Austria: The ultimate Sound of Music tour of Salzburg

This summer Wandering Kiwi Jr and I fulfilled a dream. We are both huge Sound of Music fans – me from childhood and, well, she is a child – so we decided to indulge our inner von Trapp and experience the ultimate Sound of Music trip to Salzburg.

I’ve been to Salzburg several times before and enjoyed the many delights of this exquisite, cultural Austrian city including Christmas markets and foodie delights. But this time it was all about this legendary film. To my surprise Mr Wandering Kiwi wanted to join us. He is a latecomer to the delights of the Sound of Music but declared himself enough of a fan to want to tour Salzburg… singing.

One thing you need to realise before you embark on the ultimate Sound of Music experience in Salzburg is that Austrians aren’t really that into the Sound of Music. In fact you might notice that local people tend to roll their eyes when you mention the film and grumble about the coach tours blocking traffic.

However, in more recent years Salzburgers have got more on board with the phenomenon and in 2016 there were even a few events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music.

Funnily enough Germans know a lot more about it because there were two German films made a few years before the Rogers and Hammerstein created their Broadway show and Hollywood film.

It’s certainly a fact that people from all over the world come here to experience a little of the magic of the von Trapp story.

A self-guided Sound of Music walking tour

I have outlined my favourite walking tour of Salzburg before but here I will focus on the famous sites used as locations in the film. The best place to start is the Mirabell Gardens and I recommend getting there earlier in the day, before the tourist numbers build up. This where Maria and the children jumped up the steps between the Unicorn statues and tramped around the Pegasus fountain singing “Doh-a-deer etc”.

The Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg

Take a quick side step into the oddly unique Zwerglgarten or ‘Dwarf Garden’, which was created in 1715 by one of Salzburg’s powerful Prince Archbishops. The sculptures were apparently modelled after dwarves who worked as entertainers in the court. Can you find the dwarf statue that the children patted on the head during the Doh-re-mi song?

Dwarf garden Mirabell Salzburg Austria

Next walk return through the gardens to Schwarzstrasse and walk along (or catch a bus) to the Mozart Bridge, a pedestrian bridge across the Salzach River. Remember in the film where the children cross the bridge as they skip off to their picnic?

Mozart Bridge Salzburg Austria

Once you have crossed it’s only a few steps to Mozartplatz and then a few minutes to the cable car up to the Hohenzalzburg Fortress. From the fortress take the path along the Mönchsberg. This ridgeline runs high above the city, with regular views across the beautiful old town, which is of course a Unesco World Heritage Site. Follow the pretty trails through woods to the Museum of Modern Art. The terrace of the M32 restaurant here has a wonderful vantage point for a coffee stop. Maria and the children spent some time looking out from the balcony here.

View from M32 terrace, Salzburg (2)

If you have time catch the lift in the museum down to the town level to see the famous early 17th-century Horse Pond in Herbert von Karajan Square, where paraded horses from the prince-archbishops’ stables used to be washed off and groomed. The children and Maria paraded beside this fountain.

Nearby is the Felsenreitschule or Summer Riding School, which is built into the Mönchsberg itself. This is where the von Trapp family performed at the Salzburg Festival before fleeing from the Nazis. The Felsenreitschule was created in the early 17th century in the space where rock had been quarried to build the cathedral. It has been one of Salzburg’s most important concert venues since 1926. its stage as well as arcades hewn out of the rock. Able to accommodate an audience of as many as 1,437 people, it is one of Salzburg’s most important concert venues. You need to arrange a guided tour to see the 96 arcades of this theatre, unless you attend a performance of course.

Nonnburg Abbey, Salzburg - Maria's convent

Now return the way you have come up the lift and back along the Mönchsberg past the Hohensalzburg  taking the path signposted to Nonnburg. The Nonnberg is a Benedictine monastery that served as Maria’s abbey in the film. Here under the shadow of the castle the outlook is over the city, green woods and fields, and towards the Untersberg town mountain. You can look into the same gates the von Trapp children did when they were asking after Maria.

View of Hohensalzburg from behind

Carry on down Nonnberggasse, past the charming villas and drop down to the grassy parkland below. At the crossroads of this park is a lonely cottage – once the home of the castle executioner. Don’t forget to look behind you … at the view of the magnificent Hohensalzburg Fortress.

Schloss Leopoldskron and Hohensalzburg Castle

On the far side of the park cross the road and follow a path beside a small canal through trees to Schloss Leopoldskron. This rococo palace was built in the late 1730s by a Salzburg Prince-Archbishop. Now it is probably more famous as the von Trapp family house in the movie… but you can’t go in it unless you are something to do with the American educational institution that runs it. However, a wander around the willow-fringed shores of the lake is an idyllic way to spend some time and from the opposite side of the lake you get a great view of the terrace where so many key scenes are set.

Climb every mountain on the Untersberg

You can add this on to your Sound of Music walk through Salzburg or do the trip on a separate day. The Untersberg cable car ferries you up to 2,000 metres – often into the clouds – on Salzburg’s beloved town mountain. The views from the top are dramatic, taking in the lovely city and its surrounding green meadows, craggy mountains and limpid blue lakes.

In the film Maria describes the Untersberg as her home mountain and the final scenes of the von Trapp family escaping over the mountains were filmed here. The opening “Hills are Alive” scenes were filmed on the meadows on the German side of the mountain.

Of course, crossing the Untersberg gets you into Germany rather than Switzerland and the family more sensibly caught the train to Italy and ultimately safety in the United States. But it’s a great finale so I’m not complaining.

Untersberg view Salzburg Austria

We spent a few hours up on top, walking and enjoying the views. Take care of the Untersberg’s sensitve ecosystem by staying on the paths. You can also hike up and/or down the Untersberg but it is a steep climb so make sure the weather conditions are good and wear good hiking boots.

It is easy to get to the village of Grodig, where the Untersberg cable car is situated. Just catch the No. 25 bus from the rail station or as it passes through the city.

The bus also passes Hellbrunn Palace so you could stop there on the way back to see the Trick Fountains and enjoy the beautiful parkland. As well as the famous summer house from the film, near Hellbrunn you can also see the house that was used for the facade shots of the von Trapp mansion in combination with the Leopoldskron terrace. It’s just along the avenue of trees, which also featured in the movie as the children rode their bikes.

Sound of Music tree-lined road Salzburg

Take a Sound of Music bus tour

There are a few different types of Sound of Music coach tour in Salzburg. There is the original Panorama tour, one with Grey Lines, and also a Hop-on-hop-off tour. In some ways it is more satisfying to do your own walking tour of Sound of Music sites, with time to take photographs and get up close to the sights. On the bus it is often just a drive-by experience.

However, I also wanted a bit of ‘cheese’. I wanted singing and laughter and inside information. The best way to get that is on a coach tour. You should note there is a line of small print (in German) on the Panorama advertisement that states there will be singing on this tour. Just so you know what to expect.

I recommend getting there early to make sure you get a good seat. We were glad to be sitting at the front where the energy and sense of fun was riding high! Our guide’s name was Anna but she also answers to “Maria” or “Julie”.

The first half of the tour stopped at or passed various sights and was full of interesting information about the filming, the actors and the original story. There are screens on the bus on which we watched relevant clips from the film as well as some amazing footage of the actual shoot. Particularly the boating scene, but I won’t be a spoiler.

Hellbrun summer house Sound of Music Salzburg

The tour heads out to Hellbrunn Palace to see the summer house that set the scene for Liesl and Rolf’s “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” number and the “Something Good” duet between Maria and Georg von Trapp. It used to be in the grounds of Leopoldskron but was moved out here a few years ago.  If you want to tour the palace and grounds of Hellbrunn properly (highly recommended) you’ll have to visit separately.

One of the big bonuses of doing the coach tour is that it is an easy way to see the beautiful landscape of lakes and mountains outside Salzburg, especially if you have limited time. The tour travels out through the countryside past the gorgeous lakes Fuschl and Mondsee.

St Michael's church Mondsee Sound of Music wedding church Austria

In the lakeside town of Mondsee there is a half-hour stop to enjoy the surroundings and take a look inside the fabulous yellow church of St Michael’s, where the wedding scene was filmed. There are some equally fabulous cafes and bakeries.

Apfel strudel in Austria

I was starting to feel that the tour was a little bit staid but things brightened up significantly in the second half. That’s when the singing started, which really made it for Wandering Kiwi Jr and I. Anna turned out to be an excellent singer and we raised the roof with renditions of our favourite things/songs.

So how did Mr Wandering Kiwi feel about the tour? He wasn’t the only husband/father joining the tour with varying degrees of enthusiasm. He was a bit taken aback to hear the tour is four hours long… But as Anna pointed out, it’s only four hours of your whole life and a happy wife equals a happy life… Sadly, he felt it spoilt his warm feelings about the film to find out all the background information. It shattered the dream a little. Aaawwww!

See the Sound of Music at the Salzburg Marionette Theatre

To cap off your Sound of Music experience in Salzburg, make sure you see a show at the historic Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which has recently been inscribed on the Unesco world heritage list. This beautiful theatre on Schwarzstrasse has a range of productions which bring to mind the ‘Lonely Goatherd’ puppet play in the film and we were lucky enough to see their fabulous production of the Sound of Music.

Until only five years ago the Salzburg Marionette Theatre was guided by the Aicher family, who put on their first show in 1913. That’s 100 years of incredible tradition and artistic expression and the current directors are passionate about carrying their vision of what is truly a unique artistic language.

Salzburg Marionette Theatre in Austria

The performance is in English but there are subtitles on a screen in several different languages. In the lobby are displays of puppets and scenes from past performances and if you get a chance have a look at the Marionette Museum in the Hohensalzberg Fortress, where the theatre regularly sends puppets for display. These handmade works of art are created in workshops right here in the theatre.

Sound of Music Marionette Museum Hohensalzburg Salzburg

I loved it that at the end of the show the curtains fall back to reveal the puppeteers above the stage, looking strangely enormous and quite exhausted from their efforts (although still smiling). It is incredible to think of all the skill and sweat that go into this quality marionette theatre.

The Salzburg Marrionette Theatre offers a wonderful mix of child-like fairytale with a proper (grown-up) theatre experience and I hope that combination continues to share its wisdom for hundreds of years to come. I recommend getting a little dressed up and making a special night of it.

Buy a Salzburg Card

City discount cards are not always worthwhile but because everything in Salzburg is quite close and easy to get to, you do end up using the Salzburg Card a lot. It’s easy to order online or pick up at the tourist information office in Mozartplatz.

The Wandering Kiwi family used it for the Untersberg cable car (as well as the bus to the base station), The Hohensalzberg Fortress (and the funicular up the hill), Hellbrunn Palace (and the bus there and back), the Mozart House, the Modern Art Museum,as well as a few other random bus rides that saved tired little legs during our time in Salzburg. The card also got us a 10% discount on the Panorama Sound of Music tour (this isn’t official but ask) and part of the bus fare to Lake Fuschl.

A quick calculation shows that we would have spent a total of at least 100 Euros per adult on the above, whereas the 72-hour Salzburg card only cost 42 Euros. That’s a no-brainer.

We could probably have fitted in a few more included attractions but we were too busy singing!

Now go and watch the film again and be inspired to visit beautiful Salzburg!

By Natasha von Geldern

For more tips on visiting Salzburg and its beautiful surrounds read my other posts:

Top places to eat and drink in Salzburg

A Walking Tour of Salzburg

A Beautiful Day Trip from Salzburg

A Ski Holiday in Zell am See

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The Ultimate Sound of Music Guide to Salzburg Austria

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