Old hilltop castles and crisp golden schnitzels. Bright flower gardens and cold beer with pretzels. Baroque cathedrals all covered in bling. These are a few of my favourite things… to do in Salzburg. This fairytale chapter of alpine Austria is best known for two musical exports — Mozart and The Sound of Music. But beyond Maria and Wolfgang Amadeus lies a city laced with history and culture, as well as surroundings sprinkled with one-of-a-kind attractions like the world’s largest ice cave, a booby-trapped palace and even Hitler’s old mountainside retreats. From football and festivals to fortresses and Formula One play toys, these are the 15 best things to do in Salzburg.
Conquer the castle
The city’s most iconic symbol (well, besides maybe Mozart’s hair) deserves its place atop the list of things to do in Salzburg. Boasting a prime position perched above the patchwork of domes and spires that make up Salzburg’s Old Town, Hohensalzburg is one of the largest — and most scenic — medieval fortresses in Europe. There’s plenty to see inside, including stately apartments plastered in gold and a 200-pipe organ known as the Salzburg Bull, but the biggest draw is that view over the city and the Alps beyond. A cable car zooms up to the top every 10 minutes, but you can save a few euros (add inject some much needed exercise to your backpacking trip) by taking the footpath instead.
- Entry begins at €10 by foot and €40 by cable car
- Open 9.30am to 5pm
Then quench your thirst with a beer
If you can name a more scenic beer garden than the Stieglkeller terrace, then we’ll buy you a pint there. Sandwiched between the castle above and the roofs of the old town below, the Stieglkeller has been brewing beer in the heart of Salzburg for more than 500 years — and giving visitors the perfect excuse to re-hydrate on the climb up to or down from Hohensalzburg. The beer hall inside oozes character, but the al fresco terrace is where you want to be on a warm summer’s day, gazing over the medieval Salzburg skyline with a cold Stiegl in your hand.
- Open Monday to Friday 11.30am to 11pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 11pm
Even if you don’t know the first thing about classical music, you can’t escape Mozart in Salzburg. His face adorns boxes of chocolate and bottles of fragrance. He has bridges and plazas and golden delicious apples named after him. His portrait is literally woven into the carpet of the Meininger Hostel. Even his skull is preserved by the Mozarteum foundation. Apparently the man himself didn’t really like his home town, and moved to Vienna at the first opportunity. But that hasn’t stopped long lines of tourists flocking to the house he was born in on Getreidegasse, the home he grew up in on Makartplatz, and the Mozarteum concert hall near the Mirabell gardens. Prepare for queues if you plan on ticking them off.
Stroll through the Old Town
Besides one single bomb that pierced the dome of the Salzburg Cathedral in 1944, the city’s historic centre dodged most of the damage during World War Two, which makes this UNESCO Heritage Listed Old Town one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. The cathedral appears on every list of what to see in Salzburg — it’s impossible to miss the huge central dome — and it’s joined by dozens of other beautiful baroque churches, as well as the historical museums that occupy the Residenz Palace.
But one of the best things to do in Salzburg is to just stroll down Getreidegasse — a narrow pedestrian street lined with high-end boutiques that might not suit a backpacker’s budget, but certainly make for fun window-shopping.
Down a passageway near Mozart’s birthplace (the huge gold building at number nine) lies the legendary Schatz Konditorei pastry shop — perfect for travellers who prefer soufflé to symphonies.
Channel The Sound of Music
If you haven’t seen the 1965 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic before coming to Salzburg, watch it. If you have, watch it again. Salzburg comes alive when you know you’re following in the dance steps of Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family. The ‘Do Re Mi’ scene particularly puts the city on centre stage, as Maria uses the steps of the Mirabell gardens as a musical scale. The grounds of this lavish 17th century palace are stunning in their own right, with the Hohensalzburg castle supplying the backdrop to immaculately curated flower beds, vine tunnels, lush lawns and hedge mazes. But they’re extra fun when you can spy shots from The Sound of Music, such as the Pegasus fountain and the Zwerglgarten — a collection of 300-year-old gnome statues that resemble various mutations of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
- Entry is free
- Open 6am to dusk
Splash down at Europe’s cheekiest palace
17th century prince-archbishop Markus Sittikus relied on more than just his ridiculous rhyming name to make his guests laugh. Schloss Hellbrunn was Sittikus’ summer palace, where he thrilled (or royally pissed off) his visitors with elaborate trick fountains he booby-trapped the property with. Hop on a guided tour for the full Sittikus experience of this exotic Italianate villa, where only the sadistic guide knows where to stand to avoid the splash and takes perverse pleasure in squirting their unsuspecting victims. Highlights include the mechanical theatre, where 200 water-powered figurines dance to distract you from the impending splashdown, and an outdoor dining table with water jets built into the seats (avoid volunteering for the guide’s demonstration unless you feel like explaining a very embarrassing trouser stain for the rest of the day). Oh, this is also where you’ll find the gazebo where Liesl von Trapp sung ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’ in The Sound of Music. Buses take about half an hour from the city centre.
- Guided tours every half an hour between 9am and 4.30pm (April and October), 5.30pm (May, June and September) and 6pm (July and August). Closed November to March
- Guided tour €50
Tuck into an authentic Austrian schnitzel
Visiting the biggest tavern in Austria is one of the top things to do in Salzburg. Occupying an old monastery on the other side of the Mönchsberg mountain, the Augustiner Bräustübl Tavern accommodates 1400 people in its enormous beer garden, as well as four separate beer halls inside, pouring pints from wooden barrels like it has since 1621 and serving old-school Austrian fare from a row of market stalls. Pauli Stubm, just beneath the Stieglkeller, and Zum Eulenspiegel, near the Salzach river, are two other famous purveyors of the venerable Wiener schnitzel.
Explore the world’s largest ice cave
Entering this hole in the side of the Hochkogel mountain feels like stepping into Narnia. Found in Werfen 40km south of Salzburg, Eisriesenwelt — World of the Ice Giants in English — is a limestone cave coated in ice and more than 40km deep, carved by thousands of years of erosion and chilly winter winds. There’s a cable car then a gentle walk to reach the entry, and the views of the Alps are almost as dazzling as the icy wonderland you’re about to delve into. Eisriesenwelt is only accessible with a guide, a gas lantern and a warm jacket — temperatures are below freezing, of course, otherwise all those mesmerising natural ice sculptures would just be puddles.
- Cable car and guided tour: €28
- Tours leave at least every half hour from 9am until late afternoon from the start of May until the end of October
Hide in an ancient cemetery
St Peter’s Abbey hosts Mozart concerts and the Stiftskeller restaurant, considered the oldest in Europe. But the jewel in its ancient crown is the 1300-year-old cemetery out the back, which features catacombs dating back even further. This eerie graveyard is also where the Von Trapps hid on their escape from the Nazis in The Sound of Music — the scene was filmed in Hollywood, sure, but these millennia-old tombstones were the inspiration. Bring your camera to the real thing, especially when the spooky old graves are blooming with flowers in the warmer months.
- Open 6.30am to 7pm in summer, 6.30am to 5.30pm in winter
- Entry to the cemetery is free, €2 to enter the catacombs
Salzburg’s loftiest panorama is from Hohensalzburg castle. Problem is, your pics don’t have the castle in them. For that perfect snap of the city, head up Mönchsberg instead. A web of walking trails wind up to this plateau of meadows that frames a view of the famous fortress, the forest of churches and the winding Salzach river, with alpine peaks in the distance. Mönchsberg is also home to the Museum der Moderne, the city’s hottest contemporary art museum and one of the best things to do in Salzburg, and the M32 restaurant, which is on the pricy side but rewards spenny travellers with Old Town vistas through its floor-to-ceiling windows.
Take a day trip to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest
Across the border in Germany, only 25km from Salzburg, sits alpine terrain so quintessentially German that Adolf Hitler had his HQ there. Obersalzburg was where Hitler built his summer home Berghof, as well as the mountaintop Kehlsteinhaus (the Eagle’s Nest in English), which the Führer was actually too scared to visit because it sat so high in the clouds. Berghof was destroyed in the war and has been replaced by an excellent museum detailing the area’s sombre history, while the Eagle’s Nest is a dizzying mountainside bus ride and elevator trip up the Kehlstein peak. The creepiness of the old Nazi hide-out is offset by the tacky tourist eatery it now houses, and you won’t pay much attention to the building when you’re gawking at the Alps from a height of 1834m anyway.
- Buses to the Eagle’s Nest run every 25 minutes from 8.30am to 4.00pm between May and October
- Return tickets cost €60, including the elevator ride to the top
Watch Austria’s top football club
Red Bull Salzburg might be despised by rival fans for being a franchise of a fizzy drink empire rather than a proper football club, but there’s no doubting their status as Austria’s finest football team, no matter who’s paying the bills. Founded as Austria Salzburg in 1933 before Red Bull bought them in 2005, the club hasn’t lost the Austrian Bundesliga title since 2013, which only fuels the hatred. They play champagne (or should that be energy drink?) football at the shiny new Red Bull Arena if you feel like catching a game, or you could support the third-division Austria Salzburg — a phoenix club built by fans who refused to go along with the corporate Red Bull takeover — at the Max Aicher Stadion instead. The season runs August to May with a winter break over December and January.
Hang out at Hangar-7
A football club isn’t Red Bull’s only plaything in Salzburg. Hangar-7 is where Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz houses his collection of planes, helicopters, Formula One race cars, motorbikes, the historical fleet of Flying Bulls aircraft, even the contraption that local lad Felix Baumgartner used to dive from the stratosphere back to earth in 2012. The hangar itself is a masterpiece too, made of 1200 tonnes of steel and 1764 panes of glass at Salzburg Airport.
- Open 9am to 10pm
- Entry is free
Every summer since 1920, the streets of the city have been awash with classical music for the annual Salzburg Festival. This celebration of opera, music and theatre will be especially big for the 100th anniversary in 2020, with hundreds of events between July 18th and August 30th certain to sell out months in advance. And as you’d expect for such a gorgeous Old Town, the city’s Christmas markets are also one of the top things to do in Salzburg. The highlight (or nightmare) is the terrifying Krampus and Perchten tradition, when terrifying half-goat, half-demon creatures charge through the streets on December 6th, making little kids query whether Christmas presents are a worthwhile reward for such psychological torture.
Book a brilliant hostel
Fittingly for Austria’s most enchanting city, Salzburg has many great options for backpackers. Yoho International Youth Hostel earns top reviews for its on-site bar and restaurant, its daily screenings of The Sound of Music (a guaranteed crowd pleaser) and its prime location between Salzburg’s central railway station and the Old Town. Most of Salzburg’s other hostels are located north of the Hauptbahnhof — the wrong direction for access to the Old Town — but JUFA Salzburg City is a notable exception, only 10 minutes’ stroll from Mozartplatz. Make sure you check out all of our hostels in Salzburg!
For help finding your perfect hostel, download the Hostelworld app and get ready to meet the world!
About the author:
Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.