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memejs Jan 1st, 2020 06:16 PM

2019 Christmas in Europe (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany)
 
I think I'm sufficiently rested from transatlantic travel to start a trip report of my 2+ week trip to Austria and the Czech Republic for Christmas. I traveled with a friend. She had been to Europe for Christmas before (France and Germany) and has been wanting to visit Austria. I've been to Austria and the Czech Republic a number of years ago but wanted to experience the Christmas markets, so we combined our interests and planned a trip together. We're two women in our 30's who are relatively well traveled.

My itinerary was:
Dec 11-12 Travel USA to Munich
Dec 13 Fussen/Munich
Dec 14 Salzburg
Dec 15 Salzburg, train to Hallstatt
Dec 16 Hallstatt, train to Vienna
Dec 17-21 Vienna
Dec 22 Train to Prague
Dec 23-27 Prague

This will be a detailed report, so I'll write it bit by bit - as time allows - over the next few days and weeks.

Travel
I booked my flight last February using Chase Ultimate Reward miles. I was a little hesitant to fly with United given all of the negative attention they've received in the past few years, but luckily I had a solid (economy) travel experience. I used my Priority Pass for the first time to gain lounge access for my layover in Chicago, and wow that made the time pass so much more pleasantly than it does when sitting at the gate!

I flew into Munich. Germany wasn't the focus of this trip, but we chose Munich since it's the closest major airport to Salzburg, which is where we wanted to start the trip.

Fussen/Neuschwanstein Castle
I had a day to occupy myself before M arrived and I had decided to take the opportunity to see Neuschwanstein Castle. My flight landed about 1pm, and I immediately took a train to Fussen, where I would spend the night before seeing the castles the next day. I stayed in the Maurushaus Hotel, which was a cozy hotel run by an older couple who live in the building. My room on the ground floor was a decent size, the bathroom had plenty of hot water, and from my window I could see the building on the hillside lit up at night.

I ventured out to find dinner and was surprised by how quiet the town was. I know most people come as a daytrip to see the castles, but at Christmastime I expected Fussen to be busier than it was during the evening. I didn't have a huge appetite, so I found some soup at a restaurant and then wandered around with my camera for about an hour taking photos of the cute town.

The next morning I took the bus to Schwangau. I received a free public transport pass from the hotel, so I didn't need to pay for my bus trips. I had reserved tickets online ahead of time for Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. My entrance time for Hohenschwangau was 10am, but the confirmation said in big red letters that I needed to pick up tickets no later than 9am. I'm not sure how strict they are about this, but I felt it was unnecessary, as the castle is just a short walk away and I had to spend an hour waiting outside in the cold. Speaking of cold, the castles themselves were freezing inside! You'd think that they could afford to heat them with all of the thousands of people buying tickets to visit (although maybe there are more practical concerns that prevent them from heating the buildings). Hohenschwangau felt small for a castle, although that might be because the visit only takes you though a small portion of the building.

I had more time to kill outside in the cold before my entrance to Neuschwanstein at 12pm. I took my time walking up the hill. As I approached the castle it started to snow. I got wet and therefore really cold, and although I had handwarmers with me, I didn't use them because it was only the very beginning of the trip and I didn't want to go through them too quickly. It turns out this was the coldest I got on the trip, so I made myself suffer needlessly!

The castles themselves were unique and interesting. I've heard people say that it's not worth it to take the tour of Neuschwanstein since it's only 30 minutes long, but I totally disagree. If you're going to go and see the exterior of the castle, you should definitely see the interior too. It's beautiful and over the top and so unique, also it was very crowded, although this was to be expected. What I hadn't realized when I first formulated the plan to see Neuschwanstein in its winter glory is that the Marianbrucke bridge would be closed. I hadn't realized that they close the bridge, which is the point from which all of those iconic photos are taken, when the weather is icy or snowy. Now, I'm not going to say that I do things solely for the pictures, but taking photos and videos and using them to relive the trip is a big part of my travel, so this was especially disappointing.

After my time at the castles I took the bus back to Fussen and happened upon the cutest bakery/cafe for lunch - Konditorei Zuckermann Cafe. I had creamy potato soup served with really good slices of bread. I wanted to stay for dessert, but I needed to rush off to catch the train to Munich. Or at least I thought I needed to rush. It turns out the train was late, so I had ample time.

Now that I know what I know, I'm not sure this side trip to the castles was worth the expense it added on to the trip. I spent the night in Fussen rather than doing it as a day trip from Munich in order to beat the crowds, which means I had to buy two train tickets instead of the Bayern day pass ticket. And with Mary's bridge being closed I felt like I didn't get the full Neuschwanstein experience (although now that I'm going through my photos, I realize that I did get some good shots and I don't need to plan to return at some point in the spring or summer). I probably could have spent the day in Munich and been equally as happy. However, it is what it is and I'm glad to have seen the castles and especially glad to have experienced the extremely cute town of Fussen.


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memejs Jan 1st, 2020 06:19 PM

Munich
I arrived back in Munich around 6pm and met up with M, who had arrived earlier that day and checked into our hotel, the mk hotel munchen city. I'd chosen this hotel because it had good reviews and was close to the train station. Judging from the number of strip clubs on the street, it's not located in the best neighborhood, which I was surprised hadn't been mentioned in any of the reviews I read. Also, the reception for the hotel is in the bar downstairs, and no one at the bar seems to be very interested in helping hotel guests. That being said, the room itself was nice and served its purpose well.

We went for dinner at Hofbrauhaus, the famous Bavarian beer hall which I would describe as somewhere that feels like a touristy place trying to be Bavarian but actually is frequented by locals. We wandered around for a while until we found some people leaving and we snagged their table. We got the giant pretzel (we had to!), and I ordered a sausage and sauerkraut and M ordered schnitzel. We don't drink alcohol, so there was no beer for us. After dinner we wandered back through the Marienplatz Christmas market, which was just starting to close up for the night.

Tomorrow, on to Salzburg!

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Adelaidean Jan 2nd, 2020 12:56 AM

Atmospheric photos. I liked Füssen, it’s a sweet town. Lots of nice walks in the summer.

memejs Jan 2nd, 2020 07:54 PM

Adelaidean Thank you! Yes, the proprietor of my hotel gave me a quite thorough orientation and it sounds like there is a lot to do in the area, especially in the warmer seasons.

memejs Jan 2nd, 2020 07:59 PM

Salzburg
We arrived early the next morning for our train to Salzburg, and it’s a good thing we did because the train was crowded with people going to Salzburg for a day trip or weekend getaway. There were people who had to stand the entire way because all of the seats were taken.

We weren’t able to check in early to our AirBnB, so we stashed our bags in the lockers at the train station, which was a simple process.

We walked down to the river and across the bridge into the old town and were immediately charmed by all of the lights and decorations, both agreeing that Salzburg, although small, has a sophisticated elegance to it. Although the plan was to save the Christmas markets for the evening - once it was dark - we couldn’t help but take the time now to wander the Christkindlmarkt at Domplatz. It was packed! I had my first kaiserkrainer, which served hot dog style in a huge baguette was almost too much for me to finish.

I came on this trip intending to buy quite a few Christmas decoration souvenirs, and I had to remind myself that this was just the beginning of the trip and I need to exercise restraint. It turns out that the markets in Salzburg had some of the most unique items for sale, and I later regretted that I hadn’t been quicker to hand over my credit card. I did buy one ornament at the market and then we found the Christmas in Salzburg store, which is a shop filled with thousands of hand painted egg(shell) ornaments. It’s there year-round and worth a stop in, even if you don’t have an interest in purchasing anything.

By now it was time for our Sound of Music bus tour with Panorama Tours. We visited a park from which we could see the place where they filmed the backyard/lake scenes, the lane where Maria sings “I Have Confidence,” the famous gazebo at Hellbrunn Palace, the church in Mondsee where they filmed the wedding scene, and then a short visit to Mirabell gardens at the end. We spent a lot of time on the bus (the drive to Mondsee takes about an hour but it’s very scenic), and while in the summer I might have viewed that as a negative, M and I were more than happy with the leisurely pace. Our guide was great and took advantage of the bus time to tell us trivia and behind the scenes facts about the movie and the real-life Von Trapp family. My suspicion is that the tour is much better in the spring or summer, when the fountains at Hellbrunn are running and the Mirabell gardens are in bloom, but I had set my expectations accordingly for a winter tour and was happy with the experience. In fact, our visit to Mondsee had the added bonus of getting to experience the cutest small-town Christmas market. I had my first kinderpunsch there, and it was so good –a thick berry flavored cider.

One note – the Christmas market at Hellbrunn looked really pretty and festive and we were sad that we wouldn’t have time to return before it closed down at a relatively early 8pm.

Once finished with the tour, we walked back to the train station, retrieved our bags, and took a bus to our AirBnB. We were happy to find that, although not luxurious, the apartment was in a nice neighborhood and was true to the photos we’d seen in the listing. At this point M just wanted to eat and rest, and while that sounded good to me, I thought I’d regret not going back out to the market to see it all lit up at night, so we split up for the next few hours.

The market was much calmer by now since all of the day-trippers had left. A friend whose mother is Austrian had told me about Austria’s poppyseed pastries, so I got a giant poppyseed pretzel. It was not terrible but also not great – I didn’t think poppyseeds really had a flavor but when you eat that many of them at once they taste very earthy. I wandered through the Domplaz market and down the Getreidsgasse to the Stern Advent market taking tons of photos along the way.

They next day was Sunday, and although neither of us is Catholic, we wanted the experience of visiting the Cathedral during mass. We left the apartment about an hour before mass was to begin and took the most beautiful walk on the paths below and leading up to the fortress. The day was clear and sunny and we had amazing views of the mountains in the distance while hearing the clang of church bells. This walk was one of the best things we did during our (short) time in Salzburg. There were quite a few locals out running or walking dogs and being out there among them made the experience feel like were part of the city.

The cathedral was full, although it was apparent that many of the attendees were tourists like us. The choir that accompanied the service sang beautifully. We stayed for about 45 minutes before slipping out; we wanted time to ascend the Monchsburg Lift to the viewing platform. We spent about 30 minutes taking photos and then took the hilltop paths back to our apartment. From there it was time to take the bus to the train station and then a train on to Hallstatt.

I loved our time in Salzburg. I know that our visit was so brief that we really didn’t do justice to the city. While I now feel like I’ve “done” Vienna and don’t really have a desire to return, I’d be more than happy to return to Salzburg, ideally in the late spring or summer to explore the city and the surrounding lakes and hills.

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tomarkot Jan 3rd, 2020 06:12 AM

Thoroughly enjoying your report, memejs! We have visited Munich and Salzburg, and especially liked Salzburg. However, our experiences were in the fall, so minus the Christmas lights and markets. Thanks for including so many details. I'll stay tuned for more!

Adelaidean Jan 3rd, 2020 11:07 AM

Yes, Salzburg in winter looks so lovely.
I’ve been twice in summer and really enjoy the trees and the flowers, but that is so pretty in winter.

Melnq8 Jan 3rd, 2020 02:50 PM

I'm enjoying your report as well, particularly as we just left Salzburg on Saturday and I have a few of the same photos. I'm working on my report as well, although it seems you had much better weather than we did!

memejs Jan 3rd, 2020 07:51 PM

tomarkot Thank you! Does Salzburg get at all colorful during the fall or is it just a gradual fading from green to brown? (Actually, I was surprised by how green things still were in the winter.)

Adelaidean and Melnq8 Yes, we really lucked out with weather for the entire trip. Salzburg covered in snow with blue skies would have made for amazing photos, but when it comes to an actual vacation and being out and about for hours on end, I'll take the warmer weather and no snow.

Melnq8 I'll keep an eye out for your report!

love_travel_Aus Jan 3rd, 2020 07:58 PM

Thank you for this delightful and ongoing report.
We love Christmas markets and have yet to get to any in Salzburg so here's hoping we will make it one year.
I have just packed away our collection of Christmas decorated eggs purchased about 8 years ago from that store in Salzburg!
We love them and when we first purchased them they were carefully packed and shipped to us and all arrived unbroken! I tried to get a few more last year in February but the young attendant in the shop did not seem to understand the request - so having to look after these very carefully indeed.
Looking forward to reading more...
Thank you.

memejs Jan 3rd, 2020 08:05 PM

Hallstatt
We left Salzburg for Hallstatt by train on Sunday afternoon. Our journey included one transfer (at Attnang-Pucheim); we didn’t reserve specific seats and we didn’t need to, as the trains weren’t very crowded. It was a very scenic journey.

Once we arrived at the Hallstatt train stop it was just a short walk down the path to the waiting ferry. The fare was 12 euros for a return ticket and I believe it may be cash only, so be sure to have cash on hand.

We had booked a room at Weisses Lamm for $136 for the night, and we were very happy with our third floor (2nd European floor) room with a balcony and great view. Many of the reviews mentioned the rude woman who runs the hotel, but luckily we were checked in by someone else who was perfectly polite.

With only 30 minutes or so until sunset, we dropped our bags and headed out to the popular viewpoint that looks back at the city. Since it was winter and an overcast day at that, we didn’t get those sparkling, colorful views that you see when you do a Google search for Hallstatt, but it was beautiful all the same.

We meandered back through the city, stopping to peek in the shops. There were some cute items and lots of tacky, cheap souvenirs, but ultimately nothing I felt I had to bring back home with me. There were some people throwing bread to some swans, so of course we had to stop and take pictures. Such beautiful animals! We wandered around looking for a restaurant that fit the criteria of cozy and healthy-ish food on the menu (only a few days in and we were already looking for some variation from the meat and potatoes-heavy diet of the region). We settled on Braugasthof, which was a good choice. I had a roasted vegetables and potatoes skillet and M had trout and a simple but amazingly delicious apple cake. M said this meal was one of the best of the entire trip.

Because the sun sets around 4pm, it felt late even though it was probably only around 7pm. We happily went back to the hotel to rest, journal, and Facetime with our families. I actually loved that it got dark so early. I run myself ragged on my summer trips – getting up early to beat the crowds and staying out until the last ray of daylight and beyond – and I was hoping for a slower pace for this trip. The early sunsets allowed us to experience the Christmas markets at night and still be back in our hotel or apartment with plenty of time to unwind and relax.

The next morning we were up and out the door by about 8am. We wanted to go back to the viewpoint for some more pictures (although the weather hadn’t really changed so the view looked the same as it had the evening before). We also walked to the cemetery at the Catholic church. Along the way I stopped to pet a cat who was waiting outside what I presume is the front door to her house. Since her owners were probably fast asleep and she wasn’t getting inside anytime soon, she decided to follow us down the path to the church. I adore cats, so I settled myself on the ground in front of the church door (it wasn’t open yet) and the fierce-faced but sweetly-dispositioned cat crawled onto my lap for some more pets. I was just starting to take photos of the grave sites in front of the church when M came to tell me there were many more around the back. It may seem strange to seek out grave sites, but the style of these is so different to what I’ve seen before. They’re…friendly, like little garden plots. I’d love to have a grave site like this (not any time soon though)!

We made our way back to the hotel, where we ate the breakfast that was included with our booking fee. It was a nice spread of cereals, yogurt, breads, meats, and cheeses. And then it was back to the ferry for another boat ride across the lake, the train back to Attnang-Pucheim, and a train on to Vienna.

It was a short visit and one we had debated doing when planning the trip. I had put Hallstatt on my bucket list years ago, but we weren’t entirely sure if it would be worth visiting in the winter, if it would be overrun with crowds, etc. We arrived in the evening and left in the morning, so we missed what crowds might have been there during the middle of the day. Ultimately we were glad we visited. Hallstatt is a cute town that has a lot of charm, even if it’s super touristy these days.

Up until this point the trip had been fast-paced, in a new location each day, but now we were ready to settle down for a good long week in Vienna!


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Adelaidean Jan 3rd, 2020 08:46 PM

Love your photo of Hallstatt.

And here is that cemetery in summer, you are right, the flower displays and plants are just beautiful.
I think we visit cemeteries nearly everywhere we go, not by intention, ....there is the church visit, then the gardens just lure me in. And here the outlook is just astonishing isn’t it.


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Hallstatt cemetery

Melnq8 Jan 4th, 2020 05:28 AM

I also have a thing for European cemeteries. I could probably fill a book with cemetery photos.

We visited Hallstatt last December - just a day trip from St Gilgen. I'd considered taking my niece while we were in Salzburg last week, but the incredibly long line for the bus, the miserable weather and the short days convinced me otherwise. There was just so much to see and do in Salzburg that I don't regret not trying harder to fit it in.

Glad you enjoyed your short visit though.

elberko Jan 4th, 2020 12:48 PM

Thank you for posting!

I spent time in the same spots in December 2017. I also regretted not buying things I saw in Salzburg, but indulged in poppyseed pastries at every opportunity, as I grew up with them.

memejs Jan 6th, 2020 06:55 AM

Adelaidean Wow, the cemetery is even more beautiful in the summer!

Melnq8 Yes, I think had we opted to skip Hallstatt and spend more time in Salzburg we would have been equally as happy. I'm enjoying your trip report.

elberko Thanks for reading!

Macross Jan 6th, 2020 07:14 AM

Your night pictures came out so well. I deleted most of mine, just blurry. Did you use a camera or your phone? I love the chicken at the Hofbrau, so crispy but still juicy. We stayed very close to it via a passage way so ate there our first night. Packed and like you waited to grab a seat.

memejs Jan 6th, 2020 08:03 AM

Macross My night pictures on my iPhone 8 were horrible, M's iPhone 11 did awesome at night. The night photos I'm posting are from my DSLR. I cranked up the ISO, kept it on a fast shutter speed so that they weren't totally blurry, and then lightened things up in Lightroom.

memejs Jan 6th, 2020 08:10 AM

Vienna
We arrived in Vienna via train from Hallstatt in the early afternoon. Since we were arriving on a Monday afternoon and would be leaving the following Sunday morning, we bought the Monday-Monday weekly public transit pass for about 17 euros. This was so nice to have! I love walking, but it was also really nice to just be able to jump on a bus or a tram if we were tired or cold and wanted to get somewhere as quickly as possible.

We were able to check in early to what would be our favorite accommodation of the trip – an AirBnB called Emperor Sissi’s (sic) Center Jewel. It’s an apartment with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, living space, and a washer and dryer. The furnishings echo the style of some of what you see in the Imperial Apartments in the Hofburg Palace. It’s located just outside the Ringstrasse in the 3rd district, which I found to be kind of a boring residential neighborhood, in the best possible way – i.e. it was quiet and safe.

After getting settled we made our way into the city center. Our first destination was Café Central for some lunch, but on the way we came upon the Christmas market in the courtyard of the Spanish Riding School stables. It’s so cute to see the horses looking out of their stables, just a few feet away from the market stalls.

We arrived at Café Central to find a line. Oh how things have changed since my previous visit to Vienna in 2010! Fortunately, the line went fairly quickly, and we were soon seated at a small table. I wanted to get “real food” from the Christmas market, so I just ordered dessert: a chocolate raspberry cake, which was very good. M got goulash (which she liked) and a chocolate and cream cake.

By now it was dark, so we made our way over to the Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt. Our first impression was WOW! There’s a grand arch at the entrance and what seems like thousands of lights and dozens of booths. We wandered around to get an idea of how things were set up – the big tree with the hearts on the right, market stalls in the center, ice skating paths on the left. In planning this trip I thought that ice skating on a path would be easier and less intimidating than trying to dodge people on a rink, but one look at all of the people whizzing by and I quickly took ice skating off my to-do list. I wandered the market looking for a stand that sold spatzle, and after a while of not seeing any, I settled on buying a pizza cone for dinner, which was very good (but of course we came across a spatzle stand not soon after). I also got a kinderpunsch, which was my least favorite of all the hot drinks I bought on the trip – it was just…thin. The stalls selling non-edible goods were kind of disappointing, but I’d read enough about the markets in Vienna to know that I was more likely to find unique, handcrafted goods at other markets. I did find one stall with some nice German Christmas pyramids, which is a souvenir I was really hoping to bring home. I made note of the location of the stall so that I could come back on another day, after I’d had the chance to look around a bit more.

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joanatravels Jan 6th, 2020 08:39 AM

Wow! That photo of Hallstatt—so beautiful! Amazing photos! Makes me wish I was there! Thank you for sharing!

Adelaidean Jan 6th, 2020 10:55 AM

Ok, you make me want to learn more about night photography. I’ve always been a point and shoot photographer, but do have a decent camera to play around with.

wow, that is some apartment, what a find.


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