Salzburg, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
You can read the backstory as to why Salzburg has my heart. But for tips for traveling to Salzburg, Austria, for a family vacation, continue below…
Salzburg, Austria, is a European city situated in a valley bordered by beautiful soaring Alps, with Germany and the Czech Republic to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Italy and Slovenia to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. It is located in the heart of Europe, and it is a country that is easily accessible for family travel; in comparison to the United States, it is about the size of Maine.
Austria, in itself, is filled with rich history and beautifully preserved baroque and medieval buildings. It spills over with castles and palaces and is rich in culinary and historical delights. But it is most widely known as being the birthplace of the famous and legendary composer, Mozart, and, by Americans, as the home of Maria von Trapp and the von Trapp family of the popular movie, The Sound of Music. Austria is a country that should be placed on your “must go” list when you take a family trip to Europe.
Recently, after the pandemic, I headed there with my husband and two teen daughters to celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary of being married in Salzburg. It has been on my bucket list to return and show our daughters. Austria was everything and more when we visited in June of 2022. When people ask me how the family trip went, the only words I have are “breathtaking” and “magical”, as it truly was a fairytale trip. Here is why you need to put Austria on your bucket list for next year.
Where to Stay
Any place you stay in Salzburg, in my opinion, is a good place. They have hotels, pensions, farmhouses, and all kinds of accommodations from budget to luxury. When I was a college student, I only stayed in budget-friendly places, but when we got engaged, my husband and I were working, so we splurged and stayed at the world-famous Hotel Sacher Salzburg. We loved it so much that we stayed there again for our wedding with the wedding guests, and, 21 years later, we decided to continue that tradition for our anniversary trip with the girls. We also stayed at another legendary hotel on the famous shopping street, the Getreidegasse, called The Goldener Hirsch.
We stayed 2 nights at The Goldener Hirsch, and it was not only an amazing location but a beautiful and traditionally decorated hotel in a 13th-century building. The Goldener Hirsch is a 5-star luxury Marriott Bonvoy hotel (we went for the best for our 20th celebration), and it is decorated in traditional Austrian style with a luxurious flair. Although the hotel dates back hundreds of years, the accommodations are beautifully decorated with modern amenities. The staff is warm and welcoming, and there is even a cute little Austrian bar to have a cocktail upon your arrival. They also have a restaurant with outside seating. The location can’t be beat, as when you walk out the door, you are standing on the pedestrian-friendly famous Getreidegasse street, the heart of the city where Mozart strolled in the past and musicians play now among the tourists and locals. With all this history, I imagine Mozart’s friends may have stayed here…
To say I have a bit of history with Hotel Sacher Salzburg is an understatement. When I was a poor college student, I used to gaze longingly at this gorgeous stately hotel on the Salzach River and tell myself that someday I would stay there. And, so, I did. When my husband asked me to marry him, we spent a week staying there, and a year or so later, we returned with our wedding party, family, and friends and used it as our homebase for our Salzburg wedding. So, it seemed a natural fit to stay here again on our 21st anniversary trip to Austria.
If you have the means, even if you can only stay a night or two, it is a dream hotel filled with rich history, gorgeous rooms, amazing service, and stunning views of the city of Salzburg. The Hotel Sacher Salzburg is also known as being the birthplace of the original Sacher-Torte, the famous chocolate cake that is known throughout Austria, and worldwide, as well. But it is the staff and people of the hotel that stands out for me the most. I was blessed to get to know all of them over the days we were there, sharing stories of our wedding and reminiscing. One staff member, Astrid, even worked at our wedding reception 21 years ago! We hugged them all when we left, and I truly felt like I was hugging old friends. Anyway, if you go to Salzburg, at least stop by the hotel to check it out. It is a piece of history in Salzburg, and it is absolutely magnificent.
And, if you are on more of a budget, I always recommend this tip in any city: Go to the hotel and just have a coffee or cocktail. Everyone can find a way to squeeze that in, and you can enjoy a little bit of the ambiance and luxury while gazing out at some stunning views of the city. It is especially beautiful at night when the whole city is lit up like a fairytale.
How to Get to Salzburg
If flying from the US, Salzburg is easy to get to by several cities. You can fly directly into Salzburg with Austrian Airlines or another US carrier, or you can fly into Munich, which is about an hour and a half away. We flew American Airlines into Munich, stayed a couple of days, and then headed to Austria. You can also fly to the capital of Austria, Vienna. Vienna is about a 3-hour trip to Salzburg. On our trip, we flew to Munich, headed to Vienna, then the Salzkammergut region (AKA the Lake District), and ended up in Salzburg for the majority of our trip.
Although you can rent a car, we chose to do it the European way and travel purely by train. We booked a Eurail pass good for 10 days, and it was amazing. We were able to hop on and off at will and the value couldn’t be beat!
TIP: If traveling in summer during their busy time, consider buying a 1st class train pass. It is not that much more and is usually not as full. (Sometimes the trains can be so crowded in summer, that you cannot get a seat!) Second class is still lovely and not so crowded in the other seasons, so it is a great option, too. It’s just summer that can be very busy!
Also, on some trains, even if you have a pass, you need to make reservations online, so check the website to see if you need to make them for a specific trip. Otherwise, you may not be able to board a train. There is a small fee to pay, but you will guarantee yourself a seat and that, on a crowded train, is priceless.
What to Do
Just breathing in the air of Salzburg, walking around the city, and people watching is enough for me to do, but with two teens and a husband, we had to plan a few activities.
However, we spent our first day doing just that, walking around the city. We walked around the city, tasted sweet gelato, and marveled at the history of the centuries-old buildings that look the same back then as they do today. We took a trip to Mirabell Gardens, where the famous palace called Schloss Mirabell stands. The gardens are also known for the great American movie, The Sound of Music, when Maria runs around the gardens with the von Trapp children singing “Do-Re-Mi.”
TIP: Buy the Salzburg Card! This will pay off over and over. It allows you free public transportation; free admission to all city tourist attractions and museums; extra discounts on events, concerts, and excursions; AND in several cases, you can skip the line and use an express entrance! Be on the lookout for those express entrances. The Salzburg Card saved us a ton of time and money.
Located over Salzburg is the crown jewel of the city, a white-washed medieval castle called the Hohensalzburg Fortress. No trip to Salzburg is complete without a visit to this beautiful fortress built in the year 1077 by the Archbishop Gebhard and completed to what we see today in the year 1500 by Archbishop Leonhard Von Keutschach. And, even though it is located on a hill over the city, it is easily accessible by walking–or like we did, taking a funicular up to the mountain. We jumped on the funicular and used our Salzburg Card, which got us free admission and in the priority pass line with no wait. We did our own tour around and learned a lot about the history of the castle itself, its purpose in the old days, and about the archbishops. It was a great tour filled with breathtaking views of Salzburg from above and made for some great photo opps, too.
For lunch, you can eat at a few cafes in the castle, but we opted to head to Restaurant Stiegl-Keller, located steps from where you get off on the funicular and where, years ago, we had our Austrian rehearsal dinner with a 5-piece Austrian band, eight Austrian dancers, and giant mugs of the local favorite, Steigl Beer. We chose to eat lunch here with the girls because of their local Austrian cuisine and gorgeous scenery overlooking Salzburg and to show them where we celebrated on the first night of the wedding weekend. Personally, I feel the Restaurant Stiegl-Keller is a bit hidden from the main street. It is filled with locals, which is always a good sign, decorated in traditional Austrian theme…and, again, those views!
After a filling lunch, we headed down the winding road to check out St. Peter’s Monastery, Cemetery, and Catacombs. St. Peter’s was founded in the 7th century, so looking at the headstones in this tiny city-centered cemetery was fascinating. Additionally, you can also check out the catacombs, which were highlighted in The Sound of Music. There are also two chapels dating back to 1178 which you can visit. And again, with that trusty Salzburg Card, admission was free.
Located in the Old Town of Salzburg, this pedestrian-friendly street is at the heart of Salzburg. It is filled with cute little cheese and aperitif shops, cozy historical restaurants, famous fashion chains, beautiful wrought-iron signs, and souvenir shops filled with handcrafted items and the typical souvenirs, as well. The buildings are thousands of years old, and on this street, you can find Mozart’s Geburtshaus, or birth house, along with the Hotel Goldener Hirsch where we stayed for a few nights. Stroll the streets, grab an ice cream, and listen to street musicians playing classical music and taking up residency on this famous street in the gorgeous historical city.
Built by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau for his supposed mistress and their children, the palace is set among beautifully created gardens and is well known as the stomping grounds for when Maria and the von Trapp children, in The Sound of Music, sing “Do-Re-Mi.” You will recognize the Pegasus fountain and wrought iron stairs in the movie, and it is also a great photo opp with the family. It is also where I got married, in the tiny church inside the palace and where we took many wedding photos. It is stunning and a great spot to wander around and be with grandparents or even little kids.
There are several different companies that can take you on a tour of famous The Sound of Music film sites, but the original and one of the best is Panorama. If you go to Salzburg and have seen the film, then you absolutely must do the tour. I know it seems touristy, and at 4 hours, a little long, but if you are a fan of the movie, it is so much fun. The tour starts near Mirabell Gardens in front of St. Andrew’s Church. It takes you on a journey to see the von Trapp’s house on the lake and the gazebo where Rolf and Liesl sang and danced (and where the Captain and Maria sang their famous love song), but it also heads to the Lake District, which is a series of stunning lakes surrounded by the soaring alps. It is so beautiful that you almost cannot believe a place like this exists. While “Do-Re-Mi” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” play on the speakers (and you sing along…or at least I did), you get to experience a terrific tour. It is great for most ages, from kids old enough to see the movie to grandparents.
TIP: One thing the Panorama Tours have that makes them unique is a very special video recorded for them by Charmaine Carr, who played Liesl in the film. They play this fascinating video on the bus on your return back to Salzburg, and it is just that little extra touch that makes this tour group stand out from the others.
What to Eat
Getting a Käsekrainer from a local food truck is a must in Salzburg, or anywhere in Austria. The cheese-filled sausages with brot, or bread, are a local favorite and are also great when you get hungry again after a night out. We grabbed our Käsekrainer and a Steigl beer and sat at a cafe overlooking the Salzach River. A perfect lunch with a beautiful setting, and budget-friendly, too!
Steps from the Hotel Sacher Salzburg on the other side of the Salzach River is an Italian restaurant that we came upon and just loved. Although we are big foodies and love Austrian food, after a few days, you need something a little different. Although it is a European chain, we found L’Osteria after asking some locals about their favorite restaurant. L’Osteria did not disappoint! My husband and I had a couple of excellent pasta dishes, and the girls had homemade Napoli pizza. The pizzas were huge and the ingredients so fresh. The best part, though, was that if you have little kids, there is a little stream outside the restaurant in the pedestrian-only street. The restaurant put little plastic balls in the stream, and the little kids played in it and seemed so happy. I saw a lot of happy parents, too, in the outdoor cafe, as they were able to eat their meal while their child was entertained right in front of them.
Traditional Austrian Bier Garden
Dating back to 1621 and located at the foot of the Mönchsberg, founded by Austrian monks in 1605, lies the most famous and largest beer garden in Austria, the Augustiner Bräu Salzburg. Grab a stein, pay for it, rinse it out in a traditional fountain, and then get in line to get your monk-made beer filled from big wooden casks. There’s even a food hall filled with local specialties at a budget-friendly price, and they have an indoor and outdoor beer garden where you can watch locals and tourists alike enjoying an afternoon in Salzburg.
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Article updated on 9/26/22.