Stephen Travels

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Salzburg, Austria

Top 5 Buildings in Salzburg, Austria

From my vantage point above the city, I was able to look out at all of Salzburg and its Alpine backdrop. This wonderful midsize city bore the distinction of being a church state where secular and church power were unified in the role of prince-archbishop for 1,100 years. Until 1805, it was the second-largest church state in the world, behind only Rome. Appropriately nicknamed the “city of churches,” Salzburg naturally has a treasure trove of gorgeous religious buildings among its architectural inventory. These are my favorites.

#1 Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom)

Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, AustriaStanding in the Domplatz and staring up at the Salzburg Cathedral, it was difficult for me to imagine that, in October 1944, this magnificent building lie in ruins. It wasn’t the first time, however, and given that its history goes back to 774, that’s no surprise. That was the year the first cathedral rose. Since then, fires and demolition have erased the cathedral in 842, 1167, and 1598. The cornerstone for the present cathedral was placed in 1614, and from that rose the current building, a Baroque masterpiece that was mostly completed by 1628. After a single bomb plunged through the dome in 1944 during World War II and practically destroyed it, the cathedral was largely rebuilt by 1959. The main entrance garners all the attention; the other three sides, of dark gray stone, are fairly plain. On either side of the gabled central section of bright marble, twin domed towers were added by 1655 and hold two clocks, bells from 1628, and the second-largest bell in Austria (weighing more than 31,000 pounds). The north tower still houses an old oven used for baking communion bread. Four large sculptures of the diocese’s and cathedral’s patrons greet visitors passing through the three bronze doors: saints Rupert, Virgilius, Peter, and Paul. Above them, along a balustrade, stand statues of the Four Evangelists, while the pediment above them features those of Christ, Moses, and Elijah as well as the coats of arms of the cathedral’s builders in a bit of vainglory. Inside, at 465’ long and 180’ high at the crossing of the nave and transepts under the central dome, the cathedral can seat 900 worshippers. The elegant Baroque interior is tempered by the abundance of white in the pilasters, arches, soffets, balconies, and brackets. Murals and frescoes on the ceiling, in the side chapels, and in the dome and pendentives add panels of color with some bold reds and oranges, while the painting of the Resurrection of Christ behind the altar is much more subdued. For those who aren’t all about the art and architecture, the cathedral is also a magnet for pilgrims, who come for the relics of saints Vincent, Ursula, Martin of Tours, Rupert, Vergilius, Gereon, Chuniald, Gislar, Hermes, Chrysanthus, and Daria, and for music lovers, who are delighted to find the bronze baptismal font where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Mohr (of “Silent Night” fame) were baptized.

#2 Holy Trinity Church (Dreifaltigkeitskirche)

Holy Trinity Church, Salzburg, AustriaInspired by the Church of St. Agnes in Rome, Holy Trinity Church fronts a grassy square from which I took in the church’s beauty. Newer than Salzburg Cathedral, and without its history of destruction, this church was mostly completed by 1702, with additions later on, like the twin belfries on either side of the curved main entrance. At first glance, you may mistake it for a palace, as two long wings spread out from the entrance — home to the seminary. But the details soon reveal its true purpose, such as the four figures in front of the impressive dome and its fine lantern representing Faith, Hope, Love, and Divine Wisdom. Inside, impressive sculptural groups of angels can be found at all the altars. But the star of the show is the dome fresco, Coronation of the Virgin, a whirling scene of activity as the Holy Trinity crowns Mary with the help of archangel Michael and a host of angels, saints, prophets, and popes amid concentric banks of clouds. A Holy Spirit dove is centered at the top of the lantern. If you are so inclined, you can make a permanent record of your visit here by signing the Anliegenbuch, the Book of Concerns. Jot down your worries or your wishes (although you may have one or two fewer of these after visiting here), and they may very well be addressed during a church service that week.

#3 Collegiate Church (Kollegienkirche)

Collegiate Church, Salzburg, AustriaThis Baroque church was a very big deal when it opened in 1707 after more than a decade of construction: The consecration ceremonies lasted for eight days. And it has been ever since. Collegiate Church has been both a parish church and the church of the University of Salzburg, most notably marked by the four chapels dedicated to the patron saints of four academic faculties: Catherine (philosophy), Ivo (law), Luke (medicine), and Thomas Aquinas (theology). The unusual convex entrance, between two identical towers with bells and clocks, led me into this heavenly space. Built by architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, who went blind before he could see the completion of his masterpiece, the church is a study in white — white walls, white stucco work, white ceilings, white brackets and niches and arches. Plain clear windows allow plenty of light to stream in and accent the architecture as well as the pops of color that do exist — the brown woodwork, the bursts of colorful art in the side chapels, and the golden figures on the main altar, including a Madonna, surrounded by 71 white cloud-riding angels. Throughout its history, the church has been closely aligned with the arts. It has hosted many art installations, opera and musical premieres, and the Salzburg Festival since the 1970s. But one of the most important Baroque churches in Central Europe hasn’t always experienced such joy. During Napoleon’s occupation of the city in 1800, it was used a hay magazine and, later, as a military hospital. A decade later, under Bavarian rule, the church lost its original purpose, as the university was closed, and didn’t regain it until 1964. In between, it also served as a grammar school and a military church. Today, the sparing use of overblown decorative elements in this immaculately maintained space still reinforces its original dedication, to the Immaculate Conception.

#4 St. Peter’s Archabbey (Erzabtei Stift Sankt Peter)

St. Peter's Archabbey, Salzburg, AustriaUnlike Collegiate Church, St. Peter’s Archabbey is awash in color. This Benedictine monastery, founded in 696 by Saint Rupert, features a verdigris-green onion dome (which actually looks more like a head of garlic) atop its distinctive steeple. It’s a fairly new addition to the church, completed in 1756, six centuries after its oldest parts were built. Known for its exceptional writing school during the Middle Ages, St. Peter’s received its Rococo style in the mid-1700s and didn’t suffer too badly during World War II, when the Nazis seized it and expelled most of the monks. Inside, Biblical ceiling murals, as well as a couple of rows of paintings above the arches separating the side aisles, add to the church’s colorful richness, as do the golden trimmings and the over-the-top side chapels and altars. To make the most of your visit, see more than just the church (always keeping an ear out of the chimes of the bells, some of the largest and most valuable in Austria). With special permission, you can enter the oldest library in Austria. Now holding 100,000 volumes, it all started with a single manuscript, deposited in 784. You’re also free to wander around the cemetery, with the oldest preserved grave from 1288 and the much newer (1829) one for Mozart’s sister, and the catacombs carved out of the rocks of the bordering hill. If this looks familiar to you, you’re right: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and their movie Von Trapp children hid here in a suspenseful scene toward the end of The Sound of Music. Finish off your visit with a meal in reputedly the oldest restaurant in Central Europe.

#5 Franciscan Church (Franziskanerkirche)

Franciscan Church, Salzburg, AustriaIt looks truncated, as if the builders gave up on the length halfway through the job and prematurely capped it off with the apse. And maybe they did — construction dragged on for centuries, starting in 1208, making it one of the oldest churches in Salzburg, and they might have just had enough. Now the Franciscan Church stands in a striking contrast to itself. The façade is a Baroque redesign from around 1700, but as soon as you enter, you shift back a few centuries to the original Romanesque. It served as a simple parish church until things became grander in the 1400s, when the stubby Gothic choir replaced the existing one and a slender tower rose by the end of the century. Three hundred years later, that shifted to Baroque, and that’s the part that makes this church so spectacular. Drawn forward from the dark, heavy, and simple older nave, you’re pulled toward the glorious choir, and it becomes evident that what the church may lack in length is more than compensated by its verticality. Three tall plain-glass windows to the right bear uniform tracery at the top, but different designs at the bottom, and allow plentiful light to enter. Soaring pillars lead your eyes up to the magnificent prismatic star-ribbed vault ceiling. Nine chapels ring the exterior walls, awash in paintings and lavish Baroque frillery, everything from angels to eagles to unicorns. A filigree grille with tendrils and small angels incorporated into the lattice sections off the high altar, a masterpiece in red marble and gold. And just when you start to reconcile the starkly different styles of the whole complex, you’re thrown off again when you notice, above one of the chapels, an organ that was built in 1989.

Five Runners-Up

  • Nonnberg Abbey (Stift Nonnberg; from 714)
  • Hohensalzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg; from 1077)
  • Mirabell Palace (Schloss Mirabell; 1727)
  • St. Blaise’s Church (Kirche St. Blasius; from 1350)
  • New Residence (Neue Residenz; from 1588)


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