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Despite all the time I’ve spent in Austria over the years, there’s still so much of the country I’ve yet to explore. It’s fair to say I know Vienna quite well at this stage, but there’s so much more to Austria than one city. The Salzkammergut region in the country’s northwest was one part I’d gotten a glimpse at and was keen to experience more of. So during a gap between lockdowns I took the opportunity to travel to the region and visit the town of St Gilgen on the lake of Wolfgangsee.
Before coming to St Gilgen, my knowledge of the Salzkammergut was limited to several trips to the popular tourist town of Hallstatt. But there’s always more to a place than its best known destination and my trip to St Gilgen proved to me that there are many gorgeous lakeside towns to be found in Austria. So, whether you’re curious about visiting Sankt Gilgen or have never heard of it, here’s what the pretty town is like.
The Town of Sankt Gilgen
Let’s start with the town itself, as St Gilgen (or Sankt Gilgen as its fully written) is one adorable place to visit. Then sits at the north-western end of the Wolfgangsee and is home to under 4000 residents. Like many destinations in the region though, those numbers swell when tourists roll in over the summer, at least typically. It’s worth noting that St Gilgen isn’t the only destination on the lake, with St. Wolfgang im Salzkammergut and Strobl the two other main towns, which are connected with St Gilgen by ferry.
Interestingly, it’s hard to really point out any main historical or cultural attractions in town. There is a church and several small museums, but those really aren’t why you come to St Gilgen. No, what makes it so delightful is its real alpine feel, full of large traditional alpine buildings with painted facades, blooming flower boxes, lots of greenery and hanging flags. Walking around the town won’t take you long, but it really packs in the charm.
What really makes St Gilgen though is its setting. Backed by hills covered in forest and looking out at some serious mountains across the lake, there’s no forgetting where you are.
By the Wolfgangsee
There are an awful lot of lakes around the Salzkammergut in Austria, which is why it’s sometimes described abroad as the “Salzburg Lake District”. The lakes of the region are glacial, giving them a clarity and vibrancy of colour that’s just incredible to see in person.
Having visited a few of the region’s lakes at this point, I have to say that the Wolfgangsee on which St Gilgen sits is probably my favourite. Whenever you’re lakeside along the Wolfgangsee, you’re struck by how clear and vivid the water is. Yes that aqua/turquoise colour is completely genuine and totally picture-perfect.
Before you ask, no I didn’t go for a swim as the water was far too chilly for my liking and I had other plans. But in the heat of summer, I can see the appeal of cooling off here with a swim. There are plenty of options for swimming and sunbathing, with the main on being the Strandbad St. Gilgen public beach. Found just north of the town centre, it was full of people around the clock.
One thing that really stood out to me about Wolfgangsee is how many small boats and dinghies there are on it. Heading out onto the lake with them seems to be quite popular with Austrian holidaymakers and I think would be a fun thing to experience one day.
The Village of Fürberg
Around St Gilgen there are some really nice neighbourhoods and villages, but the one that really made an impression on me was the adorable village of Fürberg. Found just east of the town past the lake’s northern edge, Fürberg feels like it’s off in its own little world. If you’re looking for something to do for a few hours, it’s well worth the time.
To reach the village you follow the waterfront north and the road will eventually fade into a pleasant walking path. Past hedges, cliffs and forest, this gentle path clings to the waterfront and lets you see just how clear the Wolfgangsee is. Looking at the water under the shade of trees you can see countless fish as plain as day.
This easy trail winds around to Fürberg’s ferry wharf and its pretty, and only, hotel. Most tourists simply pop in with the ferry, have a drink or wander, and then get the next ferry further along the lake. But the trails do continue on south from Fürberg, right through to St Wolfgang im Salzkammergut if you like. Just south of the ferry wharf you’ll also find an extremely popular local beach, with plenty of grass for lounging in the summer sun.
Hiking in the Salzkammergut
Perhaps my favourite aspect of staying in St Gilgen though was the opportunity to go on various nature walks and hikes. With its mountains, hiking is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Salzkammergut and understandably so.
The simplest option is to just follow the waterfront along the Wolfgangsee, but what you find depends on which direction you head. Walk south from St Gilgen and it’s fairly open with lake houses and boat sheds. Head around east past Fürberg however and you find forest and small hills, leading up to this lovely view of the Ochsenkreuz shrine above. It’s one of the more curious spots on the lake and also offers great views back to St Gilgen.
But you don’t necessarily need to stick to the shore to find walking trails around St Gilgen. South and west of town there are all manner of trails over to the Weißwand and Gamswandalm, plus way up to Zwölferhorn. I only did the gentlest, lowest of the walks through this area but even they delivered stunning scenery. You could easily spend a week hiking here and not run out of new places to explore.
The reason I didn’t hike too much west of the lake, was because I was conserving my energy. My big goal coming to this part of Austria was to hike Schafberg, the mountain seen above. Rising over 1000 metres over St Gilgen, the climb up Schafberg is one of the most breathtaking Salzkammergut trails you’ll find. The hike left me absolutely exhausted but the feeling when I reached the summit and saw four different lakes below was incredible.
Visiting St Gilgen and the Salzkammergut
What’s really nice about travelling to Sankt Gilgen is that it’s one of the easiest places on the Salzkammergut lakes to visit. If you don’t have a car, the easiest way to reach St Gilgen is by bus. The 150 bus from Salzburg to St Gilgen is quite frequent, leaves from Salzburg’s Neustadt area and takes just 40 minutes. This is definitely one destination where being without a car isn’t that big of a deal.
The other nice aspect of the town is that it has a nice selection of hotels and guesthouses for you to choose from. Don’t expect anything too cheap though, it is Austria after all. For my trip I stayed as the Hotel Schernthaner, a really pleasant and central three-star St Gilgen hotel that I highly recommend.
One thing I will also mention is that timing is important for a destination like this. I visited in early summer and it was quite warm and fairly busy considering global events. You may find the peak of summer here in a normal year pretty hot and intense. As for coming in winter, it’s not a major ski area with just a little backcountry skiing available. I should say that the St Gilgen cable car was not operational when I visited. The new cable car up to Zwölferhorn opened in late 2020, so I’m curious to experience it when/if I return one day.
Have you had the opportunity to visit St Gilgen, Wolfgangsee, or the Salzkammergut region in Austria? What other areas in the Salzkammergut would you recommend people visit? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.