Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Myth of Salzburg

Two hundred years ago, writers, artists and scientists flocked to Salzburg from the larger cities of Europe in search of an alpine arcadia. These intellectuals were exhausted by the urban grind of places like Vienna and Berlin and generally discouraged about the state of things following decades of European upheavals and conflict. Salzburg, by contrast, looked like the perfect refuge; an alpine Garden of Eden with contented peasants and romantic medieval antiquities.

Two hundred years later, we’re still flocking to Salzburg for much the same needs and reasons. Big cities wear us out. The world never seemed in a more precarious state. Enter Salzburg with its perfect balance of Nature, History and Art. Yes, Salzburg looks like idealised stage set but that’s been the point for a long, long time.

Regardless of whether you have come to celebrate musical genius, retrace the steps of the von Trapps, or lounge around coffee houses, this is a city that understands our need to escape the realities of the here and now and except during the five weeks in late July and August when the Salzburg Festival causes crowds and prices to skyrocket, Salzburg is one of NoCrowds best loved European destinations.

It’s not that we dislike the world famous Salzburg Festival. In fact, we love it but we don’t love its impact on Salzburg. Much like Venice during Carnevale, the city is completely overwhelmed. Hotels, tables and tickets are booked up months if not years in advance. This is Salzburg under siege. If you want to see Salzburg in all its Arcadian glory, go any time except during the Festival.

[If you want to visit the Festival, we suggest you stay outside of Salzburg and hire a driver but that is a subject for another post.]

How to get there

One of the things we love about Salzburg is how easy it is to get there. Salzburg has good rail connections from many European cities including Vienna, Munich, Innsbruck and Zurich. There is a super convenient airport 15 minutes from the centre of town served by both discount and national airlines. Frequent buses from the airport get you into town quickly and inexpensively. Taxis are affordable too.

Where to stay

Having been a key tourist destination for hundreds of years, there are lots of good hotels to choose from in all price categories.

For our visit, we chose the mid-range Hotel Wolf-Dietrich on the right bank of the Salzach River. We liked the price, the location and the fact that they had affordable family suites with a separate room for Eloise. We also liked the fact that all the amenities such as the pool, spa, WIFI, videos and afternoon tea were included in the price of the room.

As it turned out, we were really pleased with our selection. The Hotel Wolf-Dietrich is a helpful and welcoming place. The staff met all our requests with charm and efficiency, even helping us to print out our boarding passes on the office printer on a busy morning. Our rooms were fine, nothing special, but comfortable and the promised amenities were first class. We paid €147 a night for our family suite with a substantial breakfast included. If price were no object, however, we would head straight for Salzburg’s most famous hotel, the Goldener Hirsch on the Getreidegasse which dates back to 1407 and oozes with tradition and history.

What to do

Despite its northern location, Salzburg is a very Italianate city, which is not surprising since Archbishop Wolf Dietrich, its principle architect and a relative of the Medici, set out to create the “Rome of the North”. Like Rome, Salzburg is a great city to explore on foot, filled with surprising medieval passageways that open onto bright and beautiful piazzas. As our visit was so short, we spent most of our time just wandering around.

We window shopped on the Getreidegasse, popped into lots of churches and ancient monasteries, imitated the von Trapp children in the Mirabel Gardens and paid homage to Mozart by visiting his birthplace which is now a museum. Sadly, we only scratched the surface of things to do such as climbing up to the fortress and attending a performance of the Salzburger Marionette Theater If you visit Salzburg with more time and more ambition than NoCrowds, we highly recommend purchasing a Salzburg Card which provides free admission to almost everything, free use of the public transportation and discounts on many tickets and tours.


Even when time is short, we love to shop in Salzburg for such authentic treasures as traditional clothing and textiles, hand painted Easter eggs, antique wood carvings and porcelain and ceramics. Probably the best place in town to buy high quality traditional Austrian crafts is in the Salzburger Heimatwerk which can be found at the far end of the Residenzplatz. Don’t make the mistake we did, rushing in close to closing time only to be rushed straight back out by the only non-charming Austrian of our entire trip. We also found a good selection of traditional Austrian ceramics at Elfriede Rauchenzauner on the Universitaetsplatz and Elfriede, by contrast is very charming.

Coffee and Cake

No trip to Salzburg would be complete without stopping in one of the traditional coffee houses for a coffee and cake. While most tourists head for the Café Tomaselli, founded in 1705 on the Alter Markt and still run by the same family, we much prefer the atmosphere at the more bohemian Café Bazaar on the banks of the Salzach River. If you want to sit with the locals, head for the clouds of smoke. You can still smoke in Austria and many Austrians enjoy a cigarette with their strudel. American tourists don’t. The segregation is almost perfect. In any event, we’ve been coming to Café Bazaar for over 30 years and are happy to report that it hasn’t changed a bit. The art nouveau setting, the bright young things, the old ladies in hats, they’re all there, reading newspapers and passing the time. If only more places could be like this.

Where to Eat

Speaking of places that haven’t changed, our first restaurant recommendation, the Siftskeller St. Peter, happens to be the oldest restaurant in Europe and the place where, legend has it, Mephistopheles met Faust and Charlemagne had dinner. That may or may not be true but it is a fact that this tavern, founded by Benedictine Monks, has been serving up food and drink since 803 and we can’t remember ever having visited Salzburg without making a pilgrimage to Peterskeller for a wiener schnitzel and a Salzburger nockerln, which is a fabulous egg white creation that looks a lot like the hills around Salzburg.

On the night we were there, we were so beautifully welcomed and so nicely treated that it felt like we were old regulars. Of course, we weren’t but we were quite touched. And what did we have to eat? Wiener schnitzel and Salzburger nockerln, which you should be sure to order with your main course as it takes about 30 minutes to prepare. Everything was delicious and exactly as we remembered. As an aside, if you want to eat with some elegant locals, book your table for about 10:00 pm when all the tourists have departed and the post theatre and concert crowd arrives.

Our second recommendation, the informal and more reasonably priced Hertzl restaurant in the Goldener Hirsch Hotel, is a real Salzburg “insiders” meeting place. On the walls are pictures of stars from the Festival such as Bernstein and von Karajan who would frequently head there after a performance. We ate our Sunday lunch at the Herzl and it was a perfect Salzburg experience with a traditional menu, waitresses in dirndls and an atmospheric room. The place was filled with old Austrian couples, chic young families and a smattering of tourists. We ordered tafelspitz (Austrian boiled beef which the Emperor Franz Joseph had every day for lunch) and schnitzels and were blissfully happy.

Of course, there are places in Salzburg where you can go to eat updated and interesting variations on these old Austrian menu stalwarts. For that matter, you could sleep in a contemporary hotel and buy the same normal clothes you find at home but we just don’t see the point. Like Salzburg’s original tourists, we too go to escape the grind of modern life and commune with a better and more romantic past, a past where women wear beautiful costumes, where everything is served with cream, where a four year old can write a concerto and a singing governess can become a legend. The more the world changes, the more we depend on the eternal, unchanging myth of Salzburg.

Useful Addresses

Hotel Wolf Dietrich
Wolf Dietrich Strasse 7
A-5020 Salzburg
Tel: 43 662 871275
Fax: 43 662 8712759

Stiftskeller St. Peter
St Peter Bezirk
A-5010 Salzburg
Tel: 43 662 841 2680
Fax: 43 662 841 26875

Restaurant Herzl Goldener Hirsch
Getreidegasse 37
Tel: 43 662 80840
Fax: 43 662 843349
Image of Salzburg during the Romantic Age taken from the Salzburg Museum's website from the permanent exhibition, The Salzburg Myth


  1. "Austrian boiled beef which the Emperor Franz Joseph had every day for lunch"

    --just a thought: simmered beef..and not every day.
    I think, the right way of cooking:a good result may be expected.
    I'm an Austrian and I missed the really "NoCrowd"-places; the places You describe are sophisticated no crowded but not

  2. Of course, you are right that Franz Joseph did not eat Tafelspitz every day (although that is the myth) and right again that you don't really boil the beef but rather simmer it very gently. The problem, I think, is the translation and everytime I have seen "tafelspitz" translated into English, sadly, it always ends up as the somewhat misleading "boiled beef".

    Thanks for pointing this out. Now I have a request for you. What are your favourite and authentic Austrian No Crowds experiences?


  3. I can't response immediately, because 1'll be tearing in a hurry, my Engish is a bit rusty and so I have to cnsult my dictionary to write about my favoured places , no crowded, in Austria.
    Bye for now, Kate

  4. I can't response immediately, because I'll be tearing in a hurry, my English is a bit rusty, so I have to consult my dictionary to write about my favoured places, no crowded, in Austria.

    Bye for now, Kate