The town of Steyr lies in Upper Austria's Traunviertel region where two rivers converge in a roaring Y-shape. Over the banks of eponymous river Steyr and river Enns, the pale-yellow spires of St. Michael's church rise like the chimneys of a life-sized gingerbread house. With its red brick roofs and meticulously decorated facades, Steyr verges on precious, but the fairy-tale backdrop is genuine.
The town was settled around 600 BCE by the Celts, and its historic core features buildings from a range of architectural periods. Most prominently, Rococo city hall faces off with the Gothic Bummerlhaus in Steyr's central square. The Bummerlhaus, a 13th century bourgeois mansion, has an impeccably preserved facade with a bay window that spans the front of the house. Above the frieze-trimmed entrance, a small gold statue of a lion gives the building its name. Locals thought it looked like a Bummerl, a "plump little dog."
If Steyr were a dessert, it would be a Linzer Torte. It's sweet but storied - like the currant-filled hazelnut cake that had its origin in Upper Austria in the early 1600s. Try the world's oldest cake recipe at Cafe Konditorei Schmidt, just a few steps from Steyr's town square.
A 20 minute drive north takes you to Enns, another town with picture-book architecture. You can spot Enns' landmark long before you've reached the historic center. The 200 foot Stadtturm tower sticks out from the shingled skyline and shows its four clockfaces to all sides. The Gothic and Renaissance facade carries the emblem of Austria and the year Enns became Austria's first township: 1212.
The best way to see Enns is from inside the Stadtturm. You have to climb up around 160 steps to get to the top, but the views are worth it. If you have the chance to spend a night in Enns, the Stadtturm also offers the most interesting overnight in town. The old tower keeper's quarters on the top floor became a modern hotel room in 2012. When you book the Pixel im Turm, you can have the Stadturm and its stunning panoramas all to yourself.
A visit to the Traunviertel wouldn't be complete without stopping by the lake that carries its name. About an hour from Enns, Traunsee lake extends like a small ocean between the mountains. At the northern end, the town square of Gmunden opens up straight onto the water.
If Steyr and Enns are the venerable fossils of the Traunviertel, Gmunden is the shiny show pony, made to wow and entertain. The sunny esplanade, stuccoed city hall, and lake-side cafés create a light-hearted, but upscale atmosphere. From Gmunden's waterfront you get a great photo op of the iconic Seeschloss Ort palace. The white palace with its onion dome tower sits on an island accessible by bridge. Ort is a popular wedding destination, and looking at the dramatic Alpine lake backdrop it's no mystery why.
Gmunden is famous for its romantic lake palace, but Austrians love it for traditionally made ceramics. Gmundner Keramik produces local tableware since 1492. Tour the manufacturing space and see how the artisans mold and paint bowls, plates, or pitchers. The colorful china reflects the bright landscape and vibrant character of its namesake.