Salzburg, Austria’s cozy Capital of Quaint, crouches in a river valley framed by lofty mountains. Those rocks, studded with a castle here, a monastery there, are amazing.
But I came here to pay homage to the rock star who lived below them — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (The hills are alive, too, with the sound of music from his modern-day rival, Maria von Trapp, whose trail tour buses also follow.)
On Mozartplatz, honoring the composer’s 260th birthday, hordes of tourists posed before his statue with their selfie sticks. It’s near Salzburg Cathedral (Dom zu Salzburg), fancifully refurbished in 1628, where Mozart’s parents were married, their baby boy was baptized and, not much later, played the organ.
A short walk takes you to his birth house on Getreidegasse, where you can spy his infant violin, a lock of hair, his silken wallet and the most authentic portrait of all those bewigged lookalikes.
Across the river, you’ll find the family’s later residence, housing the piano upon which the 5-year-old composed, along with employment contracts, manuscripts and Daddy Leopold’s vast book collection, which he used to tutor his talented kids.
In the gift shop, Wolfgang’s portrait enhances every possible surface — golf balls, T-shirts, tissue packets and rubber duckies, to name just a few.
You can hear his music all around this town of 145,000, including concerts at grand palaces such as Residenz and Mirabell as well as the oldest restaurant in town, the palace-like St. Peter Stiftskeller.
Between courses served in candle-lit chambers, Stiftskeller employs musicians in velveteen waistcoats who back lusty singers performing operatic arias.
Salzburg’s history museum, facing the composer’s statue, includes exhibits devoted to Mozart Mania, which didn’t erupt (poor kid) until decades after his pauper’s death. (Michael Haydn stole all the glory while Wolfgang was alive.)
Around the corner, you’ll find a shop featuring authentic artisanal crafts — dirndl dresses, chocolates, ceramics and woodcarvings. It adjoins the DomQuartier, which interconnects a slew of ornate Baroque buildings — including 180 rooms framing three courtyards — once solely the domain of rulers, but now wandered by mere mortals.
In the ruler’s former Residenz palace, “the political heart of Salzburg,” Mozart made his court debut.
A passage leads to the organ loft of the grand Dom, then the art gallery (lots of rosy Rubens); the Panorama Terrace, capturing the view from above the street; and treasures from St. Peter Monastery, the oldest in German-speaking lands.
Modern twists, eats
But Salzburg isn’t frozen in its pretty past. To tune into current thoughts, explore its pair of contemporary art museums — one in old town (Rupertinum) presenting visual art as social critique (think Hogarth, Goya), climaxing in walls covered with graffiti manifestos such as “Brexit, You Brex My Heart” and “Trump, Don’t Push the Button.”
The second (Monchsberg) — perched on a mountaintop that visitors ascend via elevator — pays tribute to exiles such as Arnold Schoenberg (a composer, music theorist and painter) and Oskar Kokoschka (a poet, playwright and expressionist painter), along with the story of the city’s notorious book burnings of 1938.
That mountaintop is home, too, to the museum’s restaurant, M32, showcasing classic fare with modern touches — sweetbreads with mushrooms; a salad of duck liver, apples and bacon; and roast deer. Oh, and dessert! The city’s namesake three-peaked soufflé called Salzberger Nockerln is a must.
Speaking of fine eats, a lunch at K&K, amid the town’s movers and shakers — especially on Lederhosen Thursdays (dirndl dresses, too; they’re no longer just for holidays) — pays homage to tradition, too, with venison carpaccio, rack of deer and, my choice, a classic composition of veal liver with potato-celery puree and apples.
Cross the river to Zum fidelen Affen — the Merry Monkey — housed in a building from 1417, serving vast portions of food almost as venerable, including tafelspitz (boiled beef) with roast potatoes, plus goulash, schnitzel and a dessert made of apples and almonds baked with bits of pancake. For coffee — not just your hometown brew, but an almost-sacred art form — stop at Café Tomaselli of 1708, where Mozart enjoyed eine kleine brauner long before I.
The story behind the salz in Salzburg
Long before Mozart came the Romans. You can spot remains underneath the Panorama Museum, which flaunts a 360-degree painted view of the town, circa 1828, virtually unchanged today. (Yes, that’s Maria’s convent in the distance.)
That picturesque-beyond-belief shopping street, Getreidegasse (once the Roman road), today is densely packed with 15th-century facades bearing iron signs depicting the trade each practiced — an apothecary, a goldsmith and (what’s that?) a McDonald’s.
Called the Rome of the North, Salzburg was named for its claim to fame and riches, salz (salt, aka white gold).
Archbishop Wolf Dieter used his salt-mining fortunes to transform the town from a muddled medieval backwater into an inviting Baroque landscape.
In the 1600s, he bought, then tore down, blocks of houses to create the open, social plazas that link the town today. (He also built the ornate Mirabell Palace, now a concert site, to house his mistress and scads of kids.)
When to visit? Any time!
In the square behind the cathedral, with a giant chessboard and a colossal golden orb topped by a life-size sculpted man, a narrow lane leads past an antique millwheel and the best (and oldest) bakery in town.
Around the corner hides St. Peter’s Cemetery, a pocket of well-tended gardens and ornate memorials. Then step into St. Peter’s itself, whose intimate Romanesque interior has been gilded with Rococo luster.
You’re now close to the Festival Hall, Salzburg’s world-famous concert scene.
And close to more good eats. The Festival’s glitterati head to Triangle to feast on regional fare such as the kitchen’s signature fish soup, lush with salmon and fennel in tomato broth, then wiener schnitzel with warm, sweet-sour potato salad.
Plan your trip
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.