Things to Do in Austrian Alps
Perched on its craggy mountain lookout, Salzburg’s famous castle, Festung Hohensalzburg, dominates the city and its Old Town. Surrounded by walls and dotted with towers and battlements, Festung Hohensalzburg is one of the largest and best preserved castles in Europe.
The fortified castle was built in 1077, from its lofty position protecting Salzburg, with cracking views of the surrounding countryside. Take a guided tour around the palatial state rooms, Gothic torture chambers, lookouts and museum collections. Keep an eye out for more than 50 examples of the castle’s symbol, a regal lion holding a beetroot – or is it a turnip?
Lovely Salzburg’s enchanting medieval heart lies along the southern bank of the Salzach River; the Aldstadt is an enclave of winding cobbled alleyways, airy piazzas and many fine Baroque churches.
The wealth of Salzburg originated in the 14th century when it became an independent principality ruled by powerful prince-bishops, and thanks to its glorious architecture it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The Old Town’s many highlights include the massive Baroque Salzburg Residenz (Prince-Bishops’ Palace) in Residenzplatz and the landmark Dom (cathedral), majestically gilded inside and with a dramatic Baroque façade rearing up over Domplatz. St Peter’s Abbey is a Benedictine monastery with a fine, frothy rococo interior and a gastronomic treat in its cellars; Stiftskeller St Peter is one of Salzburg’s oldest restaurants.
Fun fountains and Baroque style are the attraction at Hellbrunn Castle, or Schloss Hellbrun, on Salzburg’s doorstep. The palace was built in 1619 as a summer residence for Salzburg’s Archbishop, and the gardens are filled with ingenious landscaping, featuring trick waterworks. Visit on a warm day when you don’t mind getting wet!
Highlights of the water park include the outdoor dining table with jets of water shooting from diners’ seats, a water-operated theater, Gothic grottoes, splendid statues and colonnaded promenades.
Nonnberg Abbey is a Benedictine nunnery with a landmark spire in the center of Salzburg and is perhaps best known throughout the world as the home of the troublesome novice nun Maria in The Sound of Music, the magical movie that celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015. The nunnery sits tucked under the Hohensalzburg Fortress and was founded somewhere around 715 AD; it is the oldest constantly inhabited convent in Europe and its complex of buildings consists of the abbey, convent, chapels, church, cloisters and refectory, all built in a charming jumble of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles.
Nonnberg’s main church of Maria Himmelfahrt is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is Gothic in style, adorned with gleaming stained-glass windows and a series of biblically themed paintings. Largely rebuilt after a fire in 1423, the church nevertheless retains fragments of its original Byzantine and Romanesque frescoes in the choir.
Salzburg’s Cathedral, or Dom, is a restrained exercise in classic Italian Baroque, topped with green bronze domes. Mozart was baptized here, and the building was completed in 1628.
Highlights include the light-filled atrium and dome, the crypt with its Romanesque foundations and tombs, and the statues of angels surrounding the altar. The Cathedral Museum tells the history of the Cathedral’s construction and artworks.
On the outskirts of Innsbruck, the slopes at Bergisel have been the home of Tyrolean ski jumping competitions since 1927. To celebrate this, British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid designed a towering ski jump stadium, which was completed in 2002 and can seat 28,000 people. In 2008 Pope John Paul II gave Mass here and it has quickly became a year-round Innsbruck attraction as it soars 820 feet (250 meters) above the city and offers superb views over the Inn Valley and surrounding Alps.
The Tyrol Panorama, featuring a massive, century-old painting of the heroic Tyrolean revolt against Napoleon, is found at the foot of the sculptural stadium. From here, the top of the tower rises to 165 feet (50 meters) and is reached by funicular – or 455 steep steps – plus elevator. Here you’ll be rewarded with 360° views over the city and coffee and cakes in the Panorama Restaurant.
More Things to Do in Austrian Alps
Mozart lived in the Tanzmeisterhaus with his family from 1773 to 1780. The eight-room apartment was a big step up for the family from the crowded lodgings on medieval Getreidegasse.
The house was built in 1617, and has been totally rebuilt and renovated to return its appearance to that of Mozart’s era. Mozart composed many of his masterpieces in this house, and a visit to his home provides a glimpse into the life of the musical genius. Entertaining and informative displays trace Mozart’s many journeys and his links to Salzburg.
Salzburg’s superb museum of modern Austrian art comes as a contemporary change after the city’s relentless Baroque charm. It has two branches: the MDM Rupertinum and the MDM Mönchsberg. The latter perches above the city on the rocky crag of Mönchsberg, one of five steep hills that form part of the city’s skyline; it was designed by Munich architects Friedrich Hoff Zwink following a competition launched in 1998 and has a series of light-filled, airy galleries tucked behind its ultra-modern white-marble façade. The four-floor museum opened in 2004 and holds exhibitions of contemporary painting, installations and temporary exhibitions from contemporary Austrian artists as well as open-air displays on the surrounding terraces. The neo-Gothic 19th-century Amalie Redlich Water Tower that stands next to MDM Mönchsberg has been incorporated into the gallery and hosts workshops and other events.
Innsbruck’s iconic Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) is found on Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse, the main square in Innsbruck’s charming Gothic and Baroque Altstadt (Old Town). The three-story, gold-topped balcony is tacked on the Neuhof (New Court), which was built by Archduke Friedrich IV in the early 15th century as a residence fit for kings. The Golden Roof was constructed in 1500 at the behest of Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I in celebration of his second dynastic marriage, this time to Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan. The roof glitters with 2,657 sparkling gilded copper tiles, apparently placed there to confound rumors that the Imperial Family was running out of money.
Intricate carved wooden reliefs and frescoes painted on to the balcony show the emperor’s many coats of arms, and his likeness alongside that of both his wives. The structure also provided Maximilian I with an appropriately regal spot from which to observe tournaments and festivals in the square beneath.
Two museums in Salzburg celebrate the life of genius composer and child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Born in the city on January 27, 1756, he grew up in two different houses before turning his back on the city in preference for the bright lights of Vienna and beyond. Both are now museums.
The Mozart Geburtshaus (Mozart’s Birthplace) is located on Getreidegasse, the smartest street in Salzburg’s enticing Aldstadt. The massive townhouse itself dates from the 12th century, but by the 1750s it was divided into apartment and the Mozart family were crammed onto one floor. Mozart’s family lived in this surprisingly humble abode for 26 years before their precocious son hit the big time and started earning good money. This museum has recently has something of an overhaul and is much improved; the exhibition highlighting Mozart’s early life stretches over three floors and incorporates period furniture as well as the clavichord on which he composed The Magic Flute.
Lose yourself in medieval-era Salzburg on a stroll through Getreidegasse. The atmospheric laneway is lined with upmarket boutiques and shops.
Getreidegasse is as historic as it is pretty. Harking back to Roman days, the thoroughfare has always been the city’s high street, connecting Salzburg to Bavaria. The street is lined with beautiful medieval and Baroque buildings, built by rich merchants over the centuries. It was in one of these buildings that Mozart was born in 1756.
In the heart of Salzburg’s Old Town, St. Peter’s Abbey (or Stift Sankt Peter) is known for its cemetery and ancient lineage, dating back to the 800s. The Benedictine monastery’s abbey church has a Romanesque structure and lavish rococo interior.
The abbey library is a treasure trove of musical manuscripts, and the abbey also houses a prized collection of artworks, musical instruments and treasures. In the abbey cemetery lie the tombs of Mozart’s beloved sister and the brother of Haydn. While you’re here, visit the Stiftskeller St. Peter restaurant, in the abbey cellars. Mentioned in a document from the year 803, it is thought to be one of the oldest hostelries in Europe and is an atmospheric choice for a night out in Salzburg.
Innsbruck’s regal Gothic Hofkirche (Court Church) forms part of a complex with the Hofburg Imperial Palace in the Altstadt (Old Town). It was constructed by the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I in 1563 in memory of his grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, whose elaborate marble tomb dominates the church’s central aisle and is a masterpiece of intricate German Renaissance sculpture. His (empty) sarcophagus depicts Maximilian kneeling in prayer and is flanked by 28 life-size bronze figures of his forefathers, family, and literary figures, including a statue of King Arthur by Albrecht Dürer.
Also buried in the Hofkirche, just left of the entrance, is Tyrolean Resistance hero Andreas Hofer, who fought against Napoleon and was eventually executed in 1810 in Mantua, Italy. Other highlights of the church include the ornately carved wooden pews and pulpit; Jörg Ebert’s gilded organ, and the Silver Chapel, so-named for the silver statue of the Virgin Mary.
Although still standing on the site of the original medieval castle, which was in place by 1463, today’s majestic Imperial Habsburg Palace has undergone several transformations over the centuries, reflecting Innsbruck’s own political fortunes. The first Gothic castle was extended by Emperor Maximilian I between 1495 and 1519, and was subsequently given a Renaissance makeover in the 1560s. With the transition of political power to Vienna after the Thirty Years War, Innsbruck and the Hofburg lost importance; it was not until the 1750s that Empress Maria Theresa revived the fortunes of this great palace and gave it a glorious Baroque and Rococo facelift.
The palace offers a series of 25 ornate Imperial Apartments open to the public, from the Guard Room and the Giant’s Hall, both smothered with great paintings depicting the history of the Habsburgs, to the Furniture Gallery with its elegant examples of Biedermeier styling.
The state-of-the-art funicular railway connecting Innsbruck with its hilly suburb of Hungerburg was opened in 2007. This futuristic cable railway is the work of British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who was also responsible for the Ski Jump Stadium at Bergisel, and it provides the first link in the journey from the Congress Centre right up to the slopes of Hafelekar, which are as high as 7,545 feet (2,300 meters), in under half an hour. The glittering Hungerburgbahn terminus at Congress strongly resembles the spaceship in Star Trek. On exiting the station, the funicular train crosses the River Inn before ascending 1.15 miles (1,838 meters) into the alpine foothills on the Hungerburg plateau. There are two stations on the line, including a stop at the Alpenzoo Innsbruck, Europe’s highest zoo. From Hungerburg skiers, boarders and hikers can catch the Nordkettenbahnen cable car up to Seegrube, with panoramic views of the peaks in the Inn valley and Zillertal Alps from the gondolas.
Things to do near Austrian Alps
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