Salzburg and Surroundings
The birthplace of Mozart — and everyone's Sound of Music fantasies — Salzburg is a Baroque jewel of a town. It's also the springboard for lots of alpine fun — from thrilling summer bobsledding, to idyllic boat rides in the Salzkammergut lake district, to exploring the delightful romantic town of Hallstatt.
This giant Baroque church, where Mozart was baptized and later served as organist, boats exceptional stucco work, five organs, and lots of light (it doesn't have stained glass, and never did — just clear windows to let light power the message). Admission is free, but donations are prominently requested. You can also visit its underwhelming crypt (free), the nearby Cathedral Museum, and/or (in summer) the Cathedral Excavations Museum (worthwhile only for Roman-iacs).
In 1747, Leopold Mozart — a musician in the prince-archbishop's band — moved into this small rental unit with his new bride. Nine years later, a little boy was born — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was here that Mozart learned to play piano and violin and composed his first boy-genius works. Even after the family gained fame, touring Europe's palaces and becoming the toast of Salzburg, they continued living in this rather cramped apartment. Today, its three floors house rooms with exhibits displaying paintings, letters, personal items, and lots of facsimiles, all attempting to bring life to the Mozart story. There's no audioguide, but everything's described in English.
In the fall of 1773, when Wolfgang was 17 — and his family was flush with money from years of touring — the Mozarts moved here from their cramped apartment on Getreidegasse. The exhibits are aimed a bit more toward the Mozart connoisseur than those at Mozart's Birthplace, but the place comes with a good introductory video, is less crowded, and includes an informative audioguide. The building itself, bombed in World War II, is a reconstruction.
To properly enjoy this lavish Palace — once the prince-archbishop's summer palace and now the seat of the mayor — get a ticket to a Schlosskonzert (my favorite venue for a classical concert; the palace is otherwise closed to visitors). The palace's bubbly gardens, famously featured in The Sound of Music, are free and open until dusk.
Salzburg's mighty castle offers incredible views, a café, and a handful of mediocre museums. It's a pleasant place to grab an ice-cream cone and wander the whitewashed maze of buildings while soaking up some medieval ambience. Save money by visiting within one hour of the museums' closing time, when admission goes to about half price, and you can just enjoy the view from the café (after the museums close you can't enter on foot, but you can exit).
This huge 1,000-seat beer garden within a monk-run brewery in the Kloster Mülln, is rustic and raw. On busy nights, it's like a Munich beer hall with no music but the volume turned up. When it's cool outside, enjoy a historic indoor setting in any of several beer-sloshed and smoke-stained halls (one of which is still for smokers). On balmy evenings, it's like a Renoir painting — but with beer breath and cigarette smoke — outdoors under chestnut trees. Local students mix with tourists eating hearty slabs of grilled meat with their fingers or cold meals from the self-serve picnic counter, while children frolic on the playground kegs. Waiters only bring beer; they don't bring food — instead, go up the stairs, survey the hallway of deli counters, grab a tray, and assemble your own meal (or, as long as you buy a drink, you can bring in a picnic — many do). For dessert — after a visit to the strudel kiosk — enjoy the incomparable floodlit view of old Salzburg from the nearby Müllnersteg pedestrian bridge and a riverside stroll home.
Sporer has been a family-run show for a century — fun-loving, proud, and English-speaking (about €2/shot, Mon–Fri 9:30–19:00, Sat 8:30–17:00, closed Sun).
This collection of lovingly tended graves abuts the sheer rock face of the Mönchsberg (free, silence requested; open daily June–Aug 6:30–21:30, April–May 6:30–20:00, Sept 6:30–19:00, Oct–March 6:30–18:00).
If you're driving between Salzburg and Hallstatt, you'll pass two luge rides operated by the same company. Each course is just off the road with easy parking, and the ride up and down takes about 10 minutes. The one in Fuschl am See (closest to Salzburg) is half as long and cheaper. The one in Strobl near Wolfgangsee is a double course, and more scenic with grand lake views.
If you have yet to tour a salt mine, consider visiting Hallstatt's, which claims to be the oldest in the world. The presentation is very low-tech, as the mining company owns all three mine tours in the area and sees little reason to invest in the experience when they can simply mine the tourists. Still, it gives an interesting look at mining through the centuries and culminates with a fun banister slide. While the tour is mostly in German, the guide is required to speak English if you ask...so ask.
Catholic church and bone chapel
Hallstatt's Catholic church overlooks the town from above. Behind the church, in the well-tended graveyard, is the 12th-century Chapel of St. Michael (even older than the church). Its bone chapel — or charnel house (Beinhaus) — contains more than 600 skulls (free to enter church, bone chapel-€1.50, daily May–Sept 10:00–18:00, Oct 10:00–16:00, closed Nov–April).
This good-value restaurant on the edge of the old center has a dining room that's cozy in cool weather — and a balmy evenings, its great lakeside tables offer the best ambience in town.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're in the land of Mozart...it's Salzburg. Thanks for joining us.
Salzburg is forever smiling to the tunes of Mozart and The Sound of Music. Thanks to its charming Old Town, splendid Baroque churches, one of Europe's largest medieval fortresses, and so many great places nearby, Salzburg feels designed to keep its visitors happy.
In Salzburg we'll explore its delightful Old Town, enjoy Mozart in a palace, and relax in a sun-dappled beer garden. Then we'll settle into a farmhouse B&B, survive a mountain luge run, and cruise to one of the jewels of Austria's lake district.
Sitting in the center of Europe is Austria. From our home base in Salzburg, we side trip into the Salzkammergut lake district — Lake Hallstatt and the town by the same name.
Salzburg is steeped in history. In the year 700, its Bavaria rulers gave control of Salzburg to the local bishop in return for his promise to defend and expand Christianity in the area. Salzburg remained an independent state for over a thousand years — until it surrendered to Napoleon. Thanks to its formidable fortress and its knack for remaining neutral, the city managed to avoid the ravages of war until World War II.
While much of the new part of town — on the far side of the river — was destroyed by WWII bombs, the historic Old Town survived. The New Town has the big business and train station, but the Old Town, sitting between the Salzach River and a hill called Mönchsberg, holds nearly all the charm...and most of the tourists.
With around eight million visitors prowling its cobbled lanes each year, Salzburg can feel pretty touristy. You don't go to Salzburg to avoid the tourists. You go to experience a town that, in spite of the crowds, is thoroughly enjoyable.
Most of the happy tourists probably wouldn't be here if not for the man honored by this statue. Wolfgang Mozart spent much of his first 25 years in Salzburg — one of the greatest Baroque cities north of the Alps.
For centuries, Salzburg's leaders were both important church authorities and political rulers. They were "prince-archbishops" — combining both political and religious power. The energetic Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich, who ruled around the year 1600, had the greatest impact on the town.
Wolf Dietrich was raised in Rome, counted the powerful Medicis in Florence as his buddies, and had grandiose Italian ambitions for Salzburg. His goal? To build "the Rome of the North."
This square, with its striking cathedral and Italian-style palace was the centerpiece of his Baroque dream city. A series of interconnecting squares lead from here through the Old Town. This fountain could be straight out of Italy. The Triton matches Bernini's famous Triton Fountain in Rome.
Lying on a busy trade route connecting northern Europe with the south, Salzburg was well aware of the exciting things going on in Italy. Things Italian were respected and in vogue. Some northern artists even Italianized their names in order to raise their rates.
Salzburg's cathedral, constructed in the early 1600s, was one of the first grand Baroque buildings north of the Alps.
It's Sunday morning. The 10:00 Mass is famous for its music, and today it's Mozart. Enter the cathedral and you're immersed in pure Baroque grandeur. Since it was built in only about 15 years, the church boasts particularly harmonious art and architecture. In good Baroque style, the art is symbolic, cohesive, and theatrical...creating a kind of festival procession that leads to the resurrected Christ triumphing high above the altar.
Music and the visual art complement each other. The organ loft fills the church with glorious sounds as Mozart, 250 years after his birth, is still powering worship with his musical genius.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was the cathedral organist for two years, was born in this house in 1756. It was here that he composed most of his boy-genius works. For fans, it's almost a pilgrimage.
But his later residence, the Mozart Wohnhaus, across the river, offers a better exhibition on his life and times. The place is filled with scores of scores, portraits, [and] insights into his family life and how the young prodigy was basically home schooled by his hard-driving father. The Mozart family was successful enough to entertain Salzburg's high society in this fine room.
This family portrait shows Mozart with his sister — he was proud of his first-ever compositions for four hands, his father (also a fine musician and composer), and his mother, who died two years earlier in Paris. Nannerl called this portrait the best ever done of her brother.
Mozart spent a good part of his childhood on the road, performing all over Europe. But throughout his youth, he called Salzburg home. When he was 25 he was ready for the big city and moved to Vienna.
Today, Salzburg's pride in Mozart shows itself best not in museums but in live concerts.
Salzburg is a world-class destination for live musical performances. Each summer it hosts its famous Salzburg Festival. But Salzburg is busy all year long, with over 2,000 live performances in churches and palaces like this.
We're heading into the Mirabell Palace to hear a string quartet play in a splendid Baroque hall. Mozart performed for the prince-archbishop right here. And this evening the Twins Quartet from Moscow play Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
The surrounding Mirabell Gardens, laid out in 1730, are a favorite with locals and tourists alike. Enjoying the garden/cathedral/castle view, it's easy to imagine how the prince-archbishop must have reveled in such a vista that reminded him of all his secular as well as religious power.
The Hohensalzburg Fortress towers 400 feet above the Salzach River. One of Europe's mightiest castles, it dominates Salzburg's skyline. Access is quick and easy from the Old Town by funicular.
Its cannons evoke both threats of centuries past and the power of Salzburg's rulers. The courtyard was the main square of this hilltop community of a thousand — which could be self-sufficient when necessary. The well dipped into a rain-fed cistern. The square was ringed by blacksmiths, bakers, and craftsmen.
Imagine how expensive this massive fortress was to build...and it was never really used in battle. That was the idea. The guys who paid for it would say it was a good investment — so foreboding, nobody attacked Salzburg for a thousand years.
Its ramparts provide the best views of the city. Surveying the town, you can imagine Salzburg through the ages.
From the castle take a stroll across the forested Mönchsberg hill for a breezy respite from the city, and more commanding views. Set your sights on the spire of the Augustinian Church, and you'll find what seems like half of Salzburg feasting and drinking.
Those Augustinians must have been the most popular monks in town for their rollicking beer garden. Austria specializes in a knack for conviviality. And in Salzburg, there's no better place to experience that than here at the Augustiner Bräustübl.
On balmy summer evenings, this brewery has the ambience of a Renoir painting as all generations gather under the chestnut trees, as they have for centuries, to enjoy cheap food, good beer, and that special local coziness called "Gemütlichkeit." It's self-service — peruse the food stalls...no shortage of meats, kraut, and salads. And the Steckerlfisch...now that's my kind of fish stick!
Getting a beer is fun in itself. Buy your token, choose a mug —two choices: big and HUGE, give it a rinse…and fill 'er up. As is often the case in rowdy European eateries like this, you share tables...and make new friends.
Old Salzburg's busy and colorful main drag was, and still is, Getreidegasse. Amidst all the tourists and chain outlets, its classy shops and traditional wrought-iron signs give it a touch of elegance. Pondering the old-time signs — which were advertising back in the days when most shoppers couldn't read — you can almost imagine strolling here looking for a sturdy pair of boots, a stylish dirndl, or even a little schnapps.
The Sporer family has been distilling schnapps and selling it from this friendly hole in the wall for just over a hundred years. It's good to see how, in the midst of all this tourism, purely local hangouts still survive.
The regulars here know that there are enough flavors of schnapps to keep them coming back again and again.
Rick: Obstler is apple and...?
Herr Sporer: Apple and pear.
Herr Sporer: And it's very typical for this area.
Rick: So this is apple and pear?
Herr Sporer: Apple and pear, yes.
Rick: Good. Zum wohl! Prost! Oh...that's good. You don't throw it down, you sip it. Is that right?
Herr Sporer: You sip it, yes.
Rick: And what is schnapps?
Herr Sporer: Schnapps is distilled fruits.
Rick: So there's many different kinds of schnapps?
Herr Sporer: Yes, there are many fruits in Austria and we distill almost everything.
Rick: And when is the normal when time you would drink schnapps in Austria?
Herr Sporer: You have this after dinner as a digestif or you drink it beside a beer in the evening or...
Rick: But this is after breakfast and you're still quite busy.
Herr Sporer: We're always busy because we're very old traditional shop in the Getreidegasse.
And way back when Wolfgang was still practicing his scales, Salzburg's busy open-air produce market gave farmers the chance to sell directly to locals. Today, the people of Salzburg are happy to pay a premium for the reliably fresh and top-quality produce. Austria — with its Germanic passion for quality — is enthusiastic about organically grown fruits and vegetables.
Public marketplaces come with fountains, and Salzburg's are part of this city's ingenious medieval water system.
In the 13th century, Salzburg was plumbed with a clever canal system, which has brought water into Salzburg from nearby hills ever since. The stream, divided into smaller canals, was channeled through town. The constantly flowing water flushed out the streets, provided fire protection, and powered factories.
It was the harnessing of wind and water power with mills like this that helped kick the economy into gear and lift Europe out of what many call the "Dark Ages." These canals powered about 100 watermills in Salzburg, which were busily cranking as late as the 19th century.
Tucked away in the heart of the Old Town and abutting the rock wall of Mönchsberg is St. Peter's Cemetery. The graves are a collection of well-cared-for mini-gardens. It seems each plot is lovingly tended by relatives. That's because in Austria, grave sites are rented, not owned. Rent bills are sent out about every 10 years. If no one cares enough to make the payment, you're gone. Iron crosses were cheaper than carved tombstones. Rich guys' fine Renaissance-style tombs decorate the chapel walls.
Wealthy as those guys were, when they ran out of caring relatives, they were dug up, shipped out, and their fancy tombstones ended up on the wall.
Salzburg's wealth was based on salt. Its name basically means "salt fortress." Its river is called the "Salzach" not because it's salty, but because of the precious cargo it once carried.
Salt — so precious as a preservative in pre-refrigerator days — was a huge part of this region's economy all the way back to pre-historic times. There were major salt mines just upstream. Salt could be shipped from here down to the Danube and beyond.
The banks of the Salzach River — ideal for strolling and biking — were once medieval tow paths. Cargo boats would float downstream and be dragged back upstream by horse. Today, these riverside paths are much enjoyed providing easy access to the surrounding countryside.
If you'd like to commune with nature in a uniquely Austrian way, Salzburg is the ideal jumping off point for spectacular countryside to the south.
It's Austria's Salzkammergut lake district, where the "the hills are alive," and you're surrounded by the scenic wonder that has enthralled nature lovers from Emperor Franz Josef to Julie Andrews. This is Sound of Music country. Idyllic and majestic, but not rugged, it's a gentle land of lakes, forested mountains, and storybook villages rich in hiking and biking opportunities.
The countryside around Salzburg has plenty of farmhouse B&Bs. Good ones, like this one near the town of Werfen; give you a chance to experience the richness of Austria's rural life. The Weissacher family rents a couple of simple yet comfy rooms to supplement their farm income. They're popular with big-city families who want the opportunity to stay on a farm, to learn to ride, and just get away from the intensity of urban life.
One fun way to get a good dose of nature with a jolt of speed is on a Sommerrodlebahn. Throughout the region, ski runs earn their keep in the summer as luge courses. Enjoy the lake-country view as you're dragged up the mountain. Then, get set to fly. It's simple: push to go, pull to break...a treat for kids of all ages.
We're heading two hours southeast of Salzburg to my favorite Salzkammergut town on my favorite Salzkammergut lake. The tiny train station is across Lake Hallstatt from the postcard-pretty town by the same name: Hallstatt. Stefanie (a boat) meets each arriving train and glides scenically across the lake into town.
Lovable Hallstatt is a tiny town bullied onto a ledge between a mountain and a swan-ruled lake. Apart from the waterfall, which rips through its middle, Hallstatt is an oasis of peace. With the scarcity of level land, tall homes had their front door on the street level top floor and their water entrance several floors below. The town, which originated as a salt-mining center, is one of Europe's oldest, going back centuries before Christ.
There was a Hallstatt before there was a Rome. In fact, because of the salt-mining importance here, an entire age — the Hallstatt Era, from about 800 B.C. to 400 B.C. — is named for this once-important spot.
If you dug under these buildings, you'd find Roman and pre-Roman Celtic pavement stones from the ancient and prehistoric salt depot. This cute little village was once the salt-mining namesake of a culture that spread from France to the Black Sea. Back then, salt was so precious because it preserved meat, and Hallstatt was, as its name means, the "place of salt."
A steep funicular runs up the mountain to Hallstatt's salt mine. It's one of many throughout the region that offer tours.
At the mine, visitors slip into overalls, meet their guide, and hike into the mountain. While this particular tunnel dates only from 1719, Hallstatt's mine claims to be the oldest in the world.
In the tour you'll learn the story of salt. Archaeologists claim that since 7000 B.C., people have come here to get salt. A briny spring sprung here, attracting Bronze Age people. Later, miners dug tunnels to extract the salty rock. They dissolved it into a brine, which flowed through miles of pipes — the oldest hewn out of logs — to Hallstatt and nearby towns where the brine was, and still is, cooked until only the salt remained.
A highlight is riding miner-style from one floor down to the next...praying for no splinters.
Through the centuries, Hallstatt was busy with the salt trade. Since it had no road access, people came and went by boat. You'll still see the traditional Fuhr boats, designed to carry heavy loads in shallow water.
Herr Alfred Lenz makes the town's traditional boats from a 200-year-old design. The oar lock is still made of the gut of a bull. Alfred claims an hour on the lake is worth a day of vacation.
And Alfred's not the only one with that idea. The lake is a playground for visitors in rental boats, which come with two speeds: slow and stop.
Even though Hallstatt's actual sights are subtle, wandering through town is a treat. Pop into the fishery — two men have a license to harvest the lake of its plankton-fed Reinanke fish — much prized by local restaurants. The town's decorative woodwork, a tradition that dates back centuries, reflects the wealth salt brought. While fires have been a recurrent problem, many houses go way back. This one dates from 1597.
The Catholic church overlooks the town from above. Its 500-year-old altars and frescoes feature Hallstatt's two favorite saints: St. Barbara (patron of miners) and St. Catherine (patron of foresters) — lots of wood was needed to fortify the many miles of tunnels and boil the brine to distil out that salt.
Space in Hallstatt's well-tended graveyard was so limited that bones had only about 12 peaceful, buried years here before making way for the freshly dead. Many of the dug-up bones and skulls ended up in the bone chapel. Each of the several hundred painted skulls has been lovingly named, dated, and decorated. The skulls resting on Bibles are those of the town's priests.
While the bone chapel is fascinating...there's more life down on the town square. For generations, the traditional salt miners' band has entertained their town. Donate to the band, and a maiden gives you a shot of schnapps.
Restaurant Bräugasthof, lakeside and under a grand chestnut tree, is just the place to try some of Lake Hallstatt's prized fish. They're cooked up fresh and simple and served with a nice Austrian dry white wine.
And while you await your strudel, you can feed the swans.
Swans patrol the lake like they own it. They're reminders of the 1800s, when the first Romantic Age poets and painters discovered this region. Back then Vienna's Habsburg royalty made it their annual holiday retreat, and today it remains as delightful as ever.
I hope you've enjoyed exploring this part of Austria — with the high culture and history of Salzburg, and the natural splendor of the Salzkammergut lake district. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelling. Auf Wiedersehen.
The hills are alive with the sound of music...
…was named after this once-important spot. How do you like that?
Yo! Sommerrodelbahn! Österreich!