If Austria is a short stop on your European travel itinerary, like many others you may be torn between staying in Vienna or Salzburg. Vienna is the capital of Austria, a relatively big city by European standards. Its population is about 10 times the size of Salzburg’s (~1.7M vs 170K).
Vienna is at the Eastern end of Austria, near the Slovakia border, while Salzburg is at the opposite end, very close to Austria’s Western border with Germany.
So why is Salzburg even mentioned as an alternative to Vienna when planning a short stay in Austria (say 2-5 days)? While Vienna is full of history, majestic elegance, and culture with its imperial palaces and museums, Salzburg is a very picturesque city with a great medieval old town, an impressive hilltop medieval castle, and beautiful nature and mountains surrounding it.
Let’s look at some key differences to help you decide which of Vienna or Salzburg is a better choice for your Austrian stay.
Vienna or Salzburg: what travelers say
Salzburg is much smaller and more compact than Vienna, with a small-town feel. Most of the scenic sights in the old town can be visited on foot in two days. Vienna, like Rome or Berlin, is a big capital city with many things to see and do, which requires more time.
Salzburg is charming and relaxed and has gorgeous architecture, churches, and history. It has attractive squares and pleasant cafés with a nice vibe for hanging out. Travelers are often mesmerized by Salzburg’s small-town beauty.
Vienna is grandiose though not as charming as Salzburg due to its size. However, the inner city ring where the main sights are located is not so big and can be visited in a reasonable amount of time. Vienna’s public transportation system is also top-notch.
Vienna is famous for its classical concerts, museums, churches, palaces, art exhibits, cafés, and shopping. It has an important history as the capital of the Austrian Empire and Republic. It has impressive architecture and unique importance in the musical world.
Salzburg has breathtaking scenery, stunning hilltop castles, a few Baroque churches, a scenic river, and many day trip options for exploring the surrounding nature and mountains.
When it rains in Salzburg, finding things to do comfortably is harder, whereas Vienna has plenty of indoor options including museums, concerts, and historic cafés.
Salzburg is famous for being the shooting location of the 1960s movie “The Sound of Music”, as well as for the landmarks in the real life of the movie’s Trapp family.
Both Vienna and Salzburg have renowned Mozart locations which attract a constant stream of tourists – Mozart’s birthplace is in Salzburg and has become a museum.
Vienna is probably a better option is you have 4 or more days, while Salzburg may be a better choice for a 2 or 3-day stay.
Vienna or Salzburg: access & transportation
Vienna and Salzburg are at the opposite ends of Austria about 200 miles apart from each other. From Vienna, it’s an easy trip to Salzburg, and a scenic one as you get closer to the mountains. It takes about 3 hours by car or 2.5 hours by train between the two cities.
Vienna is about equidistant from Budapest, Prague, and Munich, and well-connected by international airlines.
As mentioned, Vienna has a very efficient subway and tram system for getting around the city. The Vienna TravelCard allows you to save compared to individual fares.
Salzburg has an eco-friendly transportation system with electric trolleys running at 10-minute intervals and regular buses running at 15-minute intervals during the day.
Vienna or Salzburg: vibe & people
Salzburg is a very walkable and attractive little city with stunning views, e.g. from the walking bridges toward the old town, including at night. The old town itself is scenic with its cobbled streets, hidden alleyways, and the great-looking mountains and castle above.
Next to the center, the Kapuzinerberg area with its 640 meter-high mountain, dense forests, churches, abbey, and hiking paths, is also a major attraction.
Travelers choose Salzburg for its unique beauty, but also for the welcoming locals, good restaurants (outside the tourist traps), and easily-to-access surrounding sights and nature.
Compared to Vienna, Salzburg provides a more relaxing experience involving strolling around the streets, gardens and squares, markets, sitting at coffee houses, chatting with people.
Travelers sometimes complain about the high number of tourists in Salzburg including in off-season months. The city’s shopping street gets invaded by Mozard memorabilia buyers, and costumed street performers are just about everywhere. Some visitors get “Mozart overload” after visiting Salzburg.
Vienna also has lots of tourists, however the crowds are spread over a larger number of places. While there are tons of things to see and do in Vienna – opera, museums, galleries, concerts, churches – you can pick just a few of them for a pleasant experience.
Vienna has many grand monuments and avenues, many of them located inside the central Vienna inner circle which is relatively small. Travelers often find the areas of Vienna outside the center circle not so attractive, even a bit depressing.
Vienna or Salzburg: sights & culture
In Salzburg, the main attractions include:
Hellbrunn Palace, a stunning 17th-century Baroque villa. Closed in the winter.
Hohensalzburg Fortress: one of the largest medieval castles in Europe (11th century) with great views from atop the 500m hill. Funicular nearby.
Cathedral: a beautiful, bright, Baroque church with gorgeous frescos and an impressive Romanesque front.
Franciscan Church: a beautiful mix of Romanesque nave and Gothic choir, Baroque chapel
Mozart’s birth house and museum
Mirabellgarten: elegant gardens and floral displays in front of the Mirabell Palace
Salzach River cruises
Sound of Music locations: visit to places and homes where the international hit movie from the 60s was filmed in (and where the Trapp family lived) in and around Salzburg
In Salzburg, you’ll also find regular classical and folk music shows. You can also take great trips to scenic lakes and mountains (see Day Trips section).
The Salzburg card gives you access to many sights (Hellbrunn Palace, river cruiser, castle, Mozart locations, mountain trip including bus) at a cost-effective price.
In Vienna, the imperial palaces from the Austro-Hungarian era, the museums, and the gardens are the main attractions for most travelers. The Schonbrunn Palace (worth a half-day tour), the Hofburg Palace (with and its jewel-rich Treasury), and the Belvedere Palace (with its gardens) are prime historical landmarks with massive and elegant architecture.
The Parliament building, City Hall (Rathaus), the University of Vienna, the Votiv Church, the Volks Gardens, the Burg Theater, are also stunning architectural pieces.
Vienna is great for music concerts, operetta and operas. It also has magnificent gardens to visit. The Kunsthistorisches Museum hosts the impressive Habsburg art collection – Vienna also has many more world-class museums. The St Stephens Cathedral is also worth a visit.
The Spanish Riding School inside the Hofburg Palace has exhibits showcasing the world-famous Lipizzaner horses.
Vienna or Salzburg: food & nightlife
Being much bigger than Salzburg, Vienna has much more to offer in terms of fine restaurants, cafés, and nightlife. The capital is particularly renowned for its elegant historic cafés and coffeehouses. Demel, for example, is a beautiful 19th-century salon with a pleasant terrace offering reputed cream cakes, scones, and strudels.
Vienna is also famous for its heurigers (wine gardens) which offer fine young wines, outdoor dining, and a jolly local atmosphere, often couped with traditional Austrian folk music.
The largest concentration of restaurants and pubs in Vienna is in the First District inside the ring (aka Innere Stadt) – also the priciest. The area known as the “Vienna Bermuda Triangle” around Ruprechtskirche (near the Schwedenplatz) offers some of the best nightlife, though some travelers feel it’s a bit overrated.
You can also find a good mix of bars, pubs, and eateries in the historic Spitterlberg area, e.g. Seven Bar, Bukowski, Café Nil, Centimeter, or Schnitzelwirt. Also, Districts 7 and 8 are close to the university’s old neighborhood so a lot of student nightlife takes place around there.
Salzburg also has a few great places for having a meal, such as the Stiftskeller St. Peter, considered one of the oldest restaurants in Europe – many travelers love the food there.
Gablerbräu is another example, located in the Linzer Gasse hotel in an old Patrician house in the New Town. The place serves copious Austrian food and great dark beer. Zum Fidelen Affen, in the new town, is a small traditional guest house and restaurant catering mostly to locals.
Untersberg Hut is a rustic hut on top of the Untersberg mountain, accessed by cable car.
Though not as majestic as Vienna’s, Salzburg also has some very nice coffee houses, such as Café Schatz, a small café and pastry shop next to Mozart’s birthplace in the old town, or Café Tomaselli, another historic but touristy and crowded place.
Vienna or Salzburg: day trips
Salzburg is close to the countless small and beautiful villages of the Salzkammergut region. Renting a car is a good option for driving to St Wolfgang, Bad Aussee, Mondsee, St. Gilgen (scenic route, lovely mountain hikes), all under an hour away. You can also take the bus to most villages.
Other day trips around Salzburg include visits to the Hohenwerfen Castle, the Schafberg mountain and its spectacular views, the world’s largest ice caves, the 7000-year old Hallein salt mine and museum. You can go to nearby Berchtesgaden (Germany) which has Hitler’s historic Eagle Nest retreat and other World War sites.
There are several castles in the Salzburg area such as the very ornate Herrenchiemsee Palace in Prien (West of Salzburg), which is accessed via a scenic boat ride. You can also visit the Melk Abbey and its incredible church and library.
If you’re into hiking, you can take an excursion to the Untersberg alpine mountain, by bus then cable car to the mountain top where you can go hiking in the snow. The Salzburg card includes a trip there.
Day trips from Vienna include exploring the wine villages on the outskirts of the city, such as Grinzing, and having a buffet meal and the famous new wine at a heurige. You can take the tram or subway there from the city center and back – they run all day at frequent intervals.
From Vienna, you can also go to Bratislava (1-hour by train), the capital of Slovakia with its 18th-century pedestrian old town and its stunning castle over the Danube.