Words by Julie Miller
Whoever thought Christmas in a winter wonderland could be so terrifying? I’m on the cobbled streets of Salzburg’s World Heritage-listed Altstadt, which is ablaze with fairy lights and filled with the dulcet tones of Christmas carols, being chased by a whip-wielding, cloven-hoofed demon named Krampus.
But this horned, hairy creature – in Austrian folklore, St Nicholas’ traditional sidekick
who punishes naughty children – is clearly a millennial at heart. After growling at me
and shaking his chains, he obliges with a selfie before making his fearsome way through the crowds, slapping cheeky children on the bottom as he passes.
The Krampus Run, held on 05 December and featuring men wearing costumes from a local workshop, adds to the fantasy of Yuletide celebrations in Salzburg. This is arguably the most magical time of year to visit the baroque city, which straddles the banks of the Salzach River, close to the border of Germany.
As evening descends on the snow-dusted city, pop-up Christmas markets illuminated by festoon lights sell handmade Christmas decorations, wreaths, wooden toys and gingerbread hearts. Meanwhile, revellers rugged up in winter woollies congregate outside stalls selling mugs of steaming glühwein and Jägermeister-spiked tea, snacking on raclette, sausages and
The most popular of Salzburg’s Christmas markets is the Christkindlmarkt, held outside the Cathedral on Domplatz and Residenzplatz squares. More than 500 years old, this market features about 100 stalls as well as choral concerts and visits by the Christkind (Christ child), the traditional, cherubic gift-bringer in Austria.
Other Christmas markets are held in the courtyard of the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which looms over the city, at the lovely Schloss Hellbrunn on the outskirts of town, and in Oberndorf, where the beloved Christmas carol Silent Night was first performed over 200 years ago.
It’s Christmas year-round in Salzburg’s illuminating Christmas Museum, located on Mozart Square. Showcasing memorabilia dating from 1840 to 1940, this intricate display of tree ornaments, nativity scenes, nutcrackers and Advent calendars is the lifetime obsession of Ursula Kloiber, who founded the museum with her grandmother’s Christmas decorations.
A journey into childhood whimsy, this collection also offers a fascinating glimpse into traditions past. Early tree baubles, for instance, were tiny wire and cardboard replicas of everyday items such as prams, bicycles and sleighs, while during World War I, battleships, rifles and metal soldiers dangled from evergreen branches.
The museum also documents the darker side of a Bavarian Christmas, with creepy statues and sketches of Krampus hauling children in a sack – the stuff of childhood nightmares. All the more reason to be nice and not naughty!
For a less confronting exploration of seasonal fantasy, Salzburg’s Winterfest celebrates the art of contemporary circus, luring the world’s best acrobats, clowns and performance artists to several big tops in the city’s romantic, fairy-lit Volksgarten.
Founded in 2001, Winterfest is the third-largest cultural event in the city, with the top gong going to the summertime Salzburg Festival. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, this festival of music and theatre invites leading performers and artists from around the world, fulfilling its founding fathers’ desire to “turn the whole city into a stage”.
“Our Salzburg Festival Hall should be a symbol,” wrote Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1917, arguing for a festival in Salzburg to promote peace during World War I.
“It is not the founding of a theatre, nor the project of a few whimsical dreamers, nor
a local issue for a provincial town. It is a matter of European culture. And of eminent political, economic and social importance.”
The festival’s first performance, on 22 August, 1920, was of Hofmannsthal’s medieval murder mystery, Jedermann.
A century later, that play continues to take pride of place, performed annually alongside at least one opera by Salzburg’s favourite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as an array of new productions.
To celebrate its milestone birthday, the 2020 Salzburg Festival will feature about 200 theatrical and musical performances over 43 days, with the history of the festival documented in a special exhibition at the Salzburg Museum.
Average Flight Time
SYD-VIE: 21 hrs 55 mins
BNE-VIE: 33 hrs 5 mins (via Dubai)
MEL-VIE: 22 hrs 20 mins (via BKK)
From Vienna, Salzburg is a 2 hr 40 min train ride.
AEST-8 (8 hrs behind Australia)
Austria's currency is the Euro (€)
German is the official language of Austria. Most people in Salzburg speak an Austro-Bavarian dialect.
Best time to visit
December is the most beautiful month in Salzburg, when the town comes alive with seasonal festivities. The autumn months of September and October are also a good time to visit, when summer crowds disperse.
Tasty treats are a highlight of Salzburg’s Christmas markets. Warm up with a mug of glühwein and freshly roasted chestnuts.
A busy shopping strip in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Aldstadt, this cobbled, pedestrian-only street is also the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born at No. 9.
2. FORTRESS HOHENSALZBURG
Visible from most parts of Salzburg, this 11th century fortress is accessible by a funicular railway, and features several museums as well as chambers decorated with original furniture.
3. SOUND OF MUSIC
Salzburg will forever be associated with the ebullient 1965 musical, The Sound of Music, which was filmed around the city. Follow in the footsteps of the Von Trapp children on a self-guided tour of movie locations, such as Mirabell Gardens, St Peter’s Monastery and Residenzplatz.
4. SCHLOSS HELLBRUNN
A charming pleasure palace built on the outskirts of Salzburg in 1615, Schloss Hellbrunn is famous for its gardens and grottos. Don’t miss the winter Advent festival.
5. CAFÉ TOMASELLI
Established in 1700 and run by the Tomaselli family since 1852, this is the oldest coffee house in Austria. The warm, wood-panelled interior is particularly inviting when it’s cold outside, perfect for sampling delicious tortes and the famous Einspänner (coffee with whipped cream).