Last Updated on December 21, 2023

Nestled against the border of Germany, the Austrian city of Salzburg is both charming and sophisticated. The city center, much of which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is walkable and easily enjoyed in a few days.

Though it makes a perfect stand-alone destination, Salzburg is also ideal as a starting point for exploring the Eastern Alps or as a stop on a longer European tour. Salzburg is a unique blend of historical sites and cultural experiences enhanced by traditional delicacies and local beer.

Stroll Through the Old Town

Every visit to Salzburg should start with a stroll through Altstadt, the city’s historic center. This area, with its cobblestone street and baroque architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. S

ince many hotels, attractions, shops, and restaurants are in this area, you’ll likely return many times during your visit. A walk through the charming streets is the perfect introduction to Salzburg.  

Visit Hohensalzburg Fortress

Perched on a hill overlooking the city, Hohensalzburg Fortress is unmissable. Construction of the fortress began in 1077 and over the centuries, the structure was expanded and redesigned to protect Salzburg from hostile attacks. Today, Hohensalzburg Fortress is one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved castles.

You can take a 20-minute walk up the hill, but the easy way to the top is to ride the funicular. The ride is included in your pre-purchased ticket and starts at the bottom of the hill just outside the city center.  

Be sure to peek inside the Prince’s Chambers, where the furnishings have remained unchanged since 1501. Then, explore the four onsite museums, including the armory, the Castle Museum with artifacts from the fortress’ history, the Puppet Museum, and the Rainer Regiment Museum.

If you are looking for a more interactive way to experience the castle, pick up tickets for the nightly Dinner & Best of Mozart Concert event. The evening starts with a three-course meal in the castle’s Panorama Restaurant, followed by a 90-minute concert in a beautifully adorned hall.

Tickets are available at a variety of prices, but the upgrade to the Golden VIP option is well worth the expense. The ultimate ticket includes wine with dinner and during the concert’s intermission. More importantly, you will have premium seating. The Panorama Restaurant has exceptional views, and a table on the terrace or at a window will be a highlight of the evening.

Have a Beer at Augustiner Brau

Salzburg is the beer capital of Austria and sampling the local brews is a must for any itinerary. Though the city is home to many beer halls and gardens, Augustiner Brau is the best of the best, not only for the tasty suds but also for the unique experience.

When you enter Austria’s largest beer hall, grab a stoneware mug from the wooden shelves. Steins are available in two sizes, massive and wow-that-is-massive (half-liter and liter.) Rinse your cup in the nearby water fountain before heading over to the cashier. Take your receipt to the person serving the beer and watch as they draw your drink from a wooden barrel.  

With your beer in hand, find a seat in one of the five large halls. Each hall has unique décor, ranging from cozy wood paneling to marble reclaimed from a railway station. In warmer months the 1400-seat tree-shaded terrace will tempt you to stay all afternoon.  

For a snack to go with your beverage, stroll through the delicatessen arcade. Several vendors sell local favorites, including giant pretzels, hearty bread, and sausage.

Sip Schnapps at Sporer

When you’ve had your fill of local beer it’s time to sample another Salzburg staple. The Sporer family has been making and serving schnapps and liqueurs in the same location since 1905. 

Sporer occupies a tiny sliver of a bar and shop on the Getreidegasse shopping street. By mid-afternoon visitors will spill out the door. For the best experience, arrive early in the day and grab one of a handful of seats in the quaint backroom.  

Though the menu contains an impressive selection of beers and Austrian wines, schnapps tasting is what draws in the crowds. Select from roughly 30 flavors of liqueurs and schnapps, ranging from yummy pear and elderflower varieties to unexpected pinecone.

A flight of three one-centiliter drinks is the best value and lets you sample a range of flavors without overindulging. If you find a favorite, and you will, purchase a bottle to take home. 

Visit Mozart’s Birthplace

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born and spent the majority of his life in Salzburg. Today, the home in which the composer was born is a museum detailing his life and music. Located in a bright yellow house on the Getreidegasse in the Old Town, Mozart’s Birthplace is impossible to miss because of the color and the crowd outside. A visit takes about an hour, and you will wander through rooms restored with 18th-century furniture, letters, portraits, and memorabilia.

Do not confuse Mozart’s Birthplace with Mozart’s Residence. The Residence, located on Makatplatz, was the home Mozart’s family moved to a few years after his birth. Today, the Residence is another, less popular yet still excellent, museum dedicated to the musician.

Attend a Classical Music Concert

With Mozart the most famous citizen it’s not surprising that classical music still plays a vital role in Salzburg’s culture. Be sure to make time in your schedule to attend one of the city’s daily concerts that are hosted in a variety of beautiful, historical settings.

Though the dinner concert at Hohensalzburg Fortress is an excellent choice, there are options to suit every budget and itinerary. Pick up tickets in advance for the Salzburg Palace Concert series, presented nightly in a gilded hall in Mirabell Palace.

For a wider selection of times, check out the Salzburg Classic Music Concerts that are held up to four times each day in the Mirabell Palace Church.

Tour Salzburg Cathedral

Like most European cities, Salzburg is home to several stunning churches and cathedrals, all of which are worthy of visits. However, the city’s most important religious site is Salzburg Cathedral, which is easily recognizable by its three green domes.

There has been a Cathedral on this site since 767. The current Early Baroque building was consecrated in 1628 and restored in the 1950s after damage from aircraft bombs during World War II.

Self-guided tours are free, though donations are appreciated, and the Cathedral is open to visitors seven days a week.

Do not miss a walk through the crypts where a modern art exhibit, “Vanitas,” plays with light, shadow, and sound and features a mysterious angel of death that revolves around the room. 

Eat at Stiegl-Keller

Steigl is the most famous and readily available local beverage. But a visit to their cellar is as much about the food as the drink. There’s nothing fancy about Steigl-Keller. The setting is cozy with rich wood tones, and the meals are hearty, filling Austrian specialties. Absolutely everything on the menu is excellent, and the beef goulash with a bread dumpling is deeply satisfying. 

Though the restaurant is huge, with seating for over 700 people, it’s still a good idea to make reservations for this popular eatery.

On sunny days sit on the terrace and enjoy views over the Old Town. Stiegl-Keller is an excellent spot to eat when visiting Hohensalzburg Fortress since the restaurant is near the funicular.

Take a Walk in Mirabell Gardens

For walking off a heavy meal there is no place better than Mirabell Palace and Gardens. Though you would be forgiven for not squeezing the palace’s Marble Hall and Angel Staircase into a busy schedule, the gardens are not to be overlooked.

In the spring and summer, the Rose Garden overflows with flowers. Children will love the Dwarf Garden with its 17 whimsical statues. Even in the fall and winter it is worth visiting the Pegasus Fountain which features in The Sound of Music.

Explore the Catacombs at St. Peter’s Monastery and Cemetery

St. Peter’s Monastery is the oldest monastery in the German-speaking world with monks living and working onsite since 696. The area has everything needed to sustain the life of the order including a functional waterwheel and gardens.

Take a peek inside the elaborately gilded church, but spend the bulk of your visit in the adjoining cemetery and catacombs. Stroll through the family plots and wrought-iron crosses that mark the graves of some of Austria’s most famous citizens. Then, head to an easily-missed gate on the back wall of the cemetery to access the catacombs.

While most catacombs and crypts are underground, here you’ll find yourself climbing two narrow staircases to visit the burial caves above the city. Be sure to stop at the lookout tower for impressive views.

Before you leave stop by the Abbey Bakery for a few warm buns straight from the oven. The smell of fresh bread will lead you to the stone vault which houses the oldest bakery in Salzburg. The spiced rye buns and the fruited varieties are all good, but the brioche is the real crowd-pleaser.

Revisit Scenes from The Sound of Music

Did you know The Sound of Music was based on the true story of Salzburg’s Von Trapp family? Not only did the musical family live in the city, but the movie was also filmed in several locations in the area. Though fans can choose from several tours, such as Fraulein Maria’s Bicycle Tour, you will likely stumble upon the sites of the most famous scenes on your jaunts around the city.

In addition to Mirabella Gardens, St. Peter’s Cemetery was used to shoot footage of the family hiding before fleeing to Switzerland. 

Hellbrunn Palace is home to the famous gazebo featured in Sixteen Going on Seventeen. While you are at the palace be sure to spend some time visiting the trick fountains. Though they are not in the film the grottos, water automats, and fountains are a whimsical delight with unexpected splashes and creative forms. 

Indulge in a Coffee at Café Tomaselli

There is not a more elegant way to start the day than by learning about Austria’s coffee culture at Café Tomaselli. The family-owned café has been in business for over 30 years making it the oldest coffee house in Europe. 

Each beverage is served on a silver tray alongside a small cup of water and a bit of sugar. For a decadent treat order the Tomaselliums Coffee which features mocha, Mozart liqueur, whipped cream, and chopped almonds. Choose a hot breakfast such as scrambled eggs with sausage from the menu, or select a delicate pastry from the roving dessert tray. 

Go Modern at Hanger 7

While most of Salzburg centers around historic sites and ancient architecture, Hanger 7 is an entirely different vibe. This unique development, sponsored by Red Bull, brings together modern architecture, art, technology, and gastronomy. You can visit the Flying Bull’s collection of rare aircraft and race cars while also taking in art exhibits, all within the curved steel and glass structures. 

Foodies should also make a reservation for Hanger 7’s restaurant, Ikarus. The upscale eatery has two Michelin stars and a one-of-a-kind concept. Rather than relying on the talents of one chef, Ikarus transforms itself each month with a new guest chef and fresh menu.

Scale Unterberg Mountain

When you are ready to explore beyond the city take a trip to the top of Untersbergbahn. Though serious hikers can climb to the peak, the mountain is easily accessible by cable car just outside of Salzburg. You can purchase your cable car tickets in advance and then enjoy the changing views on the ten-minute ride to the top. 

To make the most of the day avoid the crowds and arrive early in the morning. Mornings on Untersberg can be foggy, so make the short walk to the mountaintop restaurant, Bergrestaurant Holchalm. The quaint building is the perfect spot to warm up with a cup of coffee or mulled wine while waiting for the fog to lift.

Around mid-morning, when the skies clear, venture outside to soak in the views of the valley below. Then spend some time hiking in the area before heading back to the cable car. 

Get Festive at Christmas Markets

Salzburg Christmas Market ornaments.
Salzburg Christmas Market ornaments. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Starting at the end of November, Salzburg takes out the twinkle lights and the pine boughs to celebrate the Advent season. Christmas markets scattered throughout the city delight visitors with seasonal foods, stalls overflowing with holiday ornaments, and live performances.

While many European cities close their Christmas markets several days before the holiday, Salzburg’s markets remain open later. This makes Austria the perfect winter holiday destination if you are juggling school or work schedules. The Christmas Market at Hellbrunn Palace is open through December 24 and features a petting zoo and pony rides. 

The largest of Salzburg’s Christmas Markets is also one of the oldest in Europe. Christkindlmarkt is open from late November through December 26. The main area for this 100-stall market is in front of Salzburg Cathedral with additional stalls spilling into the nearby Residenzplatz. Aside from the food, drink, and craft vendors, the event features parades, story times for children, and choral performances in front of the Cathedral. 

To best enjoy the festivities, make your first stop at a Gluhwein stall for spiced mulled wine served in a collectible mug. Then spend a few hours doing a lap around the market, stopping for snacks of fresh-baked pretzels and roasted nuts, while shopping for ornaments and gifts.

Special to BookCottages by Michelle Sanders

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