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March 27, 2019

Austria: Fertö / Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape and the Semmering Railway

Fertö / Neusiedlersee on light wind day

In Central Eurpoe, near the border of Austria and Hungary, are two UNESCO World Heritage sites, “Fertö / Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape” and the “Semmering Railway”. We “visited” both briefly on way from Bratislava Slovakia to Graz Austria.

UNESCO’s inscription describes the Fertö/Neusiedler Lake area “as the meeting place of different cultures for eight millennia. This is graphically demonstrated by its varied landscape, the result of an evolutionary symbiosis between human activity and the physical environment. The remarkable rural architecture of the villages surrounding the lake and several 18th- and 19th-century palaces adds to the area’s considerable cultural interest.”

The Southern Railway Museum at the Mürzzuschlag station

Neusiedler Lake

When we arrived inside the perimeter of the UNESCO zone it was never quite clear to us what specifically there was to see at Fertö/Neusiedler Lake. The lake, which crosses the Austrian/Hungarian border, is shallow with marshy wetlands at its edges, making it hard to approach. As we drove through the area the villages were pleasant but not particularly distinctive. In the end we decided to enjoy “an evolutionary symbiosis between human activity and the physical environment” by walking out on a bar and restaurant’s deck to experience the symbiotic relationship between the restaurant-goers and the still waters of the lake on a sunny Sunday. That worked for us and it seemed to work for many of those who were there enjoying their day.

Walking paths around the lake

A perfect bar and restaurant for a sunny day

Back in the car our next stop was at the Semmering Railway. Though the intent of UNESCO’s Fertö/Neusiedler Lake inscription remained nebulous to us, the purpose behind the Semmering Railway World Heritage designation is clearer.


“The Semmering Railway, built over 41 km of high mountains between 1848 and 1854, is one of the greatest feats of civil engineering from this pioneering phase of railway building. The high standard of the tunnels, viaducts and other works has ensured the continuous use of the line up to the present day. It runs through a spectacular mountain landscape and there are many fine buildings designed for leisure activities along the way, built when the area was opened up due to the advent of the railway.”

A turn table at Mürzzuschlag station

Becky demonstrates the limitations of a Dead Man switch.

We were excited to see the railway so we showed up in Semmering area to take a look. But there’s a problem with that. As UNESCO says, the railway is built over mountains. The most spectacular stretches of the railroad right of way aren’t easy to get to, other than by train. But seeing a railway from the train doesn’t always give the best views. As near as we can tell, the best way to see the Semmering Railway is by helicopter on a clear day. We had neither when we visited.

In the end we searched up the back roads to get an uninspiring glimpse of the tracks high up on the mountainside before heading down to the Southern Railway Museum at the Mürzzuschlag station, the southern starting point of the historic Semmering mountain route. The museum was interesting and worth going out of the way to visit. The railway itself, at least the way we tried to see it, was not so inspiring.

The best view of the Semmering Railway we found was a picture inside the museum.

The day was a reminder that the UNESCO World Heritage designation is not intended as a pick of the must-see tourist destinations. Sometimes the places on UNESCO’s list are tourist-worthy, but that is not the intent of the World Heritage inscription. The intent is to protect important cultural and heritage places. And that’s what it does. Sometimes its good for tourists; other times it isn’t.

In any event the day highlights one of the things we like about seeking out UNESCO sites: It forces off the standard tourist track. Before and after we reach the coordinates that UNESCO we see and experience things that would otherwise miss. This for sure was not UNESCO’s intent, but it works for us.


We paused to see Fertö / Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape and the Semmering Railway in early October of 2018.

Alternative rail transport

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