In summer, St Johann im Pongau is calm. Cows graze on the lush green slopes, chewing their cud, while small groups of hikers make their way through the forests.
This small town, about 50 kilometres south of Salzburg, is busy in winter when skiers take over the accommodation and the lifts run constantly up the mountains. It may not be the best or most famous ski resort in Austria, but it is one of the easiest to access.
As the snow melts, the warmer months reveal a different side of the town than most people know, with a whole range of other things to do in St Johann im Pongau beyond skiing.
Local Viktoria Obinger knows this side well. I meet her at the Zederberghof, the tourist accommodation owned by her husband’s family where she runs herb walks in the garden, showing people how they can make their own health products from things growing in nature.
“I think the mountains really have their own flavour and it’s so charming,” she tells me, when I ask what’s special about St Johann im Pongau.
“It’s so traditional and typical for Austria and a good way for tourists to connect with nature.”
There’s no shortage of nature in Austria – and, although the cities are stunning in their own ways, there’s something particularly refreshing about discovering a small town like this in summer.
Exploring what’s around it, without the crowds of international tourists, gives you an authentic look at the best of the region that can be so much more rewarding than just ticking off the typical sights.
Where is St Johann im Pongau?
Not to be confused with the more famous St Johann in Tirol, St Johann im Pongau is in the Salzburg region, about 50 kilometres south of the city of Salzburg. It is on one of the main roads and train lines that crosses Austria from east to west.
How do you get to St Johann im Pongau?
St Johann im Pongau is easily accessible by car, about 50 minutes’ drive from Salzburg, 2.5 hours from Innsbruck, or 4 hours from Vienna.
If you’re coming by public transport, there are regular trains that stop at the station, including direct trains to Salzburg – and even Munich and Frankfurt.
When should you visit St Johann im Pongau?
If you’re planning to ski, obviously the winter months are when you want to visit. To enjoy the summer season activities, the best months to visit are between May and September. April and October can still be quite nice but you’re more likely to get chilly and wet weather.
Even in the summer, many of the best things to do in St Johann im Pongau involve the mountains – hikes up the slopes, restaurants near the summits, views across the valley.
The town itself has a few sights, but it’s not a historic centre like some of the other smaller towns you’ll find around Salzburg or Tirol. It’s more of a base, or somewhere to head for shopping or a meal.
In fact, many visitors won’t spend much time in the town of St Johann im Pongau at all. The nearby area of Alpendorf, technically still part of St Johann but about four kilometres away by road, is where many of the resorts are and where a lot of people choose to stay.
It’s one of the reasons it does help to have a car, or at least be confident with the local public transport. It’s not just the accommodation – many of the top St Johann im Pongau attractions are found in the surrounding region, rather than the centre.
I wouldn’t worry too much about it all, though, because this is not somewhere you want to rush. Visiting St Johann is about slowing down a bit and relaxing into the natural beauty that you’ll find here. You want to leave time to sit in the sauna, after all!
With all that in mind, here are my top suggestions for what to do in St Johann im Pongau.
One of the main summer activities in St Johann im Pongau is hiking – and it’s easy to see why. The views across the valley are beautiful from almost any point, although the higher you go, the more you’ll be rewarded with vistas of more surrounding peaks.
There are almost 20 official walking trails around St Johann im Pongau, ranging from just a few hundred metres along the river bank or around Alpendorf, right up to steep challenging hikes of more than 20 kilometres, like the one from Himmelsknoten up to Heukareck (about 2100 metre high).
To see a list of the hiking around St Johann im Pongau, have a look at this official tourism page, which has good information about each of them.
If you’re wondering what the BEST hiking trail is, though, then that’s an easy choice – it’s the hike up to the top of the Hochgründeck mountain.
Of all the mountains around St Johann, the most famous is the Hochgründeck. At 1,827 metres high, it’s one of Europe’s highest forested mountains (most of the big ones in Tirol are stone at the top, for instance).
To hike to the top, it’s best to start at the Stein-Bauer car park if you have a car (or you could extend your hike by walking up the four kilometres from town to the car park). From here, it’s a six kilometre walk to the summit.
Steep sections through the forest are slightly challenging and low-hanging clouds are obscuring much of the view on the day I do it, but blue sky breaks through at the top, revealing a 360-degree panorama of the hundreds of peaks surrounding us, undoubtedly the best view in the region.
A small wooden chapel called Friedenskirche (Peace Church) near the top has become somewhat of a pilgrimage site.
Nearby is a natural amphitheatre where an annual wrestling competition is held on Assumption Day when a local is crowned the champion.
And a short stroll leads to a cross marking the highest point, where a book explains how the Hochgründeck is an ancient ritual spot, with suggestions on how, at the top of our hike, we can connect to the healing energy within the mountain.
While I appreciate the sentiment, I instead find my healing energy in a large glass of beer at Heinrich Kienerhaus, the charming mountaintop inn where hikers gather for a hearty meal after their ascent. Trust me, you’ll want to stop here!
While it’s the peaks that dominate the landscape around St Johann im Pongau, the most impressive natural landmark is the Liechtensteinklamm, the longest and deepest gorge in the Alps.
At the bottom of the ravine, with 300-metre-high walls soaring up on either side, I walk along the paths that have been constructed just above the torrential river, or even cut through the rock itself. At times the walls seem really close together, at others they open up and reveal water flowing quickly over the rocks.
An orange spiral staircase known as the Helix only adds to the sense of wonder as you go deeper into the gorge, each turn of the walkway revealing new views until you reach an enormous waterfall at the end, cascading down the steep cliff face.
This is such a special natural attraction – one that is well known all across Austria. I would say it’s even worth a day trip from Salzburg just to see it.
St Johann im Pongau
The natural sights may be the highlights of a visit, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the town itself, so let’s have a look now at what you can do in St Johann’s centre.
St Johann im Pongau was actually one of the first markets in the region, first mentioned in 924, because of its convenient location on a road junction. It grew over the years and became relatively important… until the 18th century.
In 1732, the Protestant population was expelled from the city, which had a huge effect on the town’s economy. Then in 1855, an enormous fire broke out and consumed much of the town, with more than 100 significant buildings destroyed.
All of this means that St Johann im Pongau doesn’t have a particularly impressive historic centre and lacks the sights you might find in other places.
One particularly notable landmark is the Pongau Cathedral, originally a 14th-century structure that was destroyed in the fire. It was replaced by a huge neo-gothic church built from 1856, which is now the centrepiece of the town. It has a distinctive twin-spire facade outside and, inside, a large space with an impressive altar.
Other than that, I recommend just wandering around the town. There are some charming boutique stores on Hauptstrasse and some quaint homes along the river.
If you’re staying in St Johann im Pongau but have never been to Salzburg, then it’s certainly worth heading in for the day. It’s less than an hour away by either car or train, so very easy to get there and make the most of your time.
Salzburg is one of the prettiest cities in Austria and although it’s often associated these days with the Sound of Music, there are centuries of fascinating history to discover.
From the Hohensalzburg Fortress high on the hill to Hellbrunn Palace on the city’s outskirts, there’s an impressive array of sights. The churches – particularly Salzburg Cathedral – demonstrate the wealth of the city in the past, while there are lots of museums, including two dedicated to the life of Mozart.
To make the most of a day trip, you might like to take a guided tour to see all the important sights. I would recommend one of these three (and, yes, I included a Sound of Music one!).
If you would prefer to explore independently, I’ve got lots of tips in my story about the best things to do in Salzburg.