Compact, baroque and easy to navigate, Salzburg deftly weaves the past and present like no other Alpine town.
Strolling along Salzburg's narrow streets – five-storey medieval houses surging on both sides – sometimes feels like being an extra in an opera set. Everything seems frozen in time as you crane your neck towards the elaborate shop signs competing for your attention – even McDonald's and the Radisson feel obliged to sport a sign to blend in as seamlessly as they can.
The riches from the white gold – salt from Salzburg’s surrounding mines – can be seen in the 20-odd glorious churches and magnificent mansions commissioned by the powerful prince-archbishops who ruled here for a thousand years. In addition, this Rome of the North has been basking in the glow of her most famous progeny, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, bringing in admirers from all over the world. As if this weren’t enough, Salzburg’s dazzling locations were showcased in The Sound of Music, one of the most successful musical movies ever.
If there’s ever been a perfect city break, then Salzburg is it.
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Get there: EasyJet and Ryanair fly directly to Salzburg. Buses #10 and #2 will take you from the airport to the centre in about 30 minutes, while a taxi costs about €15 (£13.70).
Check into: Hotel am Mirabellplatz. Hotels inside the Old Town are very expensive, so base yourself five minutes away in one of the most historic addresses in Salzburg. Built by prince-archbishop Paris von Lodron for his family in 1653, it’s been fully modernised with many of the original features retained. These include a vaulted sitting room where you can enjoy free coffee and tea 24/7.
If you must be in the centre of everything, book a room at the Blaue Gans (Blue Goose), named after the sign still hanging outside. It was supposed to be a pheasant, but the blacksmith had never seen one and improvised instead. This was in 1350 and the original inn is now a minimalist boutique hotel that wears its nickname with pride. A gourmet restaurant and an old jazz cellar complete the bill.
Arthotel Blaue Gans/booking.com
Top tip: Before you arrive, buy a Salzburg Card online. You get free entry to all attractions and museums, reductions in various tours as well as free public transport (including those buses to and from the airport).
Go straight to: Old Town. Lose yourself in the jumble of alleys and monumental squares, revolving around the mile-long shopping wonderland of the Getreidegasse, that’s been serving itinerant traders since the Middle Ages. Archways right and left hide concealed squares with beer gardens, while hidden passages lead to wine bars, sausage stands and nowadays, even sushi restaurants. Red Bull, headquartered outside Salzburg, brandishes its flagship clothes shop on this street, while at the end of it the Sound of Music World illustrates the adventures of the real von Trapp family.
Dine at: Augustiner Bräu. It's the biggest pub in Austria with space for 1,400, but, despite its size, it scores high on conviviality. Sit down at one of the long banquet-style tables, hang your jacket on the chair to save your place (no one will touch it) and queue to order your sausages, schnitzels, meatloaves, cold cuts, pretzels and, of course, beer, at one of the seven stands, each specialising in different dishes.
Explore: Hohensalzburg Fortress. Its pull is inescapable, as it towers over the town, so climb up first thing in the morning (or take the funicular). Dating back to 1077, this is one of the largest fortifications in Europe with lookout towers, cisterns, bastions, turrets, keep, plus the obligatory torture dungeon.
They’re all dwarfed, however, by the priceless trilogy of the inner chambers: Prince’s Room, Golden Hall and Golden Chamber, whose furnishings have remained unaltered since 1502. The 360-degree panorama over the Old Town with magical views to Salzburg’s hills and surrounding mountains will be your abiding memory.
Lunch at: Zwettlers. This is where you’ll find lunching locals who work in town – as a result the low-rise cellar is always full, so reserve beforehand. Alternatively pop in at the bar for a wurst and a glass of its own craft beers that range from light hefeweizen to dark stout. Mountain hut essentials – shotguns, saws, bear traps – hang from bare wooden beams for decoration, a perfect backdrop to Austrian pub fare – this is the place to gorge on schnitzel, bratwurst, dumplings and most definitely apple strudel.
Pay tribute to a genius at: Mozart's Geburtshaus. Ignore the busy Mozart Residence on the Makartplatz that attracts the bus tours. It was destroyed in the Second World War and only opened to the public in 1996 after a long reconstruction. Instead, as narrow steps lead you up to the third floor at Mozart's birthplace, the cramped but atmospheric family flat feels more like a place of pilgrimage than a museum. There’s a slew of Mozart’s personal possessions including his baby locks, his violin and the most authentic depiction of his adult self, painted by his cousin a few years before his death – pity it’s only four inches tall.
Treat yourself at: Magazin. This is a multifunctional space that doubles up as a restaurant, wine bar, deli and lifestyle shop. The industrial chic restaurant carved into the Mönchsberg hill features cement and open pipework, while in the summer the buzz centres around a cosy courtyard bistro. The food and ambiance are unstuffy in a way that’s difficult to associate with buttoned-up Salzburg and the 600-odd wine collection from Italy, France, Spain and Austria is extraordinary. If you’re here during the weekend, stay for the DJ and binge on Bellinis until 2am.
Face the music with: Panorama bus tour. Take the morning tour that explores the main locations featured in The Sound of Music, if only to see a bunch of Salzburg’s surroundings in one go. Schloss Leopoldskron, the home of the Trapp family in the movie, Maria’s Nonnberg convent, Hellbrunn Palace with the original Sixteen Going on Seventeen gazebo and the village of Mondsee, where the wedding was filmed, are but a few highlights.
Lunch at: Stiftskulinarium. First mentioned in AD 803 in a letter to Charlemagne, St Peter's Monastery has been welcoming and feeding pilgrims for centuries, making it Europe's oldest restaurant. It’s no surprise that its vaulted dining hall, the Stiftskulinarium, scores sky-high in ambiance, thankfully matched by the quality of food and service. The Gault&Millau-listed menu changes monthly while traditional menu features staples like Wiener schnitzel and kaiserschmarrn – sweet and fluffy shredded pancakes.
St. Peter Stiftskulinarium/Facebook
Taste Salzburg’s pride and glory at: Café Fürst. Founded in 1884 and still in the same family five generations later, a coffee and the confection here is very much part of Salzburg’s identity. Back in 1890 Paul Fürst created the Mozartkugel, a round praline with a pistachio marzipan centre dipped into dark chocolate. Beware of the industrial imitations in red packaging you’ll find all over town – you can only buy the original silver-blue Mozartkugel in this café, where it’s still produced in the old, homespun way and in the same basement too.
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