Lake Wolfgangsee: Salzkammergut at its Best
Note that there are a few other articles on TourMyCountry.com that might be interesting for you if you want to learn more about the Wolfgangsee and its surroundings: One dealing with St. Gilgen and Strobl, two towns; one dealing specifically with St. Wolfgang, the town that historically received the most attention because it was a centre of pilgrimage; one on the region; and one dealing with the Schafbergbahn, a popular train that runs up a mountain. This article is specifically dealing with the Wolfgangsee as a lake.
Lake Wolfgangsee can be found in the western part of the Salzkammergut region. Most of it can be found on the Salzburg side of the border, only St. Wolfgang and its bay with the bays east of it are part of Upper Austria (Oberösterreich). The Salzburg part of the lake is sometimes called "Abersee". I don′t know if this is still common on the region; beyond, it certainly isn′t, I come from nearby (the very north of Salzburg) and would not use Abersee for any part of the Wolfgangsee.
However, it is the oldest name recorded for the lake: A Latin document from 790 mentions a "Abriani lacus". The Wolfgangsee is among the most popular tourist attractions in the Salzkammergut and one of the few lakes of the region that attracts an international crowd. This is partly due to its vicinity to Salzburg (the city), partly because things like the Schafbergbahn have featured in "The Sound of Music". Lake Wolfgangsee is approximately 13 square kilometres large and divided into two distinct sections. The lake is situated at an altitude of 538 metres and is up to 114 metres deep.
Tourism at the Wolfgangsee: What to Do & See
Tourism is the main business in the area: Local hotels and B&Bs offer some 8,500 beds, around 900,000 over-night arrangements are sold around Lake Wolfgangsee every year. Three quarters of these arrangements are sold during the summer season, only one quarter during the winter. The water quality of Lake Wolfgangsee is remarkably high. This is not unusual for Salzkammergut Lakes (or large Austrian lakes in general) and result of restrictive environmental protection measures. The European Union has made Lake Wolfgangsee a "reference lake", as a model for others.
A very big deal at Lake Wolfgangsee are the boat cruises. The cruising company used to be the national railway ÖBB until a few years ago the company was privatised. The boat cruises are done frequently between St. Gilgen, Strobl and St. Wolfgang pretty much all year round as long as there is no ice. This means that the highly popular (and quite recommendable, but very, very crowded) Christmas markets of St. Gilgen and St. Wolfgang can be combined with a little cruise. If you take a cruise on the Wolfgangsee, you will get by a large, palatial building on the top of a cliff, which was built in Austrian Imperial, Historicist style.
This is a former naval collage of the Austrian Empire, which now serves as a public boarding school and a summer school. During the warmer period, you can hike from St. Gilgen to St. Wolfgang, a very nice route via the cliffs of the Falkenstein - expect lots of nice vistas on the lake and the surrounding mountains. There are several key-attractions at the lake: Note the town of St. Gilgen, the biggest on the Salzburg side. It is well-known because Mozart′s sister Nannerl lived there for a good share of her life. There are several nice town-houses, hundreds of souvenir shops and a distinctly touristy atmosphere that spoils the otherwise very pleasant town.
Wolfgangsee Culture: The "Making of the Salzkammergut"
Note that Helmut Kohl, long-term chancellor of Germany, used to spend his annual vacation at St. Gilgen for many years. The other "hub" of the Wolfgangsee is St. Wolfgang, traditionally known for the relics of St. Wolfgang. According to legend, the town was founded by the hermit at a location where his axe had landed - he had thrown it in order to identify a good spot for settling down. Today, the town is famous for its Gothic church with Baroque altars by the (relatively) famous artist Michael Pacher.
During the 1950ies and 1960ies, the Wolfgangsee featured in then very popular Austrian operetta movies, the tacky equivalent of Austria to US musicals (the hills are alive…). This fuelled the popularity of St. Wolfgang and the Wolfgangsee and led to a boom in tourism that has continued until today. The flagship is the "Weißes Rössl", today a luxurious spa hotel, which featured in one of these tacky operettas and even in its name: "Im Weißen Rössl am Wolfgangsee".
These movies are virtually unknown outside of the German-speaking world, but they are key to understanding the high number of 1960ies and 1970ies hotel buildings by Lake Wolfgangsee. Strobl is the least-known of the Wolfgangsee towns and the smallest of the three "hubs". It has a camp site, many 19th century villas dating back to the period when tourism in Austria was "invented" by Viennese aristocracy, and is also very touristy during the summers. On contrast to St. Gilgen and St. Wolfgang, Strobl draws mostly Austrian tourists with the odd German.