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Salzburg: An Austrian Symphony

  • Published Friday, May 21, 2010, at 12:05 p.m.

Salzburg is forever smiling to the tunes of Mozart and "The Sound of Music." Thanks to its charming old town, splendid Baroque churches, and one of Europe's largest medieval fortresses, Salzburg feels designed to keep its visitors happy.

With around 8 million sightseers prowling its cobbled lanes each year, the city 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 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who spent much of his first 25 years in Salzburg. While some devotees make a pilgrimage to his birthplace (Geburtshaus), I prefer Mozart's Residence (Wohnhaus) —a reconstruction of Mozart's second home (his family moved here when he was 17).

It's the most informative Mozart sight in town. In the main hall — used by the Mozarts to entertain Salzburg's high society — you can hear original instruments from Mozart's time. Later rooms feature real artifacts that explore his loves, his intellectual pursuits, his travels, and more.

After seeing where he lived, visit where he was baptized and later performed — Salzburg's Cathedral, one of the first Baroque buildings north of the Alps. Built in just 14 years (1614-1628), the huge church amazed me with its harmonious architecture. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, some 5,000 people filled the cathedral (330 feet long and 230 feet tall).

Sit under the dome — surrounded by the tombs of 10 archbishops from the 17th century — and imagine all four organs playing, each balcony filled with musicians ... glorious surround-sound. Mozart, who was the organist here for two years, would advise you that the acoustics are best in pews immediately under the dome.

While the cathedral is in the center of town, Salzburg's Hohensalzburg Fortress towers 400 feet above the city. One of Europe's mightiest castles, this fortress was never really used. That's the idea. It was a good investment — so foreboding, nobody attacked the town for a thousand years. The city was never taken by force, but when Napoleon stopped by, Salzburg wisely surrendered. After a stint as a military barracks, the fortress was opened to the public in the 1860s. Today, it dominates Salzburg's skyline and offers commanding views.

The fortress visit has three parts: a relatively dull courtyard with some fine views from its various ramparts; the fortress itself (with a required and escorted 45-minute audio tour); and the palace museum (with fancy royal apartments and a military wing, it's by far the best exhibit of the lot).

Beyond its museums and castles, Salzburg is a world-class destination for live music performances. Each summer it hosts its famous Salzburg Festival (www.salzburgerfestspiele.at). But Salzburg is busy throughout the year, offering 2,000 classical performances in its palaces and churches annually. Pick up the events calendar at the tourist information office. I've never planned in advance, and I've enjoyed great concerts with every visit.

Be warned: Salzburg is addicted to the tourist dollar, and it can never get enough. Virtually all hotels are on the take when it comes to concert and tour recommendations, influenced more by their potential kickback than by what's best for you. Take their advice with a grain of salz.

One excursion everyone seems to recommend is the "Sound of Music" tour, which is offered by several companies. They usually include a quick but good general city tour and then hit the movie's highlights (including the stately home, flirtatious gazebo, and grand wedding church). Of the many companies doing the tour, consider Bob's Special Tours (www.bobstours.com) and Panorama Tours (www.panoramatours.com). I took this tour skeptically and actually liked it, even though rolling through the Austrian countryside with 30 Americans singing "Doe, a deer..." is pretty schmaltzy.

To see Salzburg at play, take a hike to the Augustiner Braustubl, a huge 1,000-seat beer garden northeast of the city center (www.augustinerbier.at). On busy nights, it's like a Munich beer hall with no music but the volume turned up. When it's cool outside, you'll enjoy a historic setting inside beer-sloshed and smoke-stained halls. On balmy evenings, it's like a Renoir painting — but with beer breath — under chestnut trees.

Local students mix with tourists eating hearty slabs of schnitzel 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, and assemble a delectable meal.

With its musical legacies, magnificent scenery, and rich history, Salzburg is a symphony — and you don't have to climb every mountain to enjoy it.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com.

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