Discovering Austria's Charm: A Road Trip from Salzburg Mountains to Historic Vienna
Three weeks in a country that boasts lush green mountains, winding rivers, decadent food, a history of Hapsburgs, and Mozart? Austria promised all that and more, which is why we were so excited to explore this beautiful country for the month of August. Ready to join us? Let's go!
In the past we'd only visited Austria to ski, which means we've always seen this beautiful country covered in snow.
So, we were really looking forward to experiencing Austria in the summer to see it in an entirely different way. The Salzburg airport is small, so we were in and out and ready to explore as soon as we arrived...umbrellas in hand (the rain followed us here from Belgium).
Salzburg borders Germany and has spectacular views of the Eastern Alps all around. It's not a very large city, with the Salzach River dividing the city's medieval and baroque buildings: the Old City on one side (this is where the Hohensalzburg Fortress sits atop a mountain overlooking it all) and the 19th-century Neustadt (New City) on the other.
Mozart was born here and is a local hero who is celebrated in statues and musical instruments around the city - they're very proud of their Mozart!
We decided to begin exploring Salzburg (which is German for Salt Castle and comes from the barges that carried salt from the salt mines down the river) by heading to the Old City.
Built in the 11th century, this fortress complex gives you a glimpse into a time when maintaining power was a paramount concern of rulers...and it offers incredible 360-degree views of the city. It was a great way to take in the beautiful architecture and the incredible green trees and mountains that stretched out all around us.
You can't go to Salzburg without feeling like you are in the Sound of Music (well, you can, but if you're a crazy Sound of Music fan, you can't). We didn't have much planned for our visit, it's not a very big city, but when we learned about the Fräulein Maria Bike Tour, we were in!
Riding a bike around Salzburg while seeing all of the sites included in the movie...and singing songs along the way? Even better, we were going to do it on a bicycle built for two! We were ready! It took a little bit of practice to finally figure out how to ride a bike with two adults peddling through puddles and driving rain, but we did it. Of course, in true Summer 2023 "the summer of rain and cold" fashion, the day of our tour it was wet. The kind of wet where they gave us all rain ponchos to wear while braving the sheets of water coming down on us (only 5 of us actually decided to go, the rest of the group bailed out). But we were not giving up.
During our soaking wet 4 hour tour we learned about the history of Salzburg, sang songs, saw so many locations from the movie (Nonberg Abbey where the nuns dismantle the soldier cars when they are looking for Captain Von Trappe, the front and back of the homes used as the Trappe family house, the gazebo where Leisl and Rolf met, the garden where the kids learned Do-Re-Mi, and so much more) and had a great time. We also learned that Edelweiss is not a traditional Austrian folk song, it was written just for the story, and people in Austria don't care nearly as much about this movie as the people who visit. Who knew!?
It was so much fun, and even if you aren't a Sound of Music fan who knows the lyrics by heart (which describes one of us), seeing the city and country surrounding Salzburg from a bike was awesome and great exercise. It was also the perfect way to be able to enjoy a post-ride apple strudel guilt free, which you should definitely do when you're here. It's delicious!
Mirabell Palace and gardens, built in 1606 by prince-archbishop Wolf Dietrich, is a beautiful stroll even in the rain. This is the spot where Maria and the Trapp children dance around the Pegasus Fountain in front of the palace and sing Do-Re-Mi. We also discovered that the cemeteries around Salzburg are just as beautiful as the formal gardens at Mirabell. They are tucked behind stone walls and beside old church buildings and are definitely worth exploring. With all the rain, the flowers were in full bloom in August and there were so many colors!
We wanted to get a taste of some Austrian beer while in Salzburg, and Stiegl Brewery was the perfect place to do just that. For 530 years, Stiegl has been brewing beer and today is one of Austria's premier privately-owned brewers.
We couldn't wait to see and experience this piece of beer history, but we had no idea we'd be in Salzburg for the annual ceremonial tapping of the keg! We didn't know exactly what that meant, but we had to go and see it for ourselves!
So, we walked to the brewery, passing through beautiful neighborhoods, and found ourselves a table in the Stiegl Brewery courtyard, where we listened to the live traditional Austrian band until it was time to see what the tapping of the keg was all about. After some beers and large soft Bavarian pretzels, it was time! With great fanfare from the band and lots of applause from the small crowd, a wooden 20 liter barrel of Stiegl Goldbräu lager was wheeled out and a staff member positioned a tap at the bottom of the barrel. A volunteer came forward and with a quick whack with a wooden hammer the beer was flowing. This was great fun to watch but the best part had only just begun. The beer was Free for as long as the barrel lasted and who doesn't love free beer!!! As luck would have it, the lunchtime crowd was made up of quite a few senior citizens and families with children which meant more free beer for us! Hooray beer!
What a great way to end our time in Salzburg. Now it was time to leave the city and head into the mountains!
Hallstatt is almost midway between Munich and Vienna, located in the Inner Salzkammergut.
This small 16th century hamlet has received worldwide attention for its stunning location perched on the shore of Lake Hallstatt and the steep slopes of the Dachstein massif.
Once a salt mining town, today it is visited by tourists who want to see the picturesque village that supposedly inspired the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, of Disney Frozen fame (just rumor, it's not true). But even before Frozen, the town was popular among tourists from Asia because there is a replica of the village in China’s Guangdong Province...and people love it so much they come to Austria to see the real thing. We weren't surprised to learn that the town is limiting the number of visitors; it was pretty crowded! And, of course, because of all the rain, a few streets were even flooded which wasn't helpful with so many people in such a tiny place.
We stayed at a small boutique hotel, Halstatt Hidewaway, and one aspect of this cozy spot that saved us when the weather wasn't cooperating was the private sauna house we reserved for an entire afternoon. As the cool air and clouds moved over the lake we were hot, enjoying a bottle of wine, and viewing it all through a window that overlooked the stunning scenery. And, thankfully, no crowds!
While Halstatt was a "must see" for us because we'd seen so many beautiful photos of this place, unless you can enjoy hiking the surrounding hills there really isn't much here and the influx of tourists that flow off the buses can be off-putting. One night here was plenty for us!
The drive from Halstatt to Vienna is beautiful, with green rolling hills, mountains and lakes. When we learned that Eagle's Nest was sort-of along the way, we decided to visit this historical location. Eagle's Nest (The Kehlsteinhaus) is a building that was constructed exclusively for members of the Nazi Party to use for meetings and social events (Adolf Hitler visited here 14 times). It's built atop the summit of the Kehlstein, a rocky outcrop that rises above Obersalzberg.
Although it has a dark and brutal past, today it is a restaurant, beer garden, and site for tourists to enjoy the spectacular view high atop the mountain. When we arrived (surprise, surprise) it was pouring rain and there was a line of people to take the tram up top. We decided the combination of rain and waiting wasn't for us, and continued our drive to Vienna. Maybe next time we are in the area we will ascend to the top, but not this day.
To say we fell in love with Vienna is an understatement. It is truly one of the most beautiful cities we have visited and quickly became one of our favorites (and not just because the sun was finally shining and it felt like summer). As if the gorgeous architecture, rich history, and decadent sweets weren't enough to make us fans, the activity in the city was. Case in point: the film festival we discovered in front of Rathaus City Hall.
The site of the winter Christmas Market, in the summer the area in front of the Rathaus is home to food trucks, pop-up bars and entertainment. The Vienna Film Festival was taking place while we were there and a large screen covered the front of the Rathaus every night so viewers could enjoy free movies.
We watched two films, and they were...interesting to say the least! We were perplexed and also riveted to the odd silent short film about an entire remote town that goes around making circles with their arms like wind turbines, and a dance film that had people with antlers on their heads and other interesting things. They weren't films we would have chosen to see on our own, but it was fun watching them on a summer evening in such a beautiful location.
There are so many museums to choose from in Vienna (there are 19 art museums alone!), there is no shortage of places to visit. Whether you like history, art, music, or science, there is a place for you! We decided to sample some art, music, and history during our time in the city, but just walking around Vienna is like visiting a museum.
Hofburg Palace (the former palace of the Habsburg dynasty) is right in the center of the city. The entire palace complex houses lots of museums, libraries, and historical buildings. St. Stephen's Cathedral, with its beautiful, tiled roof soars above the city as horse-drawn carriages clip-clop by on the cobblestone street.
It's absolutely worth it to learn about the history of Vienna and the Habsburg rulers because it really helps you understand the city - from the palaces to the museums to the struggle for power during this dynasty's rule over Europe from the 15th to the 20th century.
When you learn about Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth (whose nickname was Sisi) while touring their summer residence, Schönbrunn Palace, and then visit the Albertina Museum and see portraits in another one of the residences, it all starts to make sense! And when you recognize Sisi statues around the city you feel like you know the family.
So where does a Habsburg live? A palace, of course (or multiple palaces, actually). Schönbrunn Palace is located outside the main area of the city, but it's worth the short ride to see how the Habsburgs lived in their summer residence - from the palace rooms to the stunning gardens. When you're walking through this historical Baroque palace (it has 1,411 rooms!) you understand why it is such an important architectural, cultural, and historic monument to Austria's history.
Albertina Museum is located in the heart of the city and is a former palace that houses one of the largest and most important print collections in the world - there are 65,000 drawings and around 1 million old master prints. We really enjoyed the more modern impressionist pieces on display, all presented in rooms of the palace, very cool.
Right across the street from the Albertina Museum is Cafe Mozart, which has been operating for more than 200 years. If you are a chocolate fan, this place will delight you and make you grieve the fact that you cannot enjoy one of their cold chocolate drinks anywhere else but in Vienna. For weeks afterwards I dreamt about this drink! What is cold chocolate, besides liquid ecstasy? It's like hot chocolate but it's cold and has vanilla ice cream and whipped cream mixed in. Amazing. We also ordered the Sacher Torte (chocolate cake invented by Franz Sacher in 1832 for Prince Metternich in Vienna) to really up the chocolate factor and it was the perfect duo.
Also located nearby, the Staatsoper opera house is another great excuse to stop in for a cold chocolate! We scheduled a tour of the opera house to get a behind the scenes view of this storied house of music - it opened in 1869 and has endured through a devastating bombing during WWII that destroyed much of the building.
Today it is one of the most important opera houses in the world and it was fascinating to see how the Vienna State Opera stages performances (the opera has more than 180,000 costumes in a building accessed by an underground tunnel). The scale and grandeur of the performances that the Vienna State Opera pulls off every year is staggering. Unfortunately, opera season had not yet begun so we were unable to attend a show, but that gives us a good reason for a future visit!
As our time in Vienna was ending, we decided to visit Demel, the pastry shop renowned for its world-famous Sacher Torte. There is a line of people waiting to get in at all times of the day and the front windows offer a great view of the bakers crafting desserts, which alone is worth a visit. But is it worth waiting in line? That's a no. We'd take Cafe Mozart over this any day.
There are so many opportunities to experience a concert or performance in Vienna, which is why we finished off our time in Vienna by attending an evening that combined opera, ballet, and a symphony performance by the Vienna Royal Orchestra. It was one final reminder of how amazing Vienna is. You can buy tickets for events like this all over the city.
As we prepared to say goodbye to Austria and head down the Danube to Slovakia and Hungary, we both agreed that Vienna is a city we could return to again and again. As for Austria, we will be heading back to this gorgeous country to spend a month skiing in Kitzbühel this winter. We're ready to see the mountains covered in snow again and warm up with some hot chocolate this time!
And enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.