Top 10 Things to Do in Salzburg on a First Visit, Austria inner banner

Top 10 Things to Do in Salzburg on a First Visit, Austria

Hollywood's liberal treatment of the facts surrounding the von Trapp story in The Sound of Music — set and largely filmed in Salzburg — has always bemused the locals, yet continues to attract a stream of fans to the city. Tick off these ten top things to do during your visit.
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Mirabell Palace and Gardens

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Some of us find it hard to separate Salzburg from Hollywood’s The Sound of Music.

However, Austria’s fourth-largest city offers enough history, culture, and natural beauty to enchant even those who are completely resistant to the film’s appeal.

Sitting in the foothills of the Austrian Alps, this is a destination where you’ll long to linger — so give yourself plenty of time to soak in its charm and character. Don’t sing: ‘So long; farewell’ too soon; you’ll regret it!

Here’s a checklist of our top ten things to do in Salzburg on a first visit.

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1. Stroll through the Altstadt

The World Heritage-listed Altstadt (Old Town) is home to most of Salzburg’s key historical landmarks and museums. Walking the streets gives you a strong sense of the city’s past, and there are plenty of cafes along the way where you can get a taste of Austria’s renowned coffee culture.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Shop up a storm in Getriedegasse.

Most visitors congregate around the Cathedral Quarter (Domplatz) or Mozart’s Birthplace in the pedestrian-only Getriedegasse. It’s also worth crossing the river to find the narrow, cobbled alley called Steingasse. Originally a Roman street, this thoroughfare has maintained a medieval feel and is largely untouched by tourism. You won’t find souvenir stalls, ticket hawkers, or tour groups here — just an echoing centuries-old ambience.

2. Follow The Sound of Music

Love it or loathe it, the 1965 film changed the world’s perception of Salzburg forever. For many, the city is now a kind of theme park of locations from The Sound of Music — and here’s a question every visitor to the city has to consider: to tour or not to tour? If you want to listen to guided commentary, sing-along to the soundtrack, and share your experience with other diehard fans, joining an organised tour of locations from the film is the way to go. There are various options, including The Original Sound of Music Tour.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Image: Silver Screen/Alamy

Alternatively, you can save money by putting together a DIY tour. All the information you need is on the Internet. It just takes some research and planning.

The third option is to be a killjoy and ignore the film completely!

3. Climb Mönchsberg to Nonnberg Abbey

Even if you’re not a fan of the film, a visit to Salzburg’s ancient Nonnberg convent (where Maria failed to become a nun) is definitely worthwhile. The 8th century women’s monastery — which is still an active religious institution — nestles against the side of the Mönchsberg — one of the inner-city mountain peaks that gives Salzburg its unusual topography. The steep walk up from the Old Town is rewarded with excellent views over the city and surrounding mountains.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Nonnberg Abbey

While the convent itself isn’t open to visitors, you can stand at the iron gate like the Von Trapp children and imagine yourself asking to see Fräulein Maria, before visiting the incomparably peaceful conventual church and garden.

If the walk up seems too much, an alternative is to take the funicular railway from Festungsgasse to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which for nearly a thousand years has kept watch over the city and defined its skyline. From here it’s a very pleasant walk down to the convent.

4. Try on traditional Tracht

Traditional ‘tracht’ costumes — dirndl dresses for women; lederhosen and jackets for men — are highly valued in this part of the world as special occasion wear. Salzburg has more tracht manufacturers and retailers than anywhere else in Austria, including shops such as Beurle Trachten and Trachten Stassny.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Image: Trachten Stassny

These outfits are major investments and it’s unlikely you would shell out for one as a souvenir, even if you had somewhere to wear it! But it’s still fun to look at the garments on display, both for the extraordinary craftsmanship and as evidence of a living cultural tradition. Don’t be surprised if you see tracht clothing being worn in the streets of Salzburg, where it’s regarded as a sign of good taste and social prestige.

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5. Feel confident in the Residenzplatz

‘I have confidence in sunshine! I have confidence in rain!’ It’s hard not to feel completely satisfied with every aspect of your life when you’re channelling the young Julie Andrews as she dances around the famous fountain in Salzburg’s Residenzplatz. The fountain itself is a whirlwind of baroque energy, complete with rearing horses and cavorting dolphins, so it perfectly fits the song’s mantra. ‘I have confidence in me!’ You don’t have to sing it out loud. Just think it.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Residenzplatz fountain. Image: Bigstock

6. Scale the Untersberg

You may not be able to climb every mountain, but it’s relatively easy to get to the top of the Untersberg — the highest of the peaks around Salzburg — and admire the epic views it affords. Take a bus from the city to the cable car station at Untersbergbahn. From there, it’s a ten-minute gondola ride up the mountainside for panoramic vistas across the Salzburg region and into neighbouring Germany. Local legends tell of the mountain’s connection with emperors, wizards, and magical dwarfs.

7. Visit St Peter’s Abbey

Like Nonnberg convent, the Abbey of St Peter is a monastic establishment dating back to the so-called Dark Ages — but this one is open to the public. Expanded over the centuries, it comprises buildings from several different architectural periods.

The Abbey church has a Romanesque shell encrusted with Rococo decorations, and the result is a glorious/somewhat chaotic paean to religious enthusiasm. The serene Petersfriedhof (St Peter’s Cemetery) may be familiar from the closing scenes of The Sound of Music — it’s where the von Trapp family hide from their Nazi pursuers. The sequence wasn’t filmed here; the cemetery was recreated on a sound stage in Hollywood.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Petersfriedhof

Above the cemetery, a stone stairway leads to early Christian ‘catacombs’ (more likely rudimentary chapels) cut into the rock on which the Abbey stands.

8. Dine at the world’s oldest restaurant

At the base of the Abbey, you’ll find St Peter Stiftskeller. It’s believed to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Europe, and probably the world. For more than 1,200 years, guests have been welcomed, fed and entertained here. The restaurant today encompasses a range of rooms, including chic modern spaces and a baroque hall where Mozart dinner concerts are held. It’s the vaulted stone Innenhof, though, that best preserves the restaurant’s origin as a monastic cellar.

9. Explore a labyrinth of ice caves

For something completely different, drive or take the 40-minute train to the market-town of Werfen. Appealing in its own right, Werfen is the departure point for Eisriesenwelt, the world’s largest accessible ice-cave system. A cable car takes you most of the way up the mountain, but some hiking is also required. The caves can only be visited on a guided tour. Viewing the vast ice tunnels and eerie sculptures — illuminated only by hand-held gas lanterns — is an otherworldly experience. The Alpine views from outside are also spectacular.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Visit the Eisriesenwelt ice caves.

10. Relax in Hellbrunn Park

On the southern edge of Salzburg lies Hellbrunn Park — 60 hectares of stunning green space. Whether or not you choose to pay a paid visit Hellbrunn Palace — home to the famous ‘sixteen-going-on-seventeen’ gazebo from The Sound of Music — the park that surrounds it is freely accessible to all who love walking, cycling, or simply breathing in floral-scented air.

Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg
Ten of the best things to do in Salzburg: Hellbrunn Palace and Park

It’s a mixture of ornate landscaped gardens and free-form meadows, and the tree-lined avenue that leads to the front of the palace is a true thing of beauty. Come by bus or visit on a cruise from the city centre along the River Salzach.

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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Salzburg on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Roslyn Jolly

About the writer

Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Escape (News Limited), Mindful Puzzles, Vacations and Travel, and Mindfood. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.

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  1. We have been to beautiful Salzburg twice, and loved it.
    One thought – whilst in Salzburg on one trip, we went to Eagles Nest (Hitler’s hideaway) – fascinating, and well worth it.

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