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Salzburg, the city of white gold, gets its name from the salt which has been mined here over the centuries. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws visitors by its sheer charm and ambiance. With so much history and beauty, you will not be at a loss when deciding what to do in Salzburg.
Nestled conveniently in the foothills of the Alps, straddled by the Salzach river close to the German border, a Salzburg visit affords the perfect blend of history and culture. Iconic personalities like the music composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the mega movie hit ‘The Sound of Music’ lay claim to its greatness. Against the backdrop of the surrounding monuments and high mountains, the city has managed to retain its historic landscape to a large extent.
A bit quaint as compared to Vienna, Salzburg has a young and enthusiastic side to it as well, thanks primarily to the university crowd.
If you are looking for what to do in Salzburg, these fourteen top doable things will showcase the treasures of the ‘white city’ for all sorts of travelers.
14 Things to do in Salzburg, Austria
1. Visit Hohensalzburg Castle, a crown jewel on Monchstein hill.
Built in 1077, the imposing fortress of Hohensalzburg towers over the landscape of Salzburg as a famous landmark.
Being one of the best-preserved and largest of all castles in Europe, the citadel attracts a lot of attention from visitors from all over the world. Therefore, it tends to remain crowded on most days of the year.
The easiest way to gain access to the castle is by taking the funicular which takes a minute to reach the gates. You can also walk all the way to the fort on a twenty-minute stroll uphill. Self-guided tours include the Royal Apartments, medieval rooms and amazing views of the Alps.
2. Hear the sound of music at the Mirabell Gardens and Palace
Apart from being the most sought after wedding venue in the world, Mirabell Palace Gardens also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site itself.
The Pegasus Fountain, the Angel Staircase and the former ballroom where Mozart performed are now used for all kinds of important ceremonies. Today, Mirabell Palace houses the office of the Mayor of Salzburg and other municipal departments.
The gardens feature fountains and flowers which formed the backdrop to the famous musical the ‘Sound of Music’.
Explore the Vine Tunnel, Hedge Maze and the Gnome garden, full of dwarf statues. Located around the Grand Fountain are a group of four figures, dating back to 1690, which are symbols of the four elements, earth, wind, fire and water.
There is a Rose Garden located south of Schloss Mirabell, neatly arranged with ornamental beds of roses. Originally named Altenau Palace, the main palace was built in 1606 by Archbishop Raitenau in honor of his love Salome Alt.
3. Get wet at Hellbrunn Palace
Built in 1615, this early Baroque building was a pleasant retreat for Archbishop Markus Sittikus. However, the quirkiness of the gardens and fountains make it no rival for any other European palace.
If ever a person wanted to experience something unique, they only had to make a beeline for the Hellbrunn Palace. Explore the crazy collection of hidden water jets and mythological grottos on a guided tour. The place also houses Europe’s oldest open-air theatre Steintheatere, where the first opera, Orfeo, took place in 1617.
The Hellbrunn Palace houses a beautiful garden that exhibits puppet shows, folklore museums and a zoo. In addition, fountains with trick elements sneak water upon you at any time.
More than the fountains, there are many other sound-producing contraptions, all hydraulic powered, like an entire town square moving around by the force of water. Explore ‘Schau Lust’ – an exhibition set in the palace grounds as you unwind and relax in surreal surroundings.
4. Hop aboard for a river cruise
For those who enjoy traveling on the water, taking a river cruise is a great way to see the extraordinary sights of Salzburg and its surroundings along the river Salzach. This leisurely eight-kilometer (4.6 miles) trip starts at designated spots and takes visitors to such iconic attractions like the Hellbrunn Palace.
The Salzach riverboat cruise offers visitors a range of tours to choose from. One can opt for a private romantic cruise or experience the Old Town from an entirely different perspective.
There are hourly trips from Makartsteg, and if you have a Salzburg card your ticket is included. The trip lasts about forty minutes and the crew and captain make sure that everyone aboard is well informed and kept entertained. Is the Salzburg Card worth it? Do your homework before purchasing to see if it’s right for you.
The highlight of the cruise is the twist in the end as it spins 360 degrees with compositions from Mozart played in the background. Needless to say, this was NOT the highlight for me. As someone that gets carsick easily, I couldn’t wait for this part to be over. However, I am in the minority on this one as both my husband and daughter loved it.
5. Tour Mozart’s House
There is one particular house in the Getreidegasse (a busy shopping street in the heart of Old Town) which draws the utmost attention from everyone. Known as Hagenauer House at number 9, this is the very building where Salzburg’s pride and joy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was born.
Historians and ardent fans of the famous composer have been constantly attracted to visit this home turned museum. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed two-thirds of the building during the second world war. However, restoration took place in 1880 by the International Mozarteum Foundation and returned to the house to its original state.
An hour-long tour takes you through the original interiors showcasing the way of life of a middle-class family.
The museum casts light on his childhood, his travels and his mysterious death. Original furniture, letters, certificates and other memorabilia collected here is sure to evoke a feeling of being transported back in time to the days of the dance master himself. A special joy for the fans of the musician are his own historical instruments, the clavichord and the violin.
6. Take a horse-powered sightseeing tour
Carriages used to be the prime mode of transport for the royalty of Salzburg for centuries. With the passage of time, these elegant horse-drawn chariots began ferrying tourists through the many picturesque attractions of the city.
Currently, fourteen carriages operate from their headquarters at Residenzplatz Square.
Those who want to explore the city at horse pace have two options. Choose a short 25-minute trip or the longer 50-minute version. Needless to say, your coachmen will keep you entertained and well informed about the sights and sounds of the city.
Sound of Music fans can book a two-hour history tour. In addition, those wanting to include culinary delights can opt for a 90-minute trip which includes drinks, a three-course meal and butler service.
7. Stop at a Biergarten for a Steigl beer
Beer gardens are everywhere in Salzburg.
An open-air area in a traditional inn, or Gasthaus, is essentially what a beer garden is. The place typically consists of tables, chairs and benches covered by some sort of shade, notably chestnut trees. The second most vital ingredient of a beer garden is the beer, and importantly its quality.
Dubbed the beer capital, Salzburg has four breweries and is the most popular place in Austria to enjoy beer.
With over 600 years of brewing tradition, the evidence is reflected not only in the beer but in the architecture as well. Beer gardens are the epitome of not only the beer culture but the hospitality.
What goes great with beer? How about Bavarian pretzels! We have never eaten so many pretzels in such a short time span before. They literally are sold everywhere.
8. Admire St Peter’s Cemetery
The cemetery of St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg is among the most beautiful and oldest of all Christian burial grounds in Salzburg.
Definitely see the catacombs, which have been built into the sides of the fortress mountain. These mystical sites served as burial sites and also meeting places. Many prominent figures have been laid to rest in this cemetery including Mozart’s sister, Nanneri, and Michael Haydn among others. The centuries-old graveyards with their wrought-iron crucifixes are worth a visit.
The catacombs and cemetery are a must-visit place for the fans of the movie Sound of Music. Though the Von Trapp family actually did not stay there, they did use the route to secure a refuge for themselves before finding a safe escape to Switzerland at the end of the movie.
Reach the catacombs by walking up several flights of uneven steps, sometimes without the use of a guard rail. Take your time and wear sturdy shoes.
9. Get mesmerized by the early Baroque at the DomQuartier and Cathedral
History comes alive in the palatial state rooms of the one of a kind cultural museum the DomQuartier, comprising the Cathedral and residence of the archbishop. The talking point on this trip is the marvelous Baroque architecture and exhibits of European painters dating back to the 19th century. The terrace over the arches of the Cathedral provides excellent views of Salzburg city and the surroundings.
Stroll through the DomQuartier and see the elaborately decorated rooms of the Cathedral’s Northern Oratory. The Southern Oratory houses the cathedral museum and displays artifacts from other churches of the Salzburg diocese.
The tour continues through the Cabinet of Curiosities and the Long Gallery before culminating at St Peter’s museum. See the treasures of the abbey, the oldest monastery of the German-speaking world.
Truthfully, touring the DomQuartier was one of our Salzburg highlights. We put this tour off until the very last day of our Salzburg Card, but highly recommend seeing it.
Non-existent crowds make you feel you have this huge complex to yourself. The Cathedral itself is awe-inspiring from the inside. Although the DomQuartier isn’t talked about too much, I highly suggest adding it to your list of what to do in Salzburg.
10. Take a self-guided tour of the Old town
The bustling market places and the music of Mozart have undoubtedly made Salzburg a top tourist destination, but one visit to the Old Town district will reveal everything Austria has to offer in one compact package.
This extremely well-preserved area, set in a stunning location on the south side of the Salzach river, under the shadow of the Alps, is an instant hit with tourists. Historic buildings, narrow cobbled streets and exquisite architecture make this a charming place to get lost in.
Here you can also find the house where Mozart lived till the age of 17 along with some of the musical instruments. The majority of Salzburg’s tourist attractions are located here including Fortress Hohensalzburg, Kapuzinerberg Hall and the Capuchin Monastery. Cupolas, spires and colorful Baroque facades characterize these buildings on both sides of the Salzach river.
11. Take the unique Berchtesgaden salt mine tour
Salt has been mined continuously at the Berchtesgaden salt mine since 1517, and this innovative extraction process can now be experienced by visitors first hand, unlike any such mining trip anywhere in the world. This one hour tour takes you, dressed in functional attire, deep down into the very depths below Salzburg. White gold is extracted at a depth of 1400m.
The highlights of this fascinating trip include a visit on a raft to a subterranean salt lake called ‘Mirror Lake’, the Salt Cathedral, Magic Salt Room and the 36 m long miner slides where you can slide as many times as you want.
Enjoy the train ride through the tunnels as well. The Berchtesgaden salt mine is an ideal family getaway. Just 20 km (12 miles) from Salzburg city and it is the top tourist attraction in Bavaria. Hop on bus 840 toward Berchtesgaden with a stop at the mine called ‘Salzbergwerk’.
12. Stroll the Residenzplatz Square and Residence Fountain
Walk through this magnificent town square and marvel at the richly adorned baroque fountain.
Designed by the famous Italian architect, Vincenzo Scamozzi, it is believed that fifty-five medieval structures were demolished to create enough space to build this square. Archbishop Guidobald commissioned this ornate 45-foot tall Residence Fountain. A fountain fan himself, it is the most important of all baroque monuments in Europe.
Residence Square showcases many musical, sports and cultural events. In addition, live football games, concerts and other public shows play here.
This square is also the setting for the St Rupert’s Fair, an annual gala held during the month of September followed by a Christmas fete to mark the Advent season. A yearly open-air film festival is also shown here in July and August.
13. Have a wild time at Salzburg Zoo
Home to over 1500 hundred species of wild animals from all corners of the world, the Salzburg Zoo, adjacent to the Hellbrunn Palace, is a perfect place for families with children to spend the day.
The enclosures bear resemblance to the natural habitat of animals and provide valuable insight into their behavior. The earliest documents of the palace show a zoological park existed since 1424, housing some exotic animals like bears, wolves and deer.
Opened in 1962 over an area of almost 35 acres, the zoo is located in clean and natural surroundings.
The Salzburg zoo has managed to create an excellent environment for the large numbers of animals housed here. In turn, it has become a major draw with a large number of visitors every year.
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14. Enjoy the best views of Salzburg from Monchsberg
At a dizzying height of 540m (1771 feet) above the city of Salzburg, Monchsberg provides commanding views of the Hellbrunn Fortress. Don’t miss the spectacular view of the city skyline.
Either take the lift or hike up the numerous walking routes, a visit to Monchsberg offers many activities. The top is also home to Museum der Moderne, designed by a German architect Frederich Hoff Zink. Lovers of contemporary international art can spend quality time here, admiring the valuable exhibits. The electric elevator will not only provide access to the museum but also to a fine restaurant, m32.
Personally, I am not a big fan of modern art, so we rushed through the museum. However, if you enjoy this type of art, you can expect wide open galleries encompassing several floors.
Perched directly above the historic city center of Salzburg, Monchsberg offers a unique experience. Not only does it make for a nice getaway from the city, but it is also silent and close to nature.
Access the Hellbrunn Fortress or take the steps down the St Peter’s Cemetery. Monchsberg is a recreational area not only for the people of Salzburg but for vacationers as well.
Purchase the Salzburg card and the elevator to the top, in addition to the museum entrance, is included. In fact, a majority of these things to do in Salzburg are included with the Salzburg card.
Mozart may have left Salzburg hundreds of years ago, but he still remains the eternal favorite of this Austrian city. From the fast-flowing Salzach river to the graceful cupolas and domes with the mountains beyond, it is one backdrop that will make any Austrian proud. The city may be compact, but it offers entertainment at par, if not better, than any other city in Europe.
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