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Where Cesky Krumlov is disguised as a sleepy tourist town that can actually hold up to a mean party, Hallstatt is exactly what it pretends to be. A sleepy tourist town.

a view of Hallstatt from our hotel

It’s a tiny village hanging tightly along a mountainside, appearing as though at any moment it might slide off into the freezing mountain lake. The sprawl extends southward, into modern hotels and campgrounds, with hiking trails spidering outward from there. There’s a cable car that takes people upward to an incredible view and a salt mine, and a lager stocked boat that takes people across the lake.

The weather--like any place in the mountains--is a bit dodgy, making firm plans untenable. But if you’re flexible, willing either to spend the day in the sun on the beach, swimming, biking, or hiking, or walking in the rain and having heavy Austrian lagers from a heated restaurant that closes at 8, then Hallstatt is the place to be.

We went there last September, driving from Prague. The drive there is interesting to say the least. The Czech roads are characteristically bumpy and narrow, but into Austria it’s eerily broad with lots of tunnels. Austrians have some sort of construction fetish for tunneling, where autobahns go for miles and miles underground for seemingly no reason, except to circumvent a rapeseed field or something rather. Who knows. You can’t know, because you’re underground.

Then into the mountains. More tunnels. The GPS was not reliable here, always taking us the least scenic route possible. I once had a predilection against visiting the Alps in the winter, but now I know there’s really nothing to fear, since it’s possible to stay underground for nearly the whole drive. Do beware though that you should stop at a gas station near the border to get a highway sticker. For us it wasn’t possible until Linz, as there were conveniently no exits from Czechia until the large industrial city.

there's no shortage of beautiful villages in Austria

We were above ground at Linz, but just as soon as the land started to rise, we were below ground again. I had enough of that, so I switched off the GPS and guided us to an old highway. I wanted to see the small Austrian mountain villages on the old highways of yesteryear. Indeed, most of those roads were well kept, and the dozens of hamlets of half-timbered houses and generous spire-filled backdrops were worth the slower journey.

Hallstatt's main square

From Prague, there are two ways to Hallstatt. One is from the direction of Salzburg, and the other from Vienna. From Salzburg it’s fairly straight forward, above ground beautiful driving, and it also includes pretty much the only place to grab a breakfast in the whole region. From the Vienna direction, you have to drive over the only mountain the Austrians didn’t tunnel through for some reason. Straight up and straight down, with the near precision of Roman engineering, nobody stops roads leading to Rome, after all.

When we got there it was pouring down rain. The whole time actually, it was doing that. So we were left to the romantic strolls and beer stops. No problem there. As a formality, the local marching band—yes, there’s a local marching band—decided to don full feathered Austrian mountain regalia and play some tunes in the street, inviting everybody inside into the concert hall, with a pre-concert (and post-concert and whenever you’d like) shot of schnapps to keep you interested in the John Philips Sousa and West Side Story renditions. It was a blast from my past, when as a child growing up I was playing saxophone in a marching band known for playing West Side Story. Duh duh dun duh dun, duh duh dun duh dun, Mambo!

a view from the northside

Hotels there are less pricey than I expected. You can stay at Obertraun across the lake for even cheaper, and take the ferry in during the day. As the place shuts down at night, it’s not so necessary to overnight in the town, as we did. We stayed at Pension Hallberg, which was a comfortable place with small, warm rooms, beautiful views of the lake, and a strange collection of Nazi memorabilia. But there was no one there to question about it, since they email you a code, you get the key in a box outside, open the door, and see behind the glass along the walls random items with the Hakenkruez displayed.

random Nazi stuff in the hotel

Don’t bother driving into the town, as it’s impossible. Rather than plowing through swarms of Japanese and American tourists, it might be better to just park it in the new section of town, and walk the beautiful boardwalk into the center and find yourself the right schnitzel there.

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