Ask people what comes to mind when Salzburg is mentioned, and they’ll probably say beer. But once you’ve been there, you’ll know the right answer is music. This ancient Austrian city is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the site of the Mozarteum conservatory and the renowned Salzburg Festival (co-founded by Richard Strauss). It was also the home of 20th-century conductor Herbert von Karajan and the setting for The Sound of Music. You can see the hill Maria ran down and the fountain she passed in a horse-drawn carriage, singing Do-Re-Mi with the kids.
The von Trapps aside, Salzburg has all the charm you’d expect of a Baroque city, especially its old town with the winding Getreidegasse that empties into monument-filled squares from a series of secretive passages. The city well predates the actual Baroque period (1600 to 1750), and many structures remain from earlier times. But fires and subsequent reconstructions over the centuries have resulted in an elegant, bright, white-washed town in the Baroque style.
You can look up at almost any point in the old city and see names and dates written under the eaves of the colorful townhomes, which are four stories tall and house different families on each level. The dates there reveal when the structure was built and by whom. Mozart’s ‘geburtshaus,’ or birth house, now a museum, occupies part of the top floor of such a building on Getreidegasse. There you can see the three rooms in which he lived with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl (Anna Marie).
If you’re an admirer of his more than 600 compositions and 22 operas, the 10 euro entrance fee opens the door to such wonders as his handwritten sheet music, letters to his wife, and cherished possessions like tobacco pouches, his pianoforte and violin, and a gem-studded ring given to him by a royal patron when he was a child.
Not to be missed is the cathedral, consecrated in its current form in 1628. It is considered a paragon of Renaissance architecture, with its marble façade and twin symmetrical towers. The interior is ornately adorned with frescoes and Italian-made altarpieces. Its entrance is flanked by enormous marble statues of St. Peter with keys and St. Paul with a sword, symbolizing the sacred and the secular. Inscribed above the door are the dates 774, 1628 and 1959, signifying the year it was built and the years it was re-consecrated after a fire and World War II bombings. Perhaps most awe-inducing, though, is the Romanesque font where Mozart was baptized.
Nearby in Residenzplatz is a remarkable fountain of horses spouting water, patterned after the Bernini fountain in Rome. It’s a stone’s throw from the Residenz, the home of Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, the city’s Prince Bishop from 1587 to 1612. Forward-thinking (albeit notoriously power hungry), he was the first to separate horse stables from human residences and move the cemetery away from the center of town, which reduced disease. The youngest bishop, at 26, he presided over many innovations, but ended his career in prison after he was deposed for over-reaching.
In addition to his official residence, Dietrich constructed the lovely Mirabell palace and gardens for his mistress, Salome Alt. Today a vision of golden pansies and pointed lily tulips, it contains remarkable Italian statuary, including one patterned after the famous Susanna Bathing, but with the face and body of Alt.
Salzburg is a marvelous walking city, with Baroque buildings lining its charming Salzach River. A wealthy place throughout history, its location on the river and its rich deposits of salt ensured power and affluence. Interestingly, there are 24 churches in and around Old Town, a result of the two monasteries—Capuchin and Benedictine—which located there in the 1600s to stem the tide of Protestantism. So even if you’re not into music, there still will be plenty to see and do.
High on a hill—Salzburg is set amid an Alpine backdrop—the town includes a castle and a fortress, accessible by funicular. Also situated near the river is the historic Hotel Bristol, site of the first psychoanalytic conference—presided over, of course, by Sigmund Freud. It also was the first place to have electricity, which earned it the nickname ‘the electric hotel.’ Nearby is the home where astrophysicist Christian Doppler was born. He turned to physics by default, as he was too sickly to go into the family business, masonry.
There is no lack of museums, churches, concert halls and monuments to see here, including a small westward-facing lion in Residenzplatz holding the Austrian coat of arms and sticking its tongue out, legend has it, at Germany. And, of course, you’ll want plenty of time to sample all those Austrian brews. Music notwithstanding, Austria is indeed No. 2 in the world in beer consumption, just behind the Czech Republic.
if you go
eat: The outdoor cafes are charming for breakfast and lunch. Don’t miss a signature treat from nearby Linz, the Linzer Torte: almond butter and red currant jelly with a lattice crust. Salzburg is known for Mozartkugel, round, chocolate-covered marzipan and pistachio confections invented in 1890 by master confectioner Paul Fürst. You will see them sold everywhere, but the authentic ones are wrapped in silver and available only at Café-Konditorei Furst.
stay: A few doors from Mozart’s birthplace, Goldener Hirsch is elegant, composed of three conjoined medieval townhouses. Altstadt Radisson is actually an old inn dating to the 14th century that retains its charm, but has been updated with modern conveniences. It overlooks the river and has an acclaimed dining room, Restaurant Symphonie. Rooms start at 310 euros. More economical is Hotel Neutor, just off the main commercial and tourist street, Getreidegasse. Known as the hotel of choice for orchestral groups and musicians during the Salzburg Festival, it has dedicated ‘sleep-late’ floors where check-out is 1 p.m. Its dining room, Artist’s Café, displays local artwork. Prices start at 110 euros.
play: This is a walking city extraordinaire. Have fun exploring the winding, mysterious passageways that intersect Getreidegasse. Duck into the shops and cafes. Browse the earthy Grünmarkt, held in front of Collegiate Church and offering everything from fruits and sausages to cheese and pastry. Tour Festspielhaus, where the August Salzburg Festival has been immortalized. The hall was built in 1607 and was originally the court stables! St. Peter’s Cemetery, the burial place for Nonnberg Abbey, is like a who’s who of Austrian history. Walk its gardens and chapels to see the tombs and catacombs of Salzburg mayors since the 1600s, as well as those of Mozart’s sister Nannerl and Michael Haydn (younger brother of Joseph).
shop: The little stores in the old city are filled with dirndl skirts, lederhosen and traditional Austrian coats and blazers. Beautiful wooden toys also can be found, especially charming Pinocchio dolls. There also are porcelain and Austrian jewelry of silver with garnet, as well as painted boxes and cross-stitched samplers.
Photos: Marc Weiner