Sound of Music - The Salzburg Festival is one of the wonders of civilisation. But the cultural experience doesn't stop there, says Lucinda Bredin

I'm sure there are prodigies who love Salzburg from childhood, but, when I first went, I couldn't leave fast enough. It was too gemütlich for a dishevelled teenager on an Interrail holiday.
Every commercial enterprise that wasn't peddling Mozart, was flogging chocolate – and, of course, there were a number of shops that combined the two to ghastly effect. But then two things happened: I accepted that people over the age of 40 had the right to roam. And I embraced opera.

The Salzburg Festival, founded in 1920 by Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt, is an event that unashamedly revolves around music. This year, the 100th anniversary, has 222 performances in 44 days – and those are just the core events. In short, the city is marinated in music from mid-July to the end of August. Festivalgoers, some of whom stay for up to three weeks, develop their own routine in preparation for that night's opera. They walk in the Mirabell gardens, hike in the surrounding mountains, swim in the icy Fuschl lake, eat light but doubtless expensive lunches, before walking, bedecked in bling, to the epicentre – the Festival theatre.

Above: Salzburg has a collective sweet tooth

This austere building from the 1960s makes up for its uncompromising exterior with two spectacular halls, one of which is hewn out of rock, with the side of the mountain visible on stage. There, the highlights this year include Anna Netrebko in Tosca; Cecilia Bartoli in Don Pasquale; Franz Welser-Möst conducting a new production of Strauss's Elektra with Ausrine Studyte in the title role. There is also the full cycle of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas played by Igor Levit.

But for me, one of the chief pleasures of visiting the Festival is to interleave performances with serious sightseeing. Salzburg was an independent Archbishopic – it was only in 1816 that it was definitively handed over to the Austrian Empire. The local salt mines were such a generator of revenue that the ruling Archbishops could indulge themselves by turning a medieval city into a baroque extravagance. When a fire conveniently wiped out the Cathedral in 1598, it provided carte blanche. The resulting Salzburger Dom and the nearby Residenz for the Archbishop are impressively huge and lavish – the Residenz has an enfilade of reception rooms with much gilt, but little furniture. It doesn't really become diverting until you reach a series of Wunderkammern with collections of exotic shells, bizarre scientific instruments and geological specimens. The star of the show is a bronze Eucharistic dove with Limoges enamelling. The nearby Abbey of St Peter and its cemetery swap pomp for atmosphere. The catacombs, which look like anchorite caves, have been clawed out of the mountain. It is well worth going in. A claustrophobic flight of stone steps leads you up into caverns with rough-hewn slabs that serve as altars.

Above: St Peter's cemetery

Salzburg is one of the very few places in the world that has spectacular car parks, which – like the catacombs – have been tunnelled out of the Mönchsberg Mountain. One way of travelling inside the mountain is to take a high-speed lift that was cut through the rock for visitors to the Modern Art Museum. Built in 1998, this defiantly hideous building is like a grey storage unit, plonked on the summit as if rebuking the city below for its beauty. God knows how it was nodded through planning. But, as they say, the best view in Salzburg is when you are inside, since you can't see it. A survey show of Secessionist painter Wilhelm Thöny is there until July; from June, there is also an exhibition of new work by Yinka Shonibare.

Given the small size of Salzburg, it is to its credit that it has so many art galleries showing contemporary art – it says something about the tastes of the clientele for the opera, too. Thaddaeus Ropac has a gallery, at the entrance of the Mirabell gardens, that is a byword for elegance. This season he has exhibitions of Stephan Balkenhol and Robert Wilson. The publicly funded Künstlerhaus doesn't shy away from challenging work, either – Omer Fast's virtual-reality film The Invisible Hand is now a semi-permanent installation.

Above: The Modern Art Museum, the fortress of the avant-garde

One of my favourite works in the city is the Salzburg Panorama, which has its own museum. Early in the 19th century, the artist Johann Sattler made the arduous journey up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress that dominates the city's skyline, and drew a detailed outline of the city from five different angles. He transferred the drawing to a vast, 85ft-long canvas, which was fixed to a drum. The result was a painting that captures Salzburg, just as it was that autumn day in 1824. All the clocks show 4 o'clock. There are no railway tracks, and there are cows where one would expect to see Würstel stalls, but apart from that the astonishing surprise is that Salzburg has lived through 200 years of upheaval, including a pair of World Wars, and still looks more or less the same.

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

When in Salzburg...

Above: Hotel Bristol

Where to stay:

There is a pantheon of Salzburg heroes: Mozart, Herbert von Karajan... and Florian, the concierge at Hotel Bristol. Florian is rightly fêted by festivalgoers. Tickets, restaurants, torn gowns, medical emergencies... he sorts stuff. He has such a legion of fans that this is the only place they will stay. As for the hotel, it has had a recent facelift without detracting from its essential character. (There are still acres of red plush.) Have a look yourself at the website

The other hotels high on the list for the Festival are the Sacher, overlooking the Salzach river and located, like the Bristol, in the 19th-century Neustadt, and the Goldener Hirsch in the Aldstadt. This is housed in a 15th-century building on the Getreidegasse, Salzburg's equivalent of a high street, if such a vulgar concept could exist in such a place. For a more country-estate feel, try Schloss Leopoldskron. Formerly owned by Max Reinhardt, one of the original founders of the Festival, it has become more famous now for its lake and ornamental ironwork, both of which feature in The Sound of Music.

There's no point pretending that these hotels are anything but humongously expensive during the Festival. In spring months, however, they are surprisingly reasonable.

Where to eat:

Austria has a reputation for restaurants that offer little else
than Wiener Schnitzel, Frankfurter Würstel and liver dumplings. This turns out to be almost entirely true – except in Salzburg. In keeping with the sophisticated palates of visitors to the Festival, there are 19 entries in the Michelin Guide, two of which – SENNS.Restaurant and Ikarus – have two stars each. But eating after the opera is always a challenge. Four courses at 10.30pm? Really? Carpe Diem, [pictured below] a restaurant-cum-cocktail bar (with its own Michelin star) adopts a flexible approach by serving food in small cones in an ultra-modern setting. Sounds a bit unusual, but it actually works. For a place for lunch, go for a fabulous view. Both the Modern Art Museum and the Hohensalzburg Fortress have excellent restaurants and sweeping panoramas. For a traditional schnitzel experience, the historic landmark Stiftskeller St Peter is the one. In operation since 803, it is the oldest restaurant in Mitteleuropa. L.B.

The Salzburg Festival

Dates: 18 July-30 August
Tickets can be bought directly from the Salzburg Festival website ( from 27 March onwards.
For information about all aspects of Salzburg, contact Salzburgerland Tourist Office (

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