Last updated on April 17, 2023 by Wandering our World
When it comes to travelling Europe, Austria is one of the continent’s best-kept secrets. It’s smaller than many of its neighbours, but this little country has so much to offer.
While Austria may be small, you’ll find it packed with exciting things to see and do. In particular, Vienna and Salzburg are Austria’s biggest cities, and they’re the two that you’ve probably heard most about. But because they’re both brilliant places, if you’ve only got time to visit one it’s going to be hard to choose.
Vienna is the capital city, and it’s known for its coffee culture and Hapsburg-era palaces. It’s got a big city vibe, and it’s full of upmarket shops, decadent palaces, and a lot of delicious food.
Salzburg on the other hand, is best known as the setting for the Sound of Music, and for its breathtaking views of the Austrian Alps. It’s smaller than Vienna, but still bursting with culture, cobbled streets, and classical music.
Do they both sound like the perfect holiday destination? That’s because they are!
Luckily, we know both cities well, so we’ve put together an honest comparison to help you make up your mind.
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Better For Nature?
- Which Is Better For Shopping?
- Which Is Better For Couples?
- Which Is Better For Families?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Better For History?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
A Quick Overview: Salzburg vs Vienna
Salzburg: A Quick Overview
Salzburg is the second largest city in Austria, and it’s right on the border with Germany. It’s so close to Germany that you can get to Munich quicker than you can get to Vienna!
So, if you’re travelling overland from Germany and you’re short on time, Salzburg might be a good destination.
It’s a small city, and while it’s home to just over 155,000 people, it’s very popular with tourists. In the high season, you’ll find more tourists in Salzburg than locals!
The name means “Salt Castle”, which came from the city’s early years when the main industry was salt extraction. It’s not known for that any more, however, and instead you’re more likely to know of Salzburg as the setting of the “Sound of Music” film, or as the birthplace of classical musician Mozart.
Salzburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site worthy old-town, and while you’re wandering the streets you’ll be able to look up and catch a glimpse of the Austrian Alps, just 20 minutes out of the city centre.
Vienna: A Quick Overview
Vienna is the biggest city in Austria, and around 2.9 million people live here – that’s more than a quarter of Austria’s entire population!
It’s the capital city of Austria, and it’s located near the border with Slovakia. From Vienna, you can get to Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia, in less than an hour!).
Vienna is known for its incredible old town and the baroque buildings that were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Beethoven and Mozart both called this city home, as well as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
There’s a lot of music, art, and culture to explore in Vienna, including the Hapsburg Era palaces, and the wonderful museums.
It’s built on the banks of the Danube River, with many bridges and parks worth stopping to catch the sunset from. Vienna also has a great reputation for food, including Wiener Schnitzel, Sachertorte Chocolate Cake, and a great cafe culture.
In Salzburg, you won’t find a big city nightlife, but there are still some excellent bars and clubs to visit if you’re in the partying mood! There are some sophisticated cocktail bars, and there’s also more than one authentic Irish pub.
You’ll easily be able to find bars like the Augustiner Braustubl which offer an authentic Austrian experience and are complete with an in-house brewery.
Or, for something different, you could visit the Salzburg Whiskey Museum and taste some of the hundreds of whiskeys they have available.
If you’re looking to experience some Austrian nightlife, Vienna is a great place to visit. There’s a good techno and electronic music scene in Vienna, and you’ll find bars and clubs located along the Donaukanal (Danube Canal) which are great for partying all night long.
If electronic music isn’t your style, don’t worry, because there’s something for everyone in Vienna.
You’ll easily find Jazz clubs, rowdy pubs, and karaoke bars. One spot you can’t miss is Loos American Bar. Despite its name, this is a real Viennese bar and it’s been serving cocktails to its patrons for more than 100 years.
Overall, if you’re looking for nightlife, then Vienna is the best city for you. It’s bigger than Salzburg, with a larger range of bars, clubs, and pubs. Whether you’re looking for a quiet cocktail or a place to dance the night away, you’ll find it in Vienna.
Vienna is famous for its food, starting with the Wiener Schnitzel. This is named after Vienna, as “Wien” is what Austrians call this city.
It’s a piece of veal, breaded and lightly fried, and delicious. There’s more to Vienna than just schnitzel, however, including the Austrian classic meal of Knodel, Käsespätzle, or wurst (sausages).
When it comes to sweet food, Vienna has just as much to offer. The Sachertorte chocolate and jam cake was created at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna, so you can visit them and taste the cake for yourself.
You’ll easily find great cafes in Vienna to sip on a Viennese coffee (espresso topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder), or perhaps nibble on some world-class apple strudels, or Kaiserschmarn.
And if you’re in the mood for something different, perhaps some international flavours, you’ll be able to find them in Vienna.
As well as other European restaurants including French and Italian cuisine, you’ll also be able to find Chinese food, Indian food, and so much more. Vienna offers high-class dining, and it also offers street stalls for quick eats, so you can find something to suit your budget here.
Salzburg doesn’t have quite the same range of restaurants or internationally recognised food, but don’t let that put you off. There are still a lot of good restaurants and cafes in Salzburg, and there are many good spots to enjoy a meal out.
The local market, or “Grünmarkt” is held in the centre of the city Monday – Saturday, and it’s full of stalls selling delicious Austrian delicacies.
For something specifically from Salzburg, the Salzburger Nockerl is a dessert you can’t miss. Made from sugar, egg yolk, flour, and vanilla, the Salzburger Nockerl is baked into the shape of three peaks, said to represent the hills surrounding Salzburg. It’s usually served dusted with sugar, and perhaps a raspberry sauce.
Another Salzburg classic is the Mozartkugel, a marzipan ball covered in chocolate, nougat and pistachio.
This was first created in the late 1800s and has been served in Vienna ever since. The original Mozartkugel was created by Salzburg local Paul Furste, although there are many imitations around now.
Overall, Vienna is the best city for food. You’ve got some local must-try delicacies to hunt down, and then for the rest of your meals, there’s so much range that you’ll find whatever you’re looking for.
Which Is Better For Nature?
Salzburg is built on the edge of the River Salzach, and there are plenty of parks and walking tracks spread around this area. More importantly, though, Salzburg is located on the edge of the Austrian Alps, and the city is surrounded by hills.
You can get out of the city and into the Alps in just a few minutes. The Untersberg is the closest alpine peak, measuring in at over 1,900m high and only 16km (10 miles) from the city centre.
So if you’re looking for somewhere to go hiking or biking, Salzburg is the place for you. When you’re in Salzburg, it’s easy to immerse yourself in nature.
Vienna doesn’t have as much to offer when it comes to striking scenery and mountains, but there are some great parks and nature reserves here if you’re looking for somewhere to stretch your legs.
The Volksgarten and the Vienna Zoo are great options for some well-curated nature areas.
Another place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city is the Schonbrunner Gardens. In summer these gardens are home to beautifully maintained trees and flowers, and you can easily enjoy an afternoon wandering through.
In winter, the plants might be covered by frost or snow, but instead, you can sip on a cup of mulled wine, and enjoy the Christmas Markets.
For nature, and getting out adventuring, we’d say that Salzburg is the best city to visit. The Austrian Alps are spectacular, and they’re just on your doorstep with a visit to Salzburg.
If you enjoy shopping, there’s a lot for you to experience in Vienna. You can’t miss a stroll down Mariahilfestrasse, right in the centre of the old town. This street is full of stores worth a visit, including local chocolatiers, fashion designers, jewellers, and bookshops.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, then there are several big shopping malls in this city, including the Ringstrasse Galerien.
This is also in the middle of the old town, and there are more than 50 shops here, with several well-known brands. Or for something more splendid, you can visit the shops in the Goldenes Quartier, a shopping mall which is home to international luxury brands – they certainly come with a price tag!
Salzburg doesn’t have as much to offer for a shopping experience. For your everyday shopping, there is Europark Salzburg Mall, which has a wide range of stores to visit, and a lot of stores that you could find anywhere else in Europe.
For something more uniquely Salzburg, take a walk down Getreidegasse. This street is in the middle of the old town, and it’s the same street that Mozart’s birth house is on.
You can find all kinds of stores here, including fashion, jewellery, traditional Austrian clothes, and groceries. It’s beautifully decorated and maintained, including antique-style store signs, so it’s worth a visit just for window shopping, even if you choose not to buy anything.
However Vienna is hands-down the better city to visit if you’re looking to go shopping. With a big range of malls, shops, and boutiques, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for here.
Which Is Better For Couples?
Vienna has a reputation as an incredibly romantic city to visit. The old town is lined with cobbled streets and delicate baroque architecture which provide a beautiful backdrop for you to steal a kiss in front of.
The Danube River also provides a great backdrop, and you can even take a cruise along it to see Vienna from a different angle. For something romantic, we recommend a sunset cruise!
There are also other romantic attractions to visit if you’re visiting Vienna with your partner. One is the Gustav Klimt painting called “The Kiss”, which is housed in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere Museum.
This painting has been in Austria for over 100 years, and its nature has caused much controversy over this time.
Just like Vienna, Salzburg also has cobbled streets, and beautiful buildings to wander by. What Salzburg has that Vienna doesn’t though, is the Alps to gaze up at. These majestic mountains provide spectacular views at all times of day and night.
To make your visit to Salzburg extra-romantic, a visit to Schloss Mirabell is a must. This beautiful palace was built as a symbol of everlasting love, and it comes complete with marble floors, a “staircase of angels”, and a blooming flower garden.
It’s been called one of the most popular wedding venues in the world, but it’s still worth a visit even if you’re on a first date!
We really can’t decide whether Vienna or Salzburg is the best destination for couples to visit. Both of these cities offer romance, charm, and passion, so you won’t run out of date ideas in either city.
If you’re travelling with children, or the whole family, there’s a lot to see and do in Salzburg. It’s a very family-friendly city, largely because it’s small.
That means that Salzburg is easy to explore and hard to get lost in! Because many attractions are right next to each other, you won’t get too tired travelling from place to place.
There are a lot of great, child focussed attractions in Salzburg too, for example, the Toy Museum, which has hundreds of toys from different centuries to play with.
The nature museum, “Haus der Natur” is also a great place to spend an afternoon.
This museum is full of interesting, interactive exhibitions including ones on the human body, outer space, and dinosaurs that will keep children and adults entertained for hours. If you’ve ever wondered how Mozart made his music, head straight for the giant “walk-in” violin!
Vienna also has some great spots to visit if you’re on a family trip. Just like Salzburg, it’s a very safe city, and there’s so much excitement to experience, so don’t let the classical music and historical architecture fool you.
If you’re travelling with children, the Prater Park amusement park in Vienna is a great place to visit, and you can easily spend a day or more here.
For something with a more educational focus that will still keep the kids entertained, check out the Spanish Riding School, the House of Music, or the Vienna Zoo. These attractions have excellent, child-focussed exhibitions which will keep your children interested, and learning!
Vienna and Salzburg are both great cities to visit with children. Overall, however, we think that Salzburg is better to visit with families, as it’s easier to get around and there’s still a lot to do.
Salzburg is not a cheap city to visit. The cost of food, accommodation, transport, and visiting attractions will start to add up quickly.
Despite this, you can still find hostel-style accommodation in town, and if you hunt out places like the market to eat, you can plan a trip to Salzburg to suit your budget.
Vienna is also an expensive city to visit. You can plan a trip to Vienna to suit your price range, and there are plenty of hostels and budget-friendly meal options in Vienna.
Overall, however, prices in Vienna are more expensive than in many other cities around Europe.
Unfortunately, neither Salzburg nor Vienna is particularly cheap. If you’re looking for a bargain holiday, you’ll need to plan carefully and book well in advance to make the most of any deals.
Despite that, we say that Vienna is slightly cheaper than Salzburg, because of the larger range of food and accommodation options available.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: A stay at Sauerweingut will have you residing in apartments in a traditional Austrian building, and just a 10 minute walk from the old town. The service is great, as is the setting. See photos and rates!
Luxury: The five-star, grand-looking Hotel Sacher Salzburg is a stunning place to stay in the heart of Salzburg. Once you see this hotel you’ll understand straight away why it’s a popular venue for upmarket weddings. See photos and rates!
Budget: Hotel Beethoven is a lovely budget hotel set in the city center, just a few steps away from the Naschmarkt Open-Air Market and the Theater an der Wien. Considering its location, the services (they even hold a classical concert every weekend for guests), and the classy interior, the rate may surprise. See photos and rates!
Luxury: It doesn’t get more grand than a stay at the famous 5-star Hotel Imperial. Built during the Austro-Hungarian empire, this hotel is one of the most photographed buildings in Vienna, but it’s those who get to step inside that get to see the real opulence on display. This place is a once-in-a-lifetime stay. See photos and rates!
If you’re looking for historical sites, then look no further than Salzburg. This city is the birthplace of the famous composer Mozart, and you can take a tour of his house, right in the centre of the city. It’s one of the many historical sites to visit here.
The old town of Salzburg has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, because of its cultural importance, most notably the intermingling of German and Italian cultures that’s taken place here over the centuries.
While the city centre was heavily bombed in World War Two, many buildings have been carefully preserved, and there’s still a lot of baroque architecture around Salzburg today.
Vienna has also been an important city for both Austria and Europe for many centuries. There’s a lot of history here, dating back to the Hapsburg Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, and the World Wars.
Just from the last few hundred years, in Vienna, you’ll find the homes of Sigmund Freud and Beethoven.
The predominant baroque architecture style of the city, as well as the carefully preserved old town, make this a fascinating place to wander with a historian’s eyes, and you can sign up for a free walking tour to find out more about it.
There are also fantastic museums in Vienna, dedicated to different aspects of the city’s history, for a more curated experience.
Vienna and Salzburg are both fantastic cities to visit if you’re interested in history. We really can’t choose between them, and you’ll be able to drink in so much knowledge whichever city you choose!
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Salzburg is a small city, which means that most of its main attractions are located in the same area. Getting around the city centre is easy, and you can walk nearly everywhere you want to go.
When you’re not in the mood to walk, Salzburg has great public transport. In particular, there are regular, efficient buses and trolley cars which connect a lot of the city.
The trolleys are electric powered, which is a big bonus if you’re looking for eco-friendly transport.
If you plan to use public transport, then the SalzburgMobil App is great for planning your trips. It also might be worth buying the Salzburg Card.
You can choose to buy a card for 24, 48, or 72 hours, and during that time you get all public transport for free, as well as free admission to city attractions and museums!
Vienna is easy to walk around as well, although it’s a lot bigger than Salzburg. This means that attractions are more spread out, and you’re likely to spend longer walking from one place to another.
The old city is especially good for walking around because many streets have been pedestrianised and you won’t have to share with cars.
The public transport in Vienna is another good way to get around. There are buses, trams, trains, and subway networks which will all help get you where you need to go.
You can book tickets on the WienMobile App, and we recommend looking at the Vienna City Card. Just like the Salzburg Card, you can choose to buy 1, 2, or 3 days, and get free use of all public transport during that period, as well as discounts at attractions throughout the city.
However overall, Salzburg is easier to get around. It’s a smaller city, attractions are closer together, and it has excellent public transport. What more could you want?