When people ask me for recommendations of places to visit in Europe, my immediate reaction is to shout “Hallstatt!” at them. When I was there in 2012 it was the most tranquil, picture-perfect town you could possibly imagine: a small group of houses and a church spire jutting out into the Hallstätter See, framed on either side by mountains. It’s a beautiful place and is essentially the personification of a quaint Austrian village.
As luck would have it, I was able to fit a return trip into my itinerary this past June! I was staying at nearby Bad Ischl, which is somewhat of a gateway to the great outdoors in Austria. After rising bright and early to hopefully avoid the tourist buses (make no mistake, Hallstatt is by no means an undiscovered gem), I was arriving in Hallstatt, pinching myself as I coasted past the serene lake lined by picnic tables and pine trees.
The day was destined to be a warm one, so once the car was parked we caught the cable car up the mountain. It was wonderful to take in the inspiring view of the valley once again, peering down at tiny boats crossing the lake and paragliders lazily gliding down from mountain peaks.
Before beginning our descent into town, we called in at the only café on top of the mountain. I felt that today would be all about recreating my experience from three years ago, so I once again ordered the same thing I had eaten last time I was there: apfelstrudel with vanilla sauce. It was just as delicious as I remembered, with a view that couldn’t be beaten.
Once I was sufficiently full and had taken enough photos of the vista I begun the journey down the mountain. It’s quite a leisurely stroll really; a 45-minute walk following a zig-zagging path that faces the water the entire way down. Along the way down you’ll see beautiful wildflowers and strawberries growing along the path, as well as the occasional group of people who decide to forego the cable car and climb up the mountain, wheezing their way up instead.
Although the walk down is not particularly difficult, you will work up a bit of a sweat by the time you reach the bottom. This is when you make your way straight to the tiny island that juts out into the lake, a five-minute walk from the base of the mountain. Here you’ll find people sunbathing, reading, and just generally enjoying the sunshine. There’s also steps here that will lead you into the lake if you fancy a dip, although the water is icy cold. While during my last visit I managed to make it into the water, this time around the water was absolutely too cold to go in past my knees!
After enjoying the sunshine, we made our way to the village. However, before entering I was hit by an enormous wave of humanity. Tour bus after tour bus were pulling in, ferrying in more and more people to the point where it was becoming overwhelming. I don’t know why, but it constantly surprises me when tour groups show an utter lack of regard for the people around them, or indeed of having absolutely no awareness of the space that they’re occupying. So long as they get the perfect shot of the lake that can be uploaded to Instagram everything else seems to pale in comparison. We quickly disentangled ourselves from the group we were caught up in and spent the afternoon seeking out quiet spots where you could stand back and appreciate the beauty of Hallstatt.
Reflecting on my day at Hallstatt, I was wondering to myself: “could I still really recommend a place that has such an obvious tourist problem?” The answer is still a resounding yes! Despite the crowds, it’s incredibly easy to find moments of tranquility for yourself – whether on top of a mountain or by lying in the sun on the little grassy island. Hallstatt firmly remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.