Salzburg: Visiting Austria’s Most Charming City

Salzburg should be on every European holiday must-see list. This beautiful city is the birthplace of Mozart, the filming location for The Sound of Music, and a destination so full of attractions, cultural diversity, and exciting things to do that no matter how long you stay, you’ll barely scratch the surface of its many charms.

Salzburg encapsulates everything that’s amazing about Austria—magnificent historic architecture, rugged alpine landscapes, brilliant food, world-class winter sports, and friendly, smiling people. The city is safe, livable, breathtaking, and conveniently located in the center of Europe. You’ll feel like you’re in the cultural center of the universe here —Salzburg hosts more than 4,000 individual cultural events each year.

Salzburg is worth a look year-round. In spring, local markets overflow with delectable seasonal produce and flowers bloom all over the city’s parks and surrounding meadows. Autumn brings colorful trees and thinning tourist crowds, summer is great for hiking (and fresh local cherries) and winter comes alive with gently falling snow and warm, crackling fires.

Moving around the city to take in all the sights is a breeze. Salzburg is compact, so you can walk to most main attractions. My favorite way to get around is by bicycle. This is one of the most bike-friendly cities on earth—more than 20% of all personal transport here is by bicycle (compared to 4% in Vienna) and there are more than 90 miles of bike paths to choose from.

Trams and buses are handy and use the same ticketing system: buy your tickets from the driver or at a local tobacco stand (Tabak). An all-day ticket costs around $6. Taxis are reliable and abundant but pricey.

Salzburg’s main bus and train stations are right next to each other. If you’re heading out of the city on a day trip, the super-efficient Austrian rail system will get you there.

Things to do in Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg has no shortage of historical buildings, grand parks, and inviting attractions to keep you occupied. Here are a few of the best:

Mirabelle Palace and Gardens

Mirabelle Palace and Gardens
©iStock/bluejayphoto

©iStock/bluejayphoto

This is a soothing place to explore on a sunny day. Built in 1606, this heritage monument features an eye-popping set of gardens with fountains, hedges, and terrific views of the Salzburg Cathedral. Its symmetrical beauty is uplifting.

Getreidegasse

Getreidegasse
©iStock/4FR

Packed with boutiques, restaurants, and intriguing historical buildings, this pedestrian-friendly street leads to hidden courtyards and narrow passageways dotted with shops of all kinds. Order a chai latte or a pale lager at one of the many tiny cafés along the way and watch the world go by.

Salzburg Fortress (Hohensalzburg Castle)

Hohensalzburg Castle
©iStock/DaveLongMedia

This exceptional slice of history is a premier Salzburg attraction, dominating the city skyline atop Festungsberg Hill. The views are exquisite from the castle walls, and the rooms, wings, and courtyards within will keep you busy for hours.

Old Town (Alstadt)

Old Town Salzburg
©iStock/efesenko

For the perfect introduction to Salzburg, spend your first day wandering through the World Heritage-listed Old Town—one of the largest in Europe. Attractively designed squares show off Baroque and Medieval architecture and little side streets are tailor-made for leisurely exploring.

Salzburg Cathedral

Salzburg Cathedral
©iStock/efesenko

Boasting dual bell towers and a history of demolition and rebuilds dating back to the year 774, this cathedral’s interior will have your neck craning as you take in all the knaves and columns and the intricate frescoes in the dome. The cathedral is right next to St. Peter’s Abbey.

Mozart’s Birthplace and Residence

Mozart
©iStock/RomanBabakin

The Mozart legend is hard to ignore in Salzburg—there are Mozart-themed bars and restaurants and Mozart-inspired souvenirs in the shops. The famous composer’s birthplace (Hagenauer Haus at no.9  Getreidegasse) and his residence from 1773 to 1787 (an eight-room apartment on the Makartplatz) are both museums now, and well worth a look.

Hellbrunn Palace

Hellbrunn Palace
©iStock/DaveLongMedia

Hellbrunn was a residential villa in the 1600s, and its surrounding gardens are a popular attraction these days, especially for children during summer. The water features include ‘trick fountains’ that squirt a little water at you when you sit on them.

Self-Guided Sound of Music Tour

Self-Guided Sound of Music Tour
©iStock/alxpin

There’s no need to pay for a guided tour to visit iconic filming locations from the 1965 movie The Sound of Music—you can visit those near the Old Town on foot or by bike and out of town locations by bus or train. Start with the lakeside Leopold Palace, Sound of Music Gazebo, and Dwarf Garden and keep ticking them off your list as you go.

Salzburg’s Christmas Markets

Christmas Market
©iStock/DaveLongMedia

Winter in Salzburg is magical. Check out the main Christmas Market at Cathedral and Residenz Square. As you stroll among the vendor stalls and past snow-covered roofs and domes of the ancient city, your senses will be overwhelmed with heavenly choral music and the smell of hot roasted chestnuts, gingerbread, and fresh baked apples.

From late November into the New Year, the city hosts a huge events program that includes orchestral performances, nativity exhibits, food festivals, and more. If you want to experience outdoor ice skating or sleigh rides with a real reindeer, here’s your chance.

There are additional local Christmas Markets at Mirabelle Square, in the Fortress courtyard, next to St. Leonard Pilgrimage Church, and in other locations around the city.

Traditional Austrian Christmas treats include marble cake, vanilla crescents, apple strudel, and kokosbusserl (coconut kisses), preferably washed down with mulled wine from a street vendor. This normally provides all the sugar rush and internal warmth you need to withstand those bracing Yuletide temperatures.

Best Day Trips from Salzburg

Halstatt
©iStock/bluejayphoto

I can’t think of another European city that’s so ideally placed for brilliant day trip options. Here are my favorites—all less than three hours away by bus or train:

  • Hallstatt

This age-old alpine village sits at the edge of a lake and looks like the prettiest postcard you’ve ever seen. Check out the Bone Chapel, join a free walking tour, visit the world’s oldest salt mine, or just find a hiking trail near the lake edge and start walking.

  • Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest

Built in 1939 as a back-up command center for Hitler, this now serves as museum. Perched more than 6,000 feet about sea level in the Bavarian Alps near the lovely German town of Berchtesgaden, it’s an engineering marvel that features a panoramic patio and a high-speed elevator.

  • Werfen Ice Caves

The planet’s biggest ice cave is an imposing mixture of soaring natural cathedrals, towering frozen waterfalls, and ice tunnel walkways. It’s slightly less than an hour away from Salzburg by direct train.

  • King’s Lake

This stunning fiord (Bavaria’s deepest lake) is just south of Berchtesgaden, Germany. If the day is clear, you’ll enjoy what may be the finest view in the Alps from Jennerbahn Mountain above the lake.

  • 5 Fingers Lookout and Dachstein Ice Caves

Both these sites are high up on Dachstein Mountain above Hallstadt. To access them from the Visitor Center, there’s a mesmerizing cable car ride followed by a brief hike. The ice cave tour is amazing and the lookout views are gorgeous.

Insider Tips for Visiting Salzburg

©iStock/bluejayphoto

Prepare for the Weather

In Austria and the Alps, weather can change quickly and nights can be quite chilly even in summer. Bring clothes you can layer, sturdy walking shoes, a rain coat… and sunscreen.

Time Your Visit to Coincide with Annual Festivals

From Christmas festivities to mini-Oktoberfests and the Salzburg Festival in August, there are always lively celebrations happening in this part of the world. Many nearby towns have their own autumn harvest festivals as well.

Grab a Money-Saving Salzburg Card

If you’re spending several days seeing numerous city attractions, look into buying a Salzburg Card, which covers entry to museums and main attractions as well as transport on several city bus lines (1-14, 20-35, 151, 170, and 180). The card also provides access to the Salzach River boat tour number 1, the Untersberg cable car, and the funicular leading up to the Fortress. Buy the card online, from the tourism office or from hotel desks. A 24-hour card costs around $28 and a 36-hour card is about $42.

Stay Outside the City Center

Salzburg may be beautiful, but it’s not a budget destination. Accommodation will be your biggest expense, so choose wisely. Stays of a week or more in suburban Airbnbs will work out much cheaper than hotel accommodation in or near the Old Town. Try to avoid the higher prices and bigger crowds of mid-summer.

Make Use of the City’s Free Wi-Fi Areas

There is plenty of free Wi-Fi available throughout Salzburg but you have to pick your spots. The signal at the Salzburg train station is excellent: fast, free, super-strong, and not time-restricted. This is a great place to grab a storage locker for your luggage, too.

To and From the Airport

Salzburg’s airport is close to the city center. Bus 180 runs frequently between the airport and train station and takes 25 minutes, with stops near Mirabelle Palace along the way. Bus 2 and 10 take a similar route and cost $3 to $4 each way—much cheaper than a taxi.

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