HALLSTATT, AUSTRIA: VERY PRETTY, VERY CROWDED
Hallstatt is the picturesque Austrian alpine village we have all seen on countless screen savers and flatscreen TV demo videos across the planet. It is nestled along a scenic lake, below the steep slopes of the Dachstein Massif in Austria’s mountainous Salzkammergut region (you gotta love the local place names). We have met Europeans who are unfamiliar with this village, but if you ask any Asian travellers about must-see sights on The Continent, Hallstatt is definitely a Top 5 European destination. If you have ever wondered what a tiny picture-perfect alpine village stuffed to the proverbial gills with Asian tourists looks like, this is the place.
Hallstatt means “Salt Mountain” and the area has supposedly been settled for about 3,000 years, going by archaeological evidence. Salt production has been going on here since prehistoric times. Even now, visitors can ride a funicular railway up to Salzwelten, an ancient salt mine with a subterranean salt lake.
This village has just under 800 residents, but 10,000-30,000 tourists visit each day, most staying only briefly before moving on. Ten years ago, only 100 tourists visited each day. The rapid leap in popularity has benefits such as making the village self-sufficient financially; the shops and restaurants seem to do very well. But having a higher resident-to-visitor ratio than even Venice (six times, to be more exact) has taken a toll and frayed the nerves of the locals who must deal with clogged walkways, long delays getting into and out of the village, buzzing drones and the din that comes hand in hand with mass Chinese tourism.
BUT IT IS SUCH A PRETTY LITTLE VILLAGE
Pretty enough that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It first became popular among Asian tourists in 2006 when it was featured on a South Korean television show. Then in 2011 a replica was built in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong by a mining tycoon. Rumours in China had it as the model for Arendelle village in the movie “Frozen”, with predictable results. By 2017 local churches were employing bouncers to prevent services being disrupted by tourists. The “Instagrammability” of the village is undeniable. Most visitors seem to be there only long enough to get their selfies along with an ice cream or a quick bite and some souvenirs before moving on.
OUR VISIT TO HALLSTATT
We visited on a gloriously crisp and clear early autumn day. To enter the village, all vehicles must pass through a two-way tunnel, but when we arrived, the tunnel was reduced to one-way, owing to maintenance, making us endure a lengthy stop-and-go wait, almost doubling the travel time by car from Salzburg. There are a few paid parking lots, so parking is easy and organized. There are no long walks in the compact village, so most of our time was simply spent navigating through the crowds, which did thin out in places. We actually managed to take a few pictures with no people in them, but it wasn’t easy. We cannot imagine how it must be in the High Season for tourism. The restaurants we passed were all consistently full, so one has to hunt and be patient in search of available tables. Any free table would be claimed within seconds. At least we found that service was quick where we had our lunch, moving people in and out expeditiously.
IMPROVEMENTS ARE PLANNED
We have read that plans are in place to regulate the arrival times of tour buses as well as to limit the number of buses, cutting in half the present number. This should reduce the crowds somewhat as well as make the village more attractive to those wanting to stay overnight. Staying overnight either in the village or nearby would make it possible to get those picture-perfect early morning shots before the crowds materialize.
HALLSTATT: OUR VERDICT
In short, Hallstatt is a very pretty village, just best enjoyed by avoiding the invasive masses of admiring visitors. So plan to get there as early as possible and you’ll be rewarded by enjoying the favorable light for pictures with few others around.
Hallstatt is 72 kilometers from Salzburg. If driving, just under an hour from Salzburg and 3.5 hours from Vienna. If taking a train it’s 50 minutes from Salzburg or 135 minutes from Vienna. The Hallstatt station is across the southern reaches of Lake Hallstatt, so a ferry ride (scenic, of course) across to the village is required.