My Best Advice for Salzburg: Get Out of Town

People love Salzburg — the city of Mozart and the Sound of Music. But if I’m being honest, Salzburg has never really done it for me. I find it too sterile — like a sofa covered in plastic so nobody spills anything on it. With perfectly manicured gravel squares between polished Baroque domes, it feels more like a theme park than a city.

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And — especially coming from exuberant Italy — people here just seem unhappy all of the time…as if the pressure of living up to Mozart’s legacy fills them with crushing angst. Or maybe they’re just fed up with all of the tourists. (To be fair, coming from Italy, most countries seem pretty gloomy.)

However, on this visit, I realized part of the problem: On past trips to Salzburg, I usually had lousy weather. When the sun comes out, Salzburg springs to life. And its proximity to the Alps makes Salzburg a city made for good weather. So, if you’re here on a nice day, resist the temptation to do the same tired old laps around the Old Town, poking into old churches and the former homes of dead composers. Instead, make the most of having the Alps at your doorstep.

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The easiest escape is to ascend the ridge that runs along the top of the Old Town, called Mönchsberg. It’s easy: There’s a funicular at one end (near the castle), an elevator at the other end (near the modern art museum), and mostly level trails all along. Up top, you have stunning views over town in one direction, and to alpine peaks in the other.

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You can walk the length of the Mönchsberg in about 30 minutes, with ever-changing views of the gorgeous skyline.

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I finished my Mönchsberg hike with a steep descent to the Augustiner Bräu Biergarten. This sprawling beer-industrial complex is a favorite hangout for Salzburgers of all stripes on a nice summer evening. Sure, it has cafeteria-quality food and humdrum beer…but it’s so Austrian.

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Maybe the best good-weather activity is simply to camp out on the grassy embankments of the Salzach River, with stunning views of the Old Town. Desperate to find some funky hipster zone on the fringe of the city, I asked locals, “Where do all of the college students hang out?” They told me, “They sit on the riverbank.” Sure enough, when the sun comes out, the embankment become Salzburg’s Riviera. For a wonderful experience, rent a bike for an hour and go as far as you like up and down the river on the level, easy, well-marked bike path that follows both of the riverbanks.

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Or, with more time, ride your bike all the way out to Hellbrunn Palace, an easy 30-minute pedal away. There you can tour the palace gardens with their “trick fountains,” where a sadistic guide takes great joy in positioning you in front of geysers and throwing the switch.

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With a car, it’s an easy drive into the Austrian Lake District — the Salzkammergut. In a half-hour, you’re immersed in alpine splendor and cruising the banks of the Wolfgangsee. If you don’t have enough time or interest for the full Sound of Music tour (more on that in an upcoming post), a quick drive through the Salzkammergut is enough to give you that “Hills Are Alive” feeling.

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I know Salzburg has its fans, and some people could spend a lifetime here. But for me, a cloudy day in Salzburg feels like a lifetime. In the sun, however…now, that’s a city I could acquire a taste for.

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8 Replies to “My Best Advice for Salzburg: Get Out of Town”

  1. Really Cameron? Really? I visited Salzburg repeatedly in the past 2 years that I lived south of Munich. The city is gorgeous. The people are friendly. The scenery is awesome You post beautiful pictures but slam the city? I thought your job was to entice people to travel and enjoy their travels. I would return to Salzburg in a heartbeat and encourage others to do so.

    1. Fair enough. Though I don’t consider it my job to breathlessly promote every destination that comes down the pike…rather, I try to give hard opinions in the spirit of the king of hard travel opinions, Rick Steves. In this case, while Salzburg leaves me cold, I did manage to find plenty to like about it. Different strokes, I guess. Thanks for reading!

  2. Since you also mentioned Italy, I feel the same way (i.e., theme park atmosphere) about Venice. Given a choice, I would rather be in Salzburg any day, rain or shine. Also, for some fun in Salzburg, take the tour of the Stiegl Brewery. At the end of the tour, you get a ticket for 3 beers in their restaurant (they had about 20 different ones to choose some when we were there in 2013). It can brighten even the cloudiest day!

  3. Oh, I hate the “lakes region”. So hard to decide on which lake to spend time at and so hard to stick with that decision after seeing any of the other lakes (on the side of the road or on postcards)? Then, how do I decide on how long to stay? A couple of days is too short, I’ll keep planning for a return trip, but if I stay for two weeks, I may never want to be back.

    I wonder if RedBull is hiring? :)

  4. I don’t think one has to be enamored with every place he/she visits, even if one is a travel writer. For example, even tough I truly enjoyed Italy, I can’t say that the country is perfect (for example, trains not showing up at the station! No one on the station platform to answer questions, like Rick says they would be!). I appreciate honest opinions and don’t necessarily believe one has to sing only praises about a travel destination to encourage people to visit there. You’re entitled to present an honest opinion, Cameron. You showed both the advantages and disadvantages of Salzburg, which I expect from an accurate review.

  5. You give a balanced account of Salzburg, erring on the ‘glum’ side and thinking about the mythical ‘typical tourist.’ Fair enough. But you have seen so much of Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, Austria, on and on. Suppose, however, that this was your first trip and that you were looking for plenty of live Classical music; you had never seen the style of architecture or had veal schnitzel or spaetzel or been within jumping off distance of the Halstadt culture? I know your guidebook entry will be more positive…and hey…blogs need to stir up some controversy…and to offer some counterpoint!

    1. Salzburg is a rare diamond. It is a unique place. One of the most important and beautiful cities of Europe. Together with Firenze Florence in Italy and Heidelberg in and Strasburg in and Basel in Switzerland . Everyone who visited or visit Salzburg want to go again and again. You never get bored to such a great city and the villages around. It is a rare gem.

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