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