Salzburg’s Hohensalzburg Fortress

One of Europe’s mightiest castles, this fortress dominates Salzburg’s skyline

Salzburg Hohensalzburg
After a stint as a military barracks, Hohensalzburg Fortress was opened to the public in the 1860s by Emperor Franz Josef. Gretchen Strauch / Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

Built on a rock (called Festungsberg) 400 feet above the Salzach River, this fortress was never really used. That’s the idea. It was a good investment--so foreboding, nobody attacked the town for a thousand years. The city was never taken by force, but when Napoleon stopped by, Salzburg wisely surrendered. After a stint as a military barracks, the fortress was opened to the public in the 1860s by Emperor Franz Josef. Today, it remains one of Europe’s mightiest castles, dominating Salzburg’s skyline and offering incredible views.

Cost: Your daytime funicular ticket includes admission to the fortress grounds and all the museums inside--whether you want to see them or not (€10.50, €24.50 family ticket). Save money by walking up--the climb is much easier than it looks, and the views are fantastic. From the top you can opt to see the museums for €7, but many visitors are content to simply take in the grounds and views (free if you’ve walked up). If you’d rather take the funicular but want to skip the museums, head up the hill in the evening (within one hour of the museum’s closing time, it’s €6 one-way/€7.50 round-trip for funicular and entry to castle grounds; after closing time, the funicular is €3.60 round-trip).

Hours: The complex is open daily year-round (May–Sept 9:00–19:00, Oct–April 9:30–17:00, last entry 30 min before closing, tel. 0662/8424-3011). On nights when there’s a concert, the castle grounds are free and open after the museum closes until 21:30.

Orientation: The fortress visit has three parts: a relatively dull courtyard with some fine views from its various ramparts; the fortress itself (with a required and escorted 45-min audiotour); and the palace museum (by far the best exhibit of the lot). At the bottom of the funicular, you’ll pass through an interesting little exhibit on the town’s canal system.

Self-Guided Tour: From the top of the funicular, head to your right and down the stairs to bask in the view, either from the café or the view terrace a little farther along. Once you’re done snapping photos, walk through to the castle grounds and go left, following the path up and around to reach the inner courtyard (labeled Inneres Schloß). Immediately inside, circling to the right (clockwise), you’ll encounter cannons (still poised to defend Salzburg against an Ottoman invasion), the marionette exhibit, the palace museum, the Kuenburg bastion, scant ruins of a Romanesque church, the courtyard (with path down for those walking), toilets, shops, a restaurant, and the fortress tour.

Begin at the...

Marionette Exhibit: Several fun rooms show off this local tradition, with three videos playing continuously: two with peeks at Salzburg’s ever-enchanting Marionette Theater performances of Mozart classics, and one with a behind-the-scenes look at the action. Give the hands-on marionette a whirl.

Hiking through the former palace, you’ll find the sight’s best exhibits at the...

Palace Museum (Festungsmuseum Carolino Augusteum): The second floor has exhibits on castle life, from music to torture. The top floor shows off fancy royal apartments, a sneak preview of the room used for the nightly fortress concerts, and the Rainier military museum, dedicated to the Salzburg regiments that fought in both World Wars.

Castle Courtyard: The courtyard was the main square of the castle residents, a community of a thousand--which could be self-sufficient when necessary. The square was ringed by the shops of craftsmen, blacksmiths, bakers, and so on. The well dipped into a rain-fed cistern. The church is dedicated to St. George, the protector of horses (logical for an army church) and decorated by fine red marble reliefs (c. 1502). Behind the church is the top of the old lift that helped supply the fortress. (From near here, steps lead back into the city, or to the mountaintop “Mönchsberg Walk,” described later in this section.) You’ll also see the remains of a Romanesque chapel, which are well-described.

Near the chapel, turn left into the Kuenburg Bastion (once a garden) for fine city and castle views.

Kuenburg Bastion: Notice how the castle has three parts: the original castle inside the courtyard, the vast whitewashed walls (built when the castle was a residence), and the lower, beefed-up fortifications (added for extra defense against the expected Ottoman invasion). Survey Salzburg from here and think about fortifying an important city by using nature. Mönchsberg (the cliffs to the left) and Festungsberg (the little mountain you’re on) naturally cradle the old town, with just a small gate between the ridge and the river needed to bottle up the place. The new town across the river needed a bit of a wall arcing from the river to its hill. Back then, only one bridge crossed the Salzach into town, and it had a fortified gate.

Back inside the castle courtyard, continue your circle. The Round Tower (1497) helps you visualize the inner original castle.

Fortress Interior: Tourists are allowed in this part of the fortified palace only with an escort. (They say that’s for security, though while touring it, you wonder what they’re protecting.) A crowd assembles at the turnstile, and every quarter-hour 40 people are issued their audioguides and let in for the escorted walk. You’ll go one room at a time, listening to a 45-minute commentary. While the interior furnishings are mostly gone--taken by Napoleon--the rooms survived as well as they did because no one wanted to live here after 1500, so the building was never modernized. Your tour includes a room dedicated to the art of “excruciating questioning” (“softening up” prisoners, in current American military jargon)--filled with tools of that gruesome trade. The highlight is the commanding city view from the top of a tower.

For all the details on Salzburg, please see Rick Steves’ Vienna, Salzburg & Tirol.

Excerpted from Rick Steves’ Vienna, Salzburg & Tirol.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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