Train Riding Through the Alps: Zurich & Austria

I don’t know what it is.  The sun and summer air, the feel of a city with options, trains to take you anywhere on demand, or possibly the affordable food.  Whatever it is, mainland Europe feels amazing after spending two weeks in Iceland.

We are continuing our journey around the world by venturing towards Eastern Europe.  We flew into Zurich and used that as our kick off point to move through Austria before venturing through Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania.  Traveling light has been working very well and our original packing list remains mostly unchanged.  This leg of blog focuses on the Zurich through Vienna portion, which includes 10 nights.

We are tackling Europe by train, which has been confusing at times but overall a great way to move through the countries.  We seem to uncover better ticket options and routes with every trip, most of which were found through extensive research of some Trip Advisor forum comment or tip we received.  Using local or regional trains have allowed us to lower transport costs significantly and also see some rural towns and countryside which we would otherwise have missed. 

The map below shows our train route, which includes Zurich, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna a day trip into the Wachau Valley from Vienna.  There are more specifics about the trip in the sections below. Zurich to AustriaAs we write this, we are sitting in Budapest enjoying the incredible architecture and rich history of the city.  We have met up with two good friends, Amelia and Troy, who came to Europe to share our trip through Hungary.  They have traveled all over the world, typically with their two children in tow.  Amelia is currently working on a post regarding traveling with children which we will publish at a later date.

The overall cost for our 10 nights in the more Western portion of our Europe travel was $1,889.47.  This works out to $188.95 per night and also includes the cost of the flight from Iceland.  We walked/hiked over 70 miles during this portion of the trip.

If you know someone traveling to this region or someone who would enjoy some travel inspiration, we would appreciate if you would share this post and our site!  We have several pages dedicated to helping prepare for an extended trip including Packing, Planning Timeline and Travel Insurance.img_9476.jpg
For our trip to date, we have prepared our top tips and takeaways which are listed below, followed by our itinerary with area specific thoughts.

Trip to date thoughts:

  • Choose accommodations with kitchens, laundry, and quiet locations near a bus/train stop.
  • Cook more to save on eating out.  We typically cook breakfast and dinner and eat lunch out.
  • Tour the city early for less crowds.
  • Get information about train tickets from locals or ask at info station, but buy your tickets online to save the on booking fee’s.
  • Don’t buy train tickets online from Rail Europe.  It is a site catering to Westerners which consolidates all of the local country rail networks, and typically does not charge the lowest prices available.  Each country operates their own regional rail system which tend to be the cheapest way.
  • Keep 50 cents for the bathroom as many places charge for use.
  • When paying with credit card, choose to pay in local currency (do not pay in your home currency).
  • Don’t pay extra to reserve your seat on the train if you are near the origination of the train route.  However, in high season, choosing a seat assignment could be less stress.
  • When you don’t reserve, choose a seat WITHOUT a reservation.  A reservation may be marked with a slip of paper near the window or a digital display above the chair which can be easily missed when you are making a mad dash on the train with 100 other people.
  • Remember to exercise.  We choose to walk more, hike, run and bike.
  • Pack lunch, snacks, and wine for the train.
  • Bring a platypus water bottle.  They are compact and there are a ton of safe water filling stations throughout Europe.
  • Carry some cash because credit cards are not widely accepted in Austria.
  • Most restaurants, cafe’s, attractions, even drug stores have wifi, but you’ll usually have to ask for a passcode.  Some cities like Salzburg and Vienna have free wi-fi hot spots, but we found these to be difficult to access.

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Zurich, Switzerland – Nights 1 and 2

Getting up at 4:00 AM for the flight from Iceland was relatively easy since the sun made it feel like mid-morning.  Although strange, we could get used to having light all day, but the winter months definitely would be a challenge.  Regardless, it was nice to be back in a country with a normal daylight cycle.  

The flight in from Iceland was direct and seamless.  We had a two seat side of the airplane, which was a welcome change from our flight from the US when Megan had to share part of her middle seat with her neighbor.  While the space was a plus, we did get the pleasure of having a particularly rancid smelling teenager sitting behind us, who either didn’t believe in deodorant or liked to have natural bug repellency.  As a bonus, we had a girl directly to the left that coughed like she was on her last lung for the entire 3 hour and 40 minute flight.  

On arrival in Zurich, we breezed right through the airport, not requiring customs or passport control stops since we were coming from another European country.  The airport is built directly on top of a train station, so getting transport to town was a breeze.  We used the electronic ticketing station and got two €7 one way tickets towards downtown Zurich and we were at Airbnb in no time.img_9121.jpg
We stayed in a private room in an Airbnb condo.  We had free access to the house like our own, including the kitchen and laundry, both of which we quickly put to use.  The condo was quite close to the main train station and centrally located in the trendy district.  While the location was great, it got quite loud on Saturday night with the partying on the street, so the sleep sound app came in handy. 

We had been drooling over all of the food options along the walk in, which had been mostly absent or outrageously overpriced in our last location.  Like kids in a candy store, we ogled the seemingly free fruits and veggies, fresh meats and eggs.  Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world, but our last two weeks of food torture had put these prices in perspective and we felt right home.  We had been craving anything fresh after surviving on gruel and water (really bread and peanut butter mostly, but close enough).  We scooped up some groceries and cooked the most incredible dinner we have had in a couple of weeks, and only for $3.50 a person per meal!  Despite the expense, it was still possible to find way to lower the costs in this city.img_91271.jpg
We did a self guided walking tour around Zurich old town to get an overview of the area in our short time.  We stopped for lunch and got charged double because their credit card machine malfunctioned.  We caught this right away and were given a cash refund which stuck us with Swiss Francs and only 18 hours left in the country!

The city is a stark contrast to Iceland.  People everywhere and a very diverse population.  The river that flows through Zurich is a happening place with people swimming and catching some sun everywhere.  Many places in Europe charge a fee to use the restroom, and we found this to be the case.img_9122.jpg
We stopped by the train station and purchased our tickets to Innsbruck for the following morning.  There was rail work on our route requiring a bus transfer mid-way which necessitated an in person purchase.  Apparently there is a booking fee if you purchase tickets from the window as opposed to online in most stations in Europe (ours was 20 Francs). 

After a day in Switzerland, we had a chance to check the exchange rate on our Venture credit card.  We were getting $1.034 per Franc, which was right at the official rate.  Most merchants have an option on their card reader allowing a payment option in your home currency, but we had read that paying in the local currency gets a better rate through the credit card than the merchant exchange.  Based on the offered USD cost and our calculations, the other option would be quite a bit worse at $1.07 per Franc.

Take Aways From Zurich

  • Do  a self guided walking tour to get around the city quickly and for free.
  • Hang out by the lake, swim, sun bathe, or raft down the clear river.
  • Hike the Alps.  There are some trails around the city which can be found on the country tourism website.  They also have a very helpful app.
  • Avoid eating out, it is very expensive here.  When you have to eat out, do take-away which can be much cheaper.
  • Rent a free bike Züri Rollt.  You must email reserve a bike at least 24 hours in advance to ensure there will be one available.  There are various stations around the city.

Innsbruck, Austria – Nights 3 and 4

After a short stay in Zurich, we moved into Austria for the next nine days.  While Zurich had been the cheapest and easiest way into mainland Europe from Iceland, we didn’t intend to spend much time in the country due to the cost in the area.  Since our train to Innsbruck had to be partially diverted via bus, we got great views of the countryside as we passed through quaint towns along the way.  These stations are located together with good signage and helpful staff so maneuvering the changes is simple.  The ride through the Alps is incredible and highly recommended!IMG_9205
The Euro (€) was trading between $1.12 and $1.14 during our visit, so our conversion was relatively easy by adding a little over 10% to the cost in €.

We spent the first afternoon doing a self guided walking tour around the old town and parks and eating gelato (finally cheap!).  Innsbruck is flanked by high mountains which have extensive hiking trails which gave us plenty of options for hiking with views.  The peak is around 2,300 meters above the town so there are options for significant climbs, but extensive traverse hikes along the slopes are also available.img_9163.jpg
Our Airbnb had advertised a washer which ended up not being the case.  Grant fruitlessly searched the building including the basement as a last ditch effort.  Instead of finding the washer, he walked in on a group of men from the Islamic center next door washing their hair in a sink.  He awkwardly abandoned the search leaving the last remaining door in the building unopened.  Megan later went down and walked up to the group, who spoke no English, and successfully signaled her interest in finding the washing machine by rubbing her shirt between her hands.  We then cooked some dinner and celebrated our bridge of cultural and language barriers with some Austrian riesling.  The wines in Austria are extremely affordable with quality local bottles sold for less than €10.img_9189.jpg
While in Innbruck, we went on a nice hike up the Alps around town.  The J bus towards Nordkette drops you at the foot of the Alps if you want to skip the long walk through town for less than €3.  We hiked up some very steep sections and were rewarded with some incredible views.  We walked through herds of free range cattle as they moseyed along the slopes, complete with bells around their necks.  It was tough not to think that “I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell”.  Our route took us vertically 1100ft up the mountain for a 5 mile total.  There are also cable cars which can take you up to the 2,300 meter peak, but we opted for the hike. img_9185.jpgimg_9169.jpg
While in town, we had dinner at a brick oven pizza restaurant called Pizzeria Crocodiles.  Large pizzas were only €8.00 and wine was €2.20 per glass….what a big change from Iceland.  We treated ourselves to gelato at only €1.40 per scoop since we had abstained from the $5 scoops in Iceland and Switzerland.img_9190.jpg
We did some research online and at the train ticket counter and found an obscure train ticket option called the Einfach-Raus Ticket (translates to “just get out” in English).  This is available in Austria under the country train system, OBB.  These tickets allow unlimited access to local/regional trains for the day from 9AM until 3AM the following morning.  They have significantly more stops since they exclude the fast Railjet (RJ) trains, but can be linked together to travel anywhere within the country.  This was a good option for our trip to Salzburg at a significant savings.  It added time and a transfer but is around 1/3 the cost to the direct route.  The regional trains for this route take about four hours with the stops and transfer in Wörgl compared to the faster Railjet which takes around two hours.  This ticket is only available if you are traveling in a group of 2-5 people.  For 2 people, the total price is €33.  The price gets substantially cheaper as you increase the number of people in the group.  For example, the total cost for 5 people is only €45.  The fast trains (Railjet) are significantly more expensive at €88 total costs for 2 people.  This doesn’t consider additional add ons for local trains to your destination if away from the main train station (titled HBF or Hauptbahnhof).  Since we were not in a hurry, this option made sense.  Naturally, we bought a bottle of wine to drink on the train with the savings.img_91941.jpg
As a word of caution, the ticket counter staff will not be helpful if asked about these tickets as they get fees for booking specific tickets.  You will need to ask multiple people what route options are available to get a straight answer.  Request that they print the route for reference.  You can narrow search results on the OBB website to local/regional trains only to see what will be available with this ticket.  When you are on the OBB website look for a gear symbol at the top right corner of the booking page after you put in the origination/destination information.  The gear brings you a menu of viewing preferences and there you can select regional trains only which include the S-Bahn (S1/S3), REX, RB, and R.

Take Aways From Innsbruck

  • For a cheap ticket from Innsbruck to Salzburg, look into Einfach Raus Ticket.  It’s only €33 per couple.
  • Hike the Alps – J bus towards Nordkette.
  • Drink quality wine and beer.
  • Eat delicious and cheap gelato.

Salzburg, Austria – Nights 5 through 7

Our train ride from Innsbruck to Salzburg went smoothly using the Einfach-Raus Ticket.  We were even able to use it once we got to Salzburg for around the city touring the evening of arrival.  We highly recommend using this ticket when traveling this route if time permits.  We explored the old town upon arrival and started off the visit at Augustiner Bräu.   This is a monastery founded in 1621 where the beer is brewed by the monks.  It’s a nice experience where you cool your steins in the fountain before filling it up with fresh tapped beer.  This is a lively and traditional beer garden with lots of Austrian food options.img_9226.jpgIMG_9232
Afterwards, we hiked up Mönchsberg hill along the city wall for great views of the city and Salzach river.  We hiked back down to old town but got caught in a rain storm and used our Einfach-Raus Ticket again to get back to our Airbnb.img_9236.jpg
The next day, we caught a bus to Festung Hohensalzburg, a fortress in the city which was originally built in 1077 with improvements/expansions added between the 15th and 19th century.  We took a gondola ride up to the fortress which cost €12/pp.  We later found a walk up entry option to the entrance of the fortress for only €9.50/pp.  We would have preferred this route as the gondola ride was only 3 minutes long and the views were not worth the extra cost, but it was not advertised at the main entrance.  We spent about 2 hours exploring the fortress and castles learning about the history.  The fortress sits high on top a hill and offered a great panoramic view of the city.  The location was so well conceived that the fortress was never forcibly conquered.img_9272
From the castle we then hiked down and explored the old town.  We walked through the Mirabell Palace Gardens, built in 1606, where part of the Sound of Music was filmed.  We then headed to Stieglkeller, another Salzburg local beer garden with a garden patio overlooking the city.IMG_9290img_9301.jpg
We found a bike shop which rents bikes, Radlfürst, for €15 per day within walking distance to our Airbnb.  We biked to the north side of town and eventually crossed the river bridge east and stepped foot in Germany.  The German city of Freilassing is just over the border and an easy trip by bike.  We rode back on the west side of the river and back into town.  The round trip from Salzburg was less than 20 kilometers.Salzburg

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Biking to Germany from Austria. Country on either side.

While in town, we visited Zipfer bierhaus where we got a flight of beers with a mix of Bavarian lights to dünkels.  We then searched out some locally brewed wheat beer at Die Weisse brewery.  There is no bad beer to be found in this town.

img_9335.jpgAfter returning the bikes, we walked the 36 min trip home.  We aimed to balance our cost and exercise by walking versus train or bus when possible.  Salzburg, along with most European tourist city destinations, offers an inclusive pass for transportation and attraction entry.  We didn’t purchase the Salzburg Card based on our preference towards walking and limited interest in museum entry, although this could be an attractive option depending on personal interest.  The card is offered in 24, 48, 72 hour increments and costs €27, €36, €42 respectively.

IMG_9282That evening, we talked to our hosts about our train options for the upcoming trip to Vienna.  We wanted to figure out a way to stopover in Melk, St Pölten, Linz or Krems an der Donau in between Salzburg and Vienna.  As locals, they recommended that we not use our time in Linz or St. Polten, but recommended a stop in Dürnstein and the Wachau Valley wine region for some delicious Reisling and Grüner Veltliner.  More about this in the Vienna section below.img_9340

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Sunset view over Salzburg from our Airbnb
We learned from our host that the Westbahn train is significantly less expensive than the Railjet option operated by OBB.  The train only runs the route from Salzburg to Vienna and vise versa, but costs €26.50 per person for the full route versus €50 through OBB and has free wifi.  With some additional research, we found an even cheaper ticket for only €19.99 per person under their Summer pass, which offers a further discount if you travel in certain less used time slots.  This meant us catching the 11:00AM or later on that day.  We had to buy a €2 regional train ticket to get from the Westbahn stop in Vienna, Wien Westbahnhof, to our final stop across town.  We looked into using the Einfach-Raus Ticket, but there would have been 5-8 changes so the small cost savings didn’t seem prudent.

 

Take aways from Salzburg

  • For a cheap ticket from Salzburg to Vienna choose the Westbahn train which is significantly cheaper than the OOB RailJet.
  • Rent a bike.  Radlfürst, Radsport Wagner, or City Bikes by the hour.  You can bike along the river all the way to Germany.
  • Drink amazing beer at the biergartens!  Stiegl, Augustiner Bräu, Die Weisse, Zipfer Bierhaus.
  • Walk around Mirabell Palace Gardens.
  • Visit a market for a pretzel or strudel.
  • Walk along the river.
  • Walk inside the churches for beautiful architecture.
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Doorbells in Salzburg

Vienna, Austria – Nights 7 through 10

On our last morning in Salzburg we went for a run along the river and then hopped on the Westbahn towards Vienna.

We were getting on at the first stop so the cars were all empty and we got a prime seat on the second floor mostly alone, and luckily none of the upper deck was reserved.  Unfortunately, the future state of the cars is unpredictable as we soon found out.  Within two stops, we heard what sounded like a pack of howler monkeys somewhere in the distance.  A minute later, an entire bachelorette party boarded our car and proceeded to the second floor a few rows in front of us.  They were drinking wine and had a boombox playing an American playlist including Christina Aguilera’s Lady Marmalade, Chubby Checker’s Twist Again, and Eiffel 65’s Blue, and were singing along at top volume.  They did have a very creative revenue source though: selling boob shaped cookies and airplane bottles of vodka to the passengers that hadn’t vacated the car.IMG_9352Leaving Salzburg towards Vienna, the mountains turn into rolling hills with manicured farmland.  Alternating wheat, corn, lettuces, and fruit trees smatter the landscape.  It was another very scenic ride.  Upon arrival to Vienna, we had to take the underground rail to get to our Airbnb.  Once there we met our lovely host Bernadette.  The inner city limits are surrounded by the ring road, and we took off on foot that evening to explore the east side parks.

The first morning we got a chance to take a good run through the Belvedere Palace gardens which is a great time to take pictures before all the tourist arrive.IMG_9393We had signed up for a free walking tour to get our bearings and an overview of the city and history.  It included topics such as art, architecture, food, coffee culture, Mozart, churches, etc.IMG_9371IMG_9361img_9357.jpg

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Vienna Opera House

We learned about the Viennese coffee culture, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list of intangible treasures.  Austria’s coffee culture is a very special thing.  Similar to other European countries, coffee is meant to be savored and shared with friends.  Coffee houses serve light meals and people spend a lot of time at leisure.  Once the coffee and meals were served, the guest would be left to relax.

We also learned that of the 200,000 Jews in Austria before WWII, only 100,000 were able to emigrate out of Austria before the Nazis took over.  Those that remained mostly perished, and only 2,000/1% were left in Vienna at the end of the war.  

After the tour we headed to a traditional lunch with pork schnitzel, potato salad, beef goulosh.  We even got an apple strudel for dessert.  We later picked up some local Austrian wine varietals which we hadn’t had: St. Laurent, zweiglt and blaufränkisch.IMG_9401The next day, we started early and took a day trip to Melk to visit the Melk Abbey and bike along the Danube through the Wachau Valley.  This day was full of adventure as we missed our first train by accidentally going to the wrong train station.  We eventually got on the right train an hour later but we narrowly made our connection in St. Polten to Melk.  Upon arrival, we had the opportunity to explore the Stift Melk, which is a Benedictine abbey.  It is a huge fortress of outer walls and inner rooms.  There is a magnificent library and impressive hallways with spiral staircases.  The Abbey church, though, was the most beautiful sanctuary we have visited in Europe.  Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside, but the ornate detail and massive size of the room with gold and yellow coloring was quite a site.   The abbey also has a series of beautiful  gardens to explore.IMG_9417IMG_9430img_9426.jpgAfter spending an hour at the abbey, we walked to pick up our reserved bikes.  We used NextBike, which is a city bike program with bike racks scattered throughout the city.  You can pick up and return them to different locations and the cost is €1/hour with max €10/day.  Unfortunately, we had only been able to reserve one bike at the nearest rental location and therefore had to get across town to pick up our second one.  Megan had to ride sitting on the back bars of Grant’s bike for 2km to get to the second bike rack further down the road.  We were quite the spectacle. img_1469.jpg
Once we were both settled on our own bikes, we started the nearly 40km bike ride down the Danube River towards Krems.Screenshot 2017-07-07 14.06.30
This route has a dedicated bike path along both sides the river which winds through cobblestone streets in small towns.  We had heard that the east/south side was more scenic but we didn’t want to waste time crossing the river twice.  We opted to ride on the west/north side of the river for the whole trip which we felt offered an equally beautiful view.  The wineries around Dürnstein are all on the north side of the river, but if you ride on the east/south side you could cross with the ferry halfway in Spitz or 2 other ferry locations (€1.80 per person).img_9438.jpgimg_9439.jpgWe were able to buy ripe apricots from a street side farmer as we ventured on to the wineries.  This region is known for its aromatic white grape varietals including riesling and grüner veltliner.IMG_9500IMG_9479

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Wachau Valley. Castle on the hillside.

Unfortunately, since we went on a Monday, most of the tasting rooms were closed.  These are mainly located around the picturesque town of Dürnstein.  We were able to get glasses of riesling and a zweiglt rosé in a wine store called Vinotake Durnstein for €2.50/glass.  We also were able to stop at one vineyard shop called Domäne Wachau.  This is a co-op of family grape farmers across the Wachau Valley who sell their grapes to this winemaker.  They produce several types of wine including pinot blanc, dry riesling, grüner veltliner, dry moskateller amongst others.  They were very generous with their tastings, which were free, and we picked up a couple of bottles to take along after trying six different types.

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Dürnstein

Afterwards, we dropped the bikes in Krems by the train station and caught an hour ride back to Vienna for our last night before moving on to Budapest.

Key’s to renting a NextBike:

  1.  Go online, register, and download the NextBike app from the app store.  You have to put at $1 deposit with a credit card so it can charge your account for the bike rental.  You will get an email to verify your account.
  2.  Reserve your bike (using the app, calling the hotline, or on the website) the night or the morning before your planned bike rental if possible.  You can only rent them for 24 hours, so if you reserve them too early your costs will continue to accrue.  We reserved them at 6:30am.  The cost is €1/hour or €10/day.
  3. Make sure you take note of the location of your bike and pin it on your map.  Once you reserve your bike, you will get a code to unlock the bike lock which is included in your bike rental.  We recommend taking a screen shot of the bike numbers and lock combinations from the app in case you don’t have wifi access.
  4. Happy riding.  Make sure your bike lock stays with the correct bike :).
  5. You can return the bike to any NextBike location.  In our case, we picked them up in Melk and dropped them off in Krems.  This is the typical bike route for most travelers.  However, it is quite possible to go the opposite direction and much easier to guarantee a bike from Krems.  When we dropped off our bikes next to the train/bus station, there were probably 30 bikes piled there.
  6. We recommend you take a picture of the bikes at the bike station in case you need proof that you returned the bikes.  We even took a picture of the NextBike sign with location number for insurance.  Make sure to return the bikes on the app to the correct location number.
  7. Don’t lock your bike to another bike as this could prevent someone else from getting theirs.  Lock it only to the rack.

Take aways from Vienna

  • Free walking tour of the city (tips expected).  This covers a large area quickly.
  • Enjoy the coffee culture, home of the original cappuccino.
  • Take a day trip to Melk, Dürnstein, and Krems an der Donau.  Rent a bike and ride through the Wachau wine valley region.
  • Skip day trips to Linz and St.Pölten
  • Visit the Vienna Opera House.  There are standing room options available for only €4-6.  You need to dress appropriately, which we were not able to do on our trip.  Bring a scarf to tie around the railing, this will reserve your standing position.

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Make sure you check out our previous posts from Iceland on our trip overview and itinerary, plus our inspiration for taking time off to travel the world!

13 thoughts on “Train Riding Through the Alps: Zurich & Austria

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