On Mönchsberg, Find Respite From the Salzburg Festival Fray

Posted July 17, 2018 4:24 p.m. EDT

Any visitor to Salzburg has looked up and seen the Mönchsberg, the massive rock in the middle of this elegant Alpine city. Looming nearly 1,700 feet above the Salzburg Festival complex at its base and running the entire length of the Altstadt, or Old Town (almost a mile), this minimountain provides a literal and figurative backdrop for the world famous showcase for classical music, theater and opera, which has been going strong since 1920.

— Tunnel Fun

For many festivalgoers, however, their main experience with the Mönchsberg is the network of tunnels through the mountain that link the theaters that lie beneath the cliff and lead to the subterranean parking garage or the Felsenreitschule, the Salzburg Festival’s most distinctive venue, a 17th-century imperial riding school hewed into the cliff. (At this summer’s festival, it will host staged opera productions of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and Hans Werner Henze’s “The Bassarids.”)

While the bustling Altstadt — with its endless charms, and the less-hectic pedestrian zone across the river leading to the Mirabell Gardens — can easily sustain your interest, a climb out of the lowlands to the refreshing heights of the Mönchsberg is well worth your while.

Beyond the Hohensalzburg Fortress, a visit to which can easily take up half a day, the Mönchsberg offers a unique blend of nature, spectacular views, art and culinary attractions.

— Upward

There are several ways to scale the Mönchsberg, starting with the Festungsbahn, the century-old funicular that picks up, for a fee, behind the Petersfriedhof (St. Peter’s cemetery), with its centuries-old gravestones, adorned with wrought iron crosses.

Before boarding, you can pick up some leavened provisions at the nearby Stiftsbäckerei St. Peter, Salzburg’s oldest bakery, whose wood oven has been baking crispy sourdough bread since the 12th century. The entrance, down a few steps, can be difficult to spot. Just look for the wooden flour mill, a contemporary replica of the medieval original.

For those who prefer to walk, a direct, if somewhat arduous, path up the Mönchsberg is back through the festival complex, via the Clemens-Holzmeister-Stiege, several steep flights of stairs at the end of the Toscaninihof, a small street adjacent to the Felsenreitschule named for the Italian conductor who enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the festival. On your ascent, you will pass the Stefan Zweig Center, an academic research institute for literature and art that houses an exhibit on the great Viennese-Jewish writer, who lived in Salzburg between 1919 and 1934.

The uphill struggle pays off once you have made it to the verdant wooded paths at the top. One could easily spend an afternoon here, exploring the shaded mountain paths, admiring the stately villas or relaxing on the benches at the western flank of the Mönchsberg that look out over the Alps.

— The Views

The Richterhöhe, the ruins of a former lookout post on the mountain’s southern tip, offers an uncommon perspective of the fortress. Turning back on the eastern side of the Mönchsberg, there are impressive views of the Altstadt that lies directly below. The gorgelike lookout point above the Neutor, an 18th-century tunnel through the mountain, with its precipitous drop to the street below, is especially vertigo-inducing.

A few minutes’ walk to the north and you arrive at Stadtalm, a rustic and surprisingly affordable restaurant, cafe and hostel housed in an old mountaineers’ lodge next to a remnant of Salzburg’s medieval wall. Sit outside and take in the panoramic views of both banks of the Salzach while enjoying regional specialties like knödel, bread dumplings, usually filled with cheese or meat, often served in soup or as a side to hearty dishes like schweinsbraten (pork roast) or beef goulash. Wash it all down with a freshly tapped pint of Wieninger beer from nearby Teisendorf, just over the border in Germany.

Return to the Mönchsberg path and it is a two-minute amble to Salzburg’s sophisticated Museum der Moderne. On the site where Maria and the von Trapp kids memorably warbled through their music lesson (“Doe, a deer”), you can bask in 20th-century and contemporary art. The Munich-based architect Friedrich Hoff Zwink designed the sleek white marble museum, which opened in 2004. It is easy to forget that you are standing atop a cliff face as you tour the three light and airy exhibition levels.

In time for the festival, the museum’s newly opened “Resonance of Exile,” the second in a series of exhibitions about émigré artists, focuses on Jewish artists who, escaping Hitler’s Europe, found refuge in New York, London, Mexico and Cuba. The museum also boasts an upscale restaurant, M32, with an ample terrace that offers commanding views of the entire city. On Wednesdays, the museum stays open until 8 p.m., making it an excellent perch for seeing the lights of Salzburg.

— Getting Down

If you are worn out after a day of scaling Salzburg’s heights, the Mönchsberg Lift, a marvel of engineering that travels through solid rock, will take you back painlessly to the city in 30 seconds for the price of a bus ticket. From the downstairs exit, it is a three-minute walk to the elegant Getreidegasse, the Altstadt’s main drag, where Carpe Diem, a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves upscale tapas in ice cream cones, is one of the best dining options in the center.

Alternatively, you can end your day atop the Mönchsberg by dining inside of it. Descend on the mountain’s western side on several flights of stairs back to street level. From there, it is a seven-minute jaunt to Magazin, a culinary mecca whose superb restaurant sits inside a repurposed World War II bunker carved into the Mönchsberg’s sheer rock wall. Subdued lighting illuminates the vaulted ceilings in this intimate 50-seat bistro, which offers excellent value for the money. The young chefs Patrick Mühlbacher and Johannes Eidenhammer are disciples of Gordon Ramsay, and the Briton’s influence can be seen in their insistence on fresh, regional ingredients in the eclectic cuisine they serve.

While known for meat dishes, including their wafer-thin “Kung Fu” roast beef, cured in a soy marinade, or their sweet and sour “Asia” pork ribs, there is plenty of fish (the almost-raw tuna, crusted in sesame and served in an avocado-mango-lime vinaigrette, is a favorite) and vegetarian options, including asparagus with hollandaise sauce and parsley potatoes or creamy burrata served with caramelized melon and pesto. A prized wine cellar lies at the far end of the cavern.

As you clink your glasses, do not be surprised if you think you can make out the faint strains of Mozart or Strauss coming from the other end of the rock.