Some cities adopt promotional slogans that seem contrived. Whoever came up with Salzburg’s motto, ‘The Stage of the World’ was spot on. Each year, this small city of 150,000 people hosts around 4,000 events including a world-class jazz festival.
It’s in a gorgeous setting. Salzburg is a charming riverside town with grand baroque buildings set around landscaped gardens and with green coloured church domes and towers. An impressive fortress stands high on the rocky hill, which overlooks the bustling streets. And you’ll hear music almost everywhere, occasionally punctuated by the sound of horses’ hooves drawing carriages along the cobbled alleys.
This is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart but 300,000 people visit Salzburg each year in search of a different musical inspiration. Salzburg is the beautiful medieval town hemmed in by the Eastern Alps that you saw Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp children singing and dancing around in The Sound of Music. Interestingly, it’s only recently aired on Austrian telly so many locals have never seen it and they don’t know the songs, such as Edelweiss. For them, it’s a type of flower. It’s not a traditional, authentic song and was composed for the movie, my tour guide told me.
Eva Touhler has operated Sound of Music trips around the key filming locations for 40 years, through her company Bob’s Special Tours. There are two excursions daily, each lasting four hours and I jumped on board the bus driven by Al. It was full of American visitors and Al spoke perfect English. Eva told me that her company only offers English language tours, rather than bilingual trips. She’s found that most fans are from the States or UK. I noticed a number of Japanese visitors too.
Al was good. He navigated the tight turns and narrow streets of the city whilst pointing out every connection with the movie you could imagine. I wondered how many people stay in their hotel rooms after the tour, so that they can watch the film trying to spot the places they had just seen. It’s not uncommon for visitors to take the tours dressed up as the characters from the film and Eva welcomes it. “All of our drivers wear lederhosen,” she told me. “Some people come with their own dirndl, the traditional Austrian women’s costume of a bodice, puff sleeved blouse, long skirt and apron. We tried renting an apron so people could dance on the meadow, but that is not possible to do anymore. The film was made 50 years ago and they have built on that site. We have another spot nearby which our drivers use.”
Passengers often belt out songs from The Sound of Music as they see the sights. “We have a sing-along on the bus sometimes,” Eva laughed. “It sounds bad but once we had an opera singer with us and she was singing beautifully. Everybody went quiet and just listened it was wonderful. Sometimes people know the whole movie sentence-by-sentence.”
A word of caution – the film might be based on real people and events, but Hollywood was ‘creative’ when making it. “They put different places together that are not really together,” warned Eva. “The family house is Schloss Leopoldskron, which sits in a beautiful location on the lake. The other side of the house, where Maria introduces herself to the butler, is the dark yellow coloured, Baroque Fronburg Castle. The graveyard where the family hid from the Nazis was a Hollywood movie set.” You’ll learn a lot about Salzburg on the tours, whether you’re a fan of the film or not. You get to see a great deal of the city and the beautiful surrounding countryside. You can book at bobstours.com.
A popular Sound of Music stop in the centre of Salzburg is the Horse Fountain, a large enclosed pond. It was where Maria sang My Favourite Things in the film. In history, the royal horses were walked into the trough so they could drink and so their owners could wash them down.
Fountains feature frequently in the film and Sabine Roth of tourguide-salzburg.com took me to see one of the most sought after sights in the city – the Mirabell Palace Gardens. “They shot scenes around the Pegasus fountain in 1964. Julie Andrews and the children danced around it and the steps behind as they sang Do Re Me,” Sabine explained. It did seem familiar. Again the gardens and palace are impressive and worth visiting even if you’ve not seen the movie. They are set alongside the river and are filled with hedge tunnels, symmetrical, patterned borders and the stately garden designs of that era – full of statues and balustrades.
The Baroque Mirabell Palace is a beautiful 17th century building, built for Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau who controlled Salzburg during that period. Sabine told me that he had a colourful private life, considering he represented the Roman Catholic church and the Pope. “The Archbishop had a mistress and fifteen children.” She paused before sharing the most shocking revelation. “The mistress was Protestant.” This imposing, white-walled, green-roofed palace is now a government office. Try and have a look at its impressive marble hall. That’s now used for functions, from classical recitals to weddings.
At this point, I should give you my best tip for a visit to Salzburg. Get a Salzburg Card. Martina Trummer from the city’s tourist board kindly offered me one. It really helped me get the most out of my trip. “We call it the key to the city,” Martina explained, “because it includes free entry to all the museums and sites.” It works as a ticket for public transportation too. You can use it on the funicular to visit the fortress, use it on the cable car up the mountain and the elevator inside the mountain. The card also gives you a free river cruise. The card is €24 for 24 hours for adults and you can buy one for the kids at half price.
I used my card for a ‘free’ 25-minute ride on the number 25 bus to Hellbrun Castle, just over four kilometres from the city centre. Some people head here just to see the famous gazebo, which was used during the song Sixteen Going On Seventeen. It looks larger in the film because some scenes were shot on a Hollywood set. Sorry – that’s the ‘magic’ of the movies again.
Hellbrun is another grand riverside villa built in 1612 as a summer daytime residence for the Prince-Archbishop. That’s why there’s no bedroom. He just popped down here for the day and returned to Salzburg to sleep. The mustard-coloured mansion feels more like a castle than a palace, with it’s long gravelled paths, courtyard and stately rooms. You can wander around inside, up the sweeping staircase and admire the high ceilinged rooms filled with art and curiosities like stuffed albino animals. Some of it is quite weird. One room contains an upright white horse as its centrepiece. They’ve attached a horn to its head so that it resembles a unicorn!
Another room hosts a slowly revolving, fuchsia-pink circular seat, similar to one of those old roundabouts in a children’s playground. You can sit and look up to admire the intricate ceiling design of gold painted lions, cherubs, blue sky and fluffy white clouds.
You must go on the Hellbrun garden tour to see the trick fountains. The gardens are set around a number of ponds, some stocked with massive fish as well as statues of fish, mermaids and cherubs spouting water. The fountains were designed as entertainment for the guests. As you walk around, water shoots out from the most unexpected places. You’ll soon be giggling and laughing like kids. It’s good fun but here’s another tip. Don’t sit down in the Roman-style amphitheatre. Water jets shoot up from under the stone benches!
You are warned you will get wet as your tour party is led around. You won’t get drenched, though. If the footpath ahead is damp, and it’s not been raining, prepare to move through that area quickly before the jets start up. My guide seemed to delight in soaking an appallingly behaved child who was disrupting our tour. She was in charge of the button that turned on the hidden water fountains as we walked around. She timed it perfectly, making sure that the unruly kid was in the firing line every time before she hit the button.
The water-powered miniature city, featuring models of tiny people who move in time to music as they go about their everyday business, is delightful. Inside one of the grottos, mechanical birds sing. Again, they are powered by water.
Back in the city, another historic site worth seeing is the 900-year-old Hohensalzburg Castle, which means ‘High Salzburg Fortress.’ You reach the castle by riding a funicular railway and that should give you an idea of the views you’ll enjoy. The 11th century castle sits on top of a rocky hill 500 metres above the town. When you reach the top you can look over Salzburg in the valley beneath and see the Alps rise to the east.
This is one of Europe’s largest medieval castles and there are plenty of tourist attractions here, some historic, some tackier. Admission and the funicular ride are included with your Salzburg Card. You can buy an additional ticket to tour the gothic-period decorated rooms. The torture chamber is a popular diversion too although I didn’t really understand why the World of String Puppets marionette exhibition was there.
This Austrian region is home to many impressive castles. I decided to continue my Sound of Music homage and head for the fortress that dominates the nearby small town of Werfen. The 40-minute train ride from Salzburg follows the river. From my seat, I enjoyed superb views of the towering, sometimes bleak and barren rock faces of the mountains. I doubt that some of the places I passed through get much sunlight because they are packed into the narrow, steep-sided valleys.
Werfen is little more than a village – pretty and very Austrian. Nearly every home has shutters and flower filled window boxes. I walked up its main street to the car park then took another funicular to reach the iconic castle, perched high on a hilltop.
You’ll probably recognise Hohenwerfen Fortress. I met with manager Paul Anzinger and he told me why the distinctive castle felt so familiar. “It appears in the background when Maria sings Do Re Mi in the meadow picnic scene.” You can walk across the valley almost to that spot. The precise filming site is private land but a viewing area has been marked.
“The fortress also featured in the 1968 WWII film Where Eagles Dare with Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. Recently Amazon filmed an episode of The Man in the High Castle here. It was interesting to hear about the production. “There were helicopters flying overhead constantly and we had to close the castle for two days,” Paul told me.
Hohenwerfen Fortress has unusual origins. A bishop from Salzburg started its construction in 1070 in order to charge people who were travelling down the valley. It’s basically an impressive toll both! Archduke Eugen, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty, bought it in the late 19th century and lovingly restored it after a fire. When the Nazi’s took control, they wanted the site for a training camp, so the Archduke sold it to them, with caveats. “He made a contract with them insisting that all personnel working at the castle had to stay there and get money from the Nazis,” Paul told me. And he’s convinced that the Archduke haunts the fortress. “I think he still has an eye on the castle and on the people there and takes care of them,” he said.
You can easily spend three hours exploring the site, wandering the narrow passageways and twisting staircases. Tours will take you around the dungeons and up one of the towers. The view over the valley from the tower is breathtaking and you’ll be deafened if you’re up there when the bell chimes on the hour.
Outside, on the grassy bank at the side of the fortress, falconers host daily displays showing their skills in handling birds of prey. “We have thirty birds of prey here,” says Paul. “We have falcons, eagles, buzzards and vultures. People can get really close to the birds.” The birds circle the audience and fly directly over your heads, which can lead to the occasional scream!
I headed back to Salzburg to continue my tour with more music. But this time I wanted to experience the city’s Mozart connection. There are daily concerts in the composer’s hometown. As you walk around Salzburg’s streets you will hear Mozart’s music playing everywhere. Three times every day a carillon chimes Amadeus’ music across the central square. “Thirty five bells ring,” Sabine told me. “The bells date back to 1695. Every few months they change the melody. Mozart grew up hearing these bells and he even composed especially for this bell tower.” A signboard near the tower lists the current musical arrangement.
There are a number of museums in the city dedicated to the composer and I visited two. There’s a lot of reading to do in Mozart’s Residence, his old home in the city, with books and music scores on display. You can learn about his family and how they lived. I sat down and watched a video about Mozart’s life.
He was clearly a child prodigy and there’s more about his extraordinary talent in the displays across the river in Mozart’s Birthplace, the house where he was born in 1756. Mozart’s father noticed his son’s musical talent at an early age. The boy could play the violin and the piano at the age of five.
The Mozart Sound and Film Collection is a third venue where you can listen to the composer’s works on demand. The museums are free to enter with your Salzburg Card.
You’ll see lots of Mozart souvenir shops selling the usual mugs, tee shirts and other tat. But if you want a uniquely local souvenir, you should take home some Mozartkugel. This chocolate sweet has been produced by Martin Fürst’s family ever since his great-great-grandfather invented it in the 1890s.
The round sweets are balls of pistachio marzipan and nougat, placed on sticks and dipped into dark chocolate containing 60% cocoa. They’re wrapped in distinctive silver and blue paper, which shows that these are authentic Mozartkugel made to the original recipe. The family has also owned the town centre Café-Konditorei Fürst café and shop since the late Victorian period. They make three million of the sweets here annually and you can taste them in the café. You’ll need to visit – Martin says they don’t send them by post. “You can only buy them in Salzburg because they are a freshly-made product. They are not suitable for supermarket display,” he told me.
At the opposite end of the taste spectrum, Salzburg is known for salt. In fact, the city’s name means ‘salt fortress’ and it’s still mined here. It was once sent all over Europe in the days when meat and fish was preserved with salt. There’s a town centre shop that sells presentation packs – a thoughtful gift idea for a keen chef.
I was impressed at the history and heritage of many Salzburg businesses. Franz Grabmer manages the Stiftsbäckerei St Peter, a bakery that’s been operating since the 12th century. As I entered the ancient bake house, it’s thick stone walls indicated its age. Franz told me their bread is made using traditional techniques stretching back 800 years. “We make sourdough bread in a wood-fired oven. And the bakery is powered by a water wheel next door, which produces electricity. We make the flour with stones, again following a process that’s been used for hundreds of years,” he explained.
Salzburg also boasts Austria’s longest established coffee shop, Café Tomaselli, established in 1705. It was busy inside, on the roof terrace overlooking the main square and on the tables around the plaza. Sabine told me that Mozart was a regular here. “He used to drink almond milk,” she says.
The composer wanted to keep a clear head but it seemed to me that there’s quite a lot of alcohol consumed in Salzburg and that’s just the drinking you notice. Sabine told me that the city’s luxurious and boozy speciality coffees were introduced by women who wanted a discrete drink. “The elegant ladies in the 19th century couldn’t drink a beer as it didn’t look very good. So they hid alcohol like Amaretto and schnapps inside the coffee, under the whipped cream. They’d get quite tipsy,” she laughed.
You can’t come to Salzburg without experiencing a beer garden. Since 1890, locals have socialised in the chestnut tree lined spaces of the Augustiner Abbey beer garden at the Müllner Bräu Brewery. It’s next to the Abbey, which was founded by Augustinian monks in 1605. I spent a pleasant hour sitting outside in the early evening sunshine. It’s very relaxed. There was a mixed crowd, not just tourists. A group of pensioners on the table next to me kept bursting into drinking songs! There’s also a deafeningly loud peal of bells to sit through at times. I took it as a reminder not to drink too much – in case my head sounded like that in the morning! One of the brewery’s many specials is Kaiserschmarrn, a delicious shredded pancake served with plum compote.
You’d expect wine to be dominant in Salzburg because we’re in Austria but Sabine told me that’s not the case. “It’s not the right climate for growing grapes. We have 150 days of rain per year.” I had been lucky to avoid them and I only needed my umbrella at the trick fountains. “We are the secret Austrian capital of beer. There are seven breweries within the city and we are number two for beer consumption in Europe, after the Czech Republic,” Sabine added, with a hint of pride.
You’ll notice people sipping a bright orange drink that resembles Lucozade. I later asked Martina what it was. “It is called Aperol Spritz,” she explained. “It’s white wine with mineral water and a liqueur that’s similar to Campari. It’s mainly drunk by women,” she added. I was pleased that I had resisted the urge to sample some!
As we’re in Austria, small shots of schnapps are often consumed with food or while socialising around the bar. Sabine took me to meet Michael Sporer at Sporer’s Bar and Shop on Salzburg’s main street. His family has been making schnapps and punches since 1903. They offer a hot punch, rather like glühwein but made from rum, orange, lemon and liqueurs. “Sporer’s has made forty different products since the start of the 20th century.” Michael beamed. “If you want some schnapps or something to drink – some alcohol – you come here. People come in for the lunch break and have some schnapps and then they continue their work,” he added. “We have special tastings. You can try three shots to get a flavour of our local liqueurs. We have Allasch, which is an old drink containing caraway. There’s also cinnamon, elderflower and apricot. Those are the classics but we also make brandies from Williams pears, berries and the cones from pine trees.”
The bar was filling up with locals who were ordering their schnapps. I’d only experienced schnapps drunk as shots on boozy British pub-crawls so I asked Michael how locals drink it. “It’s normally a double shot and you drink it slowly. You have to taste it and enjoy it by taking your time. It takes fifteen minutes to drink a glass of schnapps or liqueur,” he explained. I tried the house blend. It was nice and had a taste of real liquorice root. If you’d rather abstain, Salzburg offers the Red Bull Shop. The Austrian energy drinks maker has, controversially, sponsored the city’s football team and has a town centre store.
It was time to discover some of the city’s art attractions. To reach the modern art Museum der Moderne you can walk up the 211 steps to its cliff top location or you can take the MönchsbergAufzug lift, carved into the hillside. It’s free with the Salzburg Card. As you enter the tunnel and see the rocky walls, then turn to face the steel lift doors, it feels like you’re entering a Bond villain’s lair. Seconds later, you’re standing on Monchsberg mountain.
You can walk along a terrace leading from the art museum and enjoy the views, as you wind through the woods overlooking the river valley. The River Salzach appears green as it flows under the city’s bridges below.
The museum building is impressive. It’s spacious and light. The exhibitions are quite alternative and might stretch your definition of art. While I was there, I viewed installations made from a pile of clinical waste and some old motor parts. There was also a fascinating photographic collection covering an entire wall. An artist had photographed himself on a road trip around Austria in the 1960s and revisited the same spots to recreate the pictures today. It was interesting to see how much the backdrops and settings had changed.
Art features prominently around Salzburg. Since 2002 there’s been a concerted effort to add interesting sculptures to public spaces, including golden hot dogs and a line of green gherkins. The most impressive art installation is a twin sculpture. One part is a man standing on top of a 9m high golden ball. He’s looking out towards ‘the woman in the rock,’ a female figure embedded into a nearby cliff face. Locals are full of theories about the connection between the pair and what may have happened. That’s creative art. It gets people talking.
Another form of art caught my attention. Again, with a strong sense of history, Salzburg has retained its traditional metal business signs on the main shopping street. Some are just icons representing the types of products sold. Sabine explained that locals are proud of this tradition. “These wrought iron signs stem from the Middle Ages. Some are from the 15th and 16th century. It’s because people could not read and write and the signs identified what was behind the shop doors.” Interestingly McDonald’s were not allowed to use their usual logo – they just have a small letter ‘M.’
Sabine took me to meet Ulf Horne who was busy hammering metal in the workshop that has made these signs for 600 years. “This workshop was founded in 1415,” he told me. “The church once owned it and then it became a private business and then my boss’s father bought it.” Ulf designs the signs in cardboard first and then fashions the logo from metal. He makes up to twenty signs a year as businesses come and go. He told me that he feels proud as he walks around and sees his handiwork on display.
I had time for one last Salzburg experience. I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy the river cruise. The long queues waiting at the ticket office on the riverbank suggested that it was going to be very touristy. But I was wrong. The short, 45-minute river trip offered city views from a different perspective and an excellent commentary by the captain. I was surprised to hear about the river’s flood height and the problems that can cause. She ended the trip by steering the boat round and round in circles in time to Mozart. A Riverdance?
As I said goodbye to Sabine, she shared her feelings about her city. ‘It’s the most beautiful place in Austria because of the culture and music. You have so many concerts. It’s also great to explore the lake and mountain districts in the summertime or go skiing in the wintertime. It’s not far from anywhere else,” she enthused.
Salzburg is unusual because even though it’s a small town, there’s a lot to do whenever you visit. Martina told me that late November and December is a special time to visit for the Christmas Market, one of the most popular in Europe. “Christmas time is the most romantic time of the year. There’s snow on the ground. There’s the colours and lights of the Christmas market. There’s the smell of the almonds and mulled wine. It’s picture perfect,” she said. One of the world’s most-loved Christmas carols was written in the town. “Silent Night was composed 200 years ago in Salzburg and performed two years later in a small chapel nearby,” Martina told me. Salzburg has a year-round Christmas Museum filled with decorations and ornaments from festivities all over the world. It felt quite odd visiting in the summer, but I think it would help get you in the mood just before the holidays.
Salzburg is a small town but there’s so much to do and see, whether you like musicals, Mozart or neither. “It’s big enough and it’s small enough,” explained Martina. “It’s big enough to give you everything you need in a city but it’s small enough so you can still feel like you’re in the countryside. I can take my bike and within ten minutes I can be watching farmers doing their work.”
The shops are interesting, the food and drink is great and depending when you visit there are hills for hiking or slopes for skiing on the doorstep. The two-hour flight from Gatwick on British Airways can be as low as £31. Ryanair fly from Stansted or you can take the two-hour train trip from Munich airport – Easyjet link that city with Edinburgh airport from around £60.