Salzburg or Vienna: Which Austrian City to Visit?

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by Maggie Turansky


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Are you planning a trip to Austria and can’t decide whether to visit Salzburg or Vienna on your travels? These two cities have a lot to offer visitors but they are very different and have assets that can suit different types of people.

On the surface, they can appear to be very similar cities offering the same kinds of experiences. However, when one looks deeper, you will find different aspects of each that will appeal to different travellers.

In general, Salzburg can be a better choice for Sound of Music fans and for those looking for a compact and digestible old town to visit. On the other hand, Vienna is great for visitors looking for a big, bustling and diverse city with a wealth of things to see and do.

So if you’re struggling to choose between Salzburg and Vienna and need to understand which may be the best option for you, then look no further.

We’ll break down accessibility, affordability, things to do and more in each city so you can know which confidence which of these lovely Austrian cities to visit!

Salzburg

Austria’s fourth-largest city is home to just over 150,000 people, however, it is well-known the world over as being the setting for the 1965 film The Sound of Music and as the birthplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Sat underneath the imposing Hohensalzburg Fortress and dotted with beautiful Baroque architecture, this compact city in the foothills of the Alps is sure to charm all those who visit it.

Accessibility

The first aspect that needs to be discussed in the great Vienna vs Salzburg debate is accessibility.

When it comes to arriving in Salzburg, the closest major international airport lies in Munich, Germany, about a 2-hour train ride or 1.5-hour drive from the Salzburg city centre.

The city itself does have a small international airport, however, it does only serve a small handful of destinations and only operates seasonally.

The easiest way to reach Salzburg is via train, bus or car from elsewhere in Europe and there are easy and frequent connections to a lot of nearby cities. You check out train and bus schedules here or alternatively, browse car hire options here.

Beautiful views of Salzburg from the River Salzach
Beautiful views of Salzburg from the River Salzach

However, if you’re looking to visit Salzburg as a city break destination from a city that isn’t one of its neighbours, you will likely have to fly into either Munich or Vienna and then sit on a train or bus in order to get there.

This is why Salzburg makes for a more logical stop as part of a longer itinerary through Central Europe, Austria or Bavaria rather than as a standalone destination.

Once you’re in Salzburg, you will find that the city is immensely easy to navigate. There is a robust bus network should you want to use public transit, however, this isn’t altogether necessary.

The city centre is incredibly compact and mostly flat, meaning that it is very easy to traverse on foot. You can easily spend two days in Salzburg while solely relying on your own two feet to get around.

While you are not going to need to have your own vehicle if you’re only planning on exploring Salzburg’s city centre, having a car can be incredibly helpful if you’re keen to head out on a day trip or two from the city (Schloss Hellbrunn, Hallstatt or a nearby salt mine are incredibly popular options) — especially if you want to explore some more hard-to-reach areas.

However, while helpful, public transit in the area is robust and easy enough to navigate that having your own car really isn’t necessary, especially if you’re trying to save some money.

Salzburg from the Hohensalzburg Fortress
Salzburg from the Hohensalzburg Fortress

Affordability

Austria is not exactly known to be the most budget-friendly destination in Europe and things here generally cost a bit more than in a neighbouring country like, say, the Czech Republic.

However, is Salzburg more expensive when compared to Vienna? All in all, I think you can expect the prices to be roughly the same. When comparing prices of places like accommodation, attraction entry fees, food etc, you’re going to see the costs be relatively similar.

Where Salzburg may end up being more affordable than Vienna is in the fact that Vienna is much larger and you will likely spend a bit more each day simply on getting from point A to point B.

A great way to save some money in Salzburg (especially if you’re planning on visiting several museums and paid attractions) is to purchase a Salzburg Card. This card includes most of Salzburg’s main attractions and it can be a very cost-effective purchase if you plan to visit two or more of these places.

All in all, though, If you’re trying to decide between Vienna or Salzburg to visit and price is a major factor, both cities are going to be roughly the same in the long run.

Mozart's Birthplace
Mozart’s Birthplace

Things to do in Salzburg

Salzburg is quite a bit smaller than the Austrian capital, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of things to see and do in the city.

In fact, there is definitely enough to keep you occupied for at least two or three days though it is also possible to see the highlights on a day trip to Salzburg.

Salzburg is a great city for classical music fans (there are two museums solely dedicated to Mozart), Sound of Music fans (there are countless filming locations to see along with lots of tour options), or simply those who are charmed by small, beautiful cities filled with the brim with beautiful baroque buildings.

The highlight of any visit to Salzburg is undoubtedly the Hohensalzburg Fortress (you can book skip-the-line tickets here), which towers above the city as an iconic part of its skyline and is a testament to the former Austrian Empire.

The fortress itself is worth visiting, but the hill on which it is sat (Monchsberg) also has a network of walking trails that can lead you to incomparable views of Salzburg itself and of the incredibly scenic surrounding countryside.

Other sites include multiple churches like the Salzburg Cathedral and St Peter’s Abbey, the gorgeous Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Mozart’s birthplace and museum and plenty, plenty more.

Mirabell Palace & Gardens
Mirabell Palace & Gardens

Obviously, there is a huge classical musical element in Salzburg and even if you don’t manage to get tickets to the world-famous classical music festival, there are performances most nights throughout the city that you can get tickets to that will suit all kinds of budgets such as this concert at Mirabell Palace.

There are lots of things to see and do in Salzburg and the old town, but the city’s compact nature means that you see quite a bit of it within the span of simply a day or two. While Vienna is a city where you can see the main sites in a couple of days, as well, Salzburg is so much smaller and can be a better choice if you are short on time.

That being said, especially if you’re interested in exploring the surrounding area, you definitely can use Salzburg as a base and see quite a bit of the city and its surrounds if you choose to spend three or more days there.

Gollinger Waterfall near Salzburg
Gollinger Waterfall – a great day trip from Salzburg!

Where to Stay in Salzburg

Gästehaus im Priesterseminar – Set in a beautiful baroque building in the centre of Salzburg, this guesthouse is an excellent option for those looking for a bit of comfort on your trip to this lovely city. They have great rooms available and a central location that will ensure you’re close to all of the action.

Boutique Hotel Auersperg – If you’re looking for a luxury stay in Austria’s fourth-largest city, then this boutique hotel is a fantastic option. Centrally located, this hotel has been family-run for generations and has countless amenities to offer guests.

Yoho International Youth Hostel – If you’re in Salzburg on a budget, this hostel has dorm and private rooms with a great social atmosphere and a screening of “The Sound of Music” every evening.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Salzburg hotels!

Residenzplatz in Salzburg
Residenzplatz in Salzburg

Vienna

Austria’s capital and largest city is one of the grandest and sought-after cities in all of Europe. Known for its beautiful architecture, iconic cafe culture, imperial palaces and famous residents, Vienna is a city that all should try to visit in their lifetimes.

Accessibility

If your decision to visit Vienna over Salzburg lands solely on the ease of accessibility, then Vienna will win hands-down.

While it’s not as if Salzburg is a difficult city to reach (there are countless options mentioned above), Vienna is way more connected to the rest of Europe and beyond, simply due to its status as a major world capital.

Vienna’s airport is a major international hub and has countless connections to cities all over Europe and elsewhere worldwide. It also has bus and train connections (browse schedules here) with a number of major nearby cities, including Prague, Budapest and Bratislava. All in all, if you’re looking for a destination for an easy city break, then Vienna might be a better option for you.

Once in the city, you will find that it is very easy to navigate, however, it is much much larger than Salzburg and you are likely going to need to use its public transport system.

It’s unlikely that you can visit Vienna and see the majority of points of interest without hopping on the metro, tram or bus at any point as the city is quite large. While you certainly can rely on your own two feet for a good portion of your time in Vienna, you’ll also need to get comfortable with using the robust public transit system.

Vienna Train Station
Vienna Train Station

Like Salzburg, if you’re only planning a singular trip to Vienna and don’t have plans to go on some far-flung or offbeat day trips, then you aren’t going to need to have your own vehicle. In fact, having a car in Vienna as a tourist will likely prove more of a hindrance than a help.

All in all, Vienna has more connections throughout Europe and worldwide than Salzburg and makes for a more attractive singular destination. However, the Austrian capital is also a large, spread-out city that, while well-served by public transportation, can prove slightly more difficult to navigate than compact Salzburg.

Affordability

As mentioned above, don’t put your big Salzburg or Vienna decision simply on the affordability of bother cities as, in general, you won’t find much of a difference here.

Neither city are the most affordable in Europe. In fact, they can be on the more expensive side and it can be difficult to really save money here, especially when compared to the prices in nearby cities like Budapest or Prague.

One area where you might find Vienna more expensive when compared to Salzburg is public transport. I’ve already touched on this subject in the “accessibility” section above, but as Vienna is a much larger city you are going to need to spend a bit of cash on getting from point A to point B.

While public transit is affordable, you could also end up spending quite a bit if you rely on taking taxis, for instance. This is completely avoidable in Salzburg.

Besides that one point, however, you’ll find that Vienna and Salzburg have basically comparable prices across the board in things like accommodation, food etc.

Like in Salzburg, if you intend to use public transit a lot or want to visit several paid attractions, then consider investing in a Vienna Pass. This can be very cost-effective if you’re planning on heading to more than two or three of the museums in the Austrian capital.

Christmas market in Vienna
Christmas market in Vienna

Things to do in Vienna

While Salzburg does indeed have a lot to offer visitors, Vienna has a lot more. There are countless things to do in Vienna that, likely, visitors need at least three days in Vienna to be able to really do the city justice, if not more.

Not only are there countless museums worth visiting and a cafe culture that is second-to-none around the world, but there also are so many other attractions that are worth seeing in Vienna that you’re sure never to be bored of the Austrian capital.

Some of the top attractions in Vienna include St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Spanish Riding School, the beautiful Vienna State Opera House, the incomparable Schonbrunn Palace and Belvedere Palace and countless museums including the Wien Museum, the Sigmund Freud Museum, the Museum of Natural History and more.

If you’re a Mozart fan, Vienna may even likely be a better place to visit than Salzburg as the famous composer spent the majority of his life in the capital of Austria. You can visit his residence in Vienna at the Mozarthaus Museum. Of course, classical music fans will delight in both Salzburg and Vienna and you’re going to get a lot of opportunity to take in performances in the capital city.

Vienna has enough to offer to keep you properly occupied for three, four or more days whereas Salzburg doesn’t have quite as much stuff. So if you’re after a dynamic, massive and international city where there is always something happening, Vienna is an excellent choice for you.

Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace

Where to Stay in Vienna

Motel One Wien – Hauptbahnhof– If you’re looking for a great hotel on a mid-range budget, then this is a good option. Located close to Vienna’s main train station, there are several chic, clean and comfortable rooms available and there is also an option to include breakfast each morning.

Hotel Brauhof Wien — If your budget allows for a luxury stay in Vienna, then you can’t go wrong with this 4-star hotel. There are luxe, plush rooms available, it’s incredibly well-located and there are countless amenities to ensure your stay in the city is an unforgettable one.

Hostel Ruthensteiner — If you’re trying to save some money in the Austrian capital or are simply after a social atmosphere, then this family-run hostel is a great option. They offer both dorm and private rooms and there are also good common areas where you can easily meet other travellers.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Vienna hotels!

Vienna State Opera House
Vienna State Opera House

Salzburg vs Vienna: The Verdict

If you’re looking for a short stop to include on an itinerary through nearby countries and cities, then Salzburg might be a great choice for you. Its compact nature is easy to navigate and you can see a good portion of it in the span of just a day or two.

Salzburg isn’t as well-connected as Vienna, but it is still easy to reach from the surrounding area and it is an excellent option for classical music and Sound of Music fans.

If you want an easy and dynamic city break, then Vienna might be the best choice for you. With countless flight connections into the city from around the world, the city is easy to get to from virtually anywhere.

It is much bigger than Salzburg and therefore needs a bit more time dedicated to it, but a visit to Vienna is never a bad idea.

The beautiful city of Salzburg
The beautiful city of Salzburg

Whether you choose to visit Vienna or Salzburg on your trip to Austria, you’re sure to fall in love with these beautiful Central European cities.

Are you trying to choose between visiting Salzburg and Vienna? Have you been to either city? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

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