After several visits to Austria over the past decades, I’ve finally made it to Salzburg! It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding the fabled Baroque city in the northern foothills of the Alps, but the mere mention of it conjured up visions of Julie Andrews twirling on perfectly manicured high meadows and Hollywood-airbrushed views of a fairytale central European stage set. The destination, somehow always got shrugged off to “one of these days.”
Then a long-time friend who had lived there as a student, and therefore was not encumbered with such prejudices, moved to Salzburg one year ago. “Come for Mozart Week,” she beckoned. And so it is that on a recent January afternoon, I step off one of the many daily trains from Vienna into the city that on January 27, 1754, gave Wolfgang Amadeus to the world.
The City of Music
Salzburg’s rich musical tradition reaches back two centuries before the birth of the legendary musical prodigy. The city was then a powerful independent ecclesiastic state of the Holly Roman Empire. Starting in the sixteenth century, the Prince-Archbishop rulers became enthusiastic patrons of music. The court began to attract prominent composers not only for liturgical music in the cathedral and other religious establishments around the city but also as court musicians for secular musical entertainment.
Fast-forward through several centuries of convoluted political history to the present. Salzburg owes most of its contemporary fame to the performing arts. It is home to the internationally acclaimed Salzburger Festspiele (Salzburg Festival) for music and drama established in 1920 and held each summer for five weeks starting in late July. Additionally, since 1973 the Salzburger Pfingstenbestspiele (Salzburg Whitsun Festival) is an extension of the former, performing operas along with works from the Baroque orchestral repertoire during the extended Whitsun (a.k.a. Pentecost) weekend.
Two other annual landmark events are Mozart Woche (Mozart Week), held in late January since 1956, now a highlight on the international calendar of classical concerts for eighteenth century music lovers. And the Osterfestspiele Salzburg (Salzburg Easter Festival) started in 1967 by the great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan attracts opera lovers to the city from the Palm Sunday weekend until Easter Monday.
A Thousand Years of History
Nestled in a scenic alpine valley bisected by the Salzbach river, the city is shaped by the surrounding hills. Its picturesque, exceptionally well-preserved Medieval and Baroque center is a reminder of the seventeenth-century glory days of Salzburg, when salt and gold mining made the city-state one of the richest in Europe.
The skyline is dominated by the Festung Hohensalzburg (commonly die Festung or The Fortress). Perched at an altitude of 506 meters (1660 feet) it covers the crest of Festungberg (Fortress Hill), and at 250 meters (820 feet) by 150 meters (490 feet), is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. The core of the castle dates back to the eleventh century. It was continuously expended until the fortification walls encircled most of the hilltop. By the sixteenth century, the fortress shifted from a purely strategic military function to a representative one. The extensive renovations and decorative elements added to the public rooms and private apartments can still be seen.
Baroque Urban Planning
With their coffers overflowing, the seventeenth century Prince-Archbishops were eager to emulate Rome. They brought in prominent Italian architects to reshape the center of town into the Baroque treasure (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) that we know today.
Salzburg Cathedral Square – Severely damaged by fire in 1598, the Romanesque cathedral was demolished and reconstructed in 1614-1628 in the Baroque style, along with the adjacent Residentz (Palace of the Archbishops). The nearby St. Peter’s Abbey was also renovated to include a long art gallery and the “cathedral arches” were added. These three arches link the cathedral, palace and abbey to form a vast enclosed square (the Domplatz).
The DomQuartier – In 2014, the private upper-level corridors that allowed the Prince-Bishops to circulate around their seat of power was reopened for the first time in two centuries. A single entry ticket takes me from the sumptuous Residenz state rooms and art gallery to the terrace of the archway that links the palace to the cathedral. The terrace offers unique close up views of the buildings as well as the square and the old town beyond.
From there, I enter the Cathedral Organ Gallery where I can experience the breathtaking Early Baroque basilica in all its glory and wander along the upper oratories. Formerly used as chapels they now house 1300 years of Salzburg church history. The mainstay of the museum is the Cathedral Treasure with its jewel-encrusted bishops’ crosiers, liturgical vestments, chalices and ostentories. I then continue on to Saint Peter’s Abbey, the oldest Benedictine monastery in the German-speaking world, with its 70 meter (230 foot) Long Gallery and its rich private art collection.
Built along a north-south axis across the Salzach River from the old town the Mirabell Castle, in addition to its lovely Baroque gardens, offers a unique view of the Festung and the Cathedral. Commissioned in 1608 by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau for his mistress Salome Alt and their family of 16 children, it was originally known at Castle Altenau.
However, other than this spicy detail, little remains of the original building. Mirabell was rebuilt into a flamboyant Baroque castle in the late 1700’s, when it acquired its grand Marble Hall and Donnerstiege (Staircase of Thunder). The current gracious Neoclassical façade dates from 1818, when the palace was restored once more after a devastating fire swept through the city.
Coffee and Beer Culture
Although Salzburg cannot compete with Vienna for Coffee House Culture, cafés are nonetheless an institution here. The oldest, Tomasseli, dates back to the early eighteenth century. It is usually packed with tourists but still worth a visit for its waitresses dressed in the traditional trachten deftly weaving their way around the tables with huge trays of multi-layered cakes so tempting I wish I could order a sampler.
An upstart by local standards, Bazar didn’t open until the 1880’s. It’s one of my favorites for its relaxed blend of old and new, homey wood-paneled walls and marble-top tables inside, and a modern terrace that opens along the river during the warm weather months.
Beer has been brewed in Salzburg for over 600 years. In 1492, while Christopher Columbus was busy discovering America, here in Salzburg the Stieglbrauerei (Stiegl Brewery) was documented for the first time in the city records. And it’s still here at its old town location, a good place to rest my feet after exploring the Festung on the hilltop above.
The monastery of Mülln didn’t get into beer-making until 1621 but it has been hanging on to the brewing secrets of its famous Augustiner beer ever since. The monastery’s pub, the “Braustübl” is a crowded, rowdy place where servers still pour beer directly from wooden barrels into half or full liter steins. Patrons can bring their own food or purchase a variety of local snacks from a number of small market stalls in the vast vaulted corridor leading to a maze of pub rooms.
Good to Know
- There are frequent direct, fast and reasonably priced inter-city trains from Vienna and Munich, Germany. The ride takes less than two hours from Munich and three hours from Vienna to the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof (main train station) located in the new town on the north side of the river.
- Some cars on the Salzburg to Vienna trains go on to Vienna International Airport. I make sure to book my seat ahead to ensure that I am sitting in the correct car.
- Salzburg W.A. Mozart International Airport, located a twenty minute bus ride from the city center, has scheduled flight to most major European cities with connections around the world.
- The best way to get around Salzburg is on foot. There is also a convenient network of frequent and reliable city buses and trolleys. Tickets may be purchased at most tobacconists around the city. They work on the honor system. You validate your ticket as you hop on. There are occasional controls.
- Entrance to the DomQuartier is located at 1 Residenz Platz, next to the Cathedral. Tickets can be purchased on-site or via e-mail. http://www.domquartier.at/en/
- Mirabell Castle – Only the Marble Hall and the Thunder Staircase can be visited, and only on weekdays. The remainder of the palace houses the municipal council offices and is not open to the public. The gardens are open daily from 6:00 A.M. to dusk. Admission is free.
- The Festung is opened daily throughout the year. It can be reached either via a steep footpath or a funicular (however, at the time of my visit the funicular was temporarily closed for maintenance). Once on the grounds of the castle, the fortress cannot accommodate motion impaired visitors.
Coffee and Beer
- Tomaselli is at Alter Markt 9, a small square on the south side of the river close to the Staatbrücke Bridge. tomaselli.at/en/café-tomaselli-en
- Bazar is at Schwarzstraße 3, on the north bank of the river a few minutes’ walk upstream from the Staatbrücke Bridge. cafe-bazar.at/en/cafe-salzburg/
- Stieglkeller is at Festungsgasse 10. In addition to Stiegl beers, it offers a limited menu of local dishes. restaurant-stieglkeller.at/
- Augustiner Bräu – Kloster Mülln is at Lindofstrasse 7, a 15 minute walk from the center of the old town on the Mönchsberg, or bus stop Landeskrankenhaus. augustinerbier.at