As well as having a picture-perfect setting, Salzburg also boasts pretty buildings, natural beauty, culture galore, hearty cuisine and excellent shopping. And, of course, music, music, music!
Surrounded by the snow-capped Alps, and divided into the old and new town by the fast-flowing River Salzach, Salzburg really is the jewel in Austria’s glittering crown. It is a place stuck in the 50s – in a crime-free, feel-good kind of way - and is compact enough to explore on foot. A trip there really is one of my favourite things.
In December, Salzburg is largely Brit-free, and this adds to the ambience. The main draw is the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market), a fabulous Germanic winter wonderland that runs from late November until Christmas Day. Multi-coloured hand-made decorations displayed in log cabins, sweet-smelling gingerbread and stollen tempting you at every turn, a giant fir tree adorned with lights and ornaments from tip to toe, children merrily whizzing around the skating rink... if all this fails to instil any Christmas spirit, nothing will.
After an hour or two purchasing Nutcracker toy soldiers, freshly formed holly wreaths and twinkling stars, it is time to refresh the batteries with a mug of warming glühwein and some spicy bratwurst sausage. Or you could take a 30-minute ride around the centre, in a carriage pulled by a well-groomed horse, then stop to enjoy a musical interlude provided by the Salzburg Youth Choir gathered on the steps of the imposing Baroque cathedral, Dom St Rupert - 'O Tannenbaum' and 'Stille Nacht' help to raise that Yuletide spirit a couple of notches higher. This is a Sunday staple throughout the advent period.
Take the funicular, or an enjoyable and mildly energetic stroll, up to the Hohnburg Fortress for a spectacular view of the city – the majestic green domes and spires of the cathedral and churches, the ornate bridges that straddle the Salzach as it winds into the distance, and hundreds of terracotta roofs clad with snow. A quick tour of the castle and alluring marionette museum can be followed by the short walk to the Nonnberg Abbey, parts of which were used as the nunnery in The Sound of Music.
On our visit, suddenly the atmosphere became super-charged, as the sounds of cowbells and clanking chains drew ever closer from below. What the devil? Clambering purposefully up the hill came large, yeti-like creatures with grotesque features, a cackling witch and, yes, Satan himself! The crowd scattered as the hideous mob chased their prey and whacked them mercilessly about their legs with rope whips. Ten minutes of mayhem were followed by peace breaking out, as the marauding monsters retired to allow St Nicholas to hand out sweets and nuts to the victims. Bizarre!
This is the Austrian tradition of Krampus: the creatures are sent to punish bad deeds during the year, with Santa Claus rewarding the virtuous. Krampus Night (Krampusnacht) is still vigorously celebrated on the eve of Saint Nicholas's Day (6th December) and right up until Christmas.
Songs and scenery
Visit at any time of year for loads to do. Salzburg is, of course, the birthplace of Mozart, and you can view the family graves, including that of his father, Leopold, at the secluded cemetery of St Sebastian Church. Amadeus admirers can also visit the birthplace and the family home of the boy genius and attend frequent recitals at various venues – just look out for the posters dotted around, especially during the Salzburg Festival held annually in July/August.
For fans of the 1966 Best Picture Oscar-winner, there is plenty to do as well. Sing along with Julie Andrews on The Sound of Music tour (www.panoramatours.com) and follow in the footsteps of Hollywood’s Von Trapp family around town, at the family home beside picturesque Leopoldskron Lake and up in those musical hills.
Other tours available include a visit to Hitler’s WWII alpine hideout (the Eagle's Nest), the local salt mines (Salzburg translates as salt mountain) and some picturesque Bavarian towns. If you are in town between Christmas and New Year's Eve, you can even go on a horse-drawn sleigh-ride high up in the mountain snow.
The independently minded could catch a train to Munich to see the amazing Glockenspiel and Rathaus on Marienplatz or to the photogenic lakeside ski resort of Zell am See; both are about a three-hour scenic return journey (www.oebb.at).
Where to eat and drink
Back in Salzburg, eating is serious business. During the day, coffee shops abound, serving calorific gateaux and delicious apple strudel. The king of the cafes is the tearoom at Hotel Sacher; only they can serve the genuine Sacher-Torte, a dark chocolate cake with a smashing orangey bit in the middle, and reassuringly expensive! The exact recipe has been a closely guarded secret to all but a chosen few since 1832, and the waitresses wear traditional dress dating from that time.
By night, you are in for a culinary treat, especially if meat is your thing. Start with a thick and creamy soup and then tuck into a main of venison, pork, wild boar or spicy sausages. My favourite restaurant/pub is Alter Fuchs (Old Fox) on Linzergasse (+43 662 882022), which has big wooden tables, plenty of local atmosphere, hearty portions and a good selection of beers and wines, and is excellent value for money.
Salzburg isn’t a party town, but a relaxing way to end the evening is to sip a cocktail in the sumptuous lounge of Hotel Sacher. Every cocktail you care to mention is available and the accompanying pianist ensures that you head to bed in a mellow mood.
Where to stay
Having flown Ryanair from Stansted, we splashed out a little for our central hotel, taking up residence at the delightful Hotel Wolf-Dietrich, just off the Linzergasse, a street chock-full of delicatessens, café-bars, boutiques and souvenir shops. For €140 a night, you get cosy romance and a substantial organic breakfast (with The Sound of Music on 24-hour loop!); it also has an excellent spa, sauna and indoor pool.
Hotel Mozart on Franz Josef Strasse is also nice, clean and centrally located, and a little cheaper at around €100 a night.