One glance at Salzburg’s fanciful baroque palaces and domes, its mountain backdrop and its insanely turquoise river, and it’s love. We get it – you won’t want to leave. But do. When the streets heave in peak summer, there’s plenty to see (and far more peace to be had) just a quick train ride or drive away from the city.
The scenery around Salzburg is a knockout, whether it’s the looking-glass lakes of Salzkammergut – inspiration for everyone from a paintbrush-wielding Klimt to Hollywood directors – or the colossal snow-capped mountains that slide into your rear-view mirror on the Grossglockner Road.
And there’s more. Celtic heritage, ice caves, salt mines with 7000 years of history – you’ll find the lot right on Salzburg’s doorstep. Here’s our guide to the best day trips from the city celebrated as the ‘Stage of the World.’
Why go? To delve into ice caves and soak up Sound of Music vibes
Werfen is a heart-stealer, with the limestone spires of the Tennengebirge range punching high above the river-woven Salzach Valley. Even in the height of summer, you’ll get a frosty reception at the world’s largest accessible ice caves at Eisriesenwelt, a Narnia-like wonderland of twinkling ice burrowing deep into the heart of the mountains.
A cable car hoists you up to the trail to the caves, but sling on an extra layer before joining a tour – it’s like a fridge inside! Kitted out with a carbide lamp, you’ll get to explore pitch-black tunnels and cavernous halls, where frozen sculptures, columns and curtains of icicles glitter when a magnesium flare illuminates them.
The caves are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Get an early start so you can also visit cliffhanger castle Burg Hohenwerfen, which has lorded it over the valley for 900 years. Or skip and sing your heart out, Maria-style, on the 1.4km (0.9-mile) Sound of Music Trail, which weaves through lush meadows from the village center to the Gschwandtanger viewpoint.
If you can, squeeze in lunch or dinner at Obauer, one of the region’s top tables, which leans on its fabulous kitchen gardens to create dishes that sing of the seasons, like Werfen lamb with nettle dumplings and smoked beans.
How to get to Werfen: Fast trains run hourly from Salzburg to Werfen (€9.30, 40 minutes), and buses leave Werfen train station at 8:18am, 10:18pm, 12:18pm and 2:18pm and stop at Eisriesenwelt car park, a 20-minute walk from the bottom cable car station. The last return bus leaves at 4:32pm. Allow at least three hours for the return trip.
Why go: For a dip into the lavish lifestyle of Salzburg’s royals, Austria’s original party people
Many of Salzburg’s prince-archbishops were preoccupied with matters of a divine nature, but not Markus Sittikus, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg from 1612 until his death in 1619. Markus had a frivolous streak and naughty sense of humor and loved nothing more than throwing a raucous party, and Schloss Hellbrunn was a fine place to do just that.
On the fringes of Salzburg, this lemon-fronted Italianate palace is the kind of place a Disney princess might live, but this was where the prince-archbishop came to escape his religious duties, inviting the clergy over to feast, drink and make merry in exotic gardens full of citrus trees, muses and fountains.
You can get a flavor of these hedonistic times on a guided tour of the Wasserspiele (trick fountains) in the grounds. Choose a warm day and be ready to get soaked as you wander past mock Roman ruins, grottoes and mechanical theaters.
Don’t rush straight off after seeing the palace. The surrounding gardens are a brilliant spot for a picnic and stroll, with tree-canopied avenues, ponds and sculptures. Here you’ll find the pretty pavilion that formed the backdrop to the song Sixteen Going on Seventeen in The Sound of Music.
How to get to Hellbrunn: Hellbrunn is 4.5km (2.8 miles) south of Salzburg. Get here via a scenic 20-minute bike ride (mostly along the Salzach River) or a 15-minute ride on Bus 25 (€2.20, every 20 minutes), departing from Mozartsteg/Rudolfskai in the Altstadt.
Why go? History, mining relics, and museums devoted to Celtic history and music
For some mysterious reason, Hallein has managed to avoid popping up on the tourist radar, despite its evident late-medieval charms and proximity to Salzburg. You could easily spend a full day here as the town packs in a heck of a lot of history. Dive in at the deep end at Salzwelten, the town’s historic salt mine, which has been in operation for 2600 years.
Salzburg grew high and mighty on the salt – or ‘white gold’ – mined here, which filled the princely coffers for many centuries. Pop on a boiler suit and you’re ready for a tour deep underground, leading through dark passages on trains, miners’ slides and a raft across an atmospherically lit salt lake.
To tap into the region’s Celtic heritage, stop by the riverside Keltenmuseum, which presents a fascinating chronological romp through the region’s history. Vaulted rooms harbor a remarkable stash of finds, from Bronze Age helmets to Celtic gold torques and the “Mannes im Salz,” the mummified remains of a prehistoric salt-miner.
Hallein’s more Christmassy claim to fame is the Stille Nacht Museum, set in a mansion that was home to Franz Xaver Gruber, the composer of Silent Night, for 28 years. Next to the parish church, the museum tells the story of the world’s favorite carol – Franz came up with the melody on his guitar, which you can see displayed here, in 1818.
Break up the sightseeing with a creative brunch and locally roasted coffee and cake at artsy, nicely chilled Pan Café.
How to get to Hallein: Sidling up to the German border, Hallein is located 18km south of Salzburg via the B150 and A10 in the direction of Graz/Villach. Coming by public transport, it’s a 25-minute train ride from Salzburg, with departures roughly every 30 minutes (€5.10), and an hourly bus runs from the train station to the salt mine.
Why go? For giddying views on one of Europe’s most dramatic Alpine roads
If you only have time for one road trip, make it the legendary Grossglockner Road, which serves up 48km (30 miles) of stomach-flipping hairpin bends, glaciers, crashing waterfalls, sapphire-blue lakes and wow-what-a-mountain moments. Leave Salzburg at the crack of dawn to beat the worst of the traffic (the route gets crazily busy in summer) and make the most of what is hands-down one of the loveliest drives in the Alps.
With 9% gradients and 36 tight bends to negotiate, you’ll need to be a fairly confident driver – but if driving seems tough, spare a thought for the sweaty cyclists battling their way to the top! Highlights abound, but you’ll be blown away by the view of a rippling sea of snow-capped peaks from the Edelweissspitze, the road’s highest point at 2571m (8435ft).
Pause again at Heiligenblut, where the needle-thin spire of a 15th-century pilgrimage church seems to reach for the heavens. Wind down your window and listen for whistling marmots and the shrill call of eagles as you cruise on to the flag-bedecked Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe lookout. This lofty viewpoint sits right below 3798m (12,461ft) Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak, and the retreating Pasterze Glacier.
How to get to the Grossglockner Road: The Grossglockner Road begins in Fusch, a 90-minute drive south of Salzburg via the A10 and B311. The road goes with the snow and is open from early May to early November. Pick a good-weather day, as the drive is no fun in the rain, sleet or snow. A day ticket for a car costs €38.
Why go? For lake and mountain views and a deep dive into mining history
The Austria of a million postcards (and Instagram posts), the lake of Hallstätter See forces you to look constantly up in wide-eyed wonder at forested mountains plunging steeply into its inky green-blue waters. You can hike, swim and gaze, or head to the ludicrously pretty village of Hallstatt, where pastel-painted chalets tightly hug the shore. It’s dreamy, but popular too – the number of visitors can be nerve-fraying in summer, so earmark the trip for spring or autumn instead.
A funicular glides above Hallstatt to the lake’s unmissable Salzwelten salt mines. A visit leads into the cool depths of the mountain, taking you on miners’ slides, through tunnels and across subterranean salt lakes. The ground can be rough underfoot and the temperature hovers at 8°C (46°F) year-round in the mines, so dress sensibly. While you’re up here, check out the Skywalk, a platform perched 360m (1181ft) above the water, opening up epic views of the fjord-like lake and mountains.
For more insight into regional history, tag on a visit to the village’s World Heritage Museum, which wings you back 7000 years to the early origins of salt mining. Come lunchtime, book a table on the terrace at Restaurant zum Salzbaron for a ringside view of the lake and fish plucked freshly from the waters.
How to get to Hallstatt: From Salzburg, take a bus to Bad Ischl (€11.30, 1½ hours), where you can connect with a train to Hallstatt (€6, 20 minutes). Boats frequently make the journey from the train station to the village (€3.50, 10 minutes). Otherwise, it’s just over an hour’s drive from Salzburg via the A1/B158.
Why go? For giant caves and vertiginous, giant-scale landscapes
Obertraun’s big-hitter sight is the Dachstein Caves, a pair of staggering caverns that burrow up to 70km (44 miles) into the ground. A cable car trundles above Alpine meadows to Schönbergalm, set at 1350m (4429ft) above sea level, from where you can walk to the top in around 15 minutes.
Tours of each of the two caves last around an hour. First up is the Dachstein Rieseneishöhle (Dachstein Giant Ice Cave), with its strikingly lit ice formations – dress warmly! Stop two is the Mammuthöhle (Mammoth Cave), one of the world’s largest limestone caves, an eerie labyrinth of sculpted karst formations.
From Obertraun, another cable car zips up to Krippenstein at 2019m (6624ft) where the “5 Fingers” viewing platform juts out over a sheer cliff face. The five differently shaped platforms resemble a giant diving board, but if you’re prone to vertigo, the exposure may reduce you to tears. Get lucky with the weather and you’ll swoon over dizzying views of the lake and mountains far below you.
How to get to Obertraun–Dachstein: It’s a long day trip so get an early start. Hourly trains run from Salzburg to Obertraun Dachsteinhöhlen station (€29.40, 2½ hours). It’s quicker by road: roughly a 1¼-hour drive southeast of Salzburg via the A10.
Why go? For lush lake views close to Salzburg
If Hallstatt is too far to venture, you can get a feel for the Salzkammergut region by dipping into a few lakes close to Salzburg. The scenery here is off the charts – pools in jewel-box greens and blues lift the gaze steadily to forests and cloud-wisped Alpine peaks, and church-topped villages look as tiny as toys against the backdrop. In summer, there’s a real holiday vibe, with locals and day-trippers mixing on the beach over ice cream and water sports.
The crescent-shaped Mondsee gets a lot of attention for its butter-yellow, twin-spired basilica, which shot to fame in the wedding scene in The Sound of Music. But it perhaps deserves to be better known for its Neolithic pile-dwellings dating to 4000 BCE.
One lake over, Attersee is quieter. What it sacrifices in whopping mountains, it makes up for with turquoise waters that are ideal for swimming and stand-up paddle boarding. The Viennese Secessionist painter, Gustav Klimt, had a real soft spot for this lake and you can walk along the shores he loved so well on a 2km (1.2-mile) themed trail with prints of his works.
Cradled by mountains, Wolfgangsee to the south is perhaps fairest of all (but boy do people know it). Dodge the high season though, and you’ll be touched by the serene beauty of the lake. Make time for the glitteringly opulent pilgrimage church in St Wolfgang and the Alpine views that unfurl from the top of 1783m (5850ft) Schafberg, reached via Austria’s steepest cogwheel railway since 1893.
How to get to the Salzkammergut Lakes: Buses from Salzburg serve the lakes – the trip to Mondsee (€7.30) takes 55 minutes. If you want to see more than one lake in a day, you’d be wise to hire your own wheels. Driving, you can reach Wolfgangsee in around half an hour.
Why go? For a German perspective on the glorious Alps
A day trip into Germany? Well, why not? Where Austria slams into the limestone Bavarian Alps, you’ll find some of the most dramatic scenery for miles. And who can resist sneaking over to the ridiculously lovely district of Berchtesgaden, tucked into Germany’s southeastern pocket?
Here, mountains of myth – including gnarly, 2713m (8901ft) Watzmann, Germany’s second-highest peak – throw up sheer walls of rock around what has to be the country’s most ravishing lake. Fjord-like Königssee is so exquisitely turquoise it looks photoshopped.
The must-do? The boat tour from Schönau at the lake’s northern tip to the bauble-domed pilgrimage chapel of St Bartholomä, of course! Listen as the captain plays a horn towards the aptly-named Echo Wall, which reverberates seven times. From the chapel, it’s an hour’s walk to the Eiskapelle (Ice Chapel), the remains of a collapsed glacier at the foot of the Watzmann’s ferocious east wall.
Perched eyrie-like above it all on 1834m (6017ft) Kehlstein is the Eagle’s Nest, a lodge notoriously gifted to Hitler on his 50th birthday in 1939. It took around 3000 workers two years to hack out the vertiginous 6km-long mountain road and blast a hole through the rock for a brass-paneled lift.
How to get to Berchtesgaden: Bus 840 runs frequently from Salzburg to Berchtesgaden (€6.20, 50 minutes). Otherwise, it’s around a 40-minute drive south via the B305. From Berchtesgaden, drive or take bus 838 to the Eagle’s Nest shuttle bus stop.