The Ice Caves in Werfen, Austria are the largest in the world. They are convenient to reach from Salzburg, and besides the Lake district and Berchtesgaden, the Ice Caves in summer are the most popular day trip to take while staying in Salzburg.
What I liked about my last visit to the Ice Caves in summer 2019 is that it didn’t feel like other overcrowded tourist places. 200.000 people are visiting a year, but from the shuttle bus driver to the woman at the ticket counter and the guide at the Ice Caves, everyone was genuine and friendly. Tourists didn’t seem to annoy the locals like in many of the overcrowded places these days.
The Ice Caves in Werfen vs the Dachstein Ice Caves
People often ask me if they should visit the Ice Caves in Werfen or to those on Dachstein near Hallstatt. If you want to see Ice Caves, go to Werfen! Do the Dachstein Ice Caves, if you visit Hallstatt anyway. Werfen will be another day trip, but if Ice Caves are what you want to see, clearly go to Werfen. Hallstatt is the most crowded place in Austria, while Werfen is only about the Ice Caves.
I grew up in Salzburg, but arriving at the Werfen train station in October 2019 amazed me. We were the only “tourists” arriving. It’s different in summer, but the area around Werfen offers an authentic Austrian experience. Whatever that means.
Do you need a Tour from Salzburg to visit the Werfen Ice Caves?
You don’t need a tour to visit the Werfen Ice Caves from Salzburg. If you don’t care about the cost of a tour, you might consider one for convenience, but for a visit to the Ice Caves, a tour from Salzburg is not required.
Nevertheless, I will give you a list of tours at the end of this article. I would rather go on my own. It’s straightforward, and getting there on your own will feel more adventurous. In the caves, you will anyway have a guide. Joining a guided tour is the only way to enter the caves.
The Werfen Ice Caves are only open in Summer!
The Ice Caves in Werfen are at 1700 meters of altitude. In winter it’s impossible to get there. The caves are usually open for visitors from the beginning of May until the end of October. To make sure the caves are open when you are planning to visit, check their website.
How to get to the Ice Caves by Public Transport from Salzburg?
I wrote another article on how to reach the Ice caves from Salzburg by public transport. Booking for the Werfen Ice Caves or for the train and the shuttle bus to get there is not required. Just head to the Salzburg train station in the morning, get your ticket, and you are good to go. Read this for a detailed guide on how to reach the Werfen Ice Caves from Salzburg.
Are the Ice Caves in Werfen good for bad Weather?
The staff at the ticket counter told me that many consider the Ice caves a bad weather alternative and that the caves get crowded on rainy summer days. That’s something I don’t understand. The view on the way up to the caves is one of the most stunning you find in the surroundings of Salzburg. I grew up in Salzburg but was still amazed by the spectacular walk up to the entrance of the cave.
Furthermore, it would be very uncomfortable walking all that way up in the rain. You can still go when the weather bad, but it’s not true that the Ice Caves are a bad weather alternative because they are indoors. Half of the experience is outdoors. For a bad alternative, weather check the salt mines!
For bad weather, go to the salt mines instead. The Ice Caves are inside, but you take a cable car and hike to get there, and you don’t want to miss the views on the way up.
What to wear inside the Ice Caves
Even in summer, the temperature inside the caves is below zero. Be prepared with warm clothes and proper shoes. Proper shoes because you are climbing 700 stairs, they are slippery because they are wet, and on the steepest point, the stairs are 45 degrees uphill.
The History of the Ice Caves in Werfen
The Ice Cave was first discovered in 1879. At that time Anton Posselt only made it 200 meters into the cave. He didn’t have the right equipment, and the ice was too steep. After that, the Ice Caves were forgotten for some time. Only in 1913, Alexander von Mörk climbed the wall. It turned out that the Caves are 42 kilometers long.
The first guided tour happened in 1920, but it took 8 hours, and visitors still had to climb the ice with climbing irons. We can consider ourselves lucky to visit the caves taking cable cars and climbing stairs nowadays.
My Experience in the Werfen Ice Caves – What to Expect from your Visit?
As a child, I have been to the Ice caves many times. Now in 2019, I didn’t have any memories of my previous visits with my parents. That’s why I revisited Werfen and the Ice Caves. Everyone I met in the past years told me good things about the caves and I wanted to see it for myself. I planned my visit for October just before the caves close for winter and after the Free Walking tour season is over.
An Authentic Austrian Experience
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the authenticity I found when visiting Werfen and the caves amazed me. Arriving at the train station in Werfen, there were no other tourists. That’s also because the season was over, but Hallstatt and the Eagles nest were still crowded the same week. Furthermore, everyone from the shuttle bus driver to the guide was friendly and seemed to enjoy what they are doing.
Especially the bus driver was helpful beyond belief. He voluntarily took us to the Hohenwerfen fortress on our way down from the cave when we asked how to get there.
I believe that the experience you have when visiting a place depends on how people treat you, therefore it’s an essential factor for me. Other than the Ice Caves, there is not much to do in Werfen, but from all the day trips I took to report to you this autumn, Werfen felt like the most authentic experience of Austria.
The Cable Car and the Hike to the Ice Caves
The Ice Caves are located 1656 meters above sea level, and you start your journey from Werfen at 548 meters above the sea. Here you find a detailed guide on how to get to the Ice Caves. The two short hikes and the cable car were just as enjoyable as the tour inside the ice caves. On our way up, the Hohenwerfen fortress appeared from the fog, and also the rest of the landscape revealed itself before we reached the top.
The Tour of the Werfen Ice Caves
At the entrance of the caves, people gather to join the next tour. There is no need for reservation, no need to buy your ticket for a particular time slot. You just get there, meet your guide, and join the next group. The tours are leaving every half hour. The ticket you got at the visitors center includes the guided tour. There wouldn’t be another way to visit the caves and no point in buying a cable car ticket without the ticket to the ice caves.
They divide groups into a German and an English part. Because I am a local and speak both languages, I can tell you that the English explanations with the guide I had, were precisely what was translated into German. The information was perfect. Not overwhelming and structured engagedly. The guide spoke excellent English and seemed to be passionate and proud of his work.
After the groups were divided, we got a quick introduction, and oil lamps were handed to every fourth person. We were the last ones in the group, but a German couple arrived after the lamps were already handed out. The last ones were supposed to get a lamp, but in that case, they didn’t. In the caves, it’s pitch-dark. In case you are last and don’t get a lamp, tell the guide you need one!
At first, it disappointed me that there is no photography allowed. I am a passionate photographer. After the tour, however, I understood the value of such a rule and now appreciate that there were no photos taken. No phone or camera screens, and no one distracted or blocking the way. A whole group of people at the moment taking one step after the other.
Steps are what you will take a lot of. There are 700 steps in the ice caves, and you have to climb them up and down. You will walk 134 meters up and the same down. Another reason there is no photography allowed is that there would otherwise be accidents. The caves staff will tell you that photography is forbidden because it would split up the group, but there are many good reasons not to allow photography in the Ice Caves.
The stairs are wet and slippery, and the steepest part is 45 degrees uphill. I have to admit that it didn’t feel 100% safe, and you need to be more or less fit to visit the cave! For people with disabilities, the Ice caves are inaccessible. However, the unsafe part also makes it feel like a real adventure and not like an immaculate tourist attraction.
There were several ice sculptures shown to us on the way. Our guide climbed up to corners of the caves where he lit those sculptures with his magnesium light and explained them.
How the caves work is that cold air enters the caves in winter and is saved there until the snow melts in spring. The melting water from the snow enters the mountain through cracks in the rock and freezes because of cold air. Sculptures change every year, some of them like the Ice elephant change drastically.
The ice doesn’t cover the Caves entirely. The ice ends after 1km, but the caves continue for over 40 kilometers after that. The rest of the caves is not accessible with tours.
After climbing all 700 steps, we stopped at a lake. That’s where our guide asked us if we are afraid in the dark and to delete our lamps. For a moment, there was complete darkness before the guide lit his lamp again. That was my favorite spot. The darkness and after that, only sparkle of light illuminating a small corner of the big cave and the lake. That’s where our exploration ended, and we started to walk down the 700 steps we climbed before.
The Oedl Schutzhaus for a Meal after the Tour
Before he said goodbye, the guide recommended the Dr. Oedl Schutzhaus to us for a meal after the tour. He claimed that they have the best Schnitzel in the world and joked that he wouldn’t say that because they pay him but because he likes the waitresses. It’s not the best Schnitzel in the world, but it was not bad either. The service is speedy. Probably because they are used to receiving many people after each tour in summer.
We had their offer of Schnitzel and dessert. The Schnitzel was not bad. The desert included comprised of apple strudel, which was superb, and I ordered a black coffee, which was just as good. And I am a coffee lover, so that means something. Overall I would recommend the restaurant for an Austrian meal after the Ice Caves.
If you are up for an adventure and looking for a day trip from Salzburg, I recommend visiting the Ice Caves in Werfen. They are the most popular day trip besides Hallstatt and Berchtesgaden and offers a more authentic experience. I like places that don’t seem to lose their spirit when too many people come, and Werfen appears to be one of those places.
Tours from Salzburg to the Ice Caves
As I said, a tour is unnecessary. In case you take a tour, here is your option. These are affiliate links. I don’t get paid by anything I recommend, but by booking your tour via these links you would support the free walking tour Salzburg.