Alpine Adventures in the Mountains of Germany and Austria
Mountains in every direction, surrounding deep blue lakes ...
Storybook villages with timbered chalets ...
Window boxes overflowing with colorful flowers ...
Cows with huge bells, grazing in fields of wildflowers ...
Elaborate painted houses ...
fairytale castles ...
Huge mugs of beer ...
Bowls of goulash soup ...
A Mozart concerto ...
An oompa band in a crowded beer hall
These are just a few of the sights, tastes and sounds we've enjoyed in the alpine areas of Germany and Austria, to the south and east of Munich. Our family has visited this part of Europe seven times over the past 15 years, in every season of the year. We've experienced alpine cities, towns and villages and have stayed in hotels and apartments. These days we're committed Slow Travelers and we prefer to base in a village or small town, staying a week or more in a rental apartment. The German and Austrian Alps are ideal destinations for a "slow" European vacation, combining a week or two in a mountain village with a few days in Munich and/or Salzburg.
A trip to this area usually begins in Munich, one of our favorite European cities. Munich has good airline connections with the US and train connections to major European cities. It's a busy and interesting city, filled with architecture, museums, restaurants, and yes - those famous beer halls.
We also love the smaller, elegant city of Salzburg, Austria, just across the German border, about two hours from Munich by car. Situated on the Salzach River and surrounded by mountains, Salzburg is the birthplace of the composer Mozart and today is a city filled with the "sound of music". There are concerts in various venues almost every night. We especially enjoyed the two Christmases we spent in Salzburg.
You can rent a car in Munich and head to your Alpine destination, an easy drive on the Autobahn (highway). Note: Stop at the border and buy a sticker to use the Autobahn in Austria.
You can take a train from the center of Munich to Salzburg or Garmisch-Patchenkirchen and rent a car there. It's a 1-1/2 hour trip by train to either destination, with trains about every hour. Inexpensive individual and group tickets are available with a Bayern ticket (a discount train ticket).
Where to Stay
There are several possibilities of where to base for a slow vacation in the Bavarian or Austrian Alps. The suggested towns and villages offer many options for vacation rentals, several restaurants, grocery stores and other support for daily life, beautiful views, and easy access to a week's worth of pleasure within a 30 to 60 minute drive.
Stay in the Bavarian Alps
Garmisch-Partchenkirchen is the largest town in this area, with a population of about 26,000. This was our base for a week's vacation in June/July 2008. Once two separate villages, the unified town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen was formed just before they hosted the 1936 Winter Olympic games. The town still has the feeling of two smaller villages. Garmisch has an attractive pedestrian center with lots of shops and restaurants; its lush "Kurpark" has free concerts every night in the summer. Partenkirchen has an older, more rustic feel.
Mountains surround the valley, and you can hike from the town center to the base of the mountains in less than 20 minutes. There are cable car and mountain train stations that will take you up the mountains, including an unforgettable trip to the top of the Zugspitze, Germany's highest peak.
Mittenwald is located twenty minutes south of Garmisch, not far from the Austrian border. It's a picturesque and welcoming village of about 8000 people with its own mountain (the Karwendel). Mittenwald is world-famous as a center for violin-making.
Twenty minutes north of Garmisch, Oberammergau is known for its painted houses, woodcarvers, and every-ten-years Passion Play extravaganza. (It is next performed in 2010, and I don't recommend trying to stay in Oberammergau then!)
We've stayed in Oberammergau four times; three times in a hotel and one time for a week in a rental apartment. This is a charming, almost fairy-tale village with a population of about 5000 people. It's an excellent base for enjoying the Bavarian Alps.
If you are interested in visiting the famous castles of King Ludwig II, the towns of Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Hohenschwangau are easily reached from Garmisch, Oberammergau or Mittenwald. A fourth castle, Herrienchiemsee, is located off the autobahn on the way to Salzburg.
Berchtesgaden (population 7700) is about two hours from Garmisch and only 30 minutes from Salzburg, Austria. This is another good base for week-long stay in a vacation rental. This traditional village is surrounded by mountains, including Germany's third highest mountain, the Watzmann. In addition to summer hiking and winter sports, activities in this area include a boat trip on the Königsee, a salt mine tour (not to be missed!) and a trip up the Kehlstein mountain to its scenic "Eagles Nest" overlook.
Stay in the Salzkammergut (Austrian Alps)
The Salzkammergut is a magnificent region of mountains and lakes, about 30 minutes east of Salzburg. There is skiing in the winter, but summer is the ideal time to experience the magic and beauty of the Salzkammergut. You can explore the lakes by ferry or small rented boats. The mountain peaks are easily accessible by cogwheel mountain train, cable car, or funicular. The hiking in this area is excellent, with options for all levels of ability. There are many vacation rentals, especially in the area around Lake Wolfgang (the Wolfgangsee).
St. Gilgen is one of our favorite villages in Europe, and we've rented apartments here twice. The location is extremely convenient for access to Salzburg and touring in the local area. Extremely picturesque, the village of 3,000 people is nestled at the end of Lake Wolfgang with mountain views in every direction.
There are a couple of grocery stores and bakeries and a variety of restaurants and other shops. Free concerts are held frequently in the summer. A chairlift runs from the top of the village to the peak of the Zwölferhorn mountain.
St. Wolfgang, with a population of 2,800, is another popular resort, located across the Wolfgangsee from St. Gilgen. There are restaurants, shops, and a busy waterfront, including a beautiful pilgrimage church that dates to the 15th century. The cogwheel train up the Schafberg mountain departs from one end of the village. From the top of the Schafberg there are spectacular views in every direction.
The village of Mondsee ("moon lake") is located on its own lake, 25 minutes from Salzburg by autobahn. This village is a little larger than St. Gilgen and St. Wolfgang and has a brightly-colored main street and a large abbey, best known today for its use as the filming location for the wedding scene in "The Sound of Music."
Beyond the Wolfgangsee and an hour's drive from Salzburg, the historic spa town of Bad Ischl is a bigger, more active place with a population of 14,000.
The town has beautiful parks, and the former summer home of Emperor Franz-Joseph is well-worth a visit. The newly renovated spa center offers a relaxing break.
A Typical Vacation Rental
The traditional architecture in this area is enchanting, and even new buildings have been constructed in the traditional style.
Most residential buildings are multi-level wooden chalets with narrow balconies, usually decorated with colorful shutters and flower boxes. There may just be one or two apartments in a large house, and the owners may live in another part of the building. If a house is in the village center, there may be a shop on the ground floor.
Newer buildings have often been built as apartment complexes with several apartments in the same facility. Some of these complexes may be primarily skiing accommodations.
It can be cool in this area, even in summer, so it's unusual to find private pools, but there may be swimming pools in large complexes or public pools for community use. Many people also swim in the lakes in the warmer months.
Rentals are usually extremely clean, but can sometimes seem bland or devoid of color. Expect to find a lot of wood in the interior and furnishings. Although the buildings are very traditional on the outside, furnishings are sometimes surprisingly modern.
Most rentals have up-to-date conveniences, often with updated appliances and bathrooms. Many dining areas have traditional booth-style seating. Beds for two people normally have a shared headboard but two mattresses and two separate duvets.
- European Experiences - Salzkammergut: The Salzkammergut in the Austrian Alps and Salzburg.
- European Experiences - Bavarian Alps: The Bavarian Alps in southern Germany.
Finding Vacation Rentals
Vacation rentals are popular with Germans and Austrians, so there are many rentals available in these popular alpine areas, and most are very reasonably priced. Unfortunately, these rentals can be hard for English-speaking travelers to find. There are very few large agencies marketing properties, as there are for France, Italy and England, and individual owners are not aggressive in marketing their properties to English-speakers.
The German names for vacation rental or self-catering rental are ferienwohnung (holiday apartment) or ferienhaus (holiday house). For more rural rentals, you will also see the term bauernhof (farmhouse).
Vacation Rental Agencies
- Erika Kuen lives in Garmisch and has a small agency that lists about 25 apartments. Erika speaks and writes fluent English and her website has an English option.
- Another small agency in Garmisch-Partenkirchen is Schobert Ferienwohnungen, which has about 20 properties in various parts of town. This site is only in German, and there's no indication of support for English-speakers, but they have some nice rentals.
- American-based Untours, which offers vacation rental packages with some local support, has offerings in the Salzburg area.
- The Swiss company Interhome is the largest agency for vacation rentals in Europe. They have some listings in Upper Bavaria and quite a few listings in the Salzkammergut.
Rent-by-Owner Directory Websites
Some local owners list their properties on rent-by-owner sites targeting English-speaking visitors.
- US-based HomeAway has a few listings in the Salzkammergut but many listings in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (including Garmisch, Oberammergau and Mittenwald). Erica Kuen's rentals are listed on this site.
- The British-based HolidayLettings has quite a few listings in the Salzkammergut. We located a small apartment in St. Gilgen through this site in 2005. It was owned by a British couple, situated in a small complex of chalets across the main road from the village center. Although our apartment is no longer listed, there are several rentals in this same complex on the HolidayLettings site.
Tourist Offices Websites
Although it isn't necessarily easy, tourist offices provide access to the most rentals. Each town or village tourist office has an extensive website and most have an English-language version with many listings for vacation rentals. This seems to be the primary way that individual owners market their rentals.
It can be a laborious process to search through them and there is often limited information on the rentals. Some listings have links to an owner's website, where there are more photos. I prefer properties that have an English language website or mention that the owner speaks English, as this makes it easier to ask questions, arrange a booking, and interact when you arrive. Many people in this area do speak and write English well.
Some owner websites are only in German. If you find a rental that really interests you, you can still write a simple message in English and make arrangements in English through e-mail. (It may take a few days to get a response if the owner needs to get help from a family member or friend.) Or you can use Babel Fish to translate a simple message to and from German.
We have found that the people in this area are extremely accommodating, polite and trusting. Individual owners may not have any kind of rental agreement, and don't be surprised if the owner doesn't need a deposit from you. Two of our four rentals in this area - both with local owners - didn't want a deposit.
You could arrive in town without reservations most of the year, go to the tourist office, and they would help you find a decent rental. We're a family of three who needs two bedrooms and wants to be assured of a special rental, so I always research and book in advance. An advance booking is essential if you are vacationing in July or August or traveling with a larger group.
Note: Look around on the tourist office websites. Most of the tourism websites in this area offer an option to request a brochure or package of information through the mail, regardless of where you live. You'll get a big colorful catalog of information on the area and accommodations, as well as some great maps and other resources. Some materials may be in German, but you can still get a good idea of possible rentals and then get back on the internet to find more information and send e-mails. The maps are also helpful to understand a rental's location in the village.
Tourist Office Websites for Bavaria (Germany)
- Oberammergau (in German, select Gastgeber and Ferienwohnung)
- Garmisch-Partenkirchen (in English, select vacation apartments)
- Mittenwald (in English)
- Berchtesgaden (in English)
Tourist Office Websites for Salzkammergut (Austria)
- St. Gilgen, St. Wolfgang and Mondsee (in English, select private holiday home)
- Bad Ischl (in English, select holiday home and private holiday home)
Wood Family Recommendations
I found all these rentals/resources through Tourist Office websites.
Garmish: Erika Kuen. We rented through Erika's agency in 2008 and would definitely rent from her again. She was efficient and helpful in our e-mail communications, and we were able to send a deposit check in US dollars. The apartment we rented was very much as presented on Erika's website. We would have been happy in many of Erika's apartments.
Oberammergau: Shuster Family Apartments. We rented the larger apartment in April 2005. The Shuster family lives downstairs. Located on the edge of the village, this was a very comfortable and economical rental.
St. Gilgen: Gotthalmseder Apartments. We rented the larger apartment in June 2008. It's in a great location and one of the best places we've ever rented in Europe. Frau Gotthalmseder lives on the ground floor. The other apartment on the website is on a beautiful square and is owned by her son.
Kathy Wood describes herself as "a passionate European traveler," a condition she believes was instilled at the time of her birth in Munich, Germany. Kathy has made over 20 trips to Europe, including a 14 month "grand tour" with her husband Charley and 11-year old daughter in 2005 - 2006. She has rented more than thirty vacation rentals in seven European countries.
Kathy and Charley share their love with Europe with others through their small-group tour business European Experiences, offering week-long "slow tours" based in Provence, France; the Bavarian Alps of Germany; and the Salzkammergut in Austria. Also see their Luberon Experience tours.