I had never heard of Zell am See until the day before we got there.
It was August 2019. We were in Innsbruck and looking for our next destination. We liked the mountains but weren’t sure where to go next.
We picked Zell am See. It was one of the most surprising and unique places I’ve been in Europe – but maybe not for the reasons you expect.
Must-See Things to Do in Zell am See
Zell am See is absolutely beautiful. We spent three days there and had no trouble finding things to do.
There are two must-see things in Zell am See I’d recommend above all others: Kitzsteinhorn and the reservoirs. They’re both in the same part of the region, and you can do both in the same day if you get an early start.
If you are only going to do one thing in Zell am See, do the Kitzsteinhorn gondola. You take three gondolas all the way to the top of the mountain. It’s covered by snow even in the summer. You’ll probably feel the altitude (it’s 10,509 ft or 3,203 m at the top).
In the winter, you can ski in and around Kitzsteinhorn. In the summer, there should still be snow even at the very summit.
As with most summits in the Alps, there’s a full restaurant and bar at the top.
I ordered the goulash and a pint, then sat back and enjoyed the view.
2. The Stauseen – Mooserboden Reservoirs
There are two big reservoirs above Kaprun. They’re engineering marvels built as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. Today, the massive hydroelectric dams provide power to a significant portion of Austria.
Touring the reservoirs was surprisingly beautiful. The lakes have that type of crystal blue color you see on glacial lakes in Alberta.
You can walk along the dams. You can hike around a little bit.
You can even buy a beer from the café at the top.
To get up to the reservoirs, you drive to the end of the valley (or take the public transit, like we did). You park, then take a bus up the hill.
Then the fun starts. You get off the bus and take a weird industrial elevator thing. It’s part of the attraction. I don’t like heights, but I didn’t find the elevator very scary – although it’s absolutely a long drop and a steep climb.
After the industrial elevator, you’ll reach a parking lot. A bus pulls into the parking lot, and you take a bus to the reservoirs. The drive might have been scarier than the elevator: you drive curvy, narrow roads all the way up to the top.
Finally, you reach the top and you can walk around, enter the visitor center, or even grab a beer from the café.
Other Things to Do in Zell am See
There are plenty of other amazing things to do in Zell am See. In any other part of the world, these things would be considered “must see” things; in Zell am See, they all come in second place behind Kitzsteinhorn and the Stauseen – Mooserboden reservoirs.
Zeller See Lake Tour
Your Zell am See summer card gives you a free lake tour around Zeller See (the main lake in front of Zell am See). It’s a pleasant cruise around the small lake.
There’s a full-service bar on board, and a server will come to take your order.
In any other town, the Schmittenhöhebahn gondola would be the star attraction. It’s a gondola that takes you above the town to give you a beautiful view of Zell am See.
Don’t get me wrong: the view from the top is beautiful. However, after visiting the Kitzsteinhorn gondolas the day before, Schmittenhöhebahn felt much smaller.
Still, Schmittenhöhebahn is close to town (we took a 10 minute bus from the main bus station). It doesn’t take long to get to the top. We had a hot chocolate up top and walked around.
Cultural Events Around Town
There were numerous cultural events going on around Zell am See when we visited in summer 2019. It was almost like the town was over-compensating with its Austrian culture in response to the many Muslim tourists you see around town.
Some of the cultural events we saw included:
- A beer garden in front of our hotel with traditional Austrian food, beer, and music
- A marching band of 100+ Austrians in traditional attire with local flags walking from one end of Zell am See to the other
- A light show on the lake (called “Lake Zell Magic”) that was like a lighter version of the Las Vegas Bellagio light show; they do the light show all summer, and you can expect plenty of shooting jets, fancy lights, and local Zell am See pride
- A full symphony playing classical music by the lake (this happened right before the light show)
There are few small beaches in Zell am See where you can jump in the water. You can also pay to enter the “Zell am See Beach Club”, which is a lakefront entertainment area with a pool and diving boards.
We walked 30 seconds past the beach club and found a boat launch area where other people were swimming. You can walk in or dive, then swim out as far as you like.
Even in the summer, Zell am See was cold – but not as cold as glacier lakes in Alberta. It was refreshing.
You Need to Get the Zell am See Summer Card
Zell am See had something called a summer card. We saw something about it on the website when we booked our hotel, but we didn’t think much of it.
Once we got to Zell am See and started to research, however, we realized how powerful this card could be.
Basically, here’s how it works:
- Certain hotels around Zell am See and Kaprun give guests a free Zell am See card
- This card gives you free public transit and free entry to dozens of attractions around town
- Most importantly, you get access to gondolas and cable cars that would normally cost $25 to $50 each
- We went to the top of Kitzsteinhorn, a massive glacier above Kaprun, using the card. We saw snow in the middle of summer (and saw Muslims / Arabs playing in the snow for what we assume was the first time for most of them)
- We also did the reservoir tour, seeing some beautiful reservoir lakes above Kaprun, and taking a unique elevator / lift thing along the way
- The card also gets you into museums and stuff around the actual town of Zell am See, although we literally didn’t have time for any of that
Easy Company, Band of Brothers, and Zell am See
Easy Company, the legendary American paratrooper group from Band of Brothers, also has a connection to Zell am See.
I had no idea about this connection until I was in town and googled, “Zell am See” and “Zell am See easy company” was the first thing to pop up.
Evidently, after Germany surrendered, Easy Company was assigned to Zell am See, Austria.
They stayed at the Grand Hotel right on the waterfront, where they enjoyed some much-needed rest and relaxation after months of fighting across Europe.
For a World War II guy and Band of Brothers fan like myself, this was the cherry on top of an already fabulous trip to Zell am See.
Why Are There So Many Arabs and Muslims in Zell am See?
There are a ton of Arabs and Muslims in Zell am See.
I don’t mean “okay, I see a few women in burqas walking around town.”
I mean, “Holy fuck why are we the only white people in this town?”
As the train pulled into Zell am See, we quickly noticed we – as white people – were in the minority. Most people around town were Arab or Muslim. There were women in full burqas (and men, of course, wearing whatever they wanted).
The tourist guides were written in Arabic. You walk past signs on the street written in German, English, and Arabic.
You see Arabic grocery stores. You see stores with names like “Ali Baba”.
We weren’t brave enough to ask the hotel check-in guy why there were so many Muslims and Arabs around town. But the second we got Wi-Fi, we had to Google the obvious question:
Why are there so many Muslims in Zell am See, Austria?
The reason is simple. Zell am See is in the Qu’ran.
The Qu’ran Describes Paradise as a Town Very Similar to Zell am See
The Qu’ran, which is the holy book for Muslims, describes paradise as a mountain town with a lake surrounded by glaciers.
Zell am See happens to be a mountain town on a lake surrounded by glaciers.
Somebody in Zell am See’s tourist department got a serious raise when they discovered this connection between Zell am See and the Qu’ran.
Apparently, Zell am See is advertised heavily in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Every summer, Gulf Arabs come to Zell am See to escape their 50 degree Celsius weather.
The Muslims In Zell am See Were Completely Friendly and Respectful
I want to make one thing very clear: we had no issues with the Muslims or Arabs in Zell am See.
Overall, we found them to be friendly and respectful.
They didn’t grab my alcohol out of my hand when I walked past them drinking a beer (it’s legal to walk around drinking a beer on any street in Austria).
The men didn’t look at my girlfriend even when she was wearing semi-revealing clothes.
We held hands and walked past families and nobody seemed to care. We kissed and hugged and did what we usually did in public. Again, nobody seemed to care.
My experiences with Muslims in Canada and other parts of the world has been entirely positive. I’m happy to say Zell am See was the same.
Anyways, when you Google stuff about Muslims in Zell am See, you might find a few racist-ish articles pop up.
Don’t believe the bullshit – we had a wholly positive experience. You’re in a beautiful mountain town with a bunch of smiling, happy families. Who gives a fuck what they believe?
Where to Eat in Zell am See
We were underwhelmed with the food options in Zell am See. You can expect a similar dining experience to other touristy towns: high prices for average food and extremely high prices for good food.
However, there are plenty of good places to eat around town for all types of tastes. Here’s where we ate:
GreensXL: GreensXL was our favorite restaurant in Zell am See. It has a nice patio facing the street. You get ample portions of great Austrian food. I had the daily special of goulash with spatzl and it was seriously one of the best meals I had all trip.
Pizzeria Zum Cäsar: Low-key Greek food place and pizzeria close to the center of town. Reasonable prices and large portions.
Restaurant Grüner Baum: We didn’t here, but it’s one of the best-rated restaurants in town, and it’s attached to a fancy hotel. It’s more upscale.
Restaurant Feinschmeck: This was the restaurant attached to our hotel. It was expensive, the kitchen closed at unusual times, and the food didn’t taste particularly better than other places around town. However, it was authentic Austrian food with a nice patio view of the street.
Pizzeria Giuseppe: Decent pizza at a reasonable price (compared to other spots around Zell am See). This was one of the last places open in town, and they shut down the kitchen after they made our pizza.
Billa: There’s a Billa off the main town square. It was usually crowded but had good coffee, bread, meat, beer, wine, and everything else you need. Check the hours, as it closes very early (7pm or earlier most nights in the summer).
Billa Shop at the Gas Station: Did the main Billa close early? Are you craving a cold beer? Worry not – there’s a Billa Shop at the gas station open later. It’s like an upscale 7/11. There’s even a bakery inside. If you need food/booze and everything else is closed, then this isn’t a bad option at all.
Bakeries: There are plenty of bakeries around Zell am See that sell delicious pastries, breakfast rolls, etc. Walk around the town in the morning and you’ll see them.
Be aware that a lot of restaurants close early in Zell am See. Don’t trust Google Maps listings: if a restaurant says it closes at 11pm, then the kitchen could close as early as 8pm.
Not sure what to choose? Just walk around Zell am See. Every hotel seems to have a restaurant, and most have boards out front advertising daily specials. Pick one you like. They all pretty much serve the same tasty Austrian food at a high price.
Places to Drink in Zell am See
Insider: Insider is a bar right close to the center of town. We dipped in for a post-dinner drink, although it’s also a popular apres-ski spot. There was good music and decent drink specials I had my first Aperol spritz here.
Murrays Irish Bar: We never actually made it to Murrays Irish Bar, but we walked past it plenty of times. It’s a bit of English culture in a town filled with an unusual mix of Austrian, German, Arab, and Muslim culture. If it’s all overwhelming, then you can dip into Murrays Irish Bar for a pint with some fellow English-speaking people.
Off Piste Bar: I think this is Zell am See’s only night club. There’s live music and an apres-ski vibe right in the middle of town.
Rooftop Bar at Hotel Two-Timez: There’s a boutique hotel in Zell am See called Hotel Two-Timez. It has a nice rooftop bar with panoramic views of the mountains and lake.
Pick a Picnic Spot on the Lake: This is Austria, and that means public drinking is legal. Grab a six pack and walk to the lakeshore. There are plenty of spots where you can drink a delicious beer and enjoy a better view for under $0.50.