Trying to play things cool is utterly self-defeating. To scour Salzburg for hip neighbourhoods, new trends and brag-worthy under-the-radar joints is to entirely miss the point of going there in the first place. If travelling along the increasingly cliched ‘like a local’ lines is the goal, then there’s absolutely no reason why you’d have ended up in Salzburg anyway.
Normality-seeking is doomed to failure, partly because Salzburg has never really been all that normal. For centuries, it was an ecclesiastical city-state, its territory patched together through various bequests and alliances. It was ruled by a series of prince-archbishops who strictly controlled which craftsmen and trades were acceptable within the boundaries, but got things built with incredible speed when they wanted them. This autocratic speed accounts for the city’s good looks. After a fire at the cathedral in 1598, Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau decided to sweep away the heart of the medieval city and replace it with a Baroque fantasy of interlocking squares and unrelentingly decorated state buildings. Napoleon put paid to the Archbishopric in 1803, and Salzburg was subsumed into Austria in 1815.
The crucial thing, however, is that the city didn’t have long to settle and become one of the herd before the tourists started pouring in. The train station opened in 1860, and from then on, Salzburg developed a strong habit of giving itself over to visitors. Walking through the Salzburg Museum inside the Neue Residenz, a bombardment of promotional posters is on display. They’re as surprising for how long they go back as for how many of them there are.
The whole carefully sculpted magical playground thing, therefore, isn’t just a recent marketing whitewash. The shameless kitsch-bombing is integral to Salzburg’s character, and the more wholeheartedly you throw yourself into it, the more enjoyable the city is. The Von Trappery, schnitzel-blitzing, dirndl-donning and Mozart-flogging is never subtle, but neither is it entirely fake.
For a city of around 150,000 inhabitants, Salzburg has a remarkable amount to see and do — especially when you factor in the series of alternately beautiful and downright weird attractions within a 40-minute drive of the centre. Ignoring this wealth of unashamedly fun goodies in favour of largely futile cool-hunting seems a bit silly. Ogle the palaces, line the stomach with dumplings and beer, sing along on the tour bus and climb ev’ry mountain — and reserve petty quibbling over authenticity for somewhere that has less to serve up.
What to see & do
Salzburger Dom: Salzburg’s cathedral has the grandiose ceiling paintings and blingy altar to satisfy Baroque-seekers. But it’s the crispness of the black lines around every detail that make the Dom memorable.
DomQuartier Salzburg: The reopened historic route through the Prince-Archbishops’ Residence, upper level of the Dom and Benedictine Monastery of St Peter has been given a contrived name, but the state rooms are overpowering, and the collection of paintings and shiny treasures impressive.
Mozart’s Birthplace: Mozart, as you’ll be told umpteen times, was a Salzburger. The house where he was born is now a museum with original documents, paintings and instruments. Most intriguing of all, though, is a biographical detail: pushy parents played as big a part in his success as prodigious talent, it turns out.
Untersberg: The distinctive leaning peak of the mountain looming over the city is accessible by cable-car. Untersberg is shared by Germany — hiking trails on the snow-dusted top lead over to Bavaria.
Sound of Music kitsch: Those with Maria fear shouldn’t come here. Salzburg milks its status as the setting for The Sound of Music. Panorama Tours is one of many companies running trips around the key filming locations, including the Leopoldskron Palace lake, Nonnberg Abbey and the Mirabell Gardens (pranced around during Do-Re-Mi).
Salzwelten: It’s novelty transport ahoy at this 2,500-year-old salt mine, located just outside the town of Bad Dürrnberg. Take a train inside, go down two huge wooden slides, then float on a raft along an underground lake. Some pseudo-educational historic videos are thrown in too, but this is really somewhere to let the inner kid loose.
Eisriesenwelt: The world’s largest accessible ice cave is a summer-only detour option, but it’s astonishing inside. High on a mountainside near the village of Werfen, there are massive ice walls, stalagmites that look like animals, and a general sense of going through the wardrobe into Narnia.
Where to stay
Hotel Am Dom: The vaulted ceilings give away how old the building is — it dates from the mid-13th century. But it’s filled with new ideas. There’s a constant design swagger in the bold, colourful photo-montage artworks, and inventive use of furnishings and light fittings to fit the space.
Hotel Goldener Hirsch: Sticking much more closely to the old-world atmospherics, this is all mounted animal skulls and antlers, creaky floorboards and swoony antique furniture. But the thoughtful luxurious touches — such as robes embossed with a stag logo and free umbrellas for guests — are there too.
Drechslerei Lackner: Perhaps a place more designed for staring in wonder at, rather than actually buying anything from, this warren of woodcraft at Badergässchen 2 is crammed with little figurines, dreamy chess sets and intricately detailed cuckoo clocks with revolving mini-people in silly hats.
Salzburg Salz: A salt concept shop may seem a bit of a stretch, but by heavens they’re going for it. Bath salts of various scents, truffle salts, salt and pepper pots… even lamps made out of roughly hewn salt blocks are up for grabs.
Fürst Konditorei: ‘Mozart balls’ — chocolate, nougat and pistachio concoctions — are standard in Salzburg. Don’t be fooled by the ubiquitous ones with red wrappers — these are pale imitations. The originals come in blue and white and are only available from Fürst.
Like a local
Hilltop hike: Combine the Museum der Moderne and Festung Hohensalzburg in the same day. The short walk between them across Mönchsberg Hill is a beautiful woodland stroll, with tremendous views all the way. Oh, and there’s a little hut selling beer and glühwein halfway along.
Art in the open: Since 2000, an impressive number of modern art installations have been slotted in around the city. Stephan Balkenhol’s Sphaera — a man standing on a giant golden ball in Kapitelplatz — is the most obvious. But pick up the Walk Of Modern Art map at the tourist information office to turn the rest into a walking route.
Where to eat
Triangel: Cafe/restaurant Triangel has an arty vibe, partly helped by the walls full of black-and-white photos of the Salzburg Festival. Barring the odd deviation, it’s classic goulash, schnitzel, pork and cabbage fare.
Zwettler’s: It’s all about the meat here, but some Balkan specialities slip in. There’s a pub feel too — and given the Old Town location, there’s a high ratio of locals, many of whom bring their gorgeous dogs with them.
Carpe Diem Finest Fingerfood: You’ll either think this place is cool and high concept or pretentious. Upstairs is traditional fine dining, but in the buzzy, lounge bar-like downstairs it’s all about finger food served in edible cones.
Augustiner Bräustübl: The monks still brew the beer, and it’s served from the barrel in a maze of basement beer halls within the monastery. The giant summer beer garden helps elevate this to a contender for the title of world’s greatest pub.
Linz Bar: Tiny and convivial, with everyone sitting on stools around the bar, this easily-missable locals’ bar at Linzerstrasse 60 also sells an intriguing range of acquired-taste local liqueurs.
Enoteca Settemila: This perky wine store/bar hybrid on Bergstrasse has a large selection of local wines on the shelves, and knowledgeable owner Rafael happily talks uninitiated guests through the often unfamiliar Austrian grapes and winemakers.
British Airways has flights to Salzburg from Gatwick, while Ryanair flies from Stansted. Winter regional airport routes are offered by Jet2 from Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds, plus Thomson from Birmingham, Glasgow and Bristol.
Average flight time: 2h.
Buses 2, 8 and 27 connect the airport with key spots in and near the Old Town. Fares cost €2.40 (£1.70). Otherwise, pretty much everything is in walking distance, making taxis unnecessary. Bus timetables for sights further afield (like the Untersberg cable-car and Hellbrunn Palace) can be found at salzburg-ag.at. The Salzburg Card — worth getting if seeing a lot of attractions — includes public transport, and costs €24 (£17), €32 (£23) or €37 (£26) for 24, 48 and 72 hours, respectively.
When to go
It’s a year-round destination but accommodation books up most quickly around Christmas and during summer’s Salzburg Festival. May and October tend to be weather/price sweet spots with temperatures around 15C.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.27.
Time difference: GMT +1.
International dial code: 00 43 662.
How to do it
Expedia has a four-night break in Salzburg, staying at the Hotel Goldener Hirsch on a room-only basis, from £428 per person. This includes return British Airways flights from Gatwick and is based on two people sharing a room.
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)