Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Austria (Salzburg, Hallstatt, Vienna, Melk)

Now that we knew our first destination on our three week trip was going to be Italy and the last one was going to be Belgium, we had plenty of choice on how to get there. But, we didn't want to go to south France or Switzerland, so the next choice was Austria! And it turned out to be my favorite one!

Here is our brief itinerary:

Day 1: Bus: Venice --> Klagenfurt. Drive: Klagenfurt--> Salzburg via High Alpine Road
Day 2: Sightseeing Salzburg
Day 3: Drive: Salzburg --> Hallstatt --> Vienna
Day 4: Sightseeing Vienna
Day 5: Half day trip to Melk Abbey. Train: Vienna --> Prague

This itinerary is a part of much longer 3 week trip to Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Holland and Belgium. I'll be updating the blog for other countries soon, or I might have already updated a few of them. Look at the left index for the blogs.

There is a lot to do and see in Austria. Three major cities, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna. We chose to see only Salzburg and Vienna as Innsbruck was quite west and wouldn't have fit our schedule. Hence, we decided to make these two cities our base and take day trips from here.

Useful pointers:
  • Austria has amazing public transport. We bought our 2 or 3 day pass and it was super convenient for local transport in the respective cities. 
  • For inter city travel, you can book using the OBB website. Remember to print your tickets and carry them with you.
  • Rick Steve's audio guides, mostly his city walks for Salzburg and Vienna were very informative. I either listened to his tour, or sometimes read the text before I wandered in the streets.
  • All the shops, except restaurants and bars will close at 6 pm, sharp! So, be mindful of that while planning your day.
  • We drove in Austria and I am glad we did. Their tunnels and bridges are engineering marvels and I think it is well explored by driving around.
  • There are plenty of websites to help you look for things to do in Austria. I got recommended JenReviews website. 

Day 1

We took a bus from Venice to Klagenfurt and this was the most beautiful drive ever. Majestic green valleys and winding rivers, just absolutely gorgeous. These were the Italian Alps. It took us about 3-4 hours. Now, we could have gotten down in Villach in Austria and rented a car from there, but unaware of this possibility, we took the bus right up to Klagenfurt, a small town east of Villach and rented a car from the Klagenfurt airport. 


Klagenfurt old town center
Our bus dropped us at the Klagenfurt hbf. We took a train to the Klagenfurt airport. Here, we rented a car to drive to Salzburg. We decided to stop by at the Old Town center in Klagenfurt for lunch. It is a quaint little town with a very European charm to it. We walked around and decided to have lunch at a Pizzeria. Tasty pizzas with a bottle of coke. Perfect. We spent about a couple of hours wandering about before we finally left for Salzburg. 
On our way to Salzburg we had planned to drive through the Grossglockner High Alpine Road after reading really rave reviews about it. The drive from Klagenfurt to Salzburg was anyway very beautiful. Austria looks and feels a lot like Switzerland, just less commercialized and less crowded. This was our planned route. Sadly, the weather deteriorated and we called to check if the road was still open for driving and it wasn't. So we had to skip this and head straight to Salzburg.


We reached Salzburg airport in the evening and dropped off our car. Then, we took a bus to our hotel. On our way, we were tired and dozed off on the bus. And at one of the red light stops, we saw an Indian restaurant. We were so hungry and tired, we just got off the next stop and headed towards the restaurant. After a not so good meal at Maharaja restaurant, we walked towards our hotel. We were staying at the NH Salzburg hotel and it was quite good.

Day 2

Our big bright red umbrella and Residenzplatz
This was the day assigned for sightseeing Salzburg. We got up around 8 am and got the Salzburg Card from our hotel's reception. It proved to be quite economical for us. Salzburg has many attractions to see and the city center is totally accessible on foot, but be ready to walk. Here is a good one day itinerary. We picked up coffee and croissants for our breakfast at a newly opened cafe close to our hotel.
Salzburg Cathedral
We headed straight to the HohenSalzburg Castle. Our Salzburg card included the ride up the funicular and the entry fees. We spent some time at the castle and took the tour. Some amazing 360 degree views of Salzburg and the Wolfgangsee river from the castle. After we got down, we strolled around the area and listened to Rick Steve's city walk.
Trick fountains at Hellbrunn Palace
The best way to walk around the city is to just walk from one platz(square) to the other. They are sort of arranged in a zig-zag manner. We visited the Monastery, Salzburg cathedral and Mozart's house where he was born and grew up. We also stopped by the giant fountain, the chess board and Mozartplatz. We stopped by at a a bakery in AlterMarkt for lunch. There was a farmer's market close by and it made for a good stroll. Getreidegasse is good street to just stroll around and shop.
We decided to go see Hellbrunn Palace and the trick fountains. We took the bus #170 to the palace. The palace was good, but having seen some great architecture in Italy, this wasn't much impressive. We took the 5 pm trick fountain tour, this was fun. The fountains are really camouflaged you can't figure when and where they'll start squirting water. This was a lot of fun. We strolled trough the gardens and stopped by the legendary Sound of Music glass room.
Mozart's birthplace
Then we took the bus #170 back to the city center and walked to Mozart's residence in his later years. Not as impressive as his birth house, but well we had time. We skipped the Mirabell gardens though. The weather was amazing and walking around this city is the best thing to do. For dinner, we picked the Taj Indian restaurant close to our hotel and it was a good choice. Food was excellent and very filling. We retired for the night in our hotel to watch the Brazil-Germany semifinal of the FIFA world cup.
Tip: Salzburg is a very pretty city and beautiful landscapes. It is worth spending a few days here and going for day hikes and excursions in the nearby cities. Water sports close to the Wolfgangsee river and hiking in the alps would be on my list next time.

Day 3

Valley views
Our plan was to drive from Salzburg to Vienna on this day with some stop overs. The roads, tunnels and bridges are sheer engineering brilliance. The first thing to do was to rent a car, so we went to the airport, picked up our car and headed to our first stop, the Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves. Since photography is not allowed inside, you might want to see the website for some great pictures. To get here, we had to first drive up to the base station. It was an uphill curvy drive which offered some great panoramic views of the valley. After we reached, we got our tickets for the cable car and the entrance. To get to the cable car, we had to hike a bit uphill and then get in the queue for the ride up. After we got down, there was another uphill hike to get to the entrance of the caves. This was about a mile long hike and the elevation was quite a bit. I needed my jacket. Once at the entrance, we had to wait for the English tour which started after about 30 minutes. It was a 70 minute long tour. Once inside the caves, I started feeling really cold and after about twenty minutes or so, my feet went numb. I couldn't feel my fingers and decided to get out. I followed another tour guide who was leading his group out of the caves. The caves are completely dark and you need a lantern to guide yourself inside the caves. Sumit went ahead with the rest of the group. I am glad I got out, as I was wearing bad shoes and a jacket which was not at all sufficient for the ice cold temperatures inside. But for what I saw in those 20 minutes, they were magnificent and I wish I was properly dressed.

Hike up to the caves

Now that this visit to the caves took quite a bit of our time, we decided to skip going to Lake Fuschlsee and Mauthausen and head straight to Hallstatt.
Spot the winding trolley path
As we headed through the picturesque valleys towards Hallstatt, we decided to stop by at one of the valleys where we saw some kids coming down the slopes on a small car like trolley on a winding track. This is what it looks like: trolley fun Basically, you take gondola up to the peak and then, get on to this small single seat car-like thing with wheels on the bottom which go on a track. You can accelerate to decelerate it. It was super duper fun and we wanted to do it again and again, but sadly we were running out of time and had to get to Vienna in time. The place where we stopped is Abtenau Karkogel.


So, we drove further up to Hallstatt. Cars are not allowed inside this small town and there are three parking garages. We parked at one of the garages and headed towards the town. We took a walk through their main street and took plenty of pictures. It is a small town and you can walk across the town in just 30-40 minutes. The landscape is as if it is right out of a postcard. Then we got some delicious burgers from a stall and decided to drive straight to Vienna. Here we had a choice to drive via Linz or Graz and we chose to drive via Graz for no particular reason. The drive was pretty and we made it to Vienna airport around 9 pm and dropped off our car. We were staying with Sumit's cousin for the night and it was time to do our laundry!
Tip: There is another set of ice caves, Dachstein ice caves, close to Hallstatt, so you can pick which ones to see. We didn't have time to stop by at nearby lakes and salt mines, but they might make for good day trips. I read that Linz is also a pretty little town worth a visit.

Day 4


Walking through Karnerstrasse
This was the day assigned for walking around in Vienna. It was raining which made the weather pleasant, but also a little inconvenient. Anyway, we had our rain jackets and a big bright red umbrella with us. We followed Rick Steve's directions and walked across the town for an hour, before we took a break at the Stephen's cathedral and spent some time walking around. Definitely stop by Cafe Korb to see the lovely cute dresses of the waiters and waitresses. This gothic style cathedral is pretty and has a lot of history to it, which Rick Steve's happily shares with you. Then we decided to head check in our hotel and take a break. We were staying at Mercure Wien hotel and the rooms were very pretty. It was little out side the city center, but we had our 48 hour Vienna pass which was super duper helpful and convenient for taking all the public transport.
Inside St. Stephens Cathedral
After a short lunch, we headed to the Schonbrunn Palace. We took their Imperial tour and I really enjoyed it. After Italy, this was the only palace that interested me. I enjoyed reading and learning about their Queen Sisi and her obsession with her weight in particular. What a crazy woman! Now the rains had died down, so we headed back to the city center and completed our city walk. Walking through Karnerstrasse was really enjoyable. We ended our tour with a slice of chocolate cake from the very famous Demel bakery. The best chocolate cake in Sumit's opinion. For me, I still prefer the chocolate cake from Hot Millions in Chandigarh ;) Vienna's Naschmarkt also makes for a good stroll.
I had initially wanted to go visit the Spanish riding school and catch one of their shows, but then I happened to see some videos on YouTube and realized it wasn't worth it. Now we were hunting for dinner and we stumbled upon this restaurant on yelp, Mughal Darbar and it was really good. With our tummies full, we retired for the night, wondering what to do tomorrow before we leave for Prague. Here is a good two day itinerary for Vienna.
Demel's chocolate cake

Day 5


Melk Abbey
We had two options for our Day 5 in Austria. Either, we could go visit some museum, or go to Melk, which we skipped as we chose drive via Graz and not Linz. We chose the later after reading some rave reviews about the city and Wachau valley. We booked our tickets online for a direct train to Melk and also for our return. The OBB site offers you a combined fare for the return journey and the entry ticket to Melk Abbey. We left at 9 am for our train ride to Melk. It took us about an hour and a half to get to Melk. Once we reached the station, there were clear directions for the Melk Abbey. We were just in time to take the English tour at 10:55 am. The other English tour is offered at 2:55 pm and would have been too late for us. The abbey itself is pretty and stands tall by the banks of Danube river. We strolled through the corridors and ended our tour at the church, which had some great woodwork and gold ornaments.
After we exited the abbey we strolled through their gardens and then walked through the narrow alleys of this small town to reach the banks of the river. We saw many cruise ships leaving for and arriving from Krems. We wanted to hike along the river, but didn't have time to do so. So we walked back to the town center and had Italian lunch at one of the local restaurants before boarding our train back to Vienna. I wish we could take the cruise, visit Krems and bike along the river. But well, we got to leave something for the next time.
View from the Melk Abbey
After reaching Vienna, we picked our bags from the hotel and left for the station to board our train to Prague! We bid adieu to Austria with a heavy heat, wanting to spend more time in this beautiful country, and making a promise to ourselves to come back some other time.
Tip: An ideal trip to Melk Abbey would include taking a train to Melk city, visiting Melk Abbey and taking Danube river cruise to Krems through Wachau valley. Then you could tour Krems and take a train ride back to Vienna. We couldn't do it since we were short on time.

What More?

  • We skipped visiting Innsbruck on this trip as it was a little out of our way and decided to visit it on our next trip
  • Biking along the Danube river from Melk to Krems via Wachau valley.
  • Water sports and hiking along Wolfgangsee river.