Salzburg and Its Wonderful Day Trips
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
“The hills are alive with the Sound of Music” kept running through my mind as my husband and I arrived in Salzburg, Austria, after our stay in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Because train and bus services were spotty, we booked our trip with Sebastian Tours that delivered us via van close to our door. (Close because there were many one-way streets.)
Salzburg was to be our base for four days as we visited the nearby Ice Caves, Hallstatt, Berchtesgaden, and Eagle’s Nest. Of course, we also took the Sound of Music tour and spent time exploring the lovely, historic city.
We stayed in the Hotel Alstadhotel Weisse Taub which was close to the Mozartplatz Square and convenient to walk throughout the Old Town. As in many European hotels, there was no air conditioning, but they provided us with a fan, so we were quite comfortable with the windows open at night.
Upon our noontime arrival in Salzburg, we took the funicular to the top of Monk’s Hill to the Fortress Hohensalzburg which has overlooked the city since its construction in 1077. The fortress houses several museums including the Fortress Museum, the Marionette Museum, and the interactive Altes Zeughaus Museum. We explored the fortress before winding our way back down the mountain. (I needed the steps and the circuitous walk took us by many interesting places!)
Salzburg has a long and varied past. Originally the site of a Celtic settlement, Salzburg later became a Roman town. It gained its name from the many barges loaded with salt (Salz) that sailed on the Salzach River which runs through the city. The town became an important bastion of the Holy Roman Empire with pieces of its history found in many unexpected places. (Salzburg’s Old Town is a UNESCO site.)
Perhaps one of the sites for which Salzburg is best known is the birthplace of the famous composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His home is now a museum and concerts of his music are offered throughout the city. Visitors can see the concerts that are scheduled during their visit and get tickets before arriving at https://www.salzburg.info/en/events/classical-music.
We had allotted three full days in Salzburg and partial days at the beginning and the end of our trip. We have found that staying in a town near sites we want to see allows us to explore in late afternoons and evenings and still have time to do tours during the day. We enjoyed visiting St. Peter’s Abbey and its charming cemetery. We walked into St. Peter's Stiftskeller, which is located inside the abbey walls. This restaurant has claim to being the oldest documented restaurant,803 A.D., in Europe. (We did not eat here, but they have special Mozart dinners available with reservations.
We had great food throughout our visit in Salzburg. We ate at Zwettler’s which was close to our hotel. It was there we sampled Salzburger Nockerl, a huge, souffle-like dessert that is wonderful. Triangel was another restaurant serving traditional Austrian fare that we enjoyed. Honestly, we simply walked until we found something that appealed to us. One day we took the elevator up through the Modern Art Museum and wandered around looking for the Augustiner Bräu, Austria’s largest beer garden. In our wanderings we found "Sky-Space," an art installation by James Turrell who also created “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace at Rice University in Houston, TX (our alma mater). We enjoyed Augustiner Brau where we drank beer, of course, and sampled multiple delicious items from their deli. Even though it was crowded, we managed to find seats in one of the many outside areas in this huge brewery that has been making beer since 1621. Afterwards, we strolled along the river to our hotel, taking in the quietness of the beautiful scenery.
Mirabelle Palace Mondsee Cathedral Hellbrunn Palace
So what did we have scheduled for tours? Of course, a morning tour of The Sound of Music! After a lot of research, we chose Panorama Tours. Yes, we were on a large bus instead of a small van, but the bus had definite advantages. Our guide, a music major, was excited about The Sound of Music. We watched excerpts of the movie featuring each place we stopped.
The trip was even more fun because most of the other participants were members of a college choir who knew the musical backwards and forwards. We sang Do-Re-Mi before we stopped at the Mirabell Palace and Gardens and strolled around the Pegasus Fountain where the scene was filmed. (Don’t miss the 17 carved white Untersberg marble dwarf statues in the garden.) We sang I Am Sixteen before seeing the reconstructed gazebo at Hellbrunn Palace. We stopped for coffee in the quaint town of Mondsee where we visited the Cathedral, the interior of which was the location of Maria’s wedding.
We had a great time seeing the featured places, hearing the real stories behind the movies, and learning about the history of the area. (Even people who didn’t sing were smiling and enjoyed the scenery.) The Alpine scenery, especially lakes such as the Wolfgangsee, was breathtaking.
Hallstatt Bone House
In the afternoon we took another tour, this time to Hallstatt which has been touted on many websites as one of the most beautiful towns in Europe. The scenic setting, on the Hallstatter See Lake, adds to its charm. Since we were on a tour bus, we didn’t take the recommended boat trip across the lake, but we enjoyed wandering around the steep streets. People have been recorded in the area since 5000 BC because of the salt mines in the mountains. Its salt made Hallstatt such an important area that the period encompassing the late Bronze and early Iron Age in central and western Europe is known as the Hallstatt Period.
The Halstatt Catholic Church provides a great overlook of the lake and the steep town. This church serves as the entrance to a beautifully groomed and decorated cemetery and the intriguing Bone (Beinhaus or Charnel) House. The Bone House contains over 1,200 skulls, many of which are decorated and have the names of the person who once inhabited them. The small church cemetery became too crowded in the 1700s, so the church had to make changes. If the family of the interred did not continue payments, the bones were exhumed after 10-15 years and placed in the house. From this practice began the idea of naming and decorating the skulls to keep the memory of the individuals alive.
Hallstatt boasts a funicular that takes visitors to the ancient salt mines. I have heard the mines, the oldest ones in the world, are very good, but we simply ran out of time! We also missed the World Heritage Skywalk, a platform 350 meters above the roofs of the homes below that provides panoramic views of the town and lake.
The next day we took a tour to Eagle’s Nest and Berchtesgaden, a tour that almost didn’t happen! When we started planning this trip, I scheduled our visit to Salzburg a month earlier. Thankfully, I thought to check openings before finalizing plans. Eagle’s Nest, Berchtesgaden, and the Ice Cave aren’t open year-round so check their website before you make reservations.
Entrance to Eagle's Nest View from Eagle's Nest Fireplace--A Gift from Mussolini
Eagle’s Nest was fascinating…and appalling when considering the lavishness of this gift for Hitler’s 50th birthday and his extreme paranoia. For example, the elevator made the trip to the top in record time because Hitler was claustrophobic and worried he would become trapped. He even had the side of the elevator made of brass that was polished to a mirror-like finish to make the interior seem larger.
The snow-capped peak provided beautiful views of this retreat that Hitler visited fewer than 20 times. The location did, however, provide Hitler with a much-needed P.R. boost as he cemented his persona as being a commoner from Bavaria.
After the tour of Eagle’s Nest, we visited the town of Berchtesgaden. We arrived just in time to watch a hometown parade featuring the local band. The town highlights creative murals on many of the buildings and was a great setting for a quick lunch before heading back to Salzburg via beautiful lakes. (We saw a few of the same lakes as we had the day before, but we also saw different ones.)
Entrance to Eisriesenwelt
Day three brought a very different adventure for us. I had never heard of an ice cave before we started planning this trip. I have since discovered that there are quite a few, but the largest is Eisriesenwelt, located in Werfen, a short train ride from Salzburg. When we got off the train, signs gave good directions to the shuttle buses that took us to the mountain. Once at the mountain we walked about 20 minutes before boarding a cable car. At the terminus we began our 20-minute steep hike up the remainder of the mountain. By the time we arrived at the entrance we had shed our coats and sweaters and were, literally, sweating from the climb.
We were fortunate that an English-speaking tour was just beginning when we arrived at the cave entrance. We quickly donned our coats, hats, and gloves and faced the blast of cold wind as the door into the “Entrance to Hell” opened and we entered a strange new world. (The caves are not hellish; this was simply what locals used to believe.)
We loved the trip through the cave, even with its 700 steps up and 700 steps down. The nature-made ice sculptures are beautiful and differ every year. There are no lights within the cave except the candle-lit lanterns carried by the guide and visitors. Our only complaint about the tour was that we were the very last people in the group which is single file throughout. We had trouble hearing the guide and, by the time we got to the point that he had discussed, the spot was dark because he had moved on with the light. I would love to go back and be near the guide in a smaller group. We loved the cave; however, visitors need to be in good physical condition to attempt it. (I don’t have any pictures to post since visitors can’t take them inside the cave. However, the walk to the cave and the stop at the café afterwards provided great photo ops.)
Another evening enjoying Salzburg and then, all too soon, it was time to catch the train for the ride to Munich, Germany.