Best things to do in Salzburg

Salzburg is like a film set. Reclining at the foot of wooded cliffs on the banks of a turquoise river, its baroque-gone-mad Altstadt wings you through a millennium of history, with its jewel box of churches, abbeys and domes. Everywhere you go, you are forced to look up in wonder: at the whopping hilltop fortress, at lavishly gilded palaces and concert halls where Mozart once performed, at mountains peeking up on the horizon where Maria (Julie Andrews) had her twirling The Sound of Music debut.

You can pinch yourself, but it’s all fabulously real. Just don’t expect to have these streets to yourself – the word’s out that Salzburg has got it all going on. That said, there are ways to find peace in this city – whether it’s nuns chanting Gregorian chorales at sunrise or a gentle cable car ride up a mountain where the Alps open up like a pop-up book. Read on for our top things to do in Salzburg.

Hear nuns sing at daybreak

As dawn breaks over the Alps, hoof it up the steep steps of the Nonnbergstiege to reach Stift Nonnberg by 6.45am to hear the hairs-on-end sound of nuns chanting Gregorian chorales at one of Europe’s oldest working abbeys. Founded by St Rupert, patron saint of Salzburg way back in 715 AD, the Benedictine abbey is off-limits apart from its rib-vaulted church, where you can glimpse Romanesque frescoes.

If it feels like déjà-vu up here, it’s no surprise: you probably have seen nuns waltzing to mass at this abbey before in The Sound of Music. And if you’re not an early riser, don’t worry as you can hear their uplifting song again at 5.15pm on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays and 4.30pm on Sundays.

Salzburg skyline with the Fortress Hohensalzburg and the Salzach River during the blue hour
Salzburg skyline with the Festung Hohensalzburg in the dusk light © NavinTar / Shutterstock

See the city from on high

Short but spectacular, the walk from Nonnberg to Festung Hohensalzburg along the Hohe Weg (Festungsgasse) lifts spirits instantly and gives a great overview of the city, with dress-circle views over the rooftops, spires and domes of the baroque Altstadt to the forested mountains beyond. Walking up here, far above the hum of the city and toll of church bells is really quite something. Round out your walk with a romp around the ramparts, lavish staterooms and museums at the 900-year-old clifftop fortress.

Drink up at the Augustiner Bräustübl

It’s Oktoberfest 365 days a year at the Augustiner Bräustübl, an offshoot of the Munich-run brewery that is Germany’s oldest, dating to 1328. With its vaulted taverns and vast 1400-seat beer garden set up under the shade of chestnut trees, this monk-founded brewery at the foot of Mönchsberg has given Salzburger rollicking good times since 1621. Fill your tankard at the foyer pump and visit the Schmankerlgang (deli stands) for hearty, beer-swigging grub like Stelzen (ham hock), pork belly and pretzels as big as your head. Beers swing from mildly hoppy lagers to amber-hued wheat beers. You’ll find fewer tourists and a more authentic vibe here than at other beer halls in the Altstadt.

Sing along to The Sound of Music

Come on, you know you want to… You don’t have to be a die-hard fan of The Sound of Music or be able to hit the octave-leaping high notes like Julie Andrews to want to hop on a bike and belt out a few songs pedaling between film locations with Fräulein Maria’s Bicycle Tours. Do-Re-Mi, Sixteen Going on Seventeen, So Long, Farewell – all the classics are in the mix on this half-day bike tour that rolls from palace to plaza, park to abbey. Tours run from April to October – get in quick in summer as they are crazily popular.

Climb every mountain

Or maybe just the one… Puckering up on the German border, 1973m Untersberg delivers a proper hit of mountain scenery on the fringes of the city. Stippled with wildflowers, the craggy summit is laced with hiking trails that open up sensational views of Salzburg, the Rositten Valley and the Tyrolean, Salzburg and Bavarian Alpine ranges. Paragliders launch themselves from the peak in summer (listen out for the whoosh), while in winter, there’s gentle skiing up here.

From the top station of the cable car, you can wander easy trails to lookouts like Geiereck (1805m) and Salzburg Hochthron (1853m), or trek a couple of hours across a karst plateau to the Schellenberg Ice Cave over the border in Bavaria. Either way, bring sturdy boots and a fleece or jacket, as temperatures are significantly cooler up here than down in the valley.

 Salzburg Museum of Modern Art (L) and the historical water tower are pictured on July 29, 2011 in Salzburg, Austria. The Salzburg Festival is a prominent festival of music and drama established in 1920 and is held each summer within the Austrian town of Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The minimalist Salzburg Museum der Moderne displays 20th and 21st century art © Martin Schalk / Getty Images

Get an art fix at Mönchsberg

With wooded cliffs rising above Salzburg like a theater curtain, 504m Mönchsberg (Monk Mountain) is named after the Benedictine monks of St Peter’s Abbey. And the views? Well, they’re pretty heavenly, too, framing the fortress-topped Altstadt. Strike out on foot along trails weaving through meadows and woodland to Augustiner Bräustübl and you’ll see all the way to the Austrian and Bavarian Alps on cloudless days.

If contemporary art rocks your boat, you’ll be in your element at the Museum der Moderne, a strikingly minimalist oblong built from locally quarried Untersberg marble and plonked ceremoniously on top of the hill. You can race up here in the lift or take your time and walk from Festung Hohensalzburg. The gallery has an outstanding roster of 20th- and 21st-century art exhibitions. Outside you can glimpse sculptures like American artist James Turrell’s Blue Pearl – Skyspace, an elliptical cylinder open to the sky that reflects the changing weathers, moods, lights and colors of the mountain.

Feel the Mozart groove at Schloss Mirabell

If you love Mozart but not the thought of sharing his symphonies with a ton of other tourists, give the kitschy Mozart dinners a skip and head to Schloss Mirabell instead. This fantasy 17th-century palace holds intimate chamber-music concerts in its Marmorsaal (Marble Hall), a lavish confection of stucco, marble and frescoes. Internationally acclaimed ensembles and soloists perform works by Mozart and other much-feted composers like Vivaldi, Haydn and Beethoven. Concerts are held at 8pm daily (except Friday and Monday). Tickets are like gold dust in summer, so book well ahead.

Marvel at puppetry magic at Salzburger Marionettentheater

You don’t have to be five years old to feel a sense of wonder at the Unesco World Heritage Salzburger Marionettentheater, where the red curtain has risen on a miniature stage since 1913. The theater is just as opulent as a full-size one, with its stucco ornament and chandeliers, the detail in costumes and backdrops is remarkable, and the puppeteers are among the most skilled of their kind (trust us, you’ll barely notice the strings as these marionettes dance, swoop and fly through the air).

The repertoire star is The Sound of Music, with a life-sized Mother Superior and a marionette-packed finale. Other enchanting productions include Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. All have multilingual subtitles.

Swan around the gardens of Schloss Mirabell

Schloss Mirabell palace is the belle of the baroque ball in Salzburg, built by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich to woo his mistress Salome Alt in 1606.  But it is the gardens that really blow you away. Archbishop Johann Ernst von Thun worked his green-fingered magic on them in 1690, going crazy with fountains and muses, parterres and rose gardens, all the while making sure that the gaze was constantly drawn up to high-on-a-hill Festung Hohensalzburg.

As you wander, keep an eye out for the Tänzerin (dancer) sculpture – a terrific spot to photograph the gardens with the fortress in the background. The Sound of Music fans will of course recognise the Pegasus statue, the steps and the gnomes of the Zwerglgarten (Dwarf Garden), where the little von Trapps learned to sing Do-Re-Mi.

Cyclist on the embankment in Salzburg
Grab a bike and pedal south along the banks of the Salzach River © Solarisys / Shutterstock

Cycle the banks of the Salzach

Unfurling from city to meadow and mountain, the banks of the Salzach River are a joy to cycle, especially when the city heaves in summer. Grab yourself a bike and pedal south, with views of the Altstadt’s riot of domes and spires slowly fading as you pass the Volksgarten park.

Going for a pedal here allows you to give the city crowds the slip for a spell. Bring a picnic and make an afternoon of it, perhaps stopping to see the grand summer palace and trick fountains at Schloss Hellbrunn or, if the sun’s out, continuing south to Waldbad Anif. Swimming, canoeing, or wakeboarding in the refreshing turquoise waters of this forest-rimmed lake is a peaceful way to while away a summer afternoon.

Saunter along Steingasse

The baroque Altstadt on the left bank of the Salzach River gets all the fuss and yes, it is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also nerve-fraying when the tourist masses descend in summer. For our money, the loveliest lane in Salzburg is Steingasse on the opposite side of the milky-green river. Hard though it is to believe today, this narrow lane was the main north-south route between the city and Italy in the Middle Ages, its cobbles polished smooth by many a horse’s hoof and wagon wheel. Salt from nearby mines was transported from here to Europe and beyond.

Now it’s the kind of lane that sends Instagrammers into raptures, with its gently curving medieval townhouses in soft fresco colors, at their most photogenic in the morning sunlight or lantern-lit in the blue dusk. Look out for the plaque at No.9 to famous past resident Joseph Mohr, who penned the lyrics to the carol Silent Night just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Dig into traditional Austrian grub at Bärenwirt

There are a lot of fancy restaurants in Salzburg, with price tags to match, but sometimes all you want is schnitzel as big as a boot, cooked to golden perfection and a side order of history. You’ll find precisely this at Bärenwirt, a warm, woody, hunting lodge-style tavern that has been juggling the pans since 1663. The inn forgoes all the new-fangled food trends in favor of good old-fashioned, gut-busting dishes like Bierbraten (beer roast) with lashings of dumplings and sauerkraut, beef goulash and Kasnocken (mini cheese dumplings with fried onions). If the weather is kind, snag a table on the terrace for a view of the Salzach River.

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