Being pleasantly surprised by the mid-sized cities of Europe

Recently we were able to take a trip to Germany/Austria. It was the longest vacation trip we’ve taken since being in Moldova. We planned our trip (as we do) around friends that were going to be in Europe. Amy (my beloved college roommate) and her childhood friend Elizabeth (whom I have now claimed as one of my own friends) planned a trip to Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna. By tagging along we had the dual perks of unparalleled company as well as riding the coat tails of a couple veteran trip planners.

A little about Salzburg

Salzburg was a place I would never have thought to visit. Located mere kilometers from the western border with Germany, Salzburg is a small-sized city with a population around 150,000ish. Its claims to fame? Why that would include the birthplace of Mozart and the filming location for the The Sound of Music. Funny side note: you can easily find the birthplace of Mozart if you simply look for the intersection with the greatest density of tourists taking selfies and generally getting in everyone’s way.

While on this trip we alternated days in the city with days in the mountains (partially for the sake of our weary muscles). But even in Salzburg you never entirely escape the mountains. You can actually see the German and Austrian Alps from most of the tall buildings in the city. It makes for beautiful scenery: old buildings all around and then mountains when you look up.

“The hills are alive, with the sound of music”

In fact, I think one of the things that I liked most about Salzburg was that I experienced it with so many of my senses. Although we did visit the Museum der Moderne while there, the rest of the city was very unmuseum-like. What do I mean by that? Well when I think of a traditional museum, I picture a 2D piece of art that is placed perfectly at eye level. The rooms housing the art are purposefully stark and minimilistic so that all the focus is directed at the piece of art.

The city of Salzburg, in comparison, pulled my eyes up to the mountains and then around to the buildings and then over to the cafe with tempting food and drinks. What is more, Salzburg was musical. It’s ironic to me that I would have a musical experience even though I stayed away from all things Mozart and von Trapp. But I did. Salzburg literally brought music to my ears even as I looked around at all its lovely sites.

The first bit of music took place in a sort of pedestrian square in the old part of Salzburg. On the ridge above the square you can see an old fortress/castle. At around ten minutes to 6 PM, we found ourselves serenaded by an intricate chorus of bells. It was fantastic to hear them echoing all around us.

After that impromptu concert we ambled up the ridge to explore. And what do you think we found? A little cathedral, of course. And what else would be inside but a duo of strings and a piano player warming up for a free concert that evening?

Pardon the video quality, I was trying to be “respectful” as I broke the rules about recording.

Midsized for the win

The other thing I liked about Salzburg (other than its ability to tickle all my senses) was its perfect mid-sizedness. Bear with me here because NO – I am not just missing Madison, WI and declaring all mid-sized cities marvelous. And NO – I am not saying that we saw and did everything Salzburg has to offer.

What I am saying is that the whole experience was pleasant because the city was neither too large nor too small. Driving and parking were not too difficult. And in fact, the city was super walkable. We didn’t have to get reservations or wait at restaurants, but still we were able to enjoy delicious food and creative drinks. Salzburg was perfect for exploring while in the middle of good conversations with friends. We didn’t have to stare at a map at each street corner. We didn’t have to religiously plan out our day.

And this is going to sound weird to say, but I’m pleased to leave a city without that FOMO feeling. The more I travel Europe the more I am burdened by this feeling that I didn’t see enough or do enough or learn enough while there. I leave a place already stressing over when I might be able to come back.

But the truth is that most cities the world over have too much culture and history to absorb in one visit. Paris, for example, laughs at you for even attempting to experience it all. Salzburg, however, pats you on the shoulder and tells you “good try” in a way that doesn’t make you feel bad about leaving.

Make that friendship for the win

Oh, and I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I certainly loved this city more because we shared it with these two:

Musical and visual beauty is great, mid-sizedness is surprisingly wonderful, but friends are far and away the best part of each of our trips.

And a shout-out to Memmingen

I am aware that Memmingen, Germany has nothing with Salzburg, Austria. Except for the fact that it is anther mid-sized city that catches you off guard! We stayed a night in Memmingen only because it contains the budget airport of our early morning return flight. But in a classic mid-sized city move, it was surprisingly beautiful and historic.