There are many reasons to visit Salzburg, Austria, and in this travel guide, I highlight what this city is about beyond its well-known parts and cliches detailed on the things to do in Salzburg lists. I visited Salzburg as part of my ‘Year In Austria’ project, on a city-hopping tour. I aim to show you how not all Austrian cities are the same and how they are easily accessible so that you can see different sides of the country even in a short time.
Let’s pretend all of Austria’s major cities are siblings. Vienna would be the classical one with a hidden, gritty second personality. Innsbruck would be sporty, and Graz would have a Mediterranean flair. Salzburg? She would be exquisitely beautiful and musically gifted. Everyone wants to visit Salzburg.
The Reason to Visit Salzburg, Austria
There’s more to Austria’s fourth-largest city than Mozart and the Sound of Music. Yet, while a lot of the things to do in Salzburg focus on these themes, it is first and foremost a musical metropolis, even if this is not your sole purpose for visiting.
Salzburg’s streets are filled with buskers, opera singers and all manner of harmonic performers, continuing to serve with melodies a city that bore one of the greatest composers of all time. Annually the city plays hosts to over 4,000 cultural events, including the internationally renowned Salzburg Festival. In-between, die-hard fans of the Sound of Music seek out the film’s famous film scenes, just as I did, and winter in Salzburg sees people come to visit the origins of the Silent Night Christmas Carol.
It’s no wonder Salzburg takes the tagline “Stage of the World”. That’s a lot of performance to pack into a compact city.
Yet, it’s also a great place to wander and absorb the history that marks it out from other Austrian cities etched with typical Habsburg style and their distinct atmosphere. Salzburg is timeless while having carved out a youthful vibrancy; distinctly famous without being disgustingly overcrowded and charming in a way that you always hear about, but which you only connect with once you are there.
Things to Do in Salzburg Beyond Mozart and Sound of Music Fame
Catholic Archbishop Heritage over Hapsburg Legacy in Salzburg City
My journey began in the Schloss Leopoldskron, the historic palace 20-minutes from the city centre. The epitome of majestic Salzburg, this landmark building from 1736 boasts a shimmering blue lake (of Sound of Music fame), manicured gardens and a mountainous backdrop. In 1918 it was taken over by famous theatre director and founder of the Salzburg Festival, Max Reinhardt who renovated to how it stands today with stunningly decorated rooms and a grand library, all of which you have a free reign to wander.
Once the gathering place of writers, composers and other creatives, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to a city I had longed to visit for many years. Alas, after an emotional arrival (for reasons I cannot work out I just wanted to burst into tears the second I stood in the grounds here) and gorging on Palace interiors, the city was calling.
Salzburg’s historic city centre has been a World Heritage Site since 1997 and seen as the most significant baroque city north of the Alps and built to be exquisite and display prosperity. Occupying a unique position in Europe as a Roman stronghold on the junction of a military road that linked the north and south of Europe, it came into being in the 7th century (year 700) when it was founded and ruled by independent Catholic Prince Archbishops.
Its absence of grandeur Hapsburg touches was replaced by those of the secular kind – with Cathedrals and beautiful baroque church spires, all set within large open Italian flair squares which today brim with artworks and views to the castle on the hilltop. The Archbishops’ power and affluence continued well into the 19th century, who built the city from the wealth accumulated through salt trading (hence the city’s name). It only became a part of the Habsburg Empire in 1816.
In place of pastel candy coloured noble houses and overshadowing the art nouveau touches of the Austrian monarchy, you’ll find alternative splendour. In pretty avenues – a highlight being the Getreidegasse shopping mile full of traditional confectioners, tailors and weavers alongside international brands. In hidden courtyards, narrow cobbled streets, palaces, gardens and fountains like those of the Mirabell, topped off with a scattering of mint-coloured rooftops.
Admire the city’s 1,000 protected buildings from various elevated viewpoints in the city. The best is the rooftop of the Museum of Modern Art, which is a full window on the city that includes the 11th-century Hohensalzburg Fortress – the medieval castle that watches over the city (itself a frequented panoramic vantage point).
Explore Modern Salzburg
I always like to see how old cities add some modern spark to stay exciting and relevant to all manner of visitors. Salzburg is decadent, but it isn’t without a subtle coating of youthful vibes and modern creative inclusions, which are fun to find and push you to explore outside the historic centre.
Modern artworks like the man on the golden globe and the giant interactive chessboard, add colour and curiosity to old squares as you stop and gaze at the baroque structures that dominate.
Get to Steingasse, across the river from the Historic Old Town. It is the oldest street in Salzburg, and the historical alleyway of the city yet is a place where street art and trendy neighbourhood vibes are emerging.
Salzburg’s Andräviertel Neighbourhood
While you are on this side of the river, wander through the neighbourhood of Andräviertel. It’s quieter, has some independent stores and cafes, adding to a growing bohemian feel that makes it feel like a different ‘halve’ of Salzburg across the water.
A University City, you’ll stumble across from the hum of coffee houses in courtyards, trendy bars and eateries that feed the young heart. Salzburg is where ‘Lederhosen Donnerstag’ (Lederhosen Thursday) was established, where young people come together in traditional clothing to socialise and muse in a modern establishment on this chosen day of the week. The city is known for its endless array of Dirndl and Lederhosen shops, and this fun movement keeps the culture alive. There wasn’t an event on when I was there, although I did shop for a dirndl. I’ve since been to an event in Vienna, and while not as established, the sentiment is spreading!
What to Do in Salzburg for the Music
Go on The Sound of Music Tour Bus
Hollywood can often ruin a city, especially one made famous by the longest standing musical film of all time that attracts over 300,000 tourists a year. However, while some of the 1965 film’s scenes are within the centre of the city, many remain outside of it, accessible only by your meticulous planning (and special permission) or via The Sound of Music Panorama Tours bus.
I admit I was a little pessimistic about a bus tour since I like to bounce around on my own time. But here’s the honesty. It was one of the most fun mornings I’ve ever had – a bus full of excitable Sound of Music fans hyper on Do Re Me, My Favourite Things, How do You Solve a Problem like Maria and all other tunes, while staring out of the window at Salzburg’s green vistas. Panorama Tours have created a sing-along, multi-stop schedule that runs every day of the year (because it is THAT in demand).
It stops at various highlights including the other side of the Schloss Leopoldskron pond (access is only available if you stay at the property), the white gazebo known for “Sixteen going on Seventeen”. It passes the outskirts of Villa Trapp, heads out to the church where Maria and Captain Von Trapp got married and ends at the beautiful Schloss Mirabell in the city. So you can dance on the Pegasus (Do-Re-Mi) fountain and snap yourself on the famous stairs at the Mirabell Gardens.
The tour is also a way of getting out in the surrounding nature of Salzburg, where you can spot the Untersberg (the panoramas used in the opening scenes of the Sound of Music). While the city pops with gardens and cycle paths, the mountain ranges of the Mönchsberg, Festungberg and Kapuzinerberg hug the city, whose old and modern districts get divided by the river Salzach. On the Panorama Tours bus, you weave through these mountainous valleys and past half a dozen lakes, getting an introduction to the diversity of Salzburg state.
You Can’t Visit Salzburg Without Honouring Mozart
Mozart is the city’s most famous son, born and bred in Salzburg and forever a part of its legacy. Born in Getreidegasse 9 (in 1756), today fans flock for a picture outside the building’s brightly painted yellow façade, which now incorporates a permanent exhibition about his life and career, and modern Spar supermarket on the lower level. Afterwards, you can indulge in a “Mozartkugel” chocolate, whose silver and blue wrapper marks it out as the “Original Salzburger Mozartkugel” – the real deal compared to the red and gold wrapped ‘souvenir’ style Mozartkugels found elsewhere in Austria.