Just about an hour’s drive from Austria’s capital, right at the border between Lower Austria and Styria, there is the Semmering. Today, this area is most known for the “Hirschenkogel”, one of the closest ski resorts to Vienna. It also regularly hosts races of the ski world cup and people flock the “Zauberberg” for après-ski parties. Just a stone’s throw away from this busy sports arena, the Semmering presents a very a different image. One which seems to have fallen into a decades-long slumber.
The Semmering once was “the” holiday destination for the aristocracy and upper class of the Habsburg empire. It competed with the likes of St. Moritz – some even called it the “St. Moritz of the monarchy”. Today, many of the grand hotels have closed. Some are being renovated and hopefully reopen soon.
Let me take you to the Semmering of the late 19th century – when holidaymakers stayed in glamorous hotels, walked along promenades with mountain views and even tried the newest sports trends. After a historical background of this once enchanting now almost abandoned mountain resort, I share a walking tour with my personal highlights and a personalised map. At the end of the article, you will find some logistical information about how to get to the Semmering.
Historical Background of the Semmering
Until the second half of the 19th century, the area we know as Semmering today was not very much developed. It only changed with the arrival of the train connection, the “Suedbahn” connecting Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg monarchy, with the empire’s port city Trieste in Italy. This was the time of the “Sommerfrische”, when the Viennese upper class left the stuffy city and transferred their estate to the mountains for several weeks. The arrival of the train connection not only allowed access of the Semmering for the upper but also for the working class who received more rights when it came to leisure and working times. This innovate train connection which uses viaducts to connect valleys is a UNESCO world heritage site today.
The Suedbahn company operating the trains offered packages: the train tickets came in different categories and also included a stay at the newly-built hotels. The price determined the class on the train and the type of hotel. The cheapest category included a meal at one of the local restaurants instead of an overnight stay. This allowed people to leave Vienna in the morning, spend a day in the mountains and be back in the city in the evening.
The first hotel on the Semmering was what is called the Suedbahnhotel today. This hotel looks like the sanatoriums and hotels from Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) or T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. This beautiful building has long been empty and mostly unused. Gone are the glamorous times when the Semmering competed with the likes of St. Moritz for well-to-do travelers and spa guests. Currently, parts of the building are used for plays and comedy performances. For years, the current owners have been looking for a buyer. The immense renovation cost (a real estate agent estimated them at EUR 70-80 million; about USD 80-90) probably deter many potential investors.
At its construction, it was called “Hotel Semmering” and later on “First Suedbahnhotel”. This first part of the hotel was initially aimed at workers employed by the Suedbahn who then had to go to the Semmering for work on the tracks. Soon, the Suedbahn realised the immense potential of tourism which was in its initial stages. This first tract of the hotel was turned into private apartments in the 1970s. In 1889, the hotel was expanded by the nearby Waldhof with 50 rooms. It burned down several times and the building which has remained until today was built in 1902. It offered rooms at cheaper rates than the grand Suedbahn Hotel.
The Suedbahn Hotel was built as an impulse for tourism. Just like the Suedbahn company had planned, the Suedbahnhotel attracted more hotels, restaurants and, consequently, infrastructure. Soon, the Semmering became “the” destination for the Sommerfrische but also for winter holidays. Furthermore, the Semmering soon became a popular health resort due to its fresh air. Not only aristocrats and the well-to-do bourgeoisie spent their leisure time at the mountain resort, but also artists and musicians such as composer Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma, the artists Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos and Kolo Moser and author Gerhart Hauptmann.
In 1903, the hotel was expanded again and the “Palasthotel” or “2. Suedbahnhotel”, the impressive castle-like tract was built. Over time, the hotel underwent many further changes and was expanded: a telegraph office, a cinema, a grand terrace for events and even a private pool was built which was publicly accessible. Until today, the architecture of that indoor pool was extremely innovative: it had a long glass front which could be opened in summer so that the pool could be used outdoors. In winter, it was turned into an indoor pool by closing the glass front. Until today and even in a much worse condition, the hotel still enchants visitors, investors and artists. The Suedbahnhotel is even said to have inspired Wes Anderson for his “Grand Budapest Hotel”.
The Suedbahnhotel was not the only luxury hotel at the Semmering. The Grandhotel Panhans was similarly glamorous and also expanded over time. It was the first of the Semmering hotels to have an “Alpine Sea”, an indoor pool. It was common that guests of the two hotels went for a coffee or a meal to the other hotel. The Hochstrasse, the street connecting the two hotels, served as a promenade where the well-to-do holiday makers engaged in people watching, enjoyed the mountain views and exchanged the most recent gossip.
Right at the Hochstrasse, just next to the Grandhotel Panhans, there is a beautiful little church next to an Alpine-style house. Inside, there are beautiful coloured glass windows which seem to have survived both wars and nice depictions of the Way of the Cross. It may not be the most famous building of the Semmering, but discovering this little church on the way from the Suedbahnhotel to the Grandhotel Panhans was a really nice surprise.
Another architectural gem is the Silbererschloessel. This castle-like estate was built by Victor Silberer, a journalist, author and politician. His home is said to have been modeled after Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Silberer, who also owned a lot of land at the Semmering and ran his own hotel, the “Erzherzog Johann”, definitely built a landmark for himself. Judging from the information available online, also this gem is up for sale. Unfortunately, it is not accessible to the public. Its towers can be spotted from afar, from the Hirschenkogel viewpoint, for example.
Just before World War II, the Semmering captured the potential of winter tourism. Skiing became a trendy sport for the upper class. But soon, the advent of the Nazi regime and the subsequent war also brought tough times for the Semmering. Jews had made up a large part of the guests of the Semmering and holidays were not a reality for most Austrians in times like these. During World War II, the Suedbahnhotel was turned into a military hospital.
After the war, the Semmering went through a brief renaissance. However, in the 1950s, the interest in the mountain resort decreased. Holidays abroad became cheaper and more accessible. Austrians wanted to go to the beaches by the Adriatic Sea in summer and to skiing resorts such as Kitzbuehel and the Arlberg in the West of the country.
The Grandhotel Panhans closed its doors in 1969, the Suedbahnhotel seven years later in 1976. Recently, the Grandhotel Panhans has found new owners who are currently renovating the building. Another hotel which will also be reopened soon is the Kurhaus Semmering (which will be called Grandhotel Semmering).
What is left at the Semmering is an ambience of the past. It indeed feels like being part of Mann’s or Boyle’s novels. If there was a pink filter over the Semmering, it could even be a Wes Anderson movie. I really enjoyed exploring this lesser-known side of the Semmering and even the abandoned, sometimes sad-looking remnants of what once was “the” mountain resort of the monarchy.
The walk starts at the Hirschenkogel. I recommend to take the cable car up to enjoy the beautiful mountain views and also get a bird’s eye perspective of the walk ahead and the beautiful sights. The tickets for the cable car in summer are about EUR 17 (about USD 20) per person for an up and down ride.
Walk along Hochstraße and do it like the holiday makers in the 19th century: enjoy a coffee and a cake at “Der Loeffler”. I highly recommend the Kurhaus Torte.
Walk towards the Grandhotel Panhans and enter the church Heilige Familie right next door.
Walk along Hochstrasse. You will pass the Silbererschloessel, but, unfortunately, it is not visible from the street. On the right before the turn, there is an abandoned shop with 1950s/60s style signs.
The Hochstrasse will make a sharp turn to the left. On your right, there will be a read tower-shaped monument. This is a weather station.
Walk onto the platform of this intricate weather station and you will get the best view of the Suedbahnhotel.
Keep walking straight, you are now in the “Villenviertel” (the area of mansions) around the Suedbahnhotel). Every one of those “Villas” is an architectural gem in their own right.
Just before the sharp right turn, there is an Alpine-style house with turquoise elements.
Walk down the road and you will reach the infamous Suedbahnhotel. You can walk around it and it is also possible to enter the property to the hotel entrance.
Behind the entrance gate there are the private apartments and there is also a small path up to the Waldhof with a tiny park-like area. Today, most of this area is woods but the Suedbahnhotel once had one of the biggest hotel parks in Central Europe. This tiny remainder has nice seating areas surrounding a well just like the one from the Frog King fairytale.
Walk down Adlitzgrabenstrasse (the street at the lower side of the hotel at the side of the car park). When you reach a small lane called “Am Wolfsbergkogel” on your right, turn onto this lane. Follow it until you reach the Kurhaus/Grandhotel.
If you wish to get another view of the Semmering, you can keep walking to the Doppelreiterwarte where there is a lookout tower.
How to Get to the Semmering
The easiest and most scenic route from Vienna is by train – after all this train connection is a UNESCO world heritage site and also led to the development of the resort. The train ride will take you over the above-mentioned historic viaducts.
There is an hourly direct connection with the Eurocity or Railjet trains of the OEBB (the Austrian railway company) which takes you to the Semmering in a bit more than an hour. Return tickets are about EUR 40 (about USD 47), concessions are available.
It also takes a little more than an hour to reach the Semmering by car.
If you want to explore the route from the Hirschenkogel up until the Kurhaus Semmering (Grandhotel Semmering) on foot, it takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes in one direction. If you do not wish to walk for that long, I recommend taking the car from Vienna to the Semmering, as taxis at the Semmering are extremely rare. (I did not really see any.) Furthermore, there are bus stops, but I have to admit, I did not really find the right connections to the sites.
More Day Trips from Vienna
More about Vienna
Erbe Oesterreich “Auf in den Sueden – die Eroberung des Semmerings” (TV documentary by ORF III, 14 September 2021, 20.15)
Désirée Vasko-Juhász, Die Südbahn, Ihre Kurorte und Hotels, Böhlau Verlag, Wien, 2006.
Historical expert knowledge shared by Dr. Susanna Steiger-Moser
All information as of the date of publishing/updating and based on the information on the websites (listed above) and the information provided at the location. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the recommended places above.