“To many visitors, this city is all about The Sound of Music,” says my companion, British expat and Salzburg tour guide, Trudy, as we stroll through St Peter’s Cemetery.
“I’ve not seen it,” I tell her, and she looks at me with bewilderment. Trudy’s astonished to meet someone who’s never watched the 1965 classic, and further surprised that I’m much more interested in the cemetery’s catacombs — atmospheric early-Christian cave crypts, roughly hewn into the face of the Mönchsberg mountains that bisect the city — than I am with seeking out famous movie locations.
The graves here are particularly elaborate and ornate, and we’re strolling the grounds taking in the famous names: composer Haydn, opera singer Richard Mayr, and inventor of Salzburg’s famous Mozartkugel (Mozart Balls) confectionary, Paul Fürst, are all buried here.
“Here’s where the Von Trapp family hid from the Nazis in the film,” adds Trudy, who’s so used to hosting British tourists, for whom Salzburg is inextricably linked to Julie Andrews, that she forgets I have virtually no frame of reference.
The hills may be alive with the sound of music, but the locals would rather the city were remembered for legendary composer, Mozart, who was born and raised in Salzburg, and whose sister is also interred in this graveyard.
The child prodigy was baptised in the squat metal font that sits beneath the stunning ceiling frescoes of Salzburg Cathedral, just a five minute amble away, on the other side of the Salzach river.
Salzburg is quintessential, postcard Austria and this diminutive, eminently walkable baroque beauty demands to be explored on foot. Trudy and I have been walking all day, through interlocking Italianate squares under onion-domed churches and the chalk-white cathedral; along tiny passageways and undulating medieval thoroughfares, hemmed in on both sides by ancient edifices built into natural precipices; up to the top of Mönchsberg.
Culturally unique from the rest of the country, Salzburg was an independent city state from the 14th-18th centuries, and it wasn’t until 1816 that Salzburg became a part of Austria, with the city’s iconic architecture — typified by the baroque Mirabell Palace — being built by Italian architects in the 17th Century.
It’s as we stroll through the beautiful Mirabell Palace’s Gardens — site of a beloved SoM musical number — that Trudy can no longer subdue herself and bursts into a loud rendition of ‘Do Re Mi’, to the public’s delight and confusion, and my embarrassment. Despite a full day on my feet, I find myself red faced, and wishing myself far away — which is, as we all know, a long, long way to run.
See & do
Museum der Moderne Salzburg: Spread across two sites in the city, the most dramatic setting in which to experience these temporary exhibitions of modern art is on the Mönchsberg, with a journey that begins with an elevator ride up the mountainside.
Mozart Geburtshaus: No visit to the city would be complete without going to the house in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. Inside are facsimiles of family letters, and sheet music, as well as Mozart’s childhood violin and his clavichord, and — of course — the room in which the composer was born on 27 January 1756.
Hohensalzburg Fortress: Unmissable in every sense, Hohensalzburg Fortress — situated on top of the Felsenberg mountain — can be seen from practically anywhere in the city. Dating back to 1077, its museum houses a collection encompassing medieval torture devices, an epoch-hopping armoury, and a WWII exhibit. The fortress is also the best place to take in panoramic views of the city.
Hellbrunn Palace & Trick Fountains: Built for Prince-Archbishop Markus Sittikus between 1613–1619, this huge palatial villa has no bedrooms, since it was only used for summer day visits. The trick fountains are a product of the Archbishop’s sense of humour, designed to be a series of practical jokes to be played on guests: a stone banquet table sprays water into the seats of diners while stags head statues spout unseen fountains.
Like a local
The city’s cafes are extensions of Salzburgers’ living rooms, and locals won’t think twice about meeting up with friends for a 7am coffee before work.
Fingerlos: Despite its inauspicious location on the ground floor of an old people’s home, everyone says this cafe makes the best cake in Salzburg, and locals expecting house guests are often seen parked up at the curb, loading a selection of its myriad cakes and pastries into their cars.
Cafe Bazar: With charming views across the Salzach to the Old Town, Cafe Bazar’s wood-panelled walls have seen the city’s artists, intelligentsia and celebrities — such as Marlene Dietrich — hiding behind newspapers in here since 1909.
Cafe Tomaselli: Established in 1700, almost as long as Europeans have been drinking coffee, this is said to have been Mozart’s favourite cafe. Right in the centre of the Old Town, Tomaselli is accordingly heaving with tourists now, but it’s a worthy stop for history buffs and Wolfgang’s superfans.
Getreidegasse: The main Old Town shopping street and hub for much of the city’s activity. Shops here famously have wrought-iron guild signs hanging above them, depicting each building’s business from way back before the days of widespread literacy. Today, it’s home to everything from designer clothing stores, tourist knick-knacks, lederhosen, year-round Christmas shops, and several spots to buy strudel and schnapps.
Linzergasse: The city’s second shopping street, and where locals come to escape the crowds on Getreidegasse, which is just a two-minute walk away on the other side of the river. Although relatively relaxed, the area is popular amongst locals and tourists for the variety of shopping and artisan work on offer. This is one of the best places to find independent shops, and smaller local merchants, selling items such as handcrafted leather goods.
The St Andrew’s neighbourhood: Where you’ll find Salzburg’s coffee houses, offbeat antique stores, and boutique shopping, such as bespoke, handmade kids’ clothes and toys. There’s a farmers’ market outside St Andrew’s Church each Thursday, from 5am until 1pm, which is a popular spot for busy locals to lunch on fish soup.
Bergland Hotel: Decorated with owner Peter Kuhn’s artwork throughout; his wife has a degree in set design and has put it to use creating some eclectic interiors — from nautical to steampunk — for travellers on a budget. Its 18 rooms come in a variety or designs and sizes, from the expansive to the tiny.
Hotel Auersperg: With an architect in the family, the owners of the Hotel Auersperg have made clever use of the space within this massive 1800s townhouse, while still retaining its city-villa styling, including creating a wonderful inner-city spa and sanctum for yoga, and rooftop views and relaxation. Outside, the car park has electric-car chargers, while backyard beehives produce honey for the hotel’s all-organic breakfasts.
Hotel Sacher Salzburg: Salzburg’s most luxurious lodgings are currently undergoing renovation, so be sure to request a fourth-floor room for the most recently spruced-up accommodation. This grande dame’s rooms rock a distinctly classical vibe, while you can head down its vast, show-stealing, central stairwell, illuminated under a glass-roof atrium, for afternoon tea of Sachertorte in the grand cafe.
Balkan-Grill Walter: A practically compulsory stop for both locals and tourists, this hole-in-the-wall joint is hidden away in a passage connecting Getreidegasse with the Universitätsplatz. It serves up Salzburg’s answer to the hot dog — the bosna — to a queue that sometimes stretches around the block. For the uninitiated, a bosna is two flattened bratwurst (sausages) in a toasted white bread bun, topped with chopped onions, fresh parsley and curry powder.
Green Garden: This vegetarian and vegan restaurant is only a 10-minute walk from the main tourist centre, and offers delicious, beautifully presented dishes from its meat-free menu. Try the deconstructed, crispy-fresh vegetable curry.
Gasthof Goldgasse: A great place to sample Salzburg’s eponymous dessert, the Salzburger Nockerl — a sweet souffle so large I had to share it with strangers on the table beside mine. Gasthof Goldgasse marries quaint, Old Town ambiance with a top-notch local menu, which lists a lexicon of every conceivable dietary intolerance, and a wonderful regional wine list, so you’ll soon be boasting to your friends about a little-known-but-lovely Austrian sauvignon blanc.
Augustiner Bräustübl: With an annual beer-flow of over 264,000 gallons, an indoor seating area measuring 54,000 sq ft, and a beer garden that seats another 1,400 guests, the largest beer hall in Austria has to be the first stop for any night out in Salzburg. Run by monks since 1621, the Bräustübl is a place of living history and revelry, right in the heart of the city.
Seven Senses: On the seventh-floor roof terrace of newly renovated Hotel Stein, the Seven Senses rooftop bar and restaurant is a great spot for romantic drinks to start or finish an evening out.
Steingasse: A stroll down the undulating medieval alley of Steingasse, once the main route to Italy, and now squeezed between a main road and the Kapuzinerberg Mountain, offers a number of great places for late-night drinks, like Fridrich, a cosy spot with a great wine list. The mountain forms the back wall of many of these snug drinking dens, with bathroom facilities often carved out of the rock face. A chunk of wall missing from the back of arthouse cinema, Das Kino, shows where a US tank got lodged during the war, with urban legend having it that the occupants were headed to Maison de Plaisir, Austria’s oldest brothel, said to have been operating since Mozart’s day, and still there today.
Getting there & around
Public transport is fast, clean, and efficient, and the bargain Salzburg Card — which even locals buy for visiting family and friends — not only gets visitors into all the city’s top attractions, but also covers local buses. Still, being so compact, the best way to get around Salzburg is usually on foot or by bicycle using one of the myriad cycle paths that criss-crosses the city.
When to go
On the northern rim of the Alps, Salzburg experiences typically hot summers (average 24C) and cold winters (average -4C), but
a relatively high amount of rainfall. The summer drizzle even has a specific name in Salzburg: Schnürlregen. The city gets busy (and pricier) in July and August, when the popular Salzburg Festival is held, and in December when the Christmas markets draw crowds. Come in spring and autumn for hotel bargains and fewer tourists.
Published in the Salzburgerland guide distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)