It is no secret that our December trip to Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria was spurred by
our my desire to experience Christmas winter wonderland in as many places as possible. While many places came through with the festive décor and activities, very few had the winter wonderland aspect – due to a depressing lack of snow. But, our two-day visit to scenic Salzburg was the only time we had both. It was like a Christmas miracle.
Of course, this gorgeous city is also filled with interesting history. It was the home to Mozart, Silent Night was written nearby, and – of course – the beloved musical The Sound of Music was also filmed here. And the stunning scenery definitely makes you understand where their inspiration comes from.
Of course, we set off for our first Christmas market as soon as possible. But not before settling into our gorgeous hotel (the Imlauer Hotel Pitter) and eating the best Mexican food we’ve had since getting to Europe at Die Cabreras (where we ate both nights because we were really having taco withdrawals)!
There were multiple market options to choose from, but the one at Schloss Hellbrunn Palace was top of our list. And with our Salzburg Card, our 30-minute bus ride was free – even more reason to go!
This ‘pleasure palace’ for the prince-archbishops was built in the early 1600s as a summer residence filled with beautiful distractions – including its unique water features.
Needless to say, this beautiful palace and its trick fountains are a must-visit for anyone going to Salzburg. And although we didn’t have access to the inside of the palace during the market, getting to see the fountains lit up at night was very dreamy.
Sipping hot toddies while wandering the grounds made it even better! At this market, we opted for orange punch (which had some rum in it because what’s Christmas without a little spirit? Ha!)
Hohensalzburg Fortress Explorations
On our first morning in Salzburg, we were ecstatic to wake up to clear skies and enjoyed sipping on smoothies at the hotel’s rooftop terrace while we planned our day. Not wanting to risk missing out on the good weather, we wasted no time in getting over to the hilltop fortress.
After a short walk from our hotel and vertical ride on the funicular, we were treated to some of the most stunning views we’ve ever seen. Salzburg is truly stunning.
Since we had the awesome Salzburg Card, we stopped in the Fortress Museum and Marionette Museum as well. In the Fortress Museum, we learned about the history of this world-renowned fortress as well as court life. It was built in 1077 by archbishop Gebhard. And throughout the years, his successors continued to build upon the structure, which was used as protection.
The Marionette Museum is also included in admission to the fortress, so make sure to seek it out. It was a little difficult to find. But well worth a visit to see the old-fashioned puppets share some additional history of Salzburg.
On weekends, there is what seemed to be an extra-magical Christmas market within the fortress walls. And it is even home to a concert series. Definitely adding those to our next-time list!
After taking the funicular back down, don’t miss a stop at the Lover’s Grotto for a good-luck kiss on the way out. Because, why not?
St. Peter’s Cemetery & Catacombs
Next to the funicular station is the 7th century St. Peter’s Church – whose cemetery was made famous in the film The Sound of Music.
In winter especially, the cemetery gives an eery feel – perfect for imagining the Trapp family hiding here in that iconic scene. However, the architecture is actually quite stunning and we were surprised to see some modern-day grave sites here as well as older ones.
The catacombs, which are located inside the nearby hill-side, are also worth a visit. After climbing up the steep steps, you can view two chapels – one dating back to 1178! And the views up there are pretty spectacular as well.
Daytime Christmas Market Stop
If you think Christmas markets are a nighttime only activity, you aren’t alone. There is just something so magical about sipping hot wine – or beer or punch – while wandering through twinkling stalls under a dark sky.
But, those same stalls are usually open most of the day and still have great food and drink offerings. Plus, the vendors have way more time to chat and give you tips when they aren’t overrun by the night crowd.
We wandered through the market at Residenzplatz mid-day and loved getting to take our time looking at everything and stopping to chat with everyone. Plus, we got to split a pretzel bigger than my head to help us get through the long museum visit we had planned next.
In the heart of the city of Salzburg, this unique museum complex provides an interesting look into the past with access to gorgeous staterooms and exhibits showing the Baroque history of the city, plus fantastic views of the city below.
This is another great option included with the Salzburg Card. But it is still a good deal on its own since a ticket to DomQuartier gives you entrance to five museums! Over multiple hours, we walked through the Alte Residenz rooms and gallery, the Cathedral Museum, and the gorgeous Benedictine St. Peter’s Abbey and Museum. Then we completed our tour by viewing an amazing collection of Baroque art in the Salzburg Museum, with a stop to take in the city views on the way!
This was a great way to get a crash-course in Salzburg history. However, if we had more time, we would have definitely wandered through the many other museums which we had free entry to with our Salzburg Card. Our other top choices were: Mozart’s Birthplace and Residence, the Museums of Modern Art, Sound of Music World, and the Christmas Museum.
With the clear skies we were blessed with and a few more hours of daylight left, we couldn’t resist taking advantage of the Untersberg cable car ride to the top of Geiereck mountain.
This is one of many times getting a city pass like the Salzburg Card led us to an amazing activity we would have otherwise never known about. Since this unique option for outdoorsy couples like ourselves was included, we were happy to take the 20-minute bus ride from town to get there!
However, when we arrived at the foot of the mountain, I quickly remembered I’d never been on a cable car before and started to get very wary of how much that cord could be trusted.
Cable Car Ride
After stopping at the café for a quick beer (aka liquid courage), we cautiously boarded the car and were soon on our way to the top of the mountain. While absolutely freaked out, hovering above this beautiful area of Salzburg was an amazing experience. And as we neared the end of our 10-minute ride, I realized we would be treated to a lot more snow than I expected!
We also were going much higher than I initially thought. The area I assumed we were headed to – which can be seen from below – is only about half-way there. Oh my!
As we neared our drop-off point, we entered into a thick cloud which made it impossible to see anything. It felt like a real adventure, not just a fun ride. And since we did this on a whim with zero research, it begged the question – what were we getting ourselves into?
(Side note: After the fact, I’ve learned the cable car has been running since 1961! And it rises 1,320 meters!!!)
However, once our feet were on solid ground, all the stomach-churning fear I experienced was made worth it when we saw the amazing panoramic views and ALL THAT SNOW!
Taking in the Views Between White-Outs
Turns out the cable car ride is only the beginning of the adventure. From the mountain-top station, you can actually hike around in the snow to take even more views.
Of course, our month-long craving for snow meant we were embarrassingly giddy to run out into the deep, white, glorious cold stuff to play and explore.
We walked a little ways away from the cafe to take in more views, before being met with a thick cloud that created a serene white-out condition.
At one point, Buddy went off to explore a bit further and I completely lost sight of him. However, instead of being nervous standing there alone on a foreign mountain, I closed my eyes while enjoying the cold fresh air and sound of the soft wind blowing the fluffy snow around me. It reminded me of how much I truly love mountains and snow, and the magical experience they create once combined.
Funny enough, Buddy was having a similar experience at the bottom of the hill. And when we reunited after a short time apart, it was obvious as we looked at each other how much we both appreciated this little piece of heaven. Then we had a mini snowball fight as we crunched our way back to the warm waiting area for our ride down. I know it will be a moment we will always cherish from our travels.
Brewery Tour & Tasting
Even though we were exhausted from our long day of exploring and admiring the stunning scenery of Salzburg, we had one last stop. Luckily, touring and tasting at Stiegl-Brauwelt happened to be the perfect way to end our night!
With our card, we had access to the museum, a free tasting each of their most popular beer, and even some fun complimentary souvenirs.
Stiegl is the largest private brewery in Austria and well-known around the world. Its large, interactive and educational museum was a fun way to see the history and current process of their beer production. But we have to admit, we enjoyed sampling the end product the best.
After trying a few of their top sellers, we hopped a bus back to our hotel – and tried with all our might not to fall asleep on the way. We packed so much into our first visit to Salzburg and had a fantastically exhausting time we will remember always.
When most people think of this beautiful Austrian city, they have visions of Julie Andrews running through the streets singing. When we think of Salzburg, we think of the best Mexican food we’ve had in Europe, dreamily-lit trick fountains, and an unforgettable, magical mountain-top snowventure. Plus, those classic Sound of Music scenes, because who can really help that?
That’s the best thing about flexible travel. Yes, we made sure to see the gorgeous (and therefore much more popular) tourist activities – and really enjoyed them! But our favorite places ended up being the unexpected stops we made out of spontaneity or curiosity. Going off on our own unscripted adventures made for a much more memorable trip. However, there is still so much to learn and see (especially in other seasons), so we will definitely be back.
Special thanks to Tourismus Salzburg for providing us with complimentary Salzburg Cards on this trip. However, all opinions are our own. We genuinely enjoyed using these and believe they would add value to others’ trips as well.
Read more about our Europe travels here. And to learn how we traveled in Europe for five months on a budget by house sitting, read this guide.
Thank you for your lovely blog post and the great pictures!