There is by far no other city in Austria that has captured the public’s imagination more than the UNESCO World Heritage listed baroque town of Salzburg. Thanks to Hollywood and to classical music, this town will forever be remembered for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and for that 1965 film that starred Julie Andrews. Coming here, it’s easy to get lost into the stereotype! Men dressed in tacky 18th century attire and Sound of Music tours are just about as common as schnitzel and sausages. But Salzburg is much more than that.
With a surrounding landscape that is at once awe-inspiring and at the same time humbling, Salzburg has also been at the forefront of seasonal tourism. This is one of the rare European destinations that has two peak seasons – one in the height of summer from July to August and another one in December during the depths of winter. It’s not easy to find a decent hotel in Salzburg at these times so it may be necessary to book in advance.
Last summer, I took a train ride to Salzburg. Coming from Vienna, it was a smooth three hour journey past the picturesque countryside of rural Austria. Salzburg literally means “salt castle” and dates back from more than a millennia ago when barges of salt used to flow down the Salzach river. It’s hard to imagine Salzburg without associating it with Austria but contrary to popular belief, the city was only incorporated into Austria as recently as 1805.
The train station of Salzburg sits in the newer part the city, around 2 or so kilometers from the old town. Alighting here, there was nary a hint of the city’s famed Baroque architecture or of the majestic mountain vistas that I often saw in pictures. After dropping my bags at the hotel, I knew I had to get myself to the old town – ASAP!
The sights around Salzburg are pretty spread out. However, the vast majority are found in the Old Town or Altstadt, which is easily explored by foot. Compared to the other old towns of Central Europe, the first thing I noticed about the one in Salzburg is the usage of relatively homogenous pinkish and off-white colors on the buildings. From its focal point, the Residenzplatz, the lower part of the old town winds its way on the southern side of the Salzach river like a maze through several back alleys and pedestrian-only lanes. The main attractions here are the Archbishop’s Residence (Residenz), the Salzburg Cathedral or Dom, and the Mozart Museum. This is also the most touristy stretch of Salzburg. I was here just before high summer but felt as if all of Europe had descended on this quaint town.
Those with strong legs can consider making the steep climb up to Hohensalzburg Fortress – that unmistakeable castle that looms over Salzburg. There is a path that starts from the back of Salzburg Cathedral and takes about 15 minutes to climb. Alternatively, it’s also possible to take the funicular up. As of this writing, it costs an additional Eur 3.30 to explore the fortress with funicular access (up and down).
the off-white salzburg cathedral
inside salzburg cathedral
The Getreidegasse, a narrow lane filled with shops and small boutiques, comprises the commercial heart of the old town. Aside from housing several shops selling lederhosen and dirndls, there are also a number of international restaurants lining this stretch. This narrow lane is also known for being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was born here, in house #9. The throngs of tourists outside makes this place hard to miss! At the end of the street is Monchsberg which serves a great lookout point towards the old town. The Museum of Modern Art is also found here.
salzburg old town, as seen from kapuzinerberg
Immediately north of the Salzach river is perhaps my favorite part of Salzburg. Although the parts near the river are still technically within the old town, I found the area to be quieter and less crowded. There are also more open spaces here, as evidenced by the spacious gardens, palaces and luxury hotels lining this stretch. The heavily forested Kapuzinerberg is perhaps an underrated lookout point where the Salzburg skyline is considered. I came here for the views, and while it was a majestic view that greeted me, I had to get my guard up due to the number of homeless people staying here and heckling visitors that pass by. (Tip: To get here, there’s a small path from Linzer Gasse that leads to a flight of stairs to the forested area)
The Mirabell Palace & Gardens, situated just north of the river, is perhaps the most frequently visited tourist attraction in Salzburg. Thanks to that iconic scene with Julie Andrews and the children frolicking around the gardens singing Do-Re-Mi, this place has become a must in every Salzburg itinerary. While I was there, I encountered no less than a dozen tour groups reminiscing their childhood days and tracing the specific locations that appeared in the film – from the hedge tunnel to the pegasus fountain and even the dwarves garden.
Sights in Salzburg’s Outskirts
If you have more time on your hands, you can check out some of these other sights a few kilometers out of the old town or worthy destinations for day trips:
- Schloss Hellbrunn – situated several kilometers out of the old town, this is a great place to visit with kids. There are playgrounds, fountains and gardens to keep the kids entertained. For The Sound of Music buffs, the gazebo that was featured in the film is situated here and is often a pitstop in The Sound of Music tours. This place is a bit out of the way. To get here, take bus #25 from the city centre or from the train station
- Hallstatt – impossibly picturesque mountain town about 2 hours away from Salzburg. Accessible through bus or train
- Konigssee – a popular day trip / lake destination in Bavaria, Germany
Have you been to Salzburg before? What are your favorite things to do in Salzburg?