Austria’s mountain treasure can be fun even on a backpacker budget
For two cities that seem to have so much in common – beautiful architecture, a wonderful classical music tradition and a magnificent historic old town – Salzburg and Prague are two of the least connected cities in Europe. Despite their monarchic union for more than 50 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prague and Salzburg have historically shared relatively little between them. But at just over 300 kilometers apart, Salzburg and Prague aren’t far from each other physically, and the northern Alpine nook makes for a perfect weekend trip.
Traditionally, Salzburg has been seen as an affluent destination, and while it still boasts the über-posh stores and up-market restaurants that only the truly upwardly mobile can afford, there is also a down-to-earth side to Salzburg, and its air of confident gentility makes it a relaxing destination for even the most humble of flashpackers.
Unfortunately, train links between the two are convoluted, requiring at least one transfer, and the trains themselves are slow, taking upward of seven hours.
With even two people splitting the cost, renting a car is a good way to avert the pricy and rather untimely train journey from Prague to Salzburg and also offers the chance to explore some lesser-known towns and countryside along the way. A number of major international car-hire companies operate out of Prague Ruzyně Airport, including Thrifty Car Rentals, which offers the speedy, reliable little Volkswagen Polo for around 25 euros a day, making a three-day journey top out at 85 euros, including VAT. You’ll want to factor in petrol costs, too, which come to about 75 euros for the entire journey.
What’s a road trip without a few detours and unplanned stops, right? Luckily, there are several fantastic places to check out along the way that won’t take more than a few hours to explore.
The entire medieval town of Český Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its meandering cobblestone streets are lined on both sides with delightful pastel facades that burst forth with cute shops peddling folk trinkets, puppets, decorative items and other Bohemian pleasures. The persistence of tourism here means restaurants stay open year-round, making it a great lunchtime stop. For example, Na Ostrově (Na Ostrově 71; tel. 380 727 708; Naostroveck.cz) is a sweet little pension and grill that does traditional Czech set lunches for a very reasonable 6 euros per person.
Just south of the Czech-Austrian border, the village of Freistadt boasts one of the most well-preserved medieval old towns in the region. Complete with circular stone watch towers and surrounded by a defunct moat, as you walk across the tipsy wooden bridges, you feel like you’re walking back in time.
Not requiring more than an hour or two to peruse the entire place, Freistadt is a picture-perfect collection of neat stone streets and medieval storefronts and houses. The town closes up a fair bit during winter, but is teaming with tourists during the summer. Be sure to check out Schloss Freistadt Castle, just off the main Hauptplatz, and grab a bite to eat in Foxi’s Schlosstaverne (Hauptplatz 11; tel. +43 7942 73930; Foxi-schlosstaverne.at), a quaint tavern with a slightly dated feel marked by crooked photos and smoke-stained lamps where lunch won’t run you more than about 8 euros, including a half-liter of the very tasty local Freistädter beer.
Budget chic is the story at this very reasonably priced design hotel. Located on the west side of Salzburg, the Snooze Hotel looks and feels a lot like a hostel reconverted to low-budget boutique hotel, with plenty of minimalist IKEA-like furnishings that create a nicer-than-average atmosphere topped off by the cutely modernist uneven facades of the hotel’s exterior. With double rooms starting at just 69 euros, Snooze Hotel is the perfect price for shabby-stylish post-backpackers, and they even have free parking for your rental car.
Dining is Salzburg represents one of the biggest expenses here, but if you weed through the myriad four-star restaurants aimed at tour groups, you’ll find some downright tasty and deliciously cheap food options. For example, you absolutely must indulge in a bratwurst, as no trip to Austria would be complete without sampling a fresh sausage. Street sausages aren’t hard to find in Salzburg and run a mere 2.50 euros for two frankfurters and a fresh crusty roll (don’t forget the mustard!). The best place to find a variety of sausage stands is in Universitätsplatz in Old Town, and here you’ll also be able to score pretzels and other Austrian delights, and if you come on a weekend morning, you can partake in the local farmer’s market and grab some fresh produce for cheap.
Coming from Prague, you’ll be glad to skip the overpriced goulash and other Central European dishes on offer in most of Salzburg’s restaurants. A cheaper option is the charmingly tawdry Yuen China Restaurant (Getreidegasse 24; tel. +43 6628 43770), which offers a modest but tasty dinner buffet for the pleasant price of only 9 euros, for which you can dine by candlelight flickering off of mirrors stained in scenes of bamboo forests.
Breakfast is always a killer when you’re traveling. Luckily, Salzburg has an excellent answer: Afro Café (Bürgerspitalplatz 5; tel. +43 662 844888; www.afrocoffee.com). The neon pink, yellow and orange interior of this place is sure to wake you up, aided by strong coffee and hearty breakfasts. The lavish combos look delicious, but if you’re sticking to a budget, their a la carte items won’t top 6 euros, including drinks.
As a city geared toward the rich and famous, Salzburg is surprisingly lacking in good watering holes, so if a night of soggy Guinness in the local Irish bar doesn’t entice, there is only one place to go: Bräustübl Tavern (Lindhofstraße 7; tel. +43 662 431246; Augustinerbier.at). This, Austria’s largest beer hall, is located inside the Augustiner Bräu Kloster, a historic hilltop monastery where early Bavarian monks have been brewing beer since the 1600s.
Beer is poured right out of wooden casks into your plain stein, and seating is offered in one of several massive German-style beer halls with wooden chairs and tables, while an adjacent corridor offers a number of traditional snacks, from roasted chickens to pretzels and other beer complementing foods. Or, if you’re feeling super cheap, picnicking is perfectly welcomed. Brews rotate depending on what is currently available, but usually at least two are offered for a mere 2.50 euros a half-liter. Just be sure to get there early, as seats fill up surprisingly quickly.
As such a remarkably laid-back and small city, Salzburg’s sights are somewhat limited, making it the perfect getaway for a short trip. To boot, many of the sights are open for free, such as Mirabell Palace and Gardens, built by an Austrian prince in 1606 for the woman he loved. Pathways wind around bright green lawns flanked by several gorgeous marble frescos, and a rose garden at one end is beautiful in summer. Just around the corner, the Andräkirche (Church of St. Andrew) is a Gothic-style cathedral originally built in another part of Salzburg and relocated to its current location behind Mirabell in the 1890s.
The best way to discover Salzburg, though, is simply by wandering around the city. You won’t do wrong by strolling up and down Getreidegasse (home to the overrated Mozart birthplace), a lane in Old Town made famous by the ornate gilded, wrought-iron signs that hang above the street. And, of course, an evening stroll along the Salzach River, enjoying the illuminated spires and looming presence of the Festung Hohensalzburg watching over the city, is a romantic and beautiful way to round out any trip to this heavenly little city.