A Day Visiting New and Old in Salzburg

By Rick Steves
With a charmingly preserved Old Town, splendid gardens, and Baroque churches, Salzburg feels made for tourism. (photo: Rick Steves)
A collection of aircraft, racecars, and motorbikes at Red Bull magnate's Hangar-7 injects a modern edge to Salzburg sightseeing. (photo: Rick Steves)

Recently, on one busy day, I revisited highlights and found new sights in Salzburg, a Baroque showpiece. Austria’s fourth-largest city — with 150,000 residents — is divided into old and new. The Old Town, between the Salzach River and Salzburg’s mini-mountain (Mönchsberg), holds nearly all the charm and most of the tourists. The New Town, across the river, has the train station, a few sights and museums, and some good accommodations.

I started my day in the New Town checking out the new displays and audio tour at Mozart’s Residence, the reconstructed home of Salzburg’s most famous citizen (the house was bombed during World War II). When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 17, his family moved to these lavish digs. Here, you can see Mozart’s piano and violin, among other artifacts. Die-hard classical music fans can also visit the cramped apartment of Mozart’s Birthplace (Geburtshaus) in Old Town, where he learned to play piano and violin and composed his first boy-genius works.

In 1756, little Wolfgang was baptized at Salzburg Cathedral, one of the first Baroque buildings north of the Alps, in the heart of Old Town. For the next 25 years, this would be his home church. At a morning Mass, I enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the musical action of a choir and small orchestra. From a dizzying perch, I faced the loft — where for two years of Sundays, Mozart served as organist. Baroque scrolls, dancing cupids, and conductors’ batons swirled like icing on a musical cake.

Today Salzburg’s most prominent citizen is quite a contrast to Mozart — he’s the energy-drink tycoon Dietrich Mateschitz, a.k.a. Mr. Red Bull. He has a mysterious mansion at the edge of town, sponsors local soccer and hockey teams, owns several chic Salzburg eateries and cocktail bars, and employs 6,000 mostly good-looking people. It seems his personality is like the beverage that made him rich and powerful — a high-energy, anything’s-possible cultural Terminator.

You can celebrate Red Bull right by the Salzburg airport in Hangar-7, where 20 or so of Mateschitz’s glittering planes and race cars are housed under a modern steel-and-glass dome — along with several pretentious bars, cafés, and restaurants all designed to brandish the Red Bull “culture.” The dynamic vibe extends into these eateries: Mayday Bar serves experimental food, and the pricey restaurant Ikarus features a different well-known chef each month.

I opted instead for a traditional schnitzel lunch at a restaurant, and then worked it off on a Sound of Music bicycle tour. The eight-mile scenic pedal through Salzburg plays up city sights related to the musical von Trapps, a Salzburg family who fled the Nazis. It’s called “Fraulein Maria’s Sound of Music Tour,” but it’s run by a burly young man named Rupert. Though they’re schmaltzy, I’ve enjoyed the bus tours on previous visits, but the cycling version of this quirky touristic phenomenon was a new and good experience for me.

After biking, I took in a marionette performance of The Magic Flute. Marionette shows are a Salzburg tradition (think of the “Lonely Goatherd” scene in The Sound of Music). Of all the musical shows in Salzburg that I recommend, this was one I’d never actually experienced before, and the performance (with handy superscripts in English) was spellbinding. A troupe of 10 puppeteers — actors themselves — brings to life the artfully created puppets at the end of their five-foot strings.

After the show, I hopped in a taxi and headed to the Augustiner Bräustübl (Augustiner beer garden) for my favorite dinner in Salzburg. This huge 1,000-seat beer garden within a monk-run brewery is rustic and raw — and packed with all generations, enjoying fish grilled on sticks, munching radishes artfully sliced into long delicate spirals, and hoisting tall gray porcelain mugs of beer drawn from old-time wooden kegs. It seemed half of Salzburg had gathered under a chestnut tree orchard of conviviality. German speakers have a word for that kind of ambience: gemütlichkeit, which perfectly captures this kind of cozy conviviality that can make you dream in lederhosen and dirndls.

In the late hours, I checked out a string of boomer-friendly cocktail and wine bars on a very characteristic old lane in a tranquil section of town, a block off the river on Steingasse in New Town. Before returning to my hotel, I marveled at the beauty of floodlit, castle-topped Salzburg from the riverbank.

Even after decades of travel, I’m amazed at how a single well-organized day can amass plenty of lifelong memories. Mingle with the locals, take a stroll or bike ride through the cobbled streets and elegant buildings, and enjoy the new and old of this Austrian mecca.