Once upon a time, salt was the most valuable commodity available to mankind and the picturesque village of Hallstatt around the lake Hallstätter See in Austria was the epicentre of all activity with the world’s first known salt mine named Salzwelten. The village now stands as a testament to the life and development that existed in the Bronze Age but is often left unexplored owing to its offbeat path. A weekend or even a day trip from Woflgang Amadeus Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg leads to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which translates to ‘city of salt’ in Celtic language.
Hallstatt has yielded a steady supply of salt for 7,000 years and latest archaeological discoveries point to the existence of a rich civilisation dating back to the early part of the first millennium BC. Salt—long known as white gold—was priceless at the time and Hallstatt produced up to a tonne every day, supplying half of Europe, and raising the town to the continent’s richest and a major platform for trading in 800 BC.
All the salt produced was transported for 40 kilometres from Hallstatt to Ebensee via a brine pipeline, which is considered to be one of the world’s oldest pipelines constructed 400 years ago from 13,000 hollowed-out trees.
The small-town appeal makes Hallstatt stand out among other European destinations. It can literally be toured on foot in 10 minutes and looks like a page out of Johanna Spyri’s children’s book—Heidi. The region pretty much encompasses everything there is to want in a year-round paradise.
The snow-capped mountains towering over the quaint town, reflecting off the banks of the pristine waters is a view to behold. Starting from the fairytale-ish view of the Hallstätter See, a trip to the breathtaking cave in Obertraun and a visit to the Lake Gosau with the mighty Dachstein glacier—Hallstatt has a lot to offer.
Residents value their privacy and most doors ask tourists not to loiter, sit on their porch or use drones for photography. Bad Goisern is popular in the summer with hikers and bikers. In winter, the ski areas of Dachstein West in Gosau and the Ski and Freeride Arena in neighbouring Obertraun with perfect slope conditions open up.
A walk around the town leads to the local ossuary, which stores a collection of elaborately decorated skulls with the deceased’s name, profession, date of death inscribed on them. There is so little place for cemeteries that every 10 years bones are exhumed and removed into an ossuary, to make room for new burials.
No trip to Hallstatt is complete without a visit to the prehistoric salt mines. A recent archaeological expedition unearthed a staircase in perfect condition that led down to the mine. Guided tours go down up to three levels and are conducted all day long. Unlike other historical tours which load tourists with monotonous information, these require quite a bit of participation by sliding down the caves and sitting on buggies that were used by the ancient miners.
The jaunt ends on a high with a funicular ride that allows for a bird’s eye view of the town.