Salzburg or Vienna? On the one hand you have the great capital of Austria, a place where the majestic palaces of the Habsburg era still loom large, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with manicured parks and quaint coffeehouses that serve strudel 10 to the dozen. On the other, you have a mountain city capped by a great castle from the Middle Ages, awash with rich musical heritage, and blessed with a turquoise river running through its center. It’s not going to be an easy choice…
We’re here to help, though. This guide will run through several features of both destinations to assist you in picking the one that’s right for you and your travel crew this year. It’s got information about the best nightlife, the top hotels, the must-do activities in each place, and a whole load more.
Of course, the prime choice is to do both in a single sitting. That’s possible since Salzburg and Vienna are only three hours away from each other by direct train. What’s more, they complement each other very nicely; one bringing historical museums and prestigious art galleries, the other with access to the beautiful lake lands and the eastern Alps.
Table of Contents
Vienna or Salzburg for ease of access?
Vienna is naturally the easiest place in all of Austria to get to. It is home to the largest international airport in the country, which is a hub for Austrian Airlines but also served by any number of low-cost and flag-carrying airlines based in Europe and abroad. It’s also the interchange for most of the international rail and bus networks that come into Austria, so you can pick up cheap EuroLines and FlixBus tickets, along with overnight trains from Krakow or Budapest. Overland trips from Western European cities – Paris, Madrid, London – are likely to involve changeovers
Salzburg, on the other hand, is nestled deep in the mountains of central Austria. It is connected to Vienna by direct rail, which means you can get in via the capital on international train services. The city also has its own airport, one that’s fast becoming something of a hub for low-cost carriers during the ski season. That said, it still has less connections than its counterpart in the capital. Generally speaking, Salzburg is harder to reach by road, too. Only southern German cities and the western ski resorts of Austria are closer, while there aren’t the main cross-European motorways that encircle Vienna to make use of.
Winner: Vienna, the capital.
Salzburg or Vienna for things to do?
A trip to Vienna is one of the bucket-list experiences of Europe. This grand and great capital was once the home of the Habsburg empire, and it shows. You should take some time to see the fantastic Belvedere Palace and the amazing Hofburg, which rises right in the middle of the city in Neoclassical fanfare. But Vienna isn’t just an old relic. It’s consistently rated as one of the most liveable cities in Europe and has nightlife areas like the Donaukanal and Prater. We also recommend hitting the Old Town, a place where cobbled lanes weave past museums dedicated to Freud, along with cafes where Freud himself used to drink coffee in eat strudel!
Salzburg is famous for its musical heritage. It’s here that a certain Mozart lived until 1777. The town has a museum dedicated to his life and works, which now sits in the Hagenauer Haus on Getreidegasse, the very place where he was born in 1756. Film buffs will come to trace scenes from The Sound of Music. Others will simply be drawn by the fairy-tale Old Town, which buts up to the Salz River and hits a climax with the great whitewashed castle overhead. Perhaps more than anything, though, Salzburg is known as a gateway to the foothills of the eastern Austrian Alps – think hiking, wild swimming, skiing.
Winner: Vienna but only just. We’d say the Austrian capital is one of the top draws of Europe.
Salzburg or Vienna for nightlife?
Vienna is the one to pick if you want nightlife. That’s not because Salzburg is bad for parties. It’s mainly because Vienna is the capital and the liveliest city in all of Austria. The action really focuses on the Danube canal, the Old Town, and the area around the Naschmarkt. The first is a string of lovely open-air boats that really gets swinging in the summer months. You can head in for pre drinks while listening to chill hop, or just for some people watching on the quaysides. The Old Town is for swankier joints like cocktail bars that spill onto lively squares. Naschmarkt is more a backpacker hub. It’s surrounded by cheap hostels that have underground bars and a couple of pumping EDM venues that draw a more local crowd.
Salzburg does have nightlife. It’s mainly wedged into the Old Town area along the side of the Salz River There, a clutch of about five or six bars and clubs run the gamut from Irish pubs to sports venues where you can go to watch international football showdowns. The real highlight of going out in Salzburg for us has to be old-school Austrian beer halls. You can find them peppering the city with pretty gardens and hearty interiors. In the winter, go inside to glug Stiegl from steins. In the summer, head outside to watch the wildflowers and the clouds rolling over the Alps.
Salzburg or Vienna for price?
Neither Vienna nor Salzburg are going to be particularly cheap travel prospects. These are both up there in the pricier half of destinations in Europe. Thankfully, there is room for manoeuvre in the Austrian capital. A good selection of backpacker hostels there helps to keep accommodation rates on the cheaper side for those on a shoestring, even during the peak season. However, you’re still looking at something like $20 for a bed. Of course, the chic hotels can be a lot more – think over $200 a night. There’s also more room for cheap eats in the capital, where you’ll find plenty of kebab shops around the Naschmarkt and other boho areas.
Salzburg is a tad more of a premium destination. It’s also a relatively small city, so there’s a limit to the accommodation options, which, in turn, pushes up prices. Rates can get pretty darn high during peak summer- and ski-season months. That said, there are a couple of hostels, including particularly good HI one, that offers beds for reasonable rates close to $25 a night. Food here tends to be slightly more expensive than in the capital, but it is good-quality stuff showcasing the best of central-Austrian cuisine. You’re probably looking at around $30-40 a head in most restaurants. Finally, remember that activities like skiing in Salzburg can be pricy ($50 a day for the lift pass alone!).
Winner: Vienna is probably the cheaper of the two.
Salzburg or Vienna for nature
There’s no doubt about it – Salzburg is the place to go for nature and outdoors adventures. It’s in the heart of what’s known as the Salzburgerland. That region is a triangle cut-out of central Austria that includes some serious gems. Among them is the lake and glacier combo of Kaprun-Zell am See, where you can ski slopes before hiking trails around a glistening body of water. There’s also the spa town of Badgastein, where gurgling rivers spill down from the sides of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak. East of town is also wonderful, mainly thanks to the idyllic lakes of Mondsee and the much-photographed village of Hallstatt.
Vienna is a pretty green city. The center is speckled with lots of parks, the manicured Augarten and the Volksgarten among them. For real nature, though, you can catch public transport for about an hour to the edge of town. That’s where the Wienerwald – also called the Vienna Woods – start in earnest. It’s basically one huge dash of evergreens that roll along the foothills of the Austrian Alps. They host bike trails, hiking, and even country inns where you can drink post-walk beers with views of the capital.
Salzburg or Vienna for day trips
There are lots of day trips from both Salzburg and Vienna. However, we would say that the best them are an offer from the town in the Alps. Yep, it’s possible to hop on a train from Central Salzburg station and be in Germany within the hour. That opens up the gorgeous national park of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, a place that has the lovely hiking paths of the Königssee but also the haunting Bavarian retreat of a certain Adolf Hitler. Another day trip that’s popular from Salzburg is an outing to Hallstatt to the east – some say it’s the prettiest village in the world!
Vienna is worth a mention on the day trip front because it also lets you visit neighbouring countries. Being so close to the eastern border of Austria, it has access to Bratislava in Slovakia and even Budapest further east in Hungary. Both are doable in less than 12 hours. of course, you can also go west into the Alps. Salzburg itself is only three hours away by train, but you don’t even have to go that far. You can also get a taste of the wild in the Upper Austrian Limestone Alps and the Gesäuse reserve, where trekking and peak climbing are on the menu.
Salzburg or Vienna for romance
If you’re coming to Austria on a honeymoon, then don’t hesitate to pick Salzburg over Vienna. the reason for that is the sheer beauty of it all. The city has a true fairy-tale veneer. you’ll spy out castles on the hillsides, get to Mozart concerts in the place the master lived, and dine on exquisite Austrian food and wine on pretty squares. The main draw though? The has to be the scenery. Summer means wildflower meadows to hike together; winter means snow-caked ski fields to carve together. Afterwards, you return to your charming Austrian lodge, complete with saunas and views of the peaks.
Vienna is still a good option for couples. We’d recommend staying close to the Old Town area if you do want to make this your honeymoon hotspot. That’s easily the most atmospheric part of the city, and the place to go to drink coffee in elegant venues like Central Cafe and others. It also hosts festive Christmas markets in the winter and sports the most attractive 1800s palaces in the country. The other spot you could go for romance is the Vienna Woods on the outskirts, but that still can’t beat the romantic nature that’s on offer down the road in Salzburg
Salzburg or Vienna our conclusion
Honestly, these are two of Austria’s greatest attractions. We would seriously recommend trying to fit both in if you can. If that’s not doable, then the capital is the one we’d go for. The reason? It is certainly the cultural hub of the country, offering sites like the Hofburg and enthralling museums like the Kunst Haus Wien. It’s also the capital of European coffee culture, the place to go for strudel, and one of the most historically important cities in this corner of the continent. That said, we really don’t think you’ll be disappointed with Salzburg. Nestled in a charming valley under the rising peaks of the Alps, it is perfect for music lovers, outdoors adventurers, and those who prefer romantic, smaller towns