A real live Middle Earth Laketown.
Hallstatt is both the name of an Austrian lake and the town on its shore, which has become quite the popular tourist spot in recent years, and with good reason. The small town is known for its rich history, a large salt mine and the cute 16th century Alpine houses and narrow streets nestled against the mountain side. In fact, the entire town is so cute it almost gave me diabetes. There is even a natural waterfall in the middle of it and, for that extra sugar on top, all of that is located on the shore of a beautiful dark green lake. Hallstatt is pretty much what I’d always imagined Lake-town from Tolkien’s the Hobbit would be like in real life (during its best times, not during the events of the Hobbit anyway). Due to its Alpine glacier origin, it is also incredibly similar to lake Bohinj in Slovenia, which is one of my favourite places.
The last time I visited Hallstatt was in May 2019 with my boyfriend and we were there for about half a day. If you’ve never been before, there is plenty to see and it will likely take you a whole day or more if you go hiking, but we’d seen most of it before, so we just came for the view. The Salzkammergut region is famous for its lakes and salt mines: you can visit the mines in Hallein, Altaussee (still active) and Hallstatt, which also features an underground lake (see ticket info for all three mines here). I’d seen the Hallein mine as a child (they have wooden slides!) and my boyfriend had been to the Hallstatt one a few years ago, so we skipped the salt mines altogether, but I will tell you all about it anyway.
From the centre of Hallstatt you can take a funicular up the mountain to the salt mine, which is only accessible with a guided tour, and is also an active prehistoric archaeological hotspot. Since the early period of the European Iron age is known as the Hallstatt period for the abundance of archaeological finds, you really cannot get much more history in one spot than here, but there are also Stone age and Bronze age remains with a Celtic museum. Additionally, there is a large viewing platform called the Skywalk, which overlooks the valley from the top of the mountain and is advertised as standing “between Heaven and Earth”. It is free if you manage to get up the mountain.
Now, as you can tell, the salt world of Hallstatt is definitely worth a visit, but it can end up being pretty pricey, depending on the package you get. We planned to only go up to the Skywalk platform with the funicular and then walk down to avoid the extra cost of riding both ways, but the footpath was closed at the time. Riding the funicular both ways was the only option and would have set us back a hefty 18€ for just seeing the view, so we decided to be stingy and walk as high as we could instead. There are many paths leading up to the waterfall and further up above the town, so we managed to get an incredible view all the same. Make sure you look towards the eastern shore of the lake to see the Grub manor, which is privately owned and thus impossible to visit, but makes for a nice sight.
As for the centre of the town, there is the World Heritage museum of Hallstatt, with interesting and modern exhibitions on life in the region in the past, the historical market square and the famous charnel house in St. Michael’s chapel. Also known as the Bone house it is located behind the Hallstatt Catholic church and full of artistically painted skulls. There is a small altar in one of the church buildings and, strangely enough, the skulls depicted on the floor tiles there have ears, which is kind of adorable. Additionally, you can find a beautiful small cemetery right in front of the church and there are no entrance fees for the ossuary or the church.
Besides the main attractions, you can find many adorable cafes, eateries and small shops selling souvenirs, mineral salt and unique local handcrafts. Therefore, a stroll through the town and admiring the various colourful traditional buildings is an attraction in itself, just be aware that Hallstatt is a very touristy spot and the prices are thus quite high. If you have the money, you can also rent a boat or take a boat tour to explore the lake, but you should expect the entire town and the boats to be overrun by tourists, so arrive early if you want to have an enjoyable experience. We visited off-season and it was already quite crowded, with lots of tour groups, especially after noon.
Impressions of Hallstatt
Like most of Austria, Hallstatt and its surrounding area, Echerntal, are also famous for its stunning hiking trails and we initially planned to hike up to the Gletschergarten (the Glacier Gardens), beautiful rock formations and gorges formed in the last Ice Age. The hike is classified as easy, but takes 3 hours and, because it was unexpectedly hot, we were too lazy to do it (I am planning to do it in the near future though, as it supposed to be incredible). Since we are from Slovenia, we live only a few hours away from these areas. We can return at any time, which is why our Austrian road trip was so relaxed and we ended up skipping some of our itinerary to just enjoy each other’s company instead. Therefore, we chose to leave Hallstatt earlier than planned and drove to the Hohenwerfen castle to see the falconry show.
Hallstatt on a budget
Although Hallstatt is quite expensive, you can still enjoy your visit without spending a fortune, provided you do not book your accommodation there, as the prices are horrible throughout the whole year. If you are arriving by car, you could have some trouble finding a parking spot, so try to arrive early.
If you are on a budget, I’d suggest deciding on one of the three salt mines and buying the tickets online in advance. You can explore all of Hallstatt on foot, walk up to the waterfall and get a good view of the lake at the same time, as it is an easy walk of about 20 – 30 minutes depending on where you start. It is mostly under the trees, although you do need to climb a lot of stairs.
We did not eat or drink in Hallstatt at all, so I can’t recommend anything, but from what I’d seen, everything was more than overpriced. However, like everywhere, you can probably find reasonably priced local handcrafts and food, if you are willing to put a bit of effort into it and stay off the main street.