re trying to visit all 26 countries in the Schengen zone. Only ones that are out of the way of our current itinerary are Slovenia and Malta, but good news is everything a 20 Euro Ryan Air flight away so no biggy.

    Thanks for the write up! Looks like you guys had a great time!

  • Great pictures! The kids know how to have fun. 🙂
    The ice cave looks really neat. None of us like cold so I’m not sure if we’ll visit.
    There are so many great places to visit in Europe. Austria sounds really neat. It’s a bit below eastern Europe for me. I need to visit affordable places before they get too expensive.

  • Is it bad that I’m disappointed there are no “food” pictures?

  • Another nice write-up and great pictures!

    For those that aren’t able to travel to Europe but want to see ice caves head to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin during the winter. They are amazing!

  • I recommend Fraulein Maria’s Sound of Music Bike Tour in Salzburg. Especially if someone in your group is a fan of the movie. It was one of the best things we did in Europe while the family lived there for a couple of years. Inexpensive, too!

    In fact, bike tours are a great way to see many of the European cities and areas. We found that you could avoid the crowded pedestrian areas, the tour guides were usually very outgoing and knowledgeable about their tours, and we were able to find easy (non-hilly) tours that the kids could have fun on, even in the areas like Salzburg.

  • Oh, I remember our visit to that Dachstein Ice Cave, really cool (in more ways that one). Nice recall of the holiday trip to Austria. Great country to visit!

  • That cave looks incredible!

    I am trying to figure out if I would be more scared of the 2 mile long cable-car, or the houses so close to a river!

  • Beautiful pictures, it felt like I was there! I didn’t know there was an Ice Cave in Austria- it looks beautiful (and cold).

    I am amazed at your 9 week travel hacking Europe trip. To get that that level of travel hacking, I think I need to start planning NOW to optimize it once my child is in school (note- my baby is 8 months old haha).

  • I’m surprised you stayed anywhere for just two days 😉 I’m a sucker for geology and caves in general, so the ice cave stop would be totally worth it for me.

  • Another successful leg of the European tour! Glad you guys were able to do slow travel and really enjoy your experience. We also found AirBnB, trains along with an occasional car rental to be ideal in Europe. I can also highly recommend a low-cost bus service… we used FlixBus.

  • The Ice cave looks really cool and definitely something l would have done. As a fan of Sound of Music, I would have done the bike tour :-), maybe even twirled like Maria..not to mention singing the songs. Austria is somewhere on my list..but not close to the top, but l do wish l’d taken up my aunt’s offer when she worked for the embassy. Lovely photos.

  • That’s really cool! I would definitely like to visit Europe one day. But when I do, I think I’ll stay there for a few months at a time just to know what it feels like to be there as a local. I don’t want to just go bucketlist checking.

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