Anyone trolling the internet for travel advice soon comes to realize that travel “with kids” really has a very significant sub-category: travel with YOUNG kids. It’s a whole different event, with completely different requirements. Big kids are capable of appreciating the coolness of things, while toddlers merely want to destroy them, and babies want to eat them.
This is a report on a trip to Austria with YOUNG kids (ages 3 and 10 months, to be precise). I have now traveled quite a lot with and without these young ones, and I can say with confidence that when anyone ever asks me where they should travel with young kids in tow, I immediately declare two destinations: Turkey or Austria. These places are simultaneously welcoming and beautiful, full of natural beauty and history, and young children are made to feel right at home.
Vienna, gorgeous, classy and sophisticated, isn’t really the place to take young children. Leave it for when your kids are older and able to appreciate the finer things. With young kids, head to the countryside, where there is space to roam and the people are welcoming and real. Anywhere in the West of Austria will do, but we chose to settle ourselves in the Salzkammergut for 10 days, an area that magnificently combines scenery with history, and offers charming villages, bustlingly beautiful cities, mountain lakes, caves, and outdoor adventures galore.
The Salzkammergut is the eastern edge of the Alps, with countless lakes scattered amongst magnificent mountains and charming towns. It was the beloved vacation home of 19th century Kaiser Franz Joseph and his famous wife Sissi, who injected the region with fashionable buildings and high culture that remains today. Any base in the Salzkammergut will do, from large cities to tiny villages to remote farmhouse rentals; choose your home base according to your own preferences. No matter where you stay, these tips will help you maximize your Austrian experience:
• Get out on the lake. Any lake, all the lakes! Rent a boat—there are rentals available even in the small towns. Most people are content to stand on the shore, but a boat ride is something young children will truly enjoy, and the shift in perspective is wonderful. We rented paddle boats, swan boats, and electric boats; our favorite was the electric boat, because you can go farther, the risk of capsizing is slim, and you can even let your toddler steer.
• The often-overlooked Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum) in Salzburg was a big hit with our kids. It’s an innovative approach they’ve taken here: antique toys are displayed alongside modern toys that kids can play with. The happy result is a highly interactive museum, almost like a giant playhouse that’s fun and interesting for kids and adults alike.
• The Salzkammergut is famous for its caves and mines—ice, salt, history, they’ve got it all (including the oldest salt mine in the world, the largest ice cave in the world, and the actual cave that inspired the movie Monuments Men). Keep in mind that kids need to be 4 years old or over to tour inside.
• World-class hikes abound in the region, accessible to all ages. Waterfalls, wildflowers, mountain lakes, hidden hamlets, snowy peaks, take your pick—and take the kids at a leisurely, dandelion-picking pace. The scenery is to die for.
• Rent a car. It’s the most efficient and most affordable way to get a family around this area, and will free you up to come and go as naps and moods allow. Austria’s road taxes must be paid by way of a sticker (called a vignette) that should be purchased at any gas station or post office and displayed on the windshield—it’s not very expensive, but if you don’t have one, the fine is hefty, so don’t forget it!
• Rent a cottage or an apartment. The extra space to spread out is worth every penny (while the kids are napping, you can still be active), and the soundproof privacy will be priceless when kids are up in the night or throwing royal tantrums. You will also save hundreds by cooking your own meals. This isn’t to say you should cook your USUAL meals, though—branch out and cook whatever the locals are cooking!
• Shop at the big supermarkets on the fringes of large towns. They have everything available, and they’re also the ideal place to stock up on chocolate! The smaller shops in the center of towns are mostly for tourists and are quadruple the price.
• For older kids the options expand exponentially. We plan to return to the region again and again, changing our activities with the growth of our children. Hot-spring spas, museums galore, castles, palaces, gardens, historic living villages, the offerings are almost staggering.
• You’ll want to spend at least a week in the region (each time we return, we will spend at least two), because there really is so much to do, and so much beauty to absorb in the Salzkammergut. Feel your blood pressure drop in this beautiful corner of the world, and watch your children grow in amazing new ways.
Upon leaving Austria after our 10-day stay, we felt exactly as Fredrich Simony had 150 years before: “My heart was heavy as I left the Salzkammergut, where every crag of the cliff, every beautiful tree, every raging stream, lakes, valleys, mountains and many warm eyes and soft hearts had become my dear friends.”