Zell am See is one of the most popular towns in Austria. It is a well-known ski resort in winter and a hiking and outdoor destination in summer. I visited Zell am See last summer on my way back to Berlin from Zagreb. After a couple of weeks by the ocean in Croatia, the mountains were calling me.
Since living in Vienna for a few months in 2015 and backpacking through Austria in 2018, the country holds a special place in my heart. Austria has everything: elegant cities, charming towns, blue lakes and huge mountains. This is where your Sound of Music dreams come true. Zell am See is one of the most picturesque places I’ve been in Austria. The old center of town is filled with colorful buildings, the lake is sparkling and blue, the mountains green and lush.
If you’re looking for a few days of summer fun in Austria, I recommend going to Zell am See. It is not a typical solo travel destination. I was surrounded by families and couples, but I still enjoyed the few days I had there. Instead of staying at a hostel and making friends, I splurged on a room at Cella Central Boutique Hotel and spent my days exploring the best things to do in Zell am See.
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Hike in the mountains
Obviously, the best thing to do anywhere in Austria is to hike. The Austrian Alps are one of my favorite places in the world to go hiking. You get the same epic views as in Switzerland, but without the insane price tag. Zell am See is perfectly located for hiking and mountain climbing, with mountains rising up all around it.
For me, nothing goes above hiking in the Austrian Alps. Taking in the view of the surrounding mountains, running into some friendly cows, pausing at a mountain hut for a snack. And that’s exactly what you get in Zell am See in the summer.
The Schmittenhöhe is the peak right next to Zell am See and the Schmittenhöhe Promenade, the most popular trail. Even Empress Sissi hiked it! You can take the cable cart up to the top station and walk over the ridge. The whole thing takes about three hours and is great for families and less experienced hikers. It can get a bit crowded, but I still really enjoyed it. There are a few restaurants here as well, where you can enjoy a lunch with a view. You can either take another cable cart down or hike down to the city. In the winter, the Schmittenhöhe offers skiing.
From Zell am See, you can also embark on more strenuous and adventurous hikes, such as the Pinzgauer Spaziergang or climb to the top of the Kitzsteinhorn (3203 m).
I recommend going to the tourist information center in Zell am See before going hiking. They have free hiking maps and can tell you about suitable trails and trail accessibility.
Take a boat ride around the lake
Zell am See means “Zell on the lake”, so obviously a lot of the life here revolves around water. The lake is a big draw for tourists, and it’s easy to understand why! The water is blue and fresh and looks especially beautiful against the green hills in summer.
The best way to see the full glory of Zell am See is by boat. There are four ships of varying sizes that ferry across and around the lake. Some simply go back and forth between Zell am See and other towns on the lake. But you can also book a trip on the panorama cruise. This one goes around the lake with narrated information on the history and nature. It’s the perfect thing to do on a sunny day in Zell am See.
If you’d rather be a bit more active, you can also rent a paddle boat or SUP and venture out on the water yourself!
Swim in the lake
Of course, you can’t only go on the lake, but also in it. There are three “beaches” around Lake Zell. I use the term beach loosely, as they are more like waterfront swimming pools.
The best way to cool off in the summer in Zell am See is by going to one of these Strandbäder. Here, you can swim in the pools or in the lake, your choice! You have to pay to access these pools, unless you have the Zell am See Summer Card. The pools have changing rooms, food and drinks, heated pools, slides, toys, and more. It’s a fun summer activity for both adults and kids.
I went to Strandbad Zell am See by myself and had a great time just reading in the sun and swimming in the water. The lake water is cold, but refreshing, and surprisingly clean!
Visit a museum
Unfortunately, not every summer day in Zell am See is going to be a sunny one. But even on a rainy or overcast day, there are things to do in Zell am See.
There are a few museums in and around Zell am See, and they all offer free or reduced admission with the Zell am See Summer Card. Visit the Museum Vogtturm to learn about Zell am See in the Middle Ages. Or go to Kaprun and learn about the unique landscape and geology of the Alps in the National Park Gallery.
Shopping is another great rainy day activity. There are a ton of tacky souvenir shops in Zell am See, but also some nice ones. Look for places that sell handmade local things like Heimatgold, rather than plastic “made in China” crap.
Try some delicious local food and beer
Austrian food does not get the international recognition that it deserves, in my opinion. Ever since living in Vienna in 2015, I’ve been a fan of the hearty Austrian cuisine. Trust me, Austrians know how to make a killer dumpling!
Zell am See is a great place to try some typical Austrian dishes. Most restaurants cater to tourists and will have a variety of classic Austrian and international dishes. But they also embrace seasonal cooking, so in the summer you can look forward to fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. Austrain cuisine tends to be meat heavy, like schnitzel, but there are also some very tasty vegetarian friendly dishes. I love spinatknödel (spinach dumplings, kaspressknödel (crispy cheese dumplings) and käsespätzle (cheesy noodles).
The Austrians also sure know how to brew a good beer (and make very good wine)! At Pinzga Bräu am See you can sit down on their beautiful outdoor terrace with a view of the lake. Try their homebrewed beers with some typical Austrian snacks, like pretzels and potato salad. Non-alcohol drinkers and kids will love the Austrian soda Almdudler or spritz (fruit juice with sparkling water).
To me, Zell am See is a perfect summer vacation destination in Austria. There is so much do! Between swimming in the lake, hiking in the mountains and exploring the culture, you will not be bored. And let’s not forget about delicious Austrian food and drinks!
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