While researching things to do around Munich during my first visit there last year, I stumbled across the day tours section on Viator and found a bus tour to Salzburg. Being from an archipelago, it’s alien to me to be able to drive across a border to another country, so I figured this was something I needed to experience.
Our tour bus departed from the front of Karstadt Department Store across the train station, and our guide was an Austrian with a wry sense of humor. He did his best to disabuse us of the notion that we were on a Sound of Music tour, since Salzburg is best-known as the setting for the film and the former home of the von Trapp Family Singers. The funny thing is, I wasn’t really looking to commemorate the film with my visit. I just wanted to add another country to my list of places visited, and Austria was pretty convenient.
Funny thing about the coach day tour: our tour guide was not allowed to conduct a tour of Salzburg. Instead, we walked from where our bus was parked into the Old Town where we would be left free to wander for ourselves or join the official tours offered there. I think we had about two hours there before we would gather to head to the Salzkammergut, or the Lake District.
The Hohensalzburg is an imposing presence on the skyline of the Old Town. One of the largest fortresses in Europe, it holds the distinction of never having been conquered. Well, pretty hard to charge the gates when most mere mortals need to take a tram up nowadays.
Mozartplatz was our meeting place. I was a solo tourist and didn’t have any data access to maps on my phone, so I tried my best to remember which direction it was as I made my way deeper into the Old Town.
I walked into the Salzburg Cathedral, the exterior of which was featured in The Sound of Music as the church where Captain and Maria von Trapp were married. (The interiors were replicated on a sound stage: shooting in the actual church would cause damage to the paintings because of the lighting needed.) At some point I wanted to lie down on the floor so I could stare up at the ornate ceilings without hurting my neck. I wanted to appreciate the frescoes some more, but time was ticking away and I only had another hour and a half to see the rest of the Old Town.
I took a different door to exit and allowed my feet to take me wherever. I somehow wandered into the abbey and cemetery. Such a peaceful place, haha! But seriously, I had the place all to myself for a few minutes before some tourists followed me in.
I always have this mental image of old cemeteries as full of crumbling ruins and tombstones. This one felt more like a garden and getaway and only the crosses gave it away.
I exited the abbey and found myself finally lost. Instead of retracing my steps, I turned right and kept walking. I used the Hohensalzburg Castle as my visual touchstone. As long as it was to my right and I wasn’t moving further away, I would eventually find my way back to Mozartplatz.
While I ended up not participating in any guided tours of the Old Town or its various museums and galleries, it was so much fun wandering the streets and trying to take good photos.
Eventually I found myself on the banks of the Salzach River which separates the Old Town from the rest of Salzburg city proper. Being a hot summer day I found many people strolling along its banks or riding their bikes.
The tour guide had told us that Mirabell Palace lay on the other side of the river. I was tempted to cross the bridge, but I checked the time and I only had an hour left. I still hadn’t had lunch! So I turned around and went back into the Old Town looking for some place to eat.
There are food carts spread through the streets selling bread and sausages, but I wanted to sit down for a bit. I briefly considered going into a brauhaus or a sit-down restaurant, but dismissed the notion as it might take too long for the food to arrive at my table.
I finally found a food stall that had some seating, so I ordered the most Austrian thing I could think of from their menu. The stall was manned by a semi-grouchy, semi-cheery man who pulled triple duty as cook, cashier, and bus boy. The wait time was rewarded by the most flavorful, light and crunchy schnitzel I’d ever had.
I asked for this to go, as I still had to find my way back to the meeting place. Thankfully my internal compass was working properly and well-oriented because I was one of the first few people back. We returned to our bus bay and continued on the day tour toward the Lake District (Salzkammergut).
Way back when, this part of Europe had been covered by glacier ice. The end of that ice age saw the glaciers retreat only to leave a total of 76 lakes all over the countryside stretching from Salzburg eastward to the Alps. Our drive took us past a few of these lakes, as well as the global headquarters of Red Bull.
Wolfgangsee is one of the best-known lakes and a popular resort destination. The towns of Strobl, St. Gilgen, and St. Wolfgang are built right on the water’s edge here and the lake is open to the public for all sorts of water sports. Our bus let us off in St. Wolfgang where we would take a cruise that crossed the lake towards St. Gilgen, where the bus would be waiting for us.
For all our guide’s protests that this wasn’t a Sound of Music tour we were on, guess what the soundtrack playing on the boat was? Yes, Julie Andrews serenaded us throughout that 30-minute ride.
I had never been on such a large body of fresh water before. The water was so clear — and apparently potable! These glacier lakes have been around for quite a while but will dry up in a few centuries, as many glacier lakes all over the world have before.
Apparently for most of the year it’s too cold to swim in the lakes, but given the ongoing heat wave in Europe the temps were probably just right for a refreshing dip!
The sheer limestone cliffs in the Lake District are also well-known to mountaineers, with some of them closed to all but the most experienced climbers. Me? I was content to look up at them from the window of my tour bus.
In all it felt like quite a rushed trip. I would have loved to spend more time in Salzburg itself, then maybe take a holiday in one of the Lake District’s resort towns with friends. I guess that’s what a day tour is for: to give you a taste of something that you’ll hopefully want to return to for more.