When I was last in Salzburg during the holidays, the whole town was done up like a Christmas card, complete with horse drawn carriages, jingling bells, wreaths and garlands, windows piled high with confections, and steaming hot cider sold on every corner.
But Salzburg at any time of year is a fairy tale city, quaint without ever being coy, baroque without being excessive, and in thrall to native son Amadeus Mozart without being mawkishly idolatrous.
There is grandeur in the 17th century Dom cathedral and the Residenz Palace, once home to archbishops, with a collection of European art from the 16th to 19th centuries and its famous horse fountain. There is music everywhere. Streets are made to stroll through, flanked by arcades, their store windows displaying beautifully tailored Austrian jackets and festive dress, dirndls and loden coats.
The city is chocolate mad, home to two particular specialties created there, the
Salzburger Mozartkugel and the Cappezzoli di Venere, which means Venus’s nipples. The former, to be expected in a city where it’s said there is a Mozart recital every day of the year, was created in 1890 by Paul Fürst, who won a gold medal for it in the Paris Exhibition of 1905. It is made of dark chocolate and wrapped in special paper, and you can buy it at the four Fürst confectioners in town. Facsimiles abound under other names.
Venus’s Nipples are made from chestnut and nougat paste in white or dark chocolate—said to have been a favorite of Mozart competitor Antonio Salieri—found in their little paper cups at the delicacy shops like R.F. Azwanger, with its antique wooden shelves and baskets and its old glass counters all stuffed with items they’ve been selling for decades.
Not all the boutique groceries have survived. Kölbi Feinkost has closed, but Rigler’s grocery store thrives and Cook &Wine is a newcomer wine bar and eatery where you can take courses in Austrian cooking. And to get a true and enduring sense of Old Salzburg, visit the city’s oldest bakery, Stiftsbackerei St. Peter, which dates to the 12th century as a monastery flour mill—still run by flowing water—and bake shop. Each morning the bakers make marvelous sourdough bread whose aromas suffuse the air outside of the little store, which has never seen fit to expand its offerings much beyond a few different loaves of bread and cakes. But once you’ve tasted them slathered with butter and jam, you’ll never forget them, and you will return there whenever you can.
Of course, the city also has its Sachertorte, the rich chocolate-and-apricot cake created in 1932 for Prince Metternich’s court guests and forever associated with the Sacher Hotel in Vienna, and there is also a Sacher Hotel right in Salzburg itself, now with its great Christmas tree in the hallway. Its terrace is an ideal place to watch the light show on New Year’s Eve.
Salzburg is also a city of cafés, like the famous Café Bazar, since Mozart’s day a celebrity draw, now constantly full of locals, well-dressed matrons, young women with their school friends, and business people, all on their iPhones and nibbling on croissants or Milchbrot (a sweet milk bread).
Rightly so, the Old Town, much of it closed to vehicular traffic, has status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its mix of Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, and 19th century architecture has largely been uncompromised by anything too brutally modern—except for the grotesque Museum der Moderne Mönchsberg jutting from a cliff above the city. (It was due to re-open this month.) Far more appealing in every way is the Salzburg Museum, opened only in 2007 on Mozartplatz, with its Glöckenspiel bell tower, whose works manifest the city’s historic culture.
The old streets of the city teem with Christmas decorations, and every boutique sells traditional Austrian clothes. Wolford is the place for lingerie, Altstadt for punk leather, Dantendorfer for high-end winter clothes and many places sell the revered Loden coats.
My wife and I stayed at a two-year-old boutique hotel, the Hotel Goldgasse, set on a winding street under an archway just off the Alten Markt in the Old Town center and wholly devoted to the city’s music and opera. Indeed, each of the hotel’s 16 rooms has an entire wall with a color photo depiction of an opera production. The interior’s narrow winding staircase might pass for one in the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but the ambiance of the place is that of a private residence overseen by the remarkable Ulrike Koller, whose hospitality and interest in her guests is boundless.
Downstairs is a traditional restaurant named Falstaff, whose copper pans evoke its origins as a coppersmith’s house dating to 1573. It also has a copy of Austria’s first cookbook, dating to the 15th century, from which are culled some of the ever-changing recipes used in chef Philippe Sommerspurger’s hearty, inventive cuisine, which includes a signature fried chicken with a cucumber salad and cranberries; a housemade sausage with sour cabbage, parsley potatoes and mustard; smoked cheese noodles with crispy onions; excellent Wiener Schnitzel of veal, and for dessert, the fluffy burned meringue dessert called Salzburger nockerl with vanilla ice cream and raspberry cream. The wine list is heavy in modern Austrian labels. And at breakfast there is a splendid buffet with terrific breads and good coffee.
For something more basic and inexpensive, there is Triangel, a hangout for locals, especially students, because the University owns the building and keeps menu prices in line so that a good meal can be had for very little. The blackboard postings each day indicate what’s most fresh and good, the cheery room is chockablock with old wood tables, and the beer flows freely.
For a far more lavish gastronomic experience there is the unique Stiftskeller St. Peter, set within the walls of St. Peter’s Abbey, whose low street arcade outside gives no indication of the restaurant’s immense size on several levels with eleven rooms. Upstairs there are huge banquet rooms, stunningly decorated, and a thousand people a day come through the restaurant; one room has live Mozart music every night via period costumed musicians. (The composer himself is said to have dined there, and it is claimed this is the oldest restaurant in Europe, dating to 803 AD, and where, legend has it, Faust met the demonic Mephistopheles.) Given its centuries in business, St. Peter has built up a legendary wine cellar, one of the finest on the continent.
My wife and I dined in a small, far more charming and warm-spirited Burgerstube room, softly lighted and done in varnished paneled wood, thick tablecloths, hanging lamps, and old-fashioned rathskeller wooden chairs. Our seasonal menu began with a velvety chestnut and chocolate puree soup and a nicely cooked risotto dauntingly rich with Gorgonzola. They had a pork schnitzel Cordon Bleu stuffed with ham and cheese, served with parsley potatoes and cranberries. The stand-out that night was a lamb knuckle in a well-reduced demi-glace accompanied with potato cannelloni.
We could not resist ordering another Salzburger nockerl, which could serve three or four people easily. The dessert is traditionally made in three mounds of meringue, representing the snow-dusted so-called mountains (rather more like big hills) in the city, all of them fairly easy to trek.
The best way to see this remarkable city is with the Salzburg Card, which gives you one-time free admission to all the city’s tourist attractions and museums and travel on all public transportation, including the Festungsbah funicular. Right now prices are €27 for 24 hours for adults and €13.50 for children; €35 and €17.50 for 48 hours; and €40 and €20 for 72 hours.