Surrounded by mountains and dotted with patina domes and regal statues, Salzburg is, without question, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A river snakes through the center, a fortress castle watches from above, and horse-drawn carriages trot through the historic streets.
Pedestrian bridges cross over the narrow River Salzach, making the city perfect for walking. It’s a large enough town that you won’t get bored, but small enough that it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Just find your way back to the river, and you’ll know where you are.
As I strolled through the squares and narrow streets, I was struck by how clean everything looked and how civilized it felt. I’m sure Salzburg has crime just like any city, but everyone – both locals and tourists – appeared content and relaxed. I also noticed that Austrians take great pride in their heritage. You’ll not only see people walking around in lederhosen and dirndls, but you will see this traditional clothing in store windows.
Salzburg is most famous, of course, for Mozart, the von Trapp family and The Sound of Music film locations. There is a square devoted to Mozart with a statue of him at its center, and you can visit his birthplace, now a museum that contains, among other artifacts, the clavichord on which he composed The Magic Flute. There is no way to forget about the composer as you stroll through the streets. Images of him are everywhere from bouncing Mozart dolls to Mozart chocolates to rubber duckies in his likeness wearing rubber powered wigs.
If you’re interested in Mozart history, be sure to also visit Salzburg Cathedral, which still contains the baptismal font where Mozart was baptized. He also played the organ there as a young man.
It’s a steep walk to where the fortress, also known as Hohensalzburg Castle (which literally means “High Salzburg Fortress”), sits high above the rest of the city. Luckily, there is a funicular/lift that can take you up and back down in a matter of minutes. Construction of the fortress building began in 1077, and there are different sections that were built over a 600-year period through the 1600s. During the 20th century, it was a prison.
I opted to walk up to the fortress and landed, by chance, at the Nonnberg Convent, which is one of the oldest nunneries in the world that still functions as such and also where Maria von Trapp was a novice. Maria married Captain von Trapp in the Gothic church there as well. A replica of the convent was built for The Sound of Music, however, so the actual building is not in the film.
There are wonderful views of the city from the convent, and it was also my first glimpse of the interesting graves that I saw elsewhere in the city. A small rectangular garden of growing flowers sits in front of each gravestone.
Of course, if you’re a fan of The Sound of Music, you can take tours that will fill you in on the making of the iconic film and the inside story of the real von Trapp family, which is quite different from the movie.
Another site used in the film is the Mirabell Palace and Gardens located on the other side of the river from the Mozart birthplace and the fortress. Entrance is free to both. The sculpted garden filled with statutes is a wonderful place to relax after you’ve been walking for a while. (In The Sound of Music, you’ll see it in the “Do-Re-Mi” scene.)
The Museum of Modern Art also sits at a high point above the city and offers great views and photo opportunities. There is a fine restaurant there as well that I recommend.
If you’re traveling with children – or even if you aren’t – don’t miss the Hellbrunn Palace. On the grounds is one of the oldest remaining water parks in the world. That’s right – a Baroque water park which was built 400 years ago in 1612. These early versions of what we enjoy today were very popular at one time. This one contains trick fountains that can catch you off guard, so dress accordingly. It’s a favorite among school groups, but it’s also fascinating to see how much movement was accomplished through rather primitive but ingenious water power.
Created by the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg at the time, the park shows the Prince’s sense of humor. Water sprays from all sorts of surprising places, including the antlers of deer heads that are mounted on an outside wall. The funniest area is the Roman Theatre with a marble table surrounded by hidden fountains, except for the Prince’s seat, which is the only one that remains dry. Visitors have fun sitting in the Prince’s coveted position.
The most impressive part of the park for me is a mechanical theatre that was built in 1749 depicting a Baroque town with 138 wooden miniature figures that move – all water-driven. Not only does it give us an idea of what life was like in the mid 18th century, but it must have been a miraculous thing for the people of that time to see.
The gazebo used in The Sound of Music for the “16 Going On 17” scene is also on the grounds of Hellbrunn Palace. It was moved there from its original location, but film enthusiasts visit it regularly. When we were there, a group stood by it and sang the song together.
Also great for both kids and adults is the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. A tradition in the city since 1913, the marionettes have performed abbreviated versions of a wide variety of operas over the years, especially Mozart’s, of course. The music is recorded, but the puppeteering is live. We saw The Magic Flute when I was in town, and it was delightful, lasting about 1-1/2 hours.
I stayed at the Hotel Sacher while in Salzburg, and it truly is the place to stay. It’s one of the grand buildings right on the river – a historical property that has totally modern amenities after a comprehensive renovation, including iPod stations and television screens in the bathroom mirrors.
You can grab a famous Sacher Torte while you’re there, which is made from a 34-step recipe originated in 1832. You’ll find recipes online for this torte, but they are not authentic. The true recipe is carefully protected in a vault. An assortment of special chocolates are produced for the Café Sacher for use in the exceedingly rich cake, which is cooked in a specific temperature and level of humidity. Apricot jam is part of the recipe, as apricots are grown in Austria and frequently used in a variety of delicious dishes.
Before your torte indulgence, have a meal at the hotel’s Salzachgrill, which has outdoor seating next to the river with excellent views of the fortress and the city’s domes. Don’t miss the Salzburger Nockerl, an egg white soufflé that is very sweet but light. Order it in advance, as it takes some time to prepare. I’ve never had anything quite like it, and it was served with a type of berry ice cream. For an entrée, I suggest the Tafelspitz, a boiled beef dish traditionally served with root vegetables and horseradish.
Salzburg is a must for any traveler who enjoys European history and culture. While it can be slightly crowded in the busy summer months, it isn’t as congested with people or traffic as most of the larger cities in Europe. You can have delicious food and interesting experiences without the stress that you might feel in Paris or Rome.