Austria: 5 day trip

In July 2022, Bonita and I traveled to Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia for our honeymoon. We were there for two weeks. This post documents the things we did specifically in Austria over five days. Among the 24 countries I’ve visited, Austria is one of my favorites. I hope this post inspires you to visit the country.

Disclaimer: the activities were not completely done in sequence. The first three days were in sequence, but we then toured Slovenia and Croatia before returning to Austria for the last two days.

Day 1: Wachau, Salzburg

On July 17, we took an overnight flight from LAX to Austria, landing in Vienna International Airport at 8:40am. I booked a rental car from SIXT, a German company that offered automatic transmission vehicles. The rental car center was inside the airport and was easy to check in.

Note: Manual transmission cars are common in Europe. Automatic transmission rentals are less common and more expensive.

Our rental car for two weeks, the Opel Mokka (Buick Encore)

The first three days of the honeymoon, as well as the final two days, were to be spent in Austria. Given our flight back to the U.S. was also out of Vienna, we saved the country’s capital for the end of the trip and instead focused on Salzburg, Hallstatt, Zell Am See, and Glossglockner High Alpine Road.

The drive from Vienna to Salzburg would take three hours, so we detoured through Wachau Valley along the way – Austria’s wine country. As soon as we left the airport, I was immediately impressed by the cleanliness and pristine condition of the roads and highways. This reaction would persist throughout the trip – Austria is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever seen.

We got some snacks from a market called Lidl Österreich – one of our favorite things to do while abroad to get a sense of local foods.

The view en route to Wachau was stunning. We drove along the Danube River, the river I recall learning about in elementary school and was finally witnessing in person. We arrived about one hour later at a town called Stift Durnstein. The town has one main walkway that is peppered with shops and stalls.

Stift Durnstein. Main pathway.

The views were great: stone buildings at every turn, the river landscape in the immediate background, and mountains filled with grapevines in the backdrop. While still wearing our layers from the flight, I convinced poor Bonita to hike up a steep trail to Burgruine Durnstein, a 12th century fort where Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner. She was imprisoned by my poor choice of activity under the hot summer sun.

Stift Durnstein. View from Burgruine Durnstein.
Burgruine Durnstein, the ruins of the 12th century fotress.

After the detour, we slowly drove to Salzburg. I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight and was falling asleep at the wheel, so we pulled over twice for 20-30 minute naps. We arrived in Salzburg late afternoon and checked into our Airbnb, a nice estate 10 minutes outside the city. The Airbnb host was a retired Paralympics competitor in wheelchair racing and gave us a book he wrote as a memoir. The book is written entirely in German, so we’ll need a translation one day.

Airbnb. 10 minute drive outside Salzburg.

We drove into Salzburg and were just blown away. What a gorgeous city.

There’s a mighty fortress situated on the hill in the city center called Fortress Hohensalzburg. It could be seen from all directions and served as a beautiful compass as we explored the alley ways.

For dinner, we tried a locally prepared fish, wienerschnitzel, a rice dish, and a salad. Nothing was remarkable, and the schnitzel was on the salty side.

After dinner, we scoured around town for a while longer, then went back to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 2: Hallstatt, Salzburg

Hallstatt was the primary destination of the day, the town that’s been UNESCO listed since 1997. Home to the iconic picture that periodically appeared on my Windows PC login screen; beloved by Instagram influencers; reminiscent of Crash Landing on You. I was so damn excited.

But first, more grocery stores for sunscreen and breakfast! We went to Maximarkt Anif, a huge supermarket, and were impressed by its grandeur. I finally mustered enough courage to say “thank you” in German to the cashier. “Danke schön!” She smiled and repeated it back to me!

Off into the Central Alps we went! The drive looked very similar to Switzerland travel vlogs I’ve watched over the years. 1.5 hours later, we arrived in Hallstatt and parked in one of the three large designated, paid parking lots.

Hallstatt. View near the parking lot.

In what felt like an incredible stroke of luck, we visited a coffee shop Seecafe Hallstatt right along the lake and sat in tranquility. Just one other table was occupied, and like us they must have been too mesmerized by the view to talk.

After coffee, we walked through the town inhabited by less than 1,000 people, taking in our surroundings. I can’t believe some people wake up to this view every. single. day.

And of course, I couldn’t resist taking my own picture of the same picture that everyone else in the world has taken. It’s truly warranted.

A couple hours later, we took a multi-hour group tour through the Hallstatt Salt Mines, the oldest salt mine in the world, and still actively producing salt to this day. The mines are situated half way up a mountain, and the tour package included a roundtrip ticket up a funicular (a cable tram). I recommend the salt mine experience as it involves fascinating anthropology, geology, and riding down slides at pretty high speeds.

The tour is very informative. I won’t spoil anything further.

After the tour, we remained on the mountain and walked to a nearby restaurant called Rudolfsturm. The food quality was expectedly mediocre given its close proximity to a tourist attraction, but the view is what you’re really paying for. If you are not hungry, skip the food and just order a Radler.

After lunch, we drove just 10 minutes to Dachstein Krippenstein, a gondola built for ski lifts and hiking. We took the gondola up the mountain, up to 7,000 feet elevation, and hiked the trail called 5 Fingers.

Dachstein Krippenstein. Base of the gondola.
The cable car took a whopping 20 minutes to get to the top.

As soon as we got off the gondola, we were greeted by clear views of the Dachstein Mountains. The highest peak is about 9,000 feet tall, and some snow was still visible.

The first view upon exiting the gondola

We took the short 20 minute hike to the 5 Fingers lookout and were treated with views of Hallstatt from above. I couldn’t believe how clear the views were.

5 Fingers Lookout. Hallstatt in the backdrop, more than 1 mile in elevation lower from our position!

After a satisfying day, we descended down the mountain and drove back to Salzburg. We had a couple hours of sunlight remaining and walked around the charming city one more time, walking through Mirabell Palace (worth a visit), Mozart’s house (lame), and along the Salzach River (super beautiful).

Mirabell Palace

Dinner was at PitterKeller & PitterGarten and mediocre. Spoiler: Austria food was the least appealing to our palate of the trip, and we much preferred Slovenian and Croatian cuisine.

Day 3: Berchtesgaden National Park, Zell Am See, Grossglockner Alpine Road

We spontaneously changed our plans. The original plan was to spend half a day in Zell am See, but the town is more known for winter sports akin to Vail, CO, with limited attractions in the heat of summer. So we instead detoured to Germany and visited Berchtesgaden National Park. We didn’t encounter any customs/immigration checkpoint. There was simply a sign that welcomed us into Germany.

The Germany national park system was very inefficient. Driving through the park is free, but each parking lot requires payment. The payment booths are slow and barely responsive, and the line to pay was long.

Beautiful views, but 30 minutes of scorching heat just to buy a ticket was unexciting

We visited a specific part of the park called Wimbachklamm, which takes us very close to a large rapid waterfall. It was cool, but very short lived. Of the >1 hour hike, the waterfall is visible for <5 minutes. I would not recommend visiting the park.

After leaving Germany, we still had to drive through Zell am See, so we stopped in town for lunch and dessert. Lunch was at Restaurant Steinerwirt and was the tastiest Austrian meal yet. Dessert was at Bäckerei Unterberger – Filiale Zell am See.

The town is very quaint. I can see why it is a famous winter sports town and would love to ski down the slopes some day.

With our stomachs filled, the moment I had been waiting for all day: Grossglockner High Alpine Road. Growing up, when I wasn’t even 10 years old, one of my favorite video games was the Need for Speed (NFS) series, a car racing game. I specifically played NFS 3 and NFS 4, and some of my favorite race tracks were in the mountains. Fast forward to the early 2010s, I came across a YouTuber who had documented a drive through Europe, including through Grossglockner. The view was breathtaking, and I had wanted to drive through these mountains ever since.

So yeah. We finally made it happen. For readers who are mountain lovers, I sincerely hope this persuades you to rent a car and take this drive. The sheer magnitude of the Alps cannot be visualized in photos and must be seen in person.

I don’t even care about cars but I had to do a photoshoot of the rental car.
This kid’s dream finally came true.

We settled in a city called Villach, in a barn house turned into an Airbnb. It was a very beautiful and unique house, but I didn’t take photos. Reason being, the host opened up the windows to air out the room, and GOD DAMN MOSQUITOES swarmed the house like locusts in The Mummy. I shit you not, I spent 1.5 hours killing mosquitoes with my bare hands, and by launching pillows with precision onto the ceiling to knock down the ones out of reach despite having a torn labrum. I’ll have you know that, despite not taking any pictures of the unique house, I successfully killed off every mosquito, and we didn’t get a single bite throughout the night.

Dinner was at Villa Meschik Pizzeria. We had great tasting pizza.

This star-shaped pizza has additional toppings inside the crust.

Day 4: Graz, Vienna

We honestly didn’t look up many things in Graz, which made the experience much more rewarding. The Main square of Graz is historical and looks like Disneyland’s Main Street.

We hiked up and down Schlossberg, a hilltop castle built in the 10th century.

Schlossberg. View from half way up.

There’s a 13th century clocktower up on the hill called Uhrturm. Graz looks like Durnstein, but on a much bigger scale.

Schlossberg. View near Uhrturm.
View of the hilltop from below. At the base is one entrance into the Schlossberg Tunnels.

Near the base of Schlossberg is an extensive tunnel system called Schlossberg Tunnel. The system was built during World War II to protect civilians from aerial bombing. It was an eerie yet delightful experience.

Schlossberg Tunnels

We then drove up to Vienna and ate dinner at SIXTA, my favorite Austrian meal of the entire trip.

Day 5: Vienna

Unlike every other city we went to, parking in Vienna is incredibly difficult. Therefore, I parked near a subway station, and our destinations throughout the day were accessed via subway. The subway system is super easy to navigate by using Google Maps > transit. Schedules were accurate, and the subways were clean.

First stop: Schönbrunn Palace. The 18th century palace with extensive outdoor gardens. Tickets were easily purchased on-site despite many tourists.

Touring the inside of the palace was an additional cost that we opted out of.
The gardens are massive. Not Central Park big, but still really big.
View of the palace half way through the gardens.

Next stop: Cafe Central. We walked by St. Stephen’s Cathedral en route. The side of the cathedral was going through some repairs, and I very much appreciated the giant “STOP WAR” banner in Ukrainian blue and yellow colors hanging on the side.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

We waited 20 minutes before getting seated in the (in)famous cafe where Sigmund Freud, Hitler, and even Stalin all frequented.

After lunch and dessert in Cafe Central, Bonita convinced me to pretend I’m cultured by visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I had no few excuses not to oblige as it started raining.

Despite not being a museum person, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it. All artwork includes English descriptions. There was even an Egyptian exhibit.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon walking throughout the city, stumbling upon a boba shop called Ichiban Tea. The worker spoke Mandarin and was happy when I spoke his language, but the tea was not good. Vienna could benefit from boba tea shop innovation.

Missing Asian food, we got some Chinese at a restaurant named laolao, which was unexpectedly delicious. The restaurant was completely packed indicative of its popularity.

Pre-travel best practices

  • Get Global Entry / TSA Precheck. Valid for 5 years. Cost: $100
  • Get international driving permit with AAA. Valid for 1 year. Cost: $20
  • Get checking account with unlimited free ATM withdraws worldwide. I use Charles Schwab Bank. Cost: free
  • Get a good travel credit card. I use Chase Sapphire Preferred. Travel benefits: no foreign transaction fees, provides insurance coverage for rental cars. Cost: $95/year
  • Add Covid proof of vaccine to Apple Wallet and take a picture of the vaccine card.
  • Get a magnetic phone holder for car, for GPS navigation. Cost: $10.
  • Download Google Maps offline onto phone. Cost: free

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