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Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt Austria

ABOVE: Hallstatt on a foggy spring day.

Pretty villages in the Salzkammergut may be a dime a dozen, but the Upper Austrian town of Hallstatt isn't just any village--it's a major Celtic archæological landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In a 1956 book titled Panorama of Austria, James Reynolds wrote:

Halstatt is set on piles in one of the Gosau lakes, the Halstättersee. An intricate system of intersecting timber ramps, butresses and ascending terraces like hanging gardens creates an air of mystery, the eerie beauty of mirage, a village lost in the middle-mist of fable. The mountain flanks rise sheer from the lake, leaving no room for a road. 

Prehistoric remains found on this site have given the name of the Hallstatt Culture to the Iron Age. Thousands of years before the birth of Christ, the salt deposits in Hallstatt brought tribes across the mountains to this improbably remote spot from points as far away as the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. From that early time, until the close of the 19th Century, the mines have been a bone of contention for "every helmeted dog in Europe to snap at," as the 19th-century Count Rudolf of Habsburg is supposed to have shouted to the Archbishop of Bern.

More recently, guidebook author and TV travel host Rick Steves wrote this description of Halstatt:

The minute it popped into view, I knew Hallstatt was my Alpine Oz. It’s just the right size (1,200 people), wonderfully remote, and almost traffic-free. A tiny ferry takes you from the nearest train station across the fjord-like lake and drops you off on the town’s storybook square.

Bullied onto its lakeside ledge by a selfish mountain, Hallstatt seems tinier than it is. Its pint-sized square is surrounded by ivy-covered guest houses and cobbled lanes. It’s a toy town. You can tour it on foot in about 10 minutes.

Things to see and do

The village itself may be Hallstatt's biggest attraction. Its spectacular setting, at the foot of cliffs and facing the often mist-cloaked Halstättersee, is right out of a picture postcard.

You'll also want to allow time to visit:

  • Museum Halstatt (formerly the Heimatmuseum), which covers 7,000 years of history from the Stone Age through the present day.

  •  The Beinhaus or charnel house in the graveyard of Halstatt's Catholic church. The ossuary contains bones, including painted skulls, of the local dead whose graves were dug up after 10 or 15 years to make room for new clients until the custom died out (no pun intended) in the late 20th Century.

  • Archaeological excavations in the basement of a local sports shop, Dachstein Sport, which began when workers dug a hole for a new boiler room in 1987. (The dig now covers 300 square meters, and admission is free.)

  • The Salzwelten or "Salt Worlds." A funicular will whisk you up to an ancient Salzwerk, or salt mine, in a valley above the town. If you're energetic, you can hike up in an hour or so, or you can take the funicular up to the mine and walk back down to the village after the mine tour (available from May through September).

As long as you're in the neighborhood, visit nearby Obertraun for a tour of the Dachstein Ice Cave. Obertraun also has a beach, making it a good place to stay if you're traveling with children.

For more attractions, see the links to Halstatt tourism below.

Hallstatt Austria ferry boat train railroad station LEFT: A passenger ferry shuttles passengers between Hallstatt and the small railroad station across the lake.

How to reach Hallstatt

Trains stop at a small railway station on the eastern side of the lake. (You can also get off at Obertraun if you're staying there.) From the station, follow the path to the boat landing, where you'll find a waiting passenger ferry that will transport you to the village for a small fee.

To plan a visit by rail, use the journey planner of the Austrian Federal Railways.

You can also reach Halstatt by postal bus from Bad Ischl, which is 12 km (7½ miles) . If you're driving,  see the directions at TIScover.at.

Web links

Tourist information:

Hallstatt
This official (and bilingual) site is a comprehensive guide to "the most beautiful lakeside village in the world." .

TISCover Hallstatt
This independent tourism site has pages for hotels, hostels, campsites, restaurants, attractions, package deals, and more.

Background reading:

Hallstatt Culture
Wikipedia's article has a handful of photos, plus links to related pages.

Barbarians on the Greek Periphery?
Constanze Witt's doctoral dissertation discusses changes in Celtic art during the Iron Age, "from late Halstatt to early La Tène."

"Best of the Web"
- Forbes and The Washington Post


Photo (c) iStockphoto.com/Arosoft

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