Nestled within the storybook scenery of the Austrian Alps and just a stone’s throw from the German border, Salzburg is among the most picturesque, preserved and sophisticated old cities in Europe. Best known for its musical connections – Mozart was born here and The Sound of Music filmed here – it is also internationally famous for the baroque architecture of its Altstadt (Old Town). The city is also a modern cultural hub and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I’m slightly (but not very) embarrassed to say that my trip was inspired more by the soaring vocals and iconic mountain-top twirling of Julie Andrews than by the Nachtmusik of Wolfgang Amadeus. The beauty of Salzburg is that one arrives expecting to have crisp apple strudel and to hear repeated renditions of “Edelweiss,” but in reality the vast majority Salzburgers are largely ambivalent about the von Trapp legacy that so fuels tourism in this compact alpine city.
On arrival in Salzburg, take an hour or two to situate yourself and enjoy a wander around the Altstadt and along the banks of the river Salzach. Here, in homage to the Pont des Arts in Paris, and the general love lock trend infecting the romantic cities of Europe, unimaginative lovers can declare their eternal devotion by attaching an unattractive metal padlock (available for purchase at several souvenir shops in the Old Town) to an unattractive, modern pedestrian footbridge. Take in the main shopping street, the Getreidegasse, and admire the beautifully ornate wrought-iron signs (even the McDonalds here has one). In the inevitable mid-afternoon dip, head to the well-known Café Bazar to top up on caffeine and sugar with a coffee and a slice of Sachertorte. A favourite with locals and often over-looked by tourists, there’s a wonderful view of Hohensalzburg Castle, which sits high atop the city like a watchful custodian.
Hop across the river and you will find the Mirabell Palace and its immaculate gardens, a must-see for Sound of Music devotees and haters alike. Inside the palace itself await a grand marble staircase and front hall, but the gardens are undoubtedly the masterpiece and main attraction. Open all day to the public, Salzburgers stroll through nonchalantly on their way into town, while tourists re-enact the famous “Do-Re-Mi” number around the elaborate baroque fountain and meticulous flowerbeds, and skip merrily through the ivy-covered trellises. Stand on top of the stone staircase for one of the best vistas in Salzburg; your eyes will lead you from the colourful flowers, to the green roofs and spires of the Old Town and up to the old castle above.
You will be hungry after the afternoon’s exertions and ready for some good Austrian stodge to line your stomach for the night ahead. A little off the beaten path is S’Kloane Brauhaus where you can enjoy a traditional Austrian festival of hearty, filling and above all starchy food. Go for the schnitzel or the pumpkin pasta, washed down with dark beer brewed in-house. But beware: S’Kloane is known for its bizarre opening hours and days, so plan ahead and make the effort to catch a meal there.
After dinner more beers will probably be in order. Unfortunately, connoisseurs of great German beer with high expectations may be disappointed by some Austrian offerings. Stiegl is the classic Salzburg beer, having been in constant production here since the 15th century, though on tasting you might wonder why they did not give up before the 16th century. You can always visit the Stiegl brewery to ask why. For those hoping to dance the night away to Germanic club beats, a string of around ten bars and clubs line the riverfront. A more demure night of drinking might find you sipping Augustiner-Bräu (or Magner’s) and chatting to Erasmus exchange students in the Irish pub O’Malley’s, which has a particularly strong international student vibe (multilingual toilet graffiti et al) that is very welcoming.
There are so many great places for breakfast and brunch in Salzburg, but Gluxfall in the Old Town might just be the best. It looks a little too trendy to deliver, but deliver it does. Pick and choose the components of your perfect breakfast, from truffle salami to heart-shaped waffles and little green omelettes to potentially the best poached egg you will ever eat.
After breakfast I would recommend a snoop around Mozart’s house. It is easy to find on the main shopping street, strangely located right next door to H&M and with a great view of a Starbucks. Here you can see the room where Salzburg’s most celebrated son and probably the world’s most famous musical prodigy was born and lived until his teenage years, when the Mozarts moved to a more opulent residence a few streets away. Learn about his early life, his family and his unfortunate early demise. Such relics as his childhood violin, locks of his hair and scatty but sweet love letters to his wife are on show.
Do not forget to try a Mozartkugel (or twenty), on sale throughout the city and even in the supermarkets. It is a small, delicious ball of marzipan, nougat and dark chocolate created in honour of… Well you probably get the idea. They really love Mozart here.
Grab a pretzel in the market square (some of them are filled with a delicious mixture of ham and a weirdly spiced cheese) before taking the funicular up the Festungsberg hill, home of that imposing castle you will have been staring at for the past 24 hours. At the top you will be met with a stunning panorama of the city on one side and the mountains on the other, almost mystical on a cloudy day. This alone is worth the €11 entry fee. But while you are there it is worth it to take a look around the medieval castle, which is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe. Built for the PrinceArchbishops of Salzburg, it houses the Salzburg Bull, a huge 16th-century dictatorial organ which was once used to wake up citizens in the morning, and then again to tell them when they should retire to bed. The impressive state apartments that formerly housed these bossy Prince-Archbishops are currently undergoing huge renovations and much of the furniture has been removed, but you can still wander through.
There has been barely a mention of The Sound of Music today, though you are probably still humming “Edelweiss” to yourself. The intrepid tourist will brave the dinner show at Sternbrau, The Sound of Salzburg, wary that he may be invited up to waltz at any moment, or awkwardly asked to list a few of his favourite things. If you have the guts you will be treated to some traditional fare and an after-dinner orgy of Julie Andrews imitations, Mozart and the best Austrian folk tunes. Schnitzel with noodles and crisp apple strudel are offered with only a hint of ironic humour, and after a few beers you will not care that the supposedly authentic sound of Salzburg here consists of a rag-tag band including a Japanese guy and a nice young American 36hours in Salzburg lady. Throughout the show they play charming and informative clips of an old interview with the real Maria von Trapp, consistently harass and embarrass the few daring men in the audience and impersonate nuns from the nearby Nonnberg Abbey.
After the cheesiness of last night’s show, the zen atmosphere of vegetarian and vegan eatery Heart of Joy Café, located right by Mirabell Palace, will certainly mellow you out for your final day in Salzburg. This café is inspired by the philosophy of poet, artist and all-round spiritual dude Sri Chinmoy, whose face seems inexplicably ubiquitous in Salzburg. Have some vegan porridge or a huge platter of cheese.
Fortified and chilled, you should have the energy to climb up the slightly steep hill to the so-called Nonnberg Abbey (which is not actually an abbey), thought to be the oldest nunnery in the world. Your efforts will be rewarded with another stunning view of the mountains. The real Maria von Trapp was a postulant here before being swept off her feet by the captain. For obvious reasons there are no tours for visitors inside the abbey, but if you can, go during vespers to hear the nuns singing. It is the perfect ending to any weekend in Salzburg.
On your way home, you will probably want to buy a year’s supply of Mozartkugel at the airport, and perhaps a fetching, feathered Austrian hat, but maybe give the Stiegl beer a miss. Auf Wiedersehen!