Travel diary: Salzburg's Christmas markets

The fourth-largest city in Austria is probably best renowned for being the birthplace of Mozart, the setting for ‘The Sound of Music’, and for its intrinsic links to the Christmas season.

With such a uniquely diverse set of attractions, in an astonishingly beautiful snow-capped mountain setting, and as the birthplace of the carol ‘Silent Night’, how could I not book a European Christmas market trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Practically on the German border, Salzburg offers plenty to keep visitors busy for a few days, and particularly in autumn/winter when it’s “alive with the sound of music” (Christmas carols) and the smells of bakes apples, roasted chestnuts and gluhwein (mulled wine.) In fact, it’s so geared towards Christmas that a trip during November/December might leave you wondering what Salzburg does once the festive season is over!

Salzburg’s Alstadt

A 20 minute taxi or half hour bus ride from the Airport will get you into Salzburg’s Alstadt (Old Town). I found the trolley buses, connected to overhead tracks, really simple to use. You can get on and off without ever coming into contact with the driver, which did beg the question as to how they would ever know you’d paid for your fare. I’d purchased a 72-hour Salzburg Card (see below for details) at my hotel and this included practically all public transport in the city.

The Alstadt itself oozes history from its Baroque and medieval architecture, most of its buildings largely unchanged over time, endowing its unique charm. Looking up, your eyes meet with countless spires, often with snowy mountainous backdrops, adding an awesome sense of scale and beauty.

A fairly compact city, you’d be unlikely to miss Salzburg’s Christmas markets. A leisurely amble through the Alstadt’s meandering alleys and passageways to its open squares led me to a few, some much smaller than others. Not vastly different to each other in their wares, all seemed to impart everything that the average Christmas marketeer would expect from such a trip: wooden huts brimming over with Christmas decorations galore, and abundantly aromatic smells of every type of festive food and drink that has ever had some kind of link to the season! Plus, hats, gloves and scarves, jewellery, toys and all manner of trinkets and handicrafts. Add in brass music concerts and choral singing and you’re near to Christmas perfection!

The most famous of Salzburg’s markets is the Christkindlmarkt on Domplatz and Residenzplatz. Roots stretching back to medieval times, it developed into one of Europe’s most famous Advenmarkets in the 17th Century. I found the best time to visit was around dusk when it became a true feast for the eyes: stalls, Christmas trees and lights a-twinkle, contributing that extra special sparkly glow. Somewhat intoxicating after a hot punch!

Schloss Hellbrunn

But my festive desire wasn’t sated and a twenty minute bus ride out to Schloss Hellbrunn brought me to my favourite Christmas market of the entire trip. Something about the way the stalls were laid out in the grounds of this early Baroque palace, using the Palace itself as an advent backdrop, was kind of magical.

Don’t forget to look out for the gazebo made famous by The Sound of Music film. After a half-hour search, I eventually stumbled upon it by chance - it’s not obviously signposted anywhere!

Beware the Krampus

Krampus was one Salzburger Christmas tradition I was woefully unprepared for. A horned half-goat, half-demon who supposedly punishes children who misbehave, stemming from European folklore. Ascending Linzergasse on my first evening I accidentally stumbled upon the ‘Krampus Run’: groups of Krampus-dressed figures parading and rampaging down the street, bells ringing and drums banging. The sight was pretty petrifying - made worse by one grabbing and spanking me with its tail! Read full details of my Krampus ordeal here. All good fun in hindsight, but fairly horrifying at the time! They popped up again all over the city centre during my stay, even in restaurants, so be prepared!

It's not all about Christmas

Aside from Christmas, Salzburg has many fascinating things to do and see:

Hohensalzburg Castle - an 11th Century fortress on the hilltop, visible from all over the city centre. The funicular ride to the top was enjoyable, if quick. There’s some spectacular views of the city from within the fortress walls and an interesting marionette museum. It was great fun, if a little steep to walk back down. Keep an eye out for the close-by Stift Nonnberg, abbey gates recognisable from The Sound of Music.

Mozart’s Geburtshaus - Mozart’s birthplace was a time-filler for me, but ended up being one of the most interesting things I did! Although photos aren’t allowed inside, it was brilliant to walk through the room where the composer was born, see his instruments and learn about his early life in the house. His links to the city are obviously a huge draw and this was a definite wow-factor moment.

Mirabell Palace and Gardens - over the Salzach River and in the “New Town” are the beautiful gardens, with fountain, steps and backdrop instantly recognisable from The Sound of Music. Well worth a quick visit!

Stiegl-Brauwelt - a 15 minute bus journey out of town but quite easily the best and most informative brewery tour I’ve ever been on! The displays are immersive and well-designed, and with three “tasting” beers and a free gift each at the end, this was a winner!

Sound of Music Tour - I’ve never been a huge fan of the musical, but I still got swept up in the fervour of it. I bought a guidebook and did my own walking tour around the city, with most sites easy to get to. But there are plenty of tours offered for trips around and out of Salzburg.

Bavarian Mountains Tour - a huge highlight to drive through the Alps and cross the border into Germany, this tour included stops at the breathtakingly beautiful Konigssee and picturesque town of Berchtesgaden with its lovely Christmas market. I witnessed Hitler’s imposing Eagle’s Nest, and plenty of the thickest snow I’ve seen in years. Stunning!

Top tip: I found the Salzburg Card to be great value for money at €37 for 72 hours, with one and two day options available too. It covered most of the primary sites in the city, including many of those listed above, as well as public transport. I even used the card to visit a lovely little Christmas museum on Mozartplatz to kill some time.

Salzburg is a beautiful city with so much to see, and I undoubtedly returned home feeling festive and ready for Christmas! If you're planning your own Christmas market trip this year, read my updated 2018 guide.

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Post by Stuart

Stuart discovered his passion for all things travel during one of his first jobs overseeing the travel section of a well-known bookshop. He has worked in publishing for 15 years, most recently as a freelance travel writer. He's always planning his next adventure away. Favourite destination? It has to be Western Canada & The Rockies. Next trip? Bordeaux.

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