By Nina Ruggiero
December 20, 2019
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Nina Ruggiero

Home to Mozart and "The Sound of Music"; named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its stunningly preserved baroque architecture and unique blend of German and Italian influence; marked on the map by the curves of the Salzach River and the northern edge of the snow-tipped Alps — Salzburg, Austria, is, on paper, the perfect European Christmas vacation.

But it’s not the city’s impressive history, its long list of accolades from the United Nations, or even its geographic assets that make it a holiday destination to remember.

Nina Ruggiero

It’s the scent of cinnamon-sprinkled mulled wine mingling with fresh pine trees in the crisp air; the sound of horses clacking past carolers as church bells ring in the distance. It’s the taste of apple strudel served in a warm coffee house while just outside its elegant doors families huddle around red market stalls, waiting for sausages hot off the grill. It’s twinkling lights and orange punch; roasting chestnuts and green lederhosen.

Nina Ruggiero

It only takes one stroll through the cobblestone streets of Altstadt, the Old Town, to realize Austria’s fourth-largest city is something special, but while its train-accessible location makes it a popular day trip from Munich or Vienna, you’ll be sorry if you don’t stay the night and get to know it better.

Nina Ruggiero

Here’s how to spend a December weekend in Salzburg that’s guaranteed to put you in a festive mood, not only while you’re there, but whenever you think back on its magic for Christmases to come.

Where to Stay in Salzburg

First on record as an inn as far back as 1407, the Luxury Collection Goldener Hirsch Salzburg is now a 70-room, five-star hotel that’s managed to maintain its traditional charm even through a just-unveiled multimillion-dollar renovation. Outfitted by Countess Harriet von Walderdorff with antique Austrian farmhouse furniture, the hotel seamlessly blends nods to its past, from rotary phones to the traditional patterns on its linens, with modern details including heated bathroom floors, automatic bedside lighting, and speakers that bring the city’s love for music inside each room.

Courtesy of Hotel Goldener Hirsch

The hotel’s stylish bar overlooks the interior courtyard where horses once awaited their owners, and its two restaurants, Restaurant Goldener Hirsch and Hertzl, serve all the hearty dishes Austria is known for, the former in a refined, formal setting, the latter in a cozy, casual one. Pair the schnitzel with a local Riesling, and you won’t even feel the cold when you step outside to begin your holiday shopping.

Courtesy of Hotel Goldener Hirsch

And step outside is all you’ll have to do, because the city seems to have built itself around the Goldener Hirsch in the centuries since 1407 — to the back, you have historic Herbert von Karajan Square and its Horse Pond set against dramatic cliffs, and out front, Getreidegasse, the Old Town’s main drag and the path to many of its best markets.

Before officially setting out to the markets, pay a visit to Sporer, the little liquor store next-door that draws a big crowd with its famous orange punch. They won’t give away their secret recipe, but they will serve you a steaming glass to drink snuggled among its rum barrels or out in the street like a local.

Salzburg Christmas Markets

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Stern Advent and Winter Market

A minute's walk down Getreidegasse will take you to a merrily decorated tunnel, the portal to your first market, Stern Advent. If you're looking for more orange punch (or some mulled wine, or glühwein), you can get it here, in the first of many mugs you'll likely collect during your trip. Each market has its own signature mug, which you can return after drinking in exchange for your deposit (typically around 3 euros) or keep as a souvenir.

This market transforms the site of a popular summer beer garden into a winter wonderland with a living nativity scene, decorative huts full of crafts and gifts, and plenty of traditional Christmas sweets.

Salzburg Christkindlmarkt

Continue to Salzburg Christkindlmarkt, the city's main market and one of the oldest Christmas markets in the world, dating back to the 15th century. A big, busy, and festive affair in Residenzplatz square, these huts doling out everything from leather goods, winter gear, and toys to sausage-stuffed treats and giant pretzels are surrounded by the breathtaking Salzburg Cathedral (or Salzburger Dom)and an ice skating rink.

Advent at Hohensalzburg Fortress

You’ll either take a steep but scenic hike or a funicular to get to the Christmas market at the Hohensalzburg Fortress, but the view over the city is worth the climb (and the risks that come with drinking mulled wine at high elevation). Buy a ticket to tour the fortress while you're there, or get a free ticket to spend time at the market and enjoy the castle grounds. Lit by traditional Herrnhuter stars, the quaint courtyard is a merry place to shop local crafts and listen to live music.

Christmas Market on Mirabellplatz

Cross the river and stroll through the royal Mirabell gardens, where Maria and the von Trapp kids first sang “Do-Re-Mi” in the "Sound of Music." Just beyond Mirabell Palace, you'll find Mirabellplatz Christmas market, a favorite among locals. Sip hot chocolate from a Santa mug like the school children or shop for warm alpaca socks to get your feet through the rest of the trip.

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Hellbruner Adventzauber

You’ll need to take the 25 bus (there's a stop just outside of Mirabellplatz) for about 20 minutes outside the city center to the expansive Hellbruner market, but it's worth the ride. A popular spot for families, this market has an entire section just for kids (but beware of Krampus, Santa's evil twin), an advent calendar light show projected onto the Hellbrunn Palace, more than 700 Christmas trees, and any Austrian treat you could want to eat — or package to take home for those who weren't lucky enough to join in on your holiday fun.

For even more Salzburg-area Christmas markets, visit Salzburg.info. Goldener Hirsch provided support for the reporting of this story.