Some of us find it hard to separate Salzburg from Hollywood’s The Sound of Music.
However, Austria’s fourth-largest city offers enough history, culture and natural beauty to enchant even those who are completely resistant to the film’s appeal.
Here are ten top things to do in Salzburg. They’re just a few of my favourite things.
Stroll through the Altstadt
The World Heritage-listed Altstadt (Old Town) is home to most of Salzburg’s key historical landmarks and museums. Walking the streets gives you a strong sense of the city’s past, and there are plenty of cafes along the way where you can get a taste of Austria’s renowned coffee culture.
Most visitors congregate around the Cathedral Quarter (Domplatz) or Mozart’s Birthplace in the pedestrian-only Getriedegasse. It’s also worth crossing the river to find the narrow, cobbled alley called Steingasse. Originally a Roman street, this ancient laneway still looks medieval and is untouched by tourism. You won’t find souvenir stalls, ticket hawkers or tour groups here – just an undisturbed historic atmosphere.
Follow The Sound of Music
Love it or loathe it, the 1965 film changed the world’s perception of Salzburg forever. For many, the city is now a kind of theme park of locations from The Sound of Music.
Here’s a question every visitor to the city has to consider: to tour or not to tour? If you want to listen to guided commentary, sing-along to the soundtrack and share your experience with other diehard fans, joining an organised tour of locations from the film is the way to go. There are various options, including The Original Sound of Music Tour.
Alternatively, you can save money by putting together a DIY tour. All the information you need is on the Internet. It just takes some research and planning.
The third option is to be a killjoy and ignore the film completely!
Climb Mönchsberg to Nonnberg convent
Even if you’re not a fan of the film, a visit to Salzburg’s ancient Nonnberg convent (where Maria failed to become a nun) is definitely worthwhile. The 8th century women’s monastery, which is still an active religious institution, nestles against the side of the Mönchsberg — one of the inner-city peaks that gives Salzburg its unusual topography.
The steep walk up from the Old Town is rewarded with excellent views over the city and surrounding mountains. While the convent itself is not open to visitors, you can stand at the iron gate like the Von Trapp children and imagine yourself asking to see Fräulein Maria, before visiting the incomparably peaceful conventual church and garden.
If the walk up seems too much, an alternative is to take the funicular railway from Festungsgasse to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which for nearly a thousand years has kept watch over the city and defined its skyline. From here it’s a very pleasant walk down to the convent.
Try on traditional Tracht
Traditional ‘Tracht’ costumes — dirndl dresses for women; lederhosen and jackets for men — are highly valued in this part of the world as special occasion wear. Salzburg has more Tracht manufacturers and retailers than anywhere else in Austria, including shops such as Beurle Trachten and Trachten Stassny.
These outfits are major investments and it’s unlikely you would shell out for one as a souvenir, even if you had somewhere to wear it! But it’s still fun to look at the garments on display, both for the extraordinary craftsmanship and as evidence of a living cultural tradition. Don’t be surprised if you see Tracht clothing being worn in the streets of Salzburg, where it’s regarded as a sign of good taste and social prestige.
Feel confident beside the Residenzplatz fountain
I have confidence in sunshine! I have confidence in rain! It’s hard not to feel completely satisfied with every aspect of your life when you’re channelling the young Julie Andrews as she dances around the famous fountain in Salzburg’s Residenzplatz. The fountain itself is a whirlwind of baroque energy, complete with rearing horses and cavorting dolphins, so it perfectly fits the song’s mantra. I have confidence in me! You don’t have to sing it out loud. Just think it.
Scale the heights of the Untersberg
You may not be able to climb every mountain, but it’s pretty easy to get to the top of this one — and this is definitely one of the ten top things to do in Salzburg. Take the number 25 bus from the city to the cable car station at Untersbergbahn. From there it’s a ten-minute gondola ride up the mountain for panoramic views over the Salzburg valley and into neighbouring Germany.
While the Untersberg can be seen in The Sound of Music, it has a much longer history in popular culture — local legends abound of its connection with emperors, wizards and magical dwarfs.
Visit St Peter’s Abbey
Like the Nonnberg convent, the Abbey of St Peter is an ancient monastic establishment, dating back to the so-called Dark Ages. Expanded and rebuilt over the centuries, it encompasses a complex of buildings from different architectural periods.
The Abbey church has a Romanesque shell encrusted with Rococo decorations. The result is a glorious, somewhat chaotic paean to religious enthusiasm. The Petersfriedhof (St Peter’s cemetery) is charmingly atmospheric and may be familiar from the closing scenes of The Sound of Music. It’s where the von Trapp family hide from their Nazi pursuers. The cemetery was recreated in Hollywood for filming.
Above the cemetery a stone stairway leads to early Christian ‘catacombs’ (more likely rudimentary chapels) cut into the rock on which the Abbey stands.
Dine at the world’s oldest restaurant
At the base of the Abbey, you’ll find St Peter Stiftskeller. It’s believed to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Europe, and probably the world. For more than 1,200 years, guests have been welcomed, fed and entertained here.
The restaurant today encompasses a range of rooms, including chic modern spaces and a baroque hall where Mozart dinner concerts are held. It’s the vaulted stone Innenhof, though, that best preserves the restaurant’s origin as a monastic cellar.
Explore a labyrinth of ice caves
For something completely different, drive or take the 40-minute train to the market-town of Werfen. Appealing in its own right, Werfen is the departure point for Eisriesenwelt, the world’s largest accessible ice-cave system.
A cable car takes you most of the way up the mountain, but some hiking is also required. The caves can only be visited on a guided tour. Viewing the vast ice tunnels and eerie sculptures, illuminated only by hand-held gas lanterns, is an otherworldly experience, and the Alpine views from outside are also spectacular.
Relax at Hellbrunn Park
At the southern edge of Salzburg lies the beautiful Hellbrunn Park, comprising sixty hectares of enchanting green space. Whether or not you choose to visit Hellbrunn Palace — home to the famous ‘sixteen-going-on-seventeen’ gazebo from The Sound of Music — the park that surrounds it is fabulous and free for all who love walking, cycling and fresh air.
The park is a mixture of ornate landscaped gardens and free-form meadows. There’s a fitness course, play equipment and even trails for cross-country skiing in winter. The pedestrian tree-lined avenue that leads to the palace is a true thing of beauty. Come by bus (number 25), cycle, drive or visit as part of a cruise along the River Salzach.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Salzburg? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.