Our slow travel series explores how you can take more mindful journeys by train, boat, bus or bike – with tips on how to reach your no-fly destination, and what to see and do along the way. In this installment, Petra Loho explains how the train from Vienna to Saalfelden Leogang provides a soulful weekend of exercise and relaxation.                                                   

When you live in the eastern part of Austria – where wind turbines rather than Alps are the highest things around – the longing for mountains can become overwhelming.

Luckily, Austria is a small enough place that you can satisfy this urge over a long weekend. Alpine pastures where flocks of sheep and cows graze, crystal-clear mountain rivers rush past your footprints and flowers bravely defy the fresh mountain wind are but a train ride away.

Ever since my first school ski course in Saalfelden at the age of 14, I fell in love with the area, and have returned again and again. Yet these days, I prefer to replace ski boots with hiking shoes, especially as Saalfelden Leogang also features car-free access to hiking trails of all difficulty levels.

Spring hikes through Saalfelden Leogang are a perfect chance to see the locals – including four-legged ones © Petra Loho / Lonely Planet

The departure: buzzing through Vienna’s Central Station

The first leg of my train journey on a sunny Saturday morning was the commute to Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof on the local S-Bahn, from where the Railjet to Saalfelden Leogang was leaving.

A glance at the large overhead information board in the main hall confirmed the platform number for my trip and that the train was on time. What it didn’t reveal, however, was why there was an oversized bee floating above my head. 

This fancy beauty represented the ÖBB Rail Bees project, an initiative by the national train operator that provides homes for bee colonies across the network. The 2021 honey harvest was terrific, allowing ÖBB to deliver over 29,000 breakfast portions of delicious ÖBB “rail honey” for long-distance and night train traffic.

The short, sharp trill of the train conductor’s whistle announced that my train’s departure was imminent. I made myself comfortable in the window seat I had reserved. (I’d recommend paying the €3 charge to prebook seats – just pay attention to the strange seat-numbering system when you reserve ahead.)

A train passes the lake in Zell am See, Austria
Passing through Zell am See, boats and swimmers are just beyond the windows of your train car © Eddy H / Shutterstock

The journey: enjoying Austria’s varied landscapes

When the train finally left Vienna and passed through several tunnels, corn fields started to appear, alternating with pumpkin and wheat fields. Fruit trees lined the roadsides. The yellow flowers of rapeseed provided a splash of color to a landscape bathed in a juicy green and earthy brown. 

Looking at these scenes right in front of me, with the sun tickling my face through the train window, I started to feel a sense of pride – even a sense of inner peace. In my mind, I heard the first two lines of the Austrian national anthem: “Land of mountains, land by the river. Land of fields, land of domes.” And as if at the push of a button, a small, baroque church featuring a typical onion dome on a hilltop appeared.

Halfway through the journey, the panorama started to change. The landscape got rougher, and the first mountains came into view. Raising the level of excitement of what was to come, the section between Salzburg and Bischofshofen was framed by rugged rocks and a waterfall rushing under a high arched bridge.

My favorite stop was the Zell am See station, as the train rolled along the lakeshore with a clear view of the hustle and bustle of the lake, sailing boats gliding through the water and swimmers recovering from the hot temperatures by jumping into the refreshing water.

Approaching Zell am See also signaled that the journey was almost over, with our final destination of Saalfelden Leogang only a few minutes away.

The mountains are everywhere once you arrive in Saalfelden Leogang © Petra Loho / Lonely Planet

The arrival: an immediate hike

We rolled into Saalfelden train station just a few minutes after the 2:30pm scheduled arrival time. Before I headed out of the station, I stopped, took a deep breath of fresh air and said “Hello!” to the mountains – a simple but effective ritual that always gives me the feeling of having arrived.

After sitting still for most of the four-and-a-half-hour ride, my body craved action. Following a swift check-in at my guest house, I went for a two-hour walk to stretch my legs and warm them up for the hike the next day around the 1762m (5780ft) Asitzhöhe – the “mountain of the senses,” as the locals call it.

Be sure to get a window seat for epic views as your train crosses Austria © Petra Loho / Lonely Planet

How to make it happen 

Prices depend on when and where you buy the ticket – the earlier and the fewer changes, the cheaper. Book online or via the ÖBB app to explore pricing. I booked at the last minute and paid €63 for the outward journey in economy class – and €53 for the return fare, in first.

You can bring your bicycle on the Railjet by reserving a space for €3. If you feel like traveling light, use the door-to-door bike- and luggage-shipping service available for ÖBB routes in Austria, South Tyrol and Germany.

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