Best things to do in Salzburg

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Salzburg is like a movie set. Lying at the foot of wooded cliffs on the banks of a turquoise river, its baroque and crazy Altstadt propels you through a millennium of history, with its setting of churches, abbeys and domes. Everywhere you go you are bound to look up in awe: the enormous hilltop fortress, the lavishly gilded palaces and concert halls where Mozart once performed, the mountains looming on the horizon where Maria (Julie Andrews) twirled it The sound of music beginning.

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

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Hear the nuns sing at dawn

As dawn breaks over the Alps, climb the steep steps of the Nonnbergstiege to reach Stift Nonnberg at 6.45am to hear the bristling sound of nuns singing Gregorian chorales at one of Europe’s oldest working abbeys . Founded by St Rupert, patron saint of Salzburg in 715 AD, the Benedictine abbey is forbidden except for its rib-vaulted church, where you can see Romanesque frescoes.

If you feel like you’ve seen deja vu here, it’s no surprise: you’ve probably seen nuns waltzing to attend mass at this abbey in The sound of music. And if you’re not an early riser, don’t worry because you can hear their uplifting song again at 5:15 p.m. weekdays, 5 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Skyline of Salzburg with the Festung Hohensalzburg in the twilight light | © NavinTar / Shutterstock

See the city from above

Short but spectacular, the walk from Nonnberg to Festung Hohensalzburg along the Hohe Weg (Festungsgasse) instantly lifts your spirits and gives a great overview of the city, with panoramic views of the rooftops, spiers and domes of the Baroque Altstadt to the forested mountains beyond. Climbing up here, high above the buzz of the city and the sound of church bells, is really something. Finish your walk with a stroll around the ramparts, opulent cabins and museums in the 900-year-old clifftop fortress.

Drink at the Augustiner Bräustübl

It’s Oktoberfest 365 days a year at the Augustiner Bräustübl, a branch of Munich’s oldest brewery in Germany, dating back to 1328. With its vaulted taverns and sprawling 1,400-seat beer garden set up shaded by chestnut trees, this monk-brewery founded at the foot of Mönchsberg has been giving Salzburg good times since 1621. Fill your mug at the fireplace pump and visit the Schmankerlgang (deli stands) for hearty beer food like Stelzen (ham hock), pork belly and head-sized pretzels. The beers oscillate between lightly hoppy lagers and amber wheat beers. You’ll find fewer tourists here and a more authentic atmosphere than in other Altstadt beer halls.

sing with The sound of music

Come on, you know you want… You don’t have to be a die-hard fan of The sound of music or being able to hit the octave-hopping high notes like Julie Andrews for wanting to hop on a bike and sing a few songs while pedaling between filming locations with Fräulein Maria’s Bicycle Tours. Do-Re-Mi, Sixteen Pass on Seventeen, So Long, Farewell – all the classics are on display on this half-day bike tour that goes from the palace to the square, from the park to the abbey. Tours take place from April to October. Get in quick in the summer as they are extremely popular.

Climb every mountain

Or maybe just that one… Located on the German border, 1973m Untersberg offers a real shot of mountain scenery on the outskirts of the city. Dotted with wildflowers, the craggy summit is crisscrossed with hiking trails that open up sensational views of Salzburg, the Rositten Valley, and the Tyrolean, Salzburg, and Bavarian Alpine ranges. Paragliders launch from the top in the summer (listen for the whoosh), while in the winter there’s soft skiing here.

From the top station of the cable car, you can walk on easy paths to viewpoints like Geiereck (1805 m) and Salzburg Hochthron (1853 m), or walk a few hours over a karst plateau to the Schellenberg Ice Cave across the Bavarian border. In any case, bring sturdy boots and a fleece or jacket, as temperatures are significantly cooler here than in the valley.

    The Salzburg Museum of Modern Art (L) and the historic water tower are pictured July 29, 2011 in Salzburg, Austria.  The Salzburg Festival is a major music and theater festival established in 1920 and is held every summer in the Austrian city of Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The minimalist Salzburg Museum der Moderne showcases 20th and 21st century art © Martin Schalk / Getty Images

Get a dose of art in Mönchsberg

With forested cliffs rising above Salzburg like a theater curtain, the 504m Mönchsberg (Monks’ Mountain) is named for the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey. And the views? Well, they’re pretty heavenly too, framing the Altstadt atop the fortress. Hike along winding paths through meadows and woods to Augustiner Bräustübl and you’ll see as far as 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 rectangle constructed from locally quarried Untersberg marble and ceremoniously laid atop the hill. You can run here in the lift or take your time and walk from Festung Hohensalzburg. The gallery offers an outstanding list of 20th and 21st century art exhibitions. Outside you can spot sculptures like those by American artist James Turrell Blue Pearl – Skyspacean elliptical cylinder open to the sky that reflects the changing weather, moods, lights and colors of the mountain.

Feel the groove of Mozart at Schloss Mirabell

If you love Mozart but don’t fancy sharing his symphonies with a ton of other tourists, skip Mozart’s kitschy dinners and head to Schloss Mirabell instead. This fantastic 17th-century palace hosts intimate chamber music concerts in its Marmorsaal (Marble Hall), a lavish confection of stucco, marble and frescoes. Internationally renowned ensembles and soloists perform works by Mozart and other acclaimed composers like Vivaldi, Haydn and Beethoven. The concerts take place at 8 p.m. every day (except Friday and Monday). Tickets are like gold dust in the summer, so book well in advance.

Marvel at the magic of puppets at the Salzburger Marionettentheater

You don’t have to be five years old to marvel at the UNESCO-listed Salzburger Marionettentheater, where the red curtain has risen on a miniature stage since 1913. The theater is just as lavish as ‘a life-size theatre, with its stucco ornaments and chandeliers, the detail of the costumes and sets is remarkable, and the puppeteers are among the most skilled of their kind (trust us, you’ll barely notice the strings when these puppets dance, dive and fly through the air).

The star of the repertoire is the sound of music, with a life-size Mother Superior and a puppet-packed finale. Other enchanting productions include Mozart The magic flute and Tchaikovsky Nutcracker. All have multilingual subtitles.

Swan around the gardens of Schloss Mirabell

Schloss Mirabell Palace is the belle of Salzburg’s Baroque ballroom, built by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich to woo his mistress Salome Alt in 1606. But it’s the gardens that really blow your mind. Archbishop Johann Ernst von Thun worked his green thumb magic here in 1690, going crazy with fountains and muses, parterres and rose gardens, all the while ensuring that the gaze was constantly drawn upwards to a Festung Hohensalzburg hill.

As you walk around, keep an eye on the Tanzerin (dancer) sculpture – a great place to photograph the gardens with the fortress in the background. The sound of music fans will of course recognize the Pegasus statue, steps and gnomes in the Zwerglgarten (dwarf garden), where little von Trapps learned to sing Do Re Mi.

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

Cycle along the banks of the Salzach

Winding from city to meadow and mountain, the banks of the Salzach River are a pleasure to pedal, especially when the city is buzzing in the summer. Do you take a Bicycle and pedal south, with views of the Altstadt’s riot of domes and spiers slowly fading as you pass Volksgarten Park.

Opting for a pedal here lets you skip the city crowds for a spell. Bring a picnic and make an afternoon of it, perhaps stopping to see the grand summer palace and fountains of Schloss Hellbrunn or, if the sun is up, continue south to Waldbad Anif. Swimming, canoeing or wakeboarding in the refreshing turquoise waters of this forest-fringed lake is a peaceful way to spend a summer afternoon.

Stroll along the Steinasse

The Baroque Altstadt on the left bank of the Salzach River is buzzing and yes, it’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s also unnerving when the masses of tourists descend in the summer. For our money, the prettiest alley in Salzburg is the Steingasse, across the milky green river. Although hard to believe today, this narrow lane was the main north-south route between the city and Italy in the Middle Ages, its cobblestones polished by numerous horse hooves and wagon wheels. Salt from nearby mines was transported from here to Europe and beyond.

Today, it’s the kind of lane that delights Instagrammers, with its gently curving medieval townhouses in soft fresco colors, at their most photogenic in the morning sun or lantern-lit in the blue twilight. Look for the plaque at No. 9 of famous former resident Joseph Mohr, who wrote the lyrics to the song silent night just after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Dive into traditional Austrian cuisine at Bärenwirt

There are plenty of fancy restaurants in Salzburg, with price tags to match, but sometimes all you want is a schnitzel as big as a boot, cooked to golden perfection and a side order of the story. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Bärenwirt, a warm, woodsy hunting lodge-like tavern that’s been juggling pots and pans since 1663. The inn forgoes all avant-garde culinary trends in favor of good the old and puzzling. As Bierbraten (beer roast) with meatball and sauerkraut toppings, beef goulash and Kasnocken (mini cheese balls with fried onions). Weather permitting, take a seat on the terrace to admire the view of the Salzach River.

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