How to plan your perfect trip. The top tourist attractions, must-see and things to do in Salzburg.
Salzburg is one of the most fascinating towns in Austria. It’s Mozart’s birthplace, most of The Sound of Music was produced here and of course, there is a beautiful old town just waiting for you to explore. In short, there are quite a lot of things to do in Salzburg. In fact, I ranked it as one of the top day trips from Munich!
The fourth-largest city in Austria is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997 and the second you see the impressive fortress looming over the Baroque old town of the city you know why. The whole setting just spells perfection and it could be a lovely addition to your Austria itinerary, after or before you continue onwards to Innsbruck (read my guide).
And the best part: Almost all of Salzburg’s tourist attractions are within easy walking distance. Which is exactly why I recommend buying the Salzburg Card for free admission to basically all highlights in the city (you can buy it here). Normally, I am not a big fan of tourist cards, but in this case, it really IS a big bargain because you can see many places in one day in Salzburg.
As an alternative, you could also book a guided tour that includes all entrance fees and transportation. But, let’s start with my list of the top things to do in Salzburg, shall we?
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1. Fortress Hohensalzburg
Walking through Salzburg, you cannot escape seeing the magnificent medieval fortress on the hill behind the old town. Hohensalzburg fortress is the most iconic sight in the city. It also gave the city, quite literally, its name. Salzburg translates to “salt fortress”, and it guarded the important salt mines in the vicinity.
It’s the largest completely intact fortress in central Europe and the biggest tourist magnet in Austria outside of Vienna. Construction started in 1070 AD, though most of what you see today dates back to the late 15th century when Leonard von Keutschach, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, transformed the fortress into a late gothic seat of power.
A funicular connects the old town with Hohensalzburg, so you don’t need to climb all the way to the top (even though that little hike IS interesting) and you can actually tour the fortress grounds for free – you’ll only need a ticket if you want to go inside. Which, admittedly, you really should. There is a reason over 1 million people visit each year and you really have to put it at the top of your list of things to do in Salzburg!
Note: Don’t get the basic ticket. Only the all-inclusive tickets give you access to the Golden Chamber – the true highlight of the fortress.
Tip: The famous horn organ from the 15h century (called the ‘Salzburg bull’) plays every day at 7 and 11 am and 6 pm. So, this is the best time to visit.
2. Mirabell Palace & Gardens
Another famous site is the outstanding Mirabell Palace on the other side of the Salzach River. The palace is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site “Historic center of Salzburg” and another must-visit. The gardens in front of the castle are beyond beautiful – especially as they offer a fantastic view of the fortress.
You can also go inside. In fact, there’s no entrance fee, so don’t shy away from stepping through the door and climb the magnificent staircase to the first floor. You can’t really tour the rest, as the city council still uses the palace, so it’s off-limits for tourists.
In the evening, you may even want to book a classical concert inside the famous Marble chamber (you can do so here). It’s quite the special place a lot of locals favor for their wedding and it’s also free to visit on most days.
3. Schloss Hellbrunn
Salzburg was quite a rich city during the 17th century. No wonder, salt was basically the only reliable way to preserve meat back then, and they also mined for gold. Prince-Bishop Markus Sittikus von Hohenems used that money to build a marvelous manneristic pleasure palace on the outskirts of Salzburg: Hellbrunn Palace
The palace is particularly famous for its water games (jeux d’eau) and it’s one of the most unique places to visit in Salzburg! It’s a whole garden filled with trick fountains. Some of them power fantastic machinery (like a huge wooden puppet theater), there are underground grottos and of course, there is the grand table of the prince, where fountains are hidden in the seats of the guests (not of the prince, of course).
It’s hard to describe with words just how much fun a tour of Hellbrunn is (and pictures hardly do it justice), as these historic trick fountains were built to surprise the guests even back then in the 17th century. So, while casually enjoying a grotto, water will suddenly sprout from the floor or a hidden orifice in a statue. You will get wet (just a little bit, no worries), and it sure brings back the most pleasant childhood memories.
Note: You can only tour the famous water fountains on a guided tour. Tours start every 15 minutes.
4. Salzburg Cathedral
Another fantastic place to visit in Salzburg it the baroque Cathedral (“Salzburger Dom“) right in the center of the city. It’s quite the huge ensemble with a length of 101 meters, while to cupola is 79 meters high. It’s also quite the ancient site. The first cathedral was finished in 774 AD on that very site. Sadly, altogether 6 fires ravaged Salzburg Cathedral over the ensuing centuries.
The current building dates back to 1628 (though the cupola was destroyed during World War II) and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Salzburg Cathedral is part of a huge complex called the “Cathedral Quarter“, so you should definitely reserve some extra time to explore the outstanding museums and the former residence of the Prince-Bishops.
The Getreidegasse (“grain alley“) is Salzburg’s historic main shopping streets. It’s probably the best place to buy a lovely souvenir or get a traditional Austrian outfit. Most importantly perhaps: The long winding street with its baroque houses is extremely pretty, with many golden trade signs hanging into the street like it was still the 19th century.
6. Mozart’s Birthplace & Living House
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is probably Salzburg’s most famous son. Even though the musical genius only spent his younger years in the city (and traveled almost a quarter of his life), the residents are still extremely proud of him. There are two museums dedicated to the life and work of Mozart you can visit.
You’ll find his birth house in the middle of the aforementioned Getreidegasse, which is quite lovely. And then there is Mozart’s living house on the other side of the River Salzach where you’ll find another small museum dedicated to the everyday life of the family and of course Mozart’s musical legacy.
7. St. Peter’s Abbey
Stift Sankt Peter is the oldest still existing Benedictine abbey in the German-speaking countries. It was founded by Saint Rupert in 696 AD and there is evidence the site was used as a monastery as early as the 5th-century, can you believe it?
As of 2019, only 18 monks are in residence, but it’s still one of the most interesting places to visit in Salzburg. The church of the abbey is a baroque masterpiece and has only been recently renovated (opened again in September 2019).
8. The Catacombs
Creepy or not, the catacombs are one of the most fascinating places to visit in Salzburg. It’s actually more like a beautiful cemetery with a couple of tombs hewn into the mountain behind it.
Still, the St. Peter cemetery truly is a special place. I totally recommend you to climb the stairs into the catacombs at the back (it costs like 2 euros) as the view of the old town and the cathedral is quite wonderful from up there.
9. Franciscan Church
The Franciscan Church is my personal favorite place to visit in Salzburg. The gothic choir vault is just so amazing. Despite being pretty much the oldest church in the old town, it hardly sees any tourists. Unlike the cathedral, it’s pretty much still a place for silent introspection and prayer!
Take special note of the high altar. Sadly, the gothic masterpiece by Michael Pacher was replaced in 1709 – only the Madonna still dates back to the 15th century. The original altar was said to be the largest and most opulent of it’s kind in central Europe. Most of the parts can now be found in different collections throughout Europe.
The Maartsteg is a small pedestrian bridge across the River Salzach. It’s probably the single best spot to shoot a panorama of Salzburg and that’s exactly why you need to go there. Chances are pretty high you will have to cross it on your walking tour through the old town anyways.
You’ll also find quite a lot of love locks lining the railing. So, if you are traveling with the love of your life, you might want to plan ahead and leave a little memento here.
11. Museum der Moderne
Depending on how long you are staying and how interested you are in modern art, the Musem der Moderne might be a wonderful place to visit in Salzburg. The got pretty interesting changing exhibitions, so why not check the schedule ahead of your visit.
And even if you don’t want to spend your time in Salzburg visiting a museum, you still might want to take the elevator to the viewing platform in front of the museum. It’s included in your Salzburg card (otherwise it’s 2,50€ each way) and will award you with a different view of the old town.
Tip: There’s also quite a nice café at the top in case you want to combine enjoying the view with some Austrian coffee and cake.
12. Pferdeschwemme Salzburg
I’m sure you have seen The Sound of Music? Well, then the Pferdeschwemme (roughly “water basin to clean the horses”) is a must-visit for you. The ornate fountain was built in 1603 and was featured in the famous film. On their carriage ride through Salzburg Maria and the Trapp kids marvel at the unique ensemble – and so should you!
Long before Mozart, Salzburg has already been famous for its music. These days, the annual music festival “Salzburger Festspiele” draws thousands of classical music fans to the famous opera house at the far back of the old town. The current building is somewhat new, so there are no historic rooms you could explore.
If you are visiting in July or August, consider buying a ticket for one of the world-famous opera production and concert! Here’s the official website.
14. Toy Museum Salzburg
Are you looking for fun things to do in Salzburg with kids? Well, then you really have to visit the Toy Museum in the historic hospital of the city. Salzburg is famous for its puppet theater, but this museum puts an emphasis on interaction and actually playing the games rather than just “boring” exhibition rooms.
15. Sound of Music Museum & Tour
Last, but certainly not least, you really should consider going on a World of Music tour through Salzburg (book it here). There is are so many iconic places to explore in the city, and as a fan, you don’t want to miss them, eh? At the far end of the Getreidegasse, you will also find the Sound of Music World. So, why not take a look while you are there?
Other things to do in Salzburg
Salzburg is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. You can basically tell a fascinating story about almost all the houses in the city. A lot of them are 500 years or older – despite the immaculate facades. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll be able to find the houses of famous residents like the physicist Doppler Zoo, conductor Herbert von Karajan or Paracelsus.
There are also a couple of museums I did not mention on this list of things to do in Salzburg yet. The Panorama Museum might be a lovely place to visit with kids, and the Salzburg Museum will certainly give you a better understanding of the history of the city.
Quite close to Salzburg you could also visit the famous Eisriesenwelt – the largest ice cave in the world. There are also three old mines now turned into a museum, where you can (excuse the pun) dig deeper into the salt trade that made Salzburg rich. (here’s the official website).
And then, you should definitely take a bit of time to explore the culinary side of Salzburg. Austria, and Salzburg, in particular, is famous for its desserts. You’ll find many cafés and bakeries throughout the old town where you should definitely sample these Austrian specialties.
If you plan to stay a bit longer, you could even plan a day trip to picturesque Hallstatt!
Where to stay in Salzburg
There is no shortage of hotels in Salzburg. No matter if you want to stay at a luxury hotel or a budget-friendly hostel, you’ll be able to find a nice place for you. Salzburg is not exactly the cheapest city in Austria, but prices are still mostly reasonable. Hotel Goldener Hirsch in the old town is quite famous, but am not sure if this is a bit too touristy. So, here are the best hotels in Salzburg:
Luxury Hotels in Salzburg
- Hotel Sacher Salzburg (the most iconic hotel in the city)
- Hotel Bristol Salzburg
- Schloss Mönchstein (extraordinary view & pool!)
Mid-price hotels in Salzburg
Budget hotels in Salzburg
Best time to visit Salzburg
The best time to visit Salzburg is July or August. The weather will be pleasantly warm with not too much rain. As an alternative, December can be an excellent time to visit, as you get to experience the famous Salzburg Christmas market.
Other than that, you really shouldn’t worry too much about it. In winter, you can go skiing, while spring and autumn also got their allure. Sure, you will have to dress differently, but I couldn’t think of a single reason why a particular season would be truly better than the other.
The only thing I really have to mention is that the city will be extremely crowded in summer and the same applies to the festive season. It’s mostly still manageable, but don’t expect an empty old town. On the plus side, there are a couple of local festivals in summer which can be fun (like the Rupertikirtag in September).
How to plan a day trip to Salzburg from Munich
Are you staying in Munich? Then make sure to read my guide to the top things to do in Munich. But more to the point – a day trip from Salzburg to Munich is entirely feasible. If you take the high-speed train, it only takes 90 minutes from one central station to the other central station. Just check the schedule on the official website of the Germany Railway Service.
There is just one thing you should know. There are quite a lot of cruises and travel agencies featuring Salzburg in their itineraries. Hence, I do recommend you to start your day trip as early as possible because the big crowds will arrive around 10:30 to 11:00 am. It really pays off to be in Salzburg a little bit earlier.