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The many slices of Salzburg: UNESCO city centre to mountain lakes

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Updated: 6th December 2019

Think of Salzburg like a pie, you know, the kind your grandma used to make with lashings of cream poured on top – the kind where even if you ate the whole thing in one go you wouldn’t feel guilty because each slice was just as delicious and never got repetitive. The kind of pie you couldn’t just have once but would need to return to taste again.

For me, that’s the joy in Salzburg. In each season it seems to sport a different flavour, and every slice of the city offers up another experience to enjoy.

On the one hand, you’ve got a Baroque UNESCO old town where the house of Mozart attracts countless tourists, but just moments from here there are quite vantage points to savour and almost hidden streets that require no extra sugar. Up on rooftops, modern cuisine can be devoured with a backdrop fit for royalty, and in ancient monasteries, dishes are still served while the classics are played by a quartet in the background.

And for those who venture outside the city centre, adventurous hiking to the worlds largest ice caves or lazy days of delicious cake (no longer a metaphor) in characterful colourful buildings awaits, alongside mirror-like lakes calling out for a kayak to break their stillness.

Salzburg isn’t just a famous city centre, it’s a region that was once its own country, having only joined Austria in 1816. Having visited twice now, I’m confident you need at least a long weekend in Salzburg to truly sample.

So grab a fork and a spoon, and get stuck into the smorgasbord of treats that the city has waiting, here’s what to cram into a long weekend in Salzburg – recently voted the best city to visit in 2020 by Lonely Planet.

Classical experiences to have in Salzburg

The most obvious place to start any long weekend in Salzburg is amongst the magical streets of the UNESCO listed old town, where classical concerts echo out of halls, tourists admire the birthplace of Mozart, and quaint restaurants and coffee shops beckon you in.

Explore the UNESCO listed Old Town

With so many old and impressive buildings in Salzburg, it’s hard to know where to spend your time. Getting lost is a pleasure here, and while it might be a cliche, it’s undeniably true.

The central part of the old town is a mix of little passageways and streets, pedestrianised and lined with shops and restaurants of ancient times. Old Merchant homes from the 15th century can be spotted, while iron signs hang outside the little stores. Being a city invested in the arts, you’ll stumble upon galleries and performance spaces, as well as the more grand architecture such as the Town Hall and magnificent fountains.

It’s a relatively compact city, although with so many courtyards and little lanes on each turn you are likely to find somewhere new to admire – be sure to grab a walking map from the tourism office or downloaded to your phone so you don’t miss the main sights such as the Old Market, Chiemseehof and Durchhäuser.

Visit the Hohensalzburg Fortress

If there was a landmark that defines Salzburg, it is the Hohensalzburg Fortress, taking pride of place some 500metres above the city below.

Honestly, I haven’t been in on either of my visits to Salzburg, which I do kind of regret now, but it’s so stunning and beautiful to photograph from every angle, I think I’ve always just got too caught up in admiring it from afar to venture inside! As Salzburg used to be its own country, it’s no surprise the Fortress was constructed on the request of the Prince-Archbishop. One of the largest medieval castles in Europe, when I next find myself in Salzburg, I’ll be sure to venture inside so I can describe a little more of what it is like.

Be sure to walk around the perimeter of the Fortress though, as there are fantastic viewpoints from here, and as many of the main vantage points in the city are looking at the Fortress, you’ll get some different shots by looking out on the mountains, towers and streets below instead.

Marvel at Domplatz & Salzburg Cathedral

These two towers can’t be missed amongst the skyline of Salzburg, and at over 500-years olf, this beautiful Cathedral take pride of place in the impressive square it sits in. It was here that Mozart was baptised, continuing the links of the famous composer throughout the city.

There are countless Cathedrals and Churches around Salzburg, and many are beautiful inside and outside. Often, they double up as music venues, so if you hear music floating through the doorways, pop your head in, and you might find yourself enjoying an unexpected concert.

Peacefully enjoy St. Peter’s Abbey & Catacombs

One spot not to miss is St. Peter’s Church, which originally dates back to 1143. The cemetery is about as beautiful as a church cemetery can be, but one of the most unique and fascinating aspects here are the Catacombs, which are actually built into the mountain wall. A lot of Salzburg backs onto the sheer rock of the mountains, and from Catacombs to peoples houses, these have become natural ‘back walls’ which I found really interesting.

Head off to find some ‘hidden gems’

If you only stick to the famous streets of Salzburg old town during your visit, you’ll see some incredible sights but miss out on some of the other spots to enjoy close by. Salzburg is a city that has got very popular, so visiting away from the main summer months is handy, but also just walking 10minutes away from the busiest streets will reward you with other spots.

Head to Hellbrunn Alley and Hellbrunn Palace

If you don’t fancy walking, then cycling is prevalent in Salzburg and hiring bikes is super easy. A nice gentle bike ride is the 5-kilometre route out to Hellbrunn Palace which follows down Hellbrunn Alley, where you’ll see leafy green trees, lakes, and palaces on the route, immediately feeling a different vibe to the city centre.

Hellbrunn Palace is quite an impressive spot, with its bright yellow exterior set in lush gardens, but it’s even more remarkable for the water gardens in the grounds.

These trick water fountains were quite the rage in the day, for entertaining guests and catching them out. Head on a little tour through tables and benches, animated scenes, and inside rooms where water fountains will turn on and catch you out – so be careful with your camera! It is another of the many Sound of Music locations too!

Make it across the Monchsberg mountain to the Museum of Modern Art

For me, this is the best photo spot in the city, yet both times I’ve been up here, while still busy, it was far less crowded than on the lower levels of the older town. A lift can take you up to the excellent vantage spot, or you can walk along the mountain to get here, and once you arrive, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views across the fortress, old town, and across the river. I haven’t actually been in the museum myself, but it gets good reviews.

Admire the modern art trail throughout the city

Dotted amongst the historic architecture and corners of culture in Salzburg are pieces of commissioned contemporary art, which make up a walking route you can follow. From interesting to unusual, the collection is growing and provides a nice free activity to follow to get your bearings amongst the city.

Little alleyways on the way to Würth Skulpturen Garten

Across the river from the most popular of sights in Salzburg are a collection of tiny cobbled streets, and staircases, which provide delightful photo spots in a more quiet setting. Just take some time out to get lost among them, climbing, up heading down, and then continuing on out towards the Würth Skulpturen Garten, where you’ll find another fantastic view right back across the city. On the way, you’ll pass the house where the ‘Silent Night’ composer did his Christmas magic (told you it was the city of music) and one of the oldest Brothels in Europe – quite a contrast of neighbours!

Delve into the Salzburg’s music heritage

There is a reason Salzburg is called the city of Music, and it’s certainly not because of the Sound of Music, well at least, not exclusively. The arts run through the city’s veins in the same way the Saalach river physically runs through it. As the birthplace of Mozart, and with concerts on every corner, it’s a cultural destination to get stuck into.

Snap a shot of Mozart’s Birth House

The birthplace of Mozart proudly stands in the centre of one of the most famous old town streets, painted yellow and a popular photography spot, while tours can take you through some of the rooms inside.

Enjoy Mirabell Gardens and the Mozart Foundation

The Mirabell Gardens are a grand central feature of Salzburg and, unsurprisingly, a typical postcard image of the city, but if you have time during your long weekend in Salzburg, try and see a concert at the Großer Saal of the Mozart Foundation next door. This beautiful theatre shows professional and amateur performances, which can suit different budgets, although the ‘amateurs’ I saw were outstanding.

Explore the Festival Houses

If you can see a concert at the Festival Houses then do so, it’s one of the most impressive and unique venues I’ve been too, especially the main hall which backs onto the mountain walls and has balconies for the cast carved out of the rock. If you can’t see a show, then a tour can take you through this Salzburg institution and is free if you have the Salzburg Card. On a side note, the Salzburg Card actually works out good value if you plan on seeing a few things, you will get your moneys worth, unlike some other tourism cards.

See the filming sites for The Sound of Music

I’ll admit, it’s been many years since I’ve seen the movie and can’t remember much of it, but being home of the film, there are various points you can visit quite easily. Whether it’s the gardens in the city centre, the palace on the way out to Hellbrunn, or other popular spots – in fact, there are dedicated tours you can join!

Sample the year-round event calendar

The most famous festival in Salzburg occurs in the summer, and one of the reasons it was awarded the Best In Travel title for 2020 from Lonely Planet is the 100-year celebration of the festival is just around the corner. But, there are events, festivals, concerts and shows throughout the year in Salzburg, from classical concerts, to theatre and current gigs, keep an eye out on local event listings to fit one into your long weekend in Salzburg.

Gorge on hearty staples and modern treats

Austrian food is known for its hearty winter-based dishes, but there are plenty of regional specialities, and a couple of restaurants and dishes you should be sure to try out in Salzburg!

Try the original Bosna

A peculiar dish to be a Salzburg staple, the Bosna is a type of Sausage, and the original one can only be purchased from a small stall in the old town centre, you’ll easily spot the line of people waiting as you walk around. Served with bread and onions, it’s a quite Eastern European dish, but beloved by the locals of Salzburg.

Dine at Europe’s oldest restaurant: St. Peter Stiftskulinarium

It’s very very rare that I recommend a slightly pricey restaurant, but this restaurant is one that I think is well worth visiting during your long weekend in Salzburg if your pocket allows.

Billed as the oldest restaurant in Europe, this unique spot gives Salzburg’s food scene the edge over other cities in Austria. Once a monastery serving meals to weary travellers by since 803 (hence the oldest’ restaurant’ = place serving food) and has been beautifully converted into a selection of dining rooms, from outside terrace area embedded into the mountain walls, to inside cave rooms decked out in heady wood cladding. The food was delicious, the service impeccable, the setting and history fascinating, and they even have a grand hall dedicated to small Mozart concerts should you wish to be entertained while dining.

One of the must-try local dishes in the Nockerl, which I had here. These sweet soufflé style dish comes in three mounds, to represent the local mountains and is delicious, though certainly only for those who enjoy sweet treats after dinner!

Seven Senses restaurant for the views

For one of the best views of Salzburg old town head to Seven Senses, a rooftop restaurant with excellent panoramic views of the Fortress and Old Town, both from the inside room and the outside deck.

Enjoy the coffee scene and Mozart Balls

Coffee culture is big in Salzburg and Austria, so taking time out during your long weekend visit to unwind and refuel is essential. The perfect accompaniment to your coffee is a Mozart Ball (Mozartkugel), which sounded a lot more sexual when I first misunderstood what the conversation was regarding! These small round chocolate balls with marzipan and nougat are a famous stable in the city, though the discussion of who made the original, or indeed the best, can cause quite a heated debate!

Beers at Stiegl-Brauwelt

Whether you are a beer lover or just want to a sink a few after a hard day exploring the city, where better to do so in Salzburg than at the actual brewery of Stiegl, the local and world-famous brew. Alongside tasting rooms and a great brewpub with food, there’s a chance to learn about the history of the beer and brewing techniques. Not fussed about the facts? Just order a cold one and enjoy!

The hills are alive with adventures and relaxation

A long weekend in Salzburg wouldn’t be complete though without dedicating one day to some outside adventures, and you are in luck, as just beyond the city limits, the region of Salzburg is packed with rolling green hills, epic scenery and mirror-like lakes.

Adventures on the Saalach

The Saalach River is the same that runs through the city-centre of Salzburg, and in fact, carries on from Austria across the border into Germany. The Salzburg Saalachtal is a popular summer spot for camping, exploring adorable villages, or getting stuck into the gorges and wild running waters of the river. Whether you want the adrenaline of watersports or to simply admire charming architecture against the mountains in spots like Lofer, on the border with the neighbouring Tyrol region, just head beyond the city of Salzburg itself.

Eisriesenwelt Werfen (Ice Caves)

This was actually the first place I nearly died on my travels, fun memories! During my first visit to Salzburg during a very snowy and icy patch, I took a half-day trip out to this ice and limestone cave which is the largest ice cave in the world, stretching an incredible 42-kilometres in size. The lesson of the story, don’t wear crappy trainers when hiking up the snowy sides of the mountain as you might slip off, and have to cling on for dear life until someone comes and pulls you back up, but, well worth a Salzburg side-trip to enjoy!

St. Gilgen & Wolfgangsee Lake

While nearby Hallstatt might be all over Instagram these days, and you can’t exactly call Wolfgangsee a ‘hidden gem’ either, this spot is an easy add on to your long weekend in Salzburg as a bus from the city-centre will drop you here in about 30-minutes. On my most recent visit to Salzburg, I took the afternoon out to head here and Fuschl, easy to get between as the buses run reasonably regularly during daylight hours.

The lake itself is a beauty and has towering green mountains around it, including an impressive cable car, the Zwolferhorn, which will take you on a 10-minute ride for some epic views across the valley.

There are a few different villages around the lake, but I spent my time in St. Gilgen due to the ease of access and boy, it was pretty and would make for a dreamy destination to spend a summer holiday in Austria, especially with the watersports on offer.. So many interesting buildings illuminated by flower beds and little quirky architectural features, and plenty of cafes and restaurants to enjoy. To be honest, I’d have loved to have spent a couple of nights here and not just visited as a day-trip on my long weekend in Salzburg.

Fuschl & Red Bull HQ

Another stop on the bus-route out of Salzburg is Fuschl, slightly closer to the city than Wolfgangsee and I called in here on the way back. There is a really unique glass and metal building floating in an emerald green lake here, which you might think is a museum, but is actually the Red Bull HQ who are based here, in this slightly random and idyllic location. Personally, I prefer St. Gilgen, but if you have a car or the bus pass, it’s super easy to hop around the countryside of the Salzburg region.

Discover more of Salzburgerland: Best things to do in Saalfelden Leogang

Need to know: Salzburg

Some tips and information to help you plan your trip to Salzburg.

Best events in Salzburg? Of course, Salzburg is best known as the city of music, so it’s no surprise that many of the events and festivals throughout the year focus on this. Check out my Salzburg musical events guide to plan your visit around one of these.

Where to stay in Salzburg? I stayed at two ends of the scale on my recent trip to Salzburg. There are a few hostels in the city, and I stayed at a&o Salzburg Hauptbahnhof which I’d say to avoid, to be honest – the place is clean and modern but has no soul, and some peculiar policies like surprise extra costs for bedding as they let people bring their own in – which is gross and a way to welcome bedbugs. At €40 for a dorm bed, I found it a poor value choice.

For the work part of my trip, I stayed at Hotel Imlauer Pitter, which is a gorgeous property with fantastic views of the fortress and city-centre from the rooftop bar and restaurant. It’s certainly a pricey option, but fair for the price, although if you do stay elsewhere, consider coming to enjoy a drink or a meal on the rooftop to admire the views.

How to get to Salzburg? Salzburg does have an international airport, but its destination list isn’t as extensive as some others. While an alternative is to fly to the capital of Austria, Vienna, I actually flew into Munich, Germany, and then took the train. The train time is quicker from Munich, and as a considerable airport there are plenty of flight options and the train station is inside the airport. The trains in this part of Europe are great, so getting to Salzburg by train from other destinations is reasonably straightforward and of course, better for the environment.

How to get around Salzburg? Walking is by far the best way to explore Salzburg, as the city is beautiful and very compact. Even walking out to Hellbrunn Palace is doable, although hiring bikes is another good shout. To get to the most popular local lakes, buses from the city-centre terminals are quick (under 30-minutes) and regular, so you can quickly get to beautiful viewpoints and hiking spots on foot from the local bus stops. Transport cards are also available. Otherwise, you pay the fare on the bus, no problem.

Accessibility in Salzburg? The official Salzburg tourism website has a section dedicated to accessibility, listing attractions, accommodation and transport information.

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