Finding a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg is about as difficult as locating a hot dog stand in New York City — they are, quite literally, everywhere. And while many of said tours bring out-of-towners to the same famed spots, there's one in particular — — that delivers all the best parts of the experience, minus the worst: constantly hopping on and off an overcrowded bus.
Your guide will suit you up with a pretty sweet cruiser that even your grandmother could ride, and provide ponchos if a light sprinkle rolls through. Your favorite songs can — and will — be sung with the group as you cycle from one film scene to the next as part of a surprisingly authentic, not-at-all cheesy tourist attraction.
For the ultimate in voyeuristic and nostalgic travel, here we give you all the must-see sites to visit and behind-the-scenes scoops you'll learn as you journey through the film in order of the soundtrack, naturally.
"My heart wants to sing every song it hears"
Track 1: The Sound of Music
We all know the scene: snowcapped mountains, picturesque rolling green hills, flower-dotted meadows and a whirling Julie Andrews, about to launch into the song that will take on the world. Arguably one of the most famous openers in movie history, The Sound of Music is sung by Andrews at the top of the Untersberg, a 6,473-foot peak only nine miles from the city center.
And there's the rub.
Anyone who remembers the scene that follows knows the impossibility of such a scenario. Maria, caught up in nature and song, loses track of time before hearing the abbey bells and rushing down the hill. Turns out geography wouldn't quite work for in her favor.
Behind the Scenes: The actual location for this distinctive opening scene was a mountain in Bavaria. Getting a spat of sunshine long enough to capture the shot was extremely difficult for director Robert Wise and company, as there were consistent clouds during filming. For four consecutive days, Andrews and crew schlepped up to the top of the hill to capture the scene and failed.
Not to mention, poor Andrews kept getting blown over by the helicopter's blade winds, despite attempts to dig her heels into the ground for leverage. Needless to say, she got quite frustrated with the whole ordeal. On the fifth day, the crew finally had some luck with about 20 solid minutes of sun. If you watch closely, you'll see that toward the end of the opening song, the sky isn't nearly as bright and blue as when it started.
"How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?"
Track 4: Maria
Flustered and embarrassed about her tardiness, Maria arrives at the Nonnberg Abbey, greeted by a group of nuns who've just finished singing about their conflicting feelings for the would-be nun. "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" they croon from the central courtyard of the abbey.
Behind the Scenes: In the film, we see the interior of an abbey that's actually a Hollywood studio, but the exterior shots are authentic. After a one-on-one with the Mother Abbess, Maria is sent off to pursue a new life's quest, which is when we see Nonnberg's exterior door, plaque and some of its surroundings.
This site is arguably the most quaint and picturesque that you'll see on the real-life tour — and one you won't have the privilege of getting to on the bus version. The abbey sits atop a hill accessed by thin, windy, cobblestone streets, inaccessible by coach. (It's the part of the bike ride where you'll start to work off some strudel, but the reward at the top is worth the effort.)
"Besides which you see, I have confidence in me!"
Track 5: I Have Confidence
A quick refresher for those who haven't watched the movie 27 times: Andrews' character, Maria, the young and adorable nun-in-training, is sent away by the Mother Abbess on a "mission" to help raise the widowed Captain Georg von Trapp's seven children as their new governess (a.k.a. nanny). The Mother Abbess secretly knows that Maria will enjoy this job more than life at the abbey, and sure enough, Maria falls in love with the children, and, in short order, the Captain (a dashing young Christopher Plummer) too.
As Maria leaves the abbey and embarks on her journey, singing "Confidence," we see some of Salzburg's most famous sites in Altstadt (Old Town), such as Cathedral Square and the Residenzplatz horse fountain where she flips a splash of water for good measure. She then arrives at the Von Trapp's clicking her heels as she exits the bus and runs down Hellbrunner Allee, ready to meet her new challenge.
Behind the Scenes: The yellow home used to film the exterior of the von Trapp house is actually the Mozarteum Salzburg, a music and dramatic arts university founded in 1841, named after the city's most respected and renowned artist, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The wrought iron gate is as tall as it appears in the film, sitting around eye level with Andrews. During one take of the scene where she tentatively opens the door before running inside, Andrews accidentally tripped.
The directors loved this flub so much, they decided to keep it in the final cut and work the clumsy, approachable side more into Maria's character. Just one of the many reasons audiences can't help but love her.
The back of the house, where you'll see scenes with the Captain and the lovely, but ultimately short-lived Baroness Schraeder, is from another location, Leopoldskron, which now functions as a five-star hotel. In the film you can catch glimpses of this white, stately, lakeside estate right after the Captain returns from a trip to Vienna to find his children forever changed (in the best possible way) by their new governess.
Some of the sites Maria passes in her confident singing jaunt reappear later in the movie under a more somber tone. The cathedral and its beautiful square appear are seen when the Germans have overtaken the city and strung swastika flags in Old Town. The filming for this scene was controversial, as local government officials did not want Wise to hang the flags in public for obvious reasons. However, when Wise mentioned he would instead use original newsreel tapes from Hitler's visit to the city, officials agreed it would be better to recreate the scene so as not to showcase Nazi sympathizers who appear in actual archival footage. It was a no-win situation.
Although Wise agreed to film the scenes just after sunrise to mitigate crowds, some confused residents still saw the flags and became unsettled. The site of swastikas only 20 years after the war was a fresh wound for many.
"Fellows I meet may tell me I'm sweet"
Track 6: Sixteen Going on Seventeen
Soon after Maria's hopeful hop through town and arrival at the von Trapp residence, we find out that the Captain's oldest daughter, Liesl, played by the late Charmian Carr, has a secret love interest. On Maria's first night as a dinner guest, the sixteen-year-old Liesl escapes from the dinner table to meet the telegram delivery boy, Rolf. They share a song, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," dance and saccharine-sweet kiss (though we'll later learn that Rolf isn't such an upstanding young Austrian after all) inside the garden's gazebo.
Behind the Scenes: The gazebo you'll see on Maria's Bicycle Tour is the actual gazebo used for this scene, gifted to the city of Salzburg after the filming of the movie. But the inside of this gazebo is not where the Liesl and Rolf dance — or the subsequent love scene between Maria and the Captain — took place. It turned out the interior was too small for the actors to perform their dance, so producers recreated the interior at their Hollywood studio.
All that jumping from bench to bench was as dangerous as it looked and Carr injured her ankle during filming. Being the trooper she was, Carr kept dancing on the injury until directors were happy with the scene. Earlier versions of the film show a bandage peeking out of her shoe, though in re-mastered versions it's not visible.
"Let's start at the very beginning…"
Track 9: Do Re Mi
Depending on your guide's preference, you'll either start or end your tour at Mirabell Palace and its lush gardens. The gardens are featured in the movie when Maria first takes the children out in their "play clothes," which she has dutifully sewn from recycled curtains.
While teaching Liesl, Gretl and the rest of the crew how to sing via the beloved, "Do-Re-Mi," Maria ushers the children through some of the most famous sites in Salzburg, ending the song with an iconic hand-on-head pose at the top of Mirabell's steps.
Behind the Scenes: Over the years, the city's population has endured a love/hate relationship with the movie. While it undoubtedly brought worldwide attention and fame to Salzburg, some felt the movie lacked the sophistication of its real musical heroes — particularly Mozart. But in 2011, a new tradition helped the city warm up to the Sound of Music's tourism pull (and surely residents have come to understand the boon to tourism the film has become.) That new tradition, an annual performance of the musical in Austrian-German with English subtitles, was born at the Landestheatre Salzburg, a stone's throw from Mirabell Palace and gardens.
As one of Salzburg's central attractions, Mirabell Palace and its gardens help contribute to the 300,000 tourists a year who visit the city. As a last stop on your tour, it will require extreme willpower to refrain from running through the garden's arbor tunnel as Maria and her clan do during the joyful number.
"So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye"
Track 15: So Long, Farewell
After a three and a half hour bike tour and a sprint through the gardens, you'll be ready to treat yourself to the impossibly decadent sachertorte at the one and only Hotel Sacher, a short walk from the palace.
Behind the Scenes: Christopher Plummer did just that perhaps one too many times during filming. Toward the end of the shoot he had to be refit for wardrobe: Austrian pastries and schnapps, much of which was consumed at the Hotel Bristol, had gotten the better of him. The extra pounds didn't stop Plummer from some harmless flirting with a much younger Carr, who handled it graciously. When asked what she learned from him, she reportedly said, "how to drink."
It's little wonder that six weeks of filming in the magical city of Salzburg inspired a lifelong friendship among members of the cast, particularly Andrews and Plummer. Maria's Bicycle Tour makes it easy to see why ... and hard to resist a sing along.