6 mins

Short break: Salzburg and the Austrian Alps

With snow-dusted Alps, a mountaintop castle and plenty of history in the mix, Holly Gurr insists this Austrian treasure is in no short supply of adventure...

The Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg (Image: dreamstime)

Where? North-east Austria
Why? Gorgeous architecture, stunning scenery, indulgent cuisine
When? June-Sept for the Salzburg Festival; Nov-Dec for a festive setting

Nestled smartly at the base of the sublime Austrian Alps and elegantly adorned with baroque domes and spires, if Salzburg has a negative it's that any visitor will not feel satisfied without a camera in hand. When exploring the cobbled streets it's difficult not to feel slightly out-of-place in a fairytale kingdom, as rustic green steeples stand out amid the city's grand structures. And to top it off, the Salzach River is a shimmering-turquoise sash that divides the city into the Old Town and modern districts.

Salzburg's origins span back to the 8th century; it owes its standing to St Rupert, who founded the city and chose it as the site for his basilica. The world-famous Cathedral was built between 1614 and 1628 and still remains as one of the Old Town's most precious landmarks. The grand architecture secured the city's listing as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. In Austria's native tongue Salzburg literally means 'Salt Castle', which refers to the barges that would transport salt from mines in the Alps.

Though one of Austria's youngest settlements, from the late Middle Ages Salzburg was regarded as a principle site of spirituality in the Holy Roman Empire. During the 12th century much of the city was burned down when a dispute between Salzburg's archbishop and German Emperor Barbarossa reached its height, however throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was to reach its prime. The wealth gained from the salt trade was used to build the magnificent structures that so encompass catholic celebration and are now the gleaming attractions that ensure millions of visitors every year. As one of the finest preserved historic cities in Europe, the slightly faded, yet still glorious frescoes enshrined within Salzburg's walls – most notably in Old Town's Horse Fountain – are a radiant portal into its history.

Salzburg's rise in this era cannot be passed without a mention of one of Austria's most famous sons, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in 1756. No doubt in celebration of his sublime and world-renowned musical compositions, and perhaps also in recompense for the tragic circumstances in which he died (in poverty, and the site of his bones is unknown), the streets are abuzz with his legacy. With no less than three universities in the city, open windows from which mellifluous scores drift delicately down are not far between, while street performers prolong this natural Salzburg soundtrack in many of the town squares. Shop windows are a patchwork of the unmistakeable white wig and red coat that have come to signify the great man, but are closely rivalled by one of the city's more recently famous (and delicious) products, the gold-foiled, nougat and pistachio-filled, chocolate Mozart ball.

Today, a mere – and no doubt wide-eyed – glance at the city would frame it as one cloaked in ceremony, and despite the accompanying laid-back ethos, Salzburg is not to be belittled by its more raucous counterparts, Vienna and Graz. Between the quaint walls, cultural celebration becomes as climactic as its surrounding peaks when the summer season brings the notorious Salzburg Festival. Contrary to what a Sound of Music fan has been led to believe, it is not just the hills that are 'alive' as a swathe of markets, cultural and musical celebration bring further animation to this busy hive among the Alps.


Salzburg day by day

Take in the city sights before exploring the glorious Alpine peaks

Essential info

When: It's hard to pick any one time of year to visit as each season brings its own delights. Spring blossoms ensure the gardens a must-see while summer brings the chaotic Salzburg Festival. Snow around Christmas really does prove it a picture-perfect city, though, like summer, it can get crowded.
Getting there: Flights are available direct from most major UK airports, most notably with Ryanair and easyJet. Only five miles out of the centre, it's easy to grab a cab from the airport to the city centre which won't be too expensive.
Getting around: Salzburg is largely pedestrianised and so a cushy pair of trainers is best advised while soaking up the sights. Public transport is reliable and regular, but hire a bike and make use of the generously supplied cycle paths for a real adventure.
Where to stay: The Achat Plaza Zum Hirschen is a comfy and well facilitated 4* hotel, with twin rooms from £68. Although a few miles out of the city, the Classic Hotel Hoelle has breakfast included and a refined and reasonably priced restaurant as an evening meal option. South of Salzburg, it's a sanctuary away from the city and with an impressive supply of complimentary bikes, exploration into the surrounding Alps and villages become irresistible!
Where to eat: Salzburg itself is a buffet of restaurants and cafés, each offering their delicious national delicacies. For the very best wienerschnitzel, gulasch, apple strudel, frankfurters, and the like, try to venture beyond the imminent restaurants that line the town squares and into connecting streets and alleys for a slightly more rustic menu. When it comes to cuisine, the city wears a badge of pride and so there's little to fear when it comes to quality.

Top tip: Pick up a Salzburg Card. With a variety of packages spanning over a few days, this money-saving ticket means free use of public transport as well as free entry or a reduced admission into many museums and attractions.

Day 1: Explore the Old Town

With the stoic and precipitously standing Hohensalzburg fortress as its lofty centre-piece and backed with Alps that annually trade their white blanket for a lush green uniform, it's no wonder the Old Town is Salzburg's poster child... and it's far too alluring not to be explored first. Covering the Salzach's west bank, the area is bursting with breathtaking structural sights. It's a monopoly of pastel-coloured town houses, which are gently surpassed by reverently crafted towers and spires. Each have their own sense of  character while hallmarking a site of religious or cultural significance.

Residenzplatz, Salzburg's main town square, is the perhaps the best place to navigate the Old Town in a tidy loop. From here you can marvel at the a modest yet poignant statue of the great Mozart or head around the corner into the main cathedral whose historic and cultural importance is matched in beauty, inside and out.

These are but some of the highlights as much of the Old Town can be explored within a day, even with time stopping for photographs. If you're without sore feet or waning leg muscles, take the short uphill hike to the fortress, or if tired, opt for the reasonably priced lift (€7.00 for lift and castle entry) direct to its gates. As well as being one of the largest Medieval castles in Europe, its vast courtyard and gold-leaf favoured chambers are well worth exploring for a trip back in time. That said, it's the panoramic views – one of the clambering Bavarian mountains, the other of beautiful Salzburg and beyond – that are the true gem of this mountaintop treasure.


Day 2: A city in full bloom

Every year, thousands pass under the outstretching statues that form its entrance with visions of Julie Andrews gleefully waltzing down the paths with seven children in tow – but the Mirabell gardens are something that can be admired by all. While regally patterned flower beds and affectionate statues decorate the lawns that surround two main water features, the gardens are a sort of inner city reminder of the rustic landscape that surrounds.

Find time to sample one of Salzburg's fine beers, or two, (we recommend the native, Steigl) before crossing the river to catch the lift up to Winkler terrace (€3.60) to absorb the finest view of the city. Most assume this is found on the castle grounds, but as a tableau of the tranquil Salzach, spacious streets, glinting rooftops, all enveloped in the watching gaze of the fortress, the terrace is a lesser-known champion in a close battle of majestic scenes.

Take the lift back down, or walk the meandering paths through the forest on the Monchsberg cliffs (featuring uniquely beautiful viewpoints) before leading back to the Old Town.

Finish the day with a visit to Mozart's birthplace (Mozart's Gebursthaus) located on the city's busiest shopping street, Getreidegasse. Headed with gold letters and painted yellow, you won't need a map to find this site – even among the crowds – which is now one of the most-visited museums in the world. The admission (adults €10, children €3.50) ensures a tour around the family home of 26 years, state of the art exhibits and dioramas detailing the events of the musician's life.

Day 3: Get some wheels

With 170km of cycle paths, Salzburg is considered the cycling capital of Austria. Most hotels offer a bike rental service, otherwise, the city does not fall short of renting options. Whiz past the one-way traffic and make use of the short cuts as you explore by bike.

Use your wheels for further exploration. Follow the Erzabt-Klotz-Strasse that leads outside of the city to the south, and around 1km later, bear left onto Morzger Strasse. After 1.5km the golden-yellow façades that surround the regal Castle Hellbrunn (Schlosspark Hellbrunn) will come into fruition beneath shading ferns. Hop off and take a stroll through its breathtaking grounds, then become both audience and victim to the world-renowned trick fountains (adults €10.50, children €5).

Hop back on your bike and head east to pick up the picturesque Almkanal canal, and continue south to the base of the bewitching Untersberg mountain. Continue through the charmingly, traditional Austrian village Grödig, until you reach the well-signposted cable for an excursion to the mountain's peak (adults €21, children €10.50). From here it is a heaven's gaze of Salzburg and its rural surroundings, as well as an indescribable view of Germany's neighbouring alpine lands. 

Alternatively, book one of the many first rate tours into the Austrian Alps and lakes. Tours do not have to be booked in advance and are priced around €40 per person. Simply hop on to one of the modern coaches opposite the east entrance to the Mirabell Gardens, and venture into sparkling and laid-back towns such as St. Gilgen or Wolgangsee.

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