Salzburg is a splendid Austrian town that never fails to enchant its many visitors. Watched over by a dramatic hilltop castle fortress, its well-preserved Old Town is a delight for strolling. Of course, Salzburg is known for “The Sound of Music” and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While there, you can take in a classical music concert and tour Mozart’s two residences.
I recently spent three wonderful days in Salzburg (in September 2021), as part of a 2-week European trip to visit local German friends living in Munich. In addition, a few years ago, I had met a lovely Austrian woman Daniela through a mutual friend. So, I was excited to visit “Dani” while in Salzburg.
I was on a mission to see and explore all the beautiful and cool sights in & around Salzburg – spending some of the time with Dani and some on my own. I knew it was going to be a wonderful destination that I could share with you – and mission was accomplished!
In this blog post, I am sharing my personal experiences and recommendation of things you can see & do on your visit to this charming city. And with Europe’s excellent train system, Salzburg is very easy to reach. It’s only 1.5-2 hours from Munich and 2.5-3 hours from Vienna.
More About Salzburg
Salzburg is Austria’s 4th largest city, with a population of only 150,000. The Salzach River (meaning Salt River) splits the city in two. The transportation of salt – known as “white gold” – was very important in Salzburg’s history. In fact, the Hallein salt mines are located just 12 miles upstream.
Salzburg’s compact Old Town sits between the Salzach River and the dramatic Monchsberg mountain, upon which is perched the old castle (aka Hohensalzburg Fortress). Its primarily pedestrian Old Town streets are cobblestone and lined by elegant buildings, cute shops, and countless Baroque churches. Plus, horse drawn carriages ferry tourists through the streets. Total charm!
In contrast to Europe’s larger, grand cities (like Paris, Vienna, and Berlin), Salzburg is small, peaceful and with a low-key vibe. It’s a great place for “travel decompressing” between visits to the busier nearby cities of Munich and Vienna. You can slow down and savor Salzburg’s many charms – on hopefully a multi-day visit.
So, let’s get started…
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN & NEAR OLD TOWN
Enjoy a Leisurely Walking Tour/Exploration of Old Town
Old Town Salzburg is truly a delight and quite easy to navigate. I was surprised that it took only 10-15 minutes to walk from one end to the other (minus stops, of course). And, as always, I used a Rick Steves’ guidebook for following Rick’s detailed Old Town walking tour.
Old Town has a series of large inter-connecting squares, such as Mozartplatz & the huge Residenzplatz – which is surrounded by many important buildings. This includes the Cathedral, consecrated in 1628, and one of the first Italian Baroque buildings north of the Alps. It has a large green central dome and two domed towers on each side of its entrance.
In the middle of the plaza is an Italian style fountain of Triton (above). In fact, Salzburg was nicknamed “The Rome of the North.” Also fronting the square is the former palace (the Residenz) of the prince-archbishops, who ruled Salzburg. The New Residenz (across the square) has a beautiful bell tower with a 17th C. chiming glockenspiel. Both buildings house museums you can visit, which I didn’t have the chance to do.
Just behind the Cathedral is the Kapitelplatz square, with its giant chessboard. There you can find locals engrossed in a chess game, surrounded by curious onlookers. They are watched over by a playful modern sculpture showing a man standing atop a golden orb. Hmm…very creative artist!
Farther along is a small square, the Toscaninhof, which sits next to Festival Hall. This large complex (above) is the site of the famous Salzburg Musical Festival, held each summer in July & August. The Festival Hall was built in the 1920s, when the prince-archbishop’s stables & riding school were repurposed and remodeled. This Hall is where the actual Von Trapp family performed in 1936.
Take a Stroll & Shop Along the Legendary Getreidegasse
Old Town’s fun pedestrian “shopping street” of Getreidegasse has apparently been the center of trade since Roman times. Today, it’s Salzburg’s main strolling street tempting visitors with many beautiful shops offering a wide array of goods.
Be sure to note the many old wrought-iron signs hanging from above the shops that advertise what’s sold inside – such as a pharmacy, hat maker, umbrella shop (Kirchtag), and a jewelry / watchmaker. I’m chagrined to say that even McDonalds has a store here, along with its own wrought iron sign featuring a lion and the letter “M”!
In addition, there are many “inside lanes” or arcades that run perpendicular between Getreidegasse and parallel streets on each side. These arcades are filled with more beautiful shops. Personally, I’m not a big shopper, but if I was, I’d be in heaven in Salzburg. Plus, if you’re looking for some Austrian haute couture to take home to impress your friends, you’re in the right place!
Pay A Visit to the Castle (Hohensalzburg Fortress)
This castle fortress has overlooked Salzburg’s Old Town for over a thousand years and is one of its most iconic landmarks. Construction of the medieval castle began in 1077 – and over the centuries, it grew into a mighty fortress.
Apparently its size and strategic location high atop the town on the Monchsberg mountain prevented any attacks for over 800 years. Today, the Hohensalzburg Fortress is an 8-acre complex of around 50 buildings, courtyards, and protective walls. It offers incredible views, pleasant cafes, and some museums about medieval history.
The fortress is most easily reached by a modern funicular, dating from 1910. And, of course, that is what I did. I love riding funiculars, even when the ride is short like this one. The funicular starts from Festungsgasse (street) a little ways up from the Kapitelplatz. It actually ascends and lets you out inside the fortress complex.
I spent two enjoyable hours exploring the large fortress complex, having bought the all-inclusive ticket which allowed access to all areas and museums. I did a quick pass through the museums, as I’m not that into medieval history or instruments of torture. But the views from the fortress out over Salzburg (at many different points along the way) were amazing – and worth the trip in itself!
Return to Town via by Monchsberg Walk & the Museum of Modern Art
When you’re done visiting the Fortress, you can easily return back down to Old Town via the funicular. However, there is another option I read about in my Rick Steves’ guidebook that I wanted to try – and did. So, I want to recommend it as a possible option for after your castle visit.
The “Monchsberg Walk” is a wooded walking path (on a paved road) along the narrow ridgeline of the Monchsberg mountain. This 1.1 km (0.7 mile) path runs between the fortress and the Museum of Modern Art (and its elevator back down). It takes about a half hour.
You’ll want to exit the fortress by taking the steep lane down from the castle courtyard (look for sign: Footpath to Town). At the bottom of the lane, you’ll see the funicular mid-point station – however, you can’t get on or off here. You’ll walk left under the funicular track to find signs leading you to the Monchsberg Walk and the Museum of Modern Art (MMA).
I met a nice young Israeli couple by the funicular who joined me on the Walk. We stayed on the road the whole time and kept following the signs to MMA. There may have been a side path that led to Stadtalm Café & Gasthaus that we missed. Apparently, there are good views from there.
Our destination was the Museum of Modern Art with a phenomenal location on the mountain ridge high above town. It was built in 2004 to replace the famed Café Winkler. Today, they have the “M32” café restaurant with an outdoor terrace and more great views. Unfortunately, it was late in the day, or we would have stopped. The museum has an elevator which zipped us back down to street level in no time! There I bid adieu to my new friends after snapping a cute photo!
Visit Mozart’s Residences – Geburtshaus & the Wohnhaus
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived in Salzburg for the first 25 years of his short 35-year life. You can visit Mozart’s Birthplace (Geburtshaus) on the Getreidegasse, where he was born in 1756. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a musician in the prince-archbishop’s band. It was in this house where Mozart learned to play piano & violin and composed his first boy-genius works.
Mozart lived in this small rental apartment with his parents & older sister Nannerl (also talented!) until they moved to larger, more lavish quarters across the river in 1773. At this point, Wolfgang was 17 and the family had earned lots of money from years of touring palaces around Europe. You can also visit this residence, which is named the Wohnhaus.
Along with Rick Steves, I highly recommend a visit to Mozart’s Birthplace (Geburtshaus). I spent over an hour there and really enjoyed the different fascinating and well signed exhibits. Rick says it well: “There are paintings, letters, personal items and lots of context, all bringing to life the Mozart story.”
Afterwards, I made a quick visit to the Mozart Residence (Wohnhaus). There you can find original Mozart family instruments, a good introductory video, and other exhibits about his father Leopold and sister Nannerl.
Walk Around the Beautiful Mirabell Gardens
The beautiful Mirabell Palace & Gardens (Mirabellgarten und Schloss) are located on the other side of the river, about a 10-minute walk from Old Town. They are definitely worth a visit – and are included on all “Sound of Music” Tours.
Once the prince-archbishop’s summer palace (first built in 1606), the Mirabell Palace is now the seat of the mayor and houses other municipal offices. Its beautiful Marble Hall, the former banquet hall of the prince-archbishops, regularly hosts weddings, conferences, special events, and classical music concerts.
The lovely and colorful Baroque pleasure gardens, with their many fountains, were first created in 1690. They’ve been open to the public since 1850 and are a beloved part of Salzburg, for locals and visitors alike. They are free to visit and offer amazing views back toward the Old Town skyline & the Castle Fortress.
Some of the famous scenes from “The Sound of Music” were filmed here in the gardens. The rearing Pegasus statue in the middle of the fountain is where the children danced before lining up on the nearby steps (above left) to sing the classic Do-Re-Me song. (more to come in Sound of Music tour section below).
Wander Around St. Peter’s Cemetery
This area was the birthplace of Christianity in Salzburg, with St. Peter’s Abbey being founded in 696. The former abbey was a monastic complex of churches, courtyards, and businesses (like a bakery), along with a cemetery. Its biggest church, St. Peter’s, dates from 1147.
It’s a real treat quietly wandering around the peaceful cemetery with its colorful and well-tended graves, checking out the different styles and inscriptions. In addition, there are various burial chapels lying in an arcade, along the base of the Monchsberg cliff.
The famed Stiftskeller St. Peter restaurant (below left) is located to the side of the large courtyard in front of St. Peter’s Church. They boast that this is the oldest restaurant in Europe, claiming that Charlemagne ate here in 803!
Attend a Mozart / Classical Music Concert
While in Salzburg, how could I not attend a classical music concert of Mozart’s works? In fact, in 2010 while visiting Vienna (where Mozart lived after leaving Salzburg), I attended a Mozart chamber music concert. That concert was held in the MozartHaus, where he had lived and played in Vienna.
In Salzburg, you’ll find good options for classical music concerts. I went to the Tourist Info (TI) office to enquire and buy my ticket for that evening. Luckily, “Best of Mozart” concerts are performed nearly every night at the Hohensalzburg Fortress. So, I paid my 36 euros (~$40 USD) for the 8:00pm performance (without the dinner package).
The ticket included a free round-trip funicular ride up to the castle (starting the hour before the performance). The nicely decorated concert room held around 100 people. There were 5 chamber music musicians on stage who performed for 1.5 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. I’m not a huge classical music fan, but it was still fun and enjoyable.
Other Options: You can also enjoy a concert at the Mirabell Palace in their beautiful Baroque hall. Per Rick Steves, they offer more sophisticated programs and better musicians. However, it’s not every night. Plus, the historic Stiftskeller St. Peter restaurant (I just mentioned) offers a candlelit meal and a Mozart Dinner Concert. Of course, performances are always subject to change, but this will give you an idea.
People Watch at Café Tomaselli/ Enjoy Austrian Apple Strudel & Weiner Schnitzel
When in Salzburg, you’ll definitely want to pay a visit to the very popular & historic Café Tomaselli, which claims to be the oldest coffee house in Austria (founded in 1700). Located on the Alter Markt (Old Marketplace), Mozart dined here back in the day!
Today, Café Tomaselli is a great place to sit and linger on the outside terrace, enjoying some fun people-watching. I popped in one afternoon when I was craving an apple strudel – which is considered by many to be the national dish of Austria & one that I happen to love! Unfortunately, they were out of apple that day, but I had a delicious plum strudel along with my cappuccino.
At the Cafe, you may get lucky & be able to watch the “Silver Mozart” living statue hard at work, entertaining bewildered passersby for a smile and a tip. Like everyone, I wondered just how does Mozart keep himself suspended in the air like that?
I googled him when I got home to learn that this delightful man (named Ed Silver) has been working as the floating “Silver Mozart” almost every day for the past 15 years. He usually works somewhere in Old Town between the Furst & Tomaselli coffee houses – and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. Be sure to get your photo with him – and he might just even post it on his Silver Mozart Facebook page!
On my final night in Salzburg, I enjoyed a lovely meal with Dani. I was crazing another Austrian specialty – weiner schnitzel, which is a thinly breaded veal cutlet. So, she took me to the very cool restaurant Meissl & Schadn, located at the end of Getreidegasse. This famed Viennese restaurant, which serves Austrian cuisine, recently opened in Salzburg and is already a hit. It was a delicious meal!
COOL THINGS TO DO NEAR & OUTSIDE SALZBURG
Take a “Sound of Music” Tour – Really, Truly!
“The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music!” Ah, yes, one of America’s most beloved family movies starring Julie Andrews & Christopher Plummer was filmed in and around Salzburg. The 1965 Academy-award winning musical film (and Broadway musical) was based on the real-life story of Maria who left the nunnery to become governess (and later wife) for Captain von Trapp and his seven unruly children who lived in Salzburg.
I was excited to take one of the popular 4-hour “Sound of Music” Tours, which take you to various sites in & around Salzburg to show you both filming locations and real-life places. Even though these tours might sound schmaltzy, Rick Steves is a big fan. The sights are really spread out, plus the tour gives you a nice city overview and a drive through the pretty countryside & lake area.
Panorama Tours usually runs this very fun tour in their HUGE, brightly painted Sound of Music bus. However, with decreased numbers of American travelers (their main market) because of the pandemic, there were only 15 of us signed up for my 9:15am tour. So, we were divided into two groups, and traveled in 7-8 passenger vans. As a result, we were able to see & do more on the tour!
“Sound of Music” Sights We Saw
Sonja was our delightful & most enthusiastic guide. One of the first stops was Leopoldskron Schloss & lake, where the famed boating scene took place. Plus, the exterior of Leopoldskron (below right) was one of two facades used for the movie. As you might suspect, many interior scenes were filmed on a Hollywood sound stage.
We visited the grounds of Hellbrunn Palace and posed in front of the famous gazebo (known for the “You are 16, going on 17” song). It had been moved to Hellbrunn gardens from Leopoldskron after too many movie fans went trapsing on the property in search of the gazebo.
From behind a gate, we viewed the actual von Trapp family home, which is now a B&B – the Hotel Villa Trapp. (below)
Back in town, we stopped for a view of Nonnberg Abbey sitting atop a hill (and located close to the Hohensalzburg Fortress). This is the Benedictine nunnery where the real Maria lived before going to work for the Von Trapp family in 1926.
We then headed out of town to the beautiful lake district, driving past lakes Fuschli & Wolfgang before arriving at Mondsee (lake & town). There we visited St. Michael Church where the movie’s wedding scene was filmed. The actual wedding took place at Nonnberg Abbey.
Driving back to Salzburg, we finished our visit at Mirabell Gardens, where Sonja pointed out the many different scenes filmed in the beautiful gardens and hedge tunnel, plus the Pegasus fountain and Do-Re-Mi steps (below left).
During the drive, Sonya played different songs from the movie so we could sing along (if desired) and get in the “Hills Are Alive” spirit. It really was a fun day and a tour I recommend if you are a lover of the movie. Tip: I was very glad I re-watched the movie just before my trip, so the scenes were all fresh in my mind.
If you’re interested in knowing more, here is the link to an article listing many of the movie locations in “The Sound of Music.”
Visit Hellbrunn Palace & Its Trick Gardens
Hellbrunn Palace & Gardens are located just 4 miles outside of Old Town. The elegant yellow building was the prince-archbishop’s summer palace. I did not have time to actually tour this site but got a quick glimpse as part of a stop on the Sound of Music tour.
Besides its beautiful gardens, Hellbrunn Palace is particularly known for its “trick fountains.” They offer a 40-minute fountain tour that takes you through a 17th century garden where you have the possibility of getting soaked by the trick fountains! Afterwards, you can wander more of the gardens, see the “Sound of Music” gazebo, and tour the modest palace.
Visit Eagles Nest – Hitler’s Amazing Mountain Top Retreat
On my second day in Salzburg, Dani picked me up for a fascinating excursion to “Eagles Nest.” Also known as Kehlsteinhaus, Eagles Nest was a mountain retreat built in 1938 for Adolf Hitler and members of the Nazi party. It’s a popular visitor attraction near the German town of Bertchesgaden, about a half hour drive from Salzburg.
All visitors need to park below and take a specially equipped bus up the mountain’s narrow, winding 4-mile road to another parking lot & viewing area. Here you walk into a long tunnel cut into the mountain (below left) to catch the sumptuous brass-plated elevator for the 41-second ride up to the Eagle’s Nest chalet.
Kehlsteinhaus is sitting atop Mount Kehlstein at an altitude of 1,834 meters (6,017 ft). You can quickly tour the simple 3-room chalet or enjoy a drink or meal at the indoor restaurant or outside beer garden. However, the star attraction is the amazing panoramic views of the surrounding Alps on days when the view is not obscured by fog. We were lucky – the fog stayed at bay.
I was fascinated to view some old photos of Hitler and his colleagues in a small gallery on the Sun Terrace. It was sobering, knowing that Hitler had spent time here – in the exact same location where I was currently standing.
There are also some small hikes you can take on top, including a short walk up to a pretty cross where snapping a photo in front of it is mandatory! Overall, visiting Eagles Nest was a great day trip, with its dramatic views and place in history.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a car while in Salzburg. Local tour operators like Panorama Tours offer half-day trips to Eagles Nest & Bertchesgaden. Here’s one tour.
Explore the Nearby Salzkammergut Lake District
If you have time while in Salzburg, I hope you’ll be able to pay a visit to some of the beautiful alpine lakes with their charming lakeside villages in the nearby Salzkammergut lake district.
On my first day in Salzburg, Dani drove me out of the city to visit two of the nearby lakes – Lake Fuschl & Lake Wolfgang. In a private car, it took around 30 minutes to reach the first lake (Fuschl) and then another 20 minutes to reach the town of St. Wolfgang on the east side of Lake Wolfgang (Wolfgangsee).
Our first stop was Lake Wolfgang where we enjoyed lunch at the lakeside terrace café of the Landhaus Appesbach hotel (housed in a former villa). Afterwards, we drove to the nearby village of St. Wolfgang where we walked around the cute town. On our way back to Salzburg, we stopped at a former castle, now luxury hotel – Schloss Fuschl – for a delicious apple strudel on their lakeview terrace (below).
However, if like most visitors, you don’t have a local friend or access to a car, you can check into local transport or tours that make day trips to the lake region. For example, here is one half-day trip from Panorama Tours.
In addition, there is the famed, “picture postcard perfect” alpine village of Hallstatt. However, it is farther away from Salzburg, making it difficult to do as a day trip. It’s best seen with at least one overnight. In 2010, I spent two wonderful nights in Hallstatt & was totally enchanted. Even back then, Hallstatt was a favorite of Rick Steves.
Unfortunately, Hallstatt has been fully discovered for quite a while. Apparently, the small town can be overrun with tourists so you will likely want to avoid the main tourist season. I’ve written a blog post about my time in Hallstatt which should be helpful if you’d like to add this village on to your trip.
I hope you have been inspired to pay a visit to Salzburg, if you’ve not yet been. As you can see, I kept very busy during my full three days in Salzburg. I do recommend giving yourself enough time to really enjoy the city and the surrounding area.
Like any town/city that caters to tourists, there are lots of lodging options. However, I want to share two of them – the lovely boutique hotel in Old Town where I stayed and another B&B across the river that good friends highly recommend.
Boutique Hotel am Dom
This lovely hotel is conveniently located in the heart of old town near Mozartplatz & Residenzplatz on a quiet side street. There are 15 comfy rooms, a nice breakfast, and a delightful hotel staff. (see below). It had been recommended by Rick Steves. I loved it all! Here’s the website.
This is where my friends Nancie & Tom stayed on their 2018 visit to Salzburg. This family-run B&B offers a quiet location in the green district of Nonntal, around 0.7 mi from Salzburg’s Old Town. There is a bus stop close by, so my friends frequently used the bus to get around. Apparently, the owner Sandra is wonderful and beloved by her guests. (Nancie booked direct with the pension, which saved some money, instead of through sites like Booking.com). Here’s the direct Pension Katrin website & the Booking.com website with good info.
- There is a very good website – the Official Travel Guide to Salzburg – to provide you with more information.
- I wrote a separate blog post about my August/September 2021 experiences in Europe – Sardinia, Munich and Salzburg – from the perspective of Traveling to Europe During the Time of COVID. Click here to read.
YOUR COMMENTS: Have you visited Salzburg? If so, when did you go & what sights did you particularly enjoy? Anything to add to my list?