Salzburg and Vienna are the two most popular cities for travelers in Austria. When traveling to Austria, you might be wondering which city is better to visit, Salzburg or Vienna. Are you wondering whether you can skip one or the other or if Vienna or Salzburg better fits your needs and interests?

Vienna, the biggest city and the capital of Austria, located in the east of the country, is 10 times bigger than Salzburg. Salzburg is located in the northwest of Austria, 250 kilometers from Vienna and only 5 kilometers from the German border. Why would we even compare Vienna to Salzburg and why is Salzburg on par with Vienna when it comes to popularity as a travel destination?

While Vienna was home to the Habsburg emperor’s residence for centuries and is a cultural capital with some of the world’s largest museums and most impressive architectural features, Salzburg as a former archbiescopal church-state is not only unique in its history but also the picture-perfect blend of city and nature.

Let’s take a look at some important things to consider when deciding which of these two Austrian cities, Vienna or Salzburg, is best for your trip to Austria.

How do travelers rate Vienna and Salzburg?

Having worked in a hostel and as a guide for a decade, I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with thousands of travelers, many of whom visited Vienna before coming to Salzburg. From my experience, no one dislikes Salzburg but some travelers are not as fascinated by Vienna. Why is that?

Well, Vienna is much bigger than Salzburg. Vienna is the biggest city in Austria with almost 2 million inhabitants. Vienna is packed with history and impressive architecture, but if you’re not into those things, the city might just seem like a big city. Vienna was rated the world’s best city for living quality for years and that’s how it feels like. It’s certainly unique among big cities.

Salzburg on the other hand is unique in its history. Salzburg was not part of the Habsburg empire for a long time, but rather an independent church-state. Therefore, history buffs also get their money’s worth. A similar story applies to its architecture due to its baroque old town and the fortress, but both history and architecture have nothing on Vienna in terms of scope and magnitude.

Where Vienna can’t keep up with Salzburg is in terms of the nature that is in the middle of the city of Salzburg and the wonderful views that come with it. Right in the old town, there is the fortress and there are the two mountains, Kapuzinerberg and Mönchsberg. They surround the old town. Even though I am a local, visiting the fortress and hiking those mountains is one of my favorite things to do.

As such, while Vienna can sometimes seem like just another big city to some, some aspects of Salzburg are truly unique. The charm of Salzburg’s old town, its compact size, and its stunning scenery make it a more personal experience. Nobody I have met has disliked Salzburg or been completely unimpressed in every way. I have not met anyone who disliked Vienna either but I have met people who were unimpressed.

Sightseeing in Vienna vs Salzburg

There are a lot of differences between sightseeing in Vienna and Salzburg. Vienna is one of the most culturally and historically rich cities in Europe, if not in the world. There are famous historic Habsburg sights to see, such as the Schönbrunn Palace, the Hofburg, and the Belvedere Palace. There are also lots of other stunning architectural pieces along the Ringstraße the inner ring, including the Austrian parliament, the Vienna city hall, the University of Vienna, Votiv church, and Burgtheater.

Vienna is also a fantastic city for opera, operetta, and musicals much better than Salzburg, in fact, even if Salzburg is famous as the city of music. Beautiful gardens can also be found there. Zentralfriedhof, a cemetery in Vienna that is other than the name suggests not central but located outside of the city, is one of the largest cemeteries in the world. In addition to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna is also home to many other world-class museums. A visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral is also a must.

As you can see, there are countless things to do in Vienna, many of them related to culture, architecture, and history. There are too many to list here, but you get the idea. Read this article for more ideas on things to do in Vienna.

Salzburg also has a lot of culture and history. Salzburg was an independent church-state. Therefore, you won’t hear much about the Habsburg empire in Salzburg. In Salzburg, you will rather hear about archbishops, Mozart, and the Sound of Music. There are two major history museums, Domquartier and Salzburg Museum. They are great, but it doesn’t take more than a couple of hours to explore them. There is also a museum of modern art but most travelers dislike it and it feels kind of a forced institution in Salzburg. That’s also a feature of Salzburg.

Salzburg doesn’t have a big city flair at all but most travelers perceive it as quaint especially compared to Vienna. Salzburg never changes. So history, culture, and architecture, other than in Vienna, only occupy a day of your time in Salzburg. So what to do with the rest of your stay? If you have more than a day, I would highly recommend taking a day trip.

If you are not up for a day trip to either the lake district, across the Bavarian border to Berchtesgaden or into the Alps to the largest Ice Caves in the world, you might want to visit one of the places in the surroundings of Salzburg like Hellbrunn palace or the Untersberg Cable car.

If you also don’t want to head out into the surroundings, you might want to embark on a hike in the center of the city. Kapuzinerberg is only 2 minutes from my house and there are times when I climb it every day. If you are thinking about a hike, here is your guide to hiking in the center of Salzburg on the Free Walking Tour Salzburg’s blog.

Is Salzburg better for day trips than Vienna?

Salzburg is better for day trips than Vienna because Salzburg is small and surrounded by stunning nature. It takes for example only 30 minutes to reach Fuschl in the Salzkammergut, the Austrian lake district. In Vienna, you couldn’t even properly leave the city in 30 minutes. If you continue into the lake district, you will find lake after lake surrounded by mountains all the way to Hallstatt, the most popular village in Austria. Here is a list of the best places in the Salzkammergut, the Austrian lake district.

Other day trips from Salzburg include exploring the largest Ice Cave in the world, salt mines, and the King’s Lake in Bavaria, which is considered to be the most beautiful place in all of Germany. If you would like to know more, here is another article about the day trips from Salzburg. 

Now, what about the day trips from Vienna? It’s not like there are no day trips to take from Vienna but those day trips are less impressive than the day trips from Salzburg simply because Vienna is not surrounded by the Alps. Also, there is so much to see in the city of Vienna in terms of culture, history, and art, that leaving the city is not really worth it. Salzburg, on the other hand, is a small city that can be explored in a day or two, and you can spend the rest of your time discovering the surrounding areas.

Day trips from Vienna include the Wachau valley where the ruins of Dürrnstein and Melk abbey are located or Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia which is only an hour from Vienna. There are also several castles near Vienna like Liechtenstein castle, castle Franzensburg or Kreuzenstein Castle. If you would like to take a day trip from Salzburg, here is a list of day trip destinations from Vienna.

Salzburg vs Vienna: How many nights should you spend?

Vienna and Salzburg will be destinations for many of you since both cities are on the way or you will fly into Vienna but want to see more of Austria and Salzburg has an easy connection. If that’s the case for you, you might be wondering how many days to spend in either city.

While it’s possible to visit the most important sights in Salzburg in a day and even on a day trip from Vienna, you could also spend several days or a week in Salzburg without running out of activities. Here is a breakdown of how many days to stay in Salzburg on the Free Walking Tour Salzburg blog. Most of us, however, do not only have to budget money when traveling but also time.

Vienna is 10 times bigger than Salzburg. While a visit to Salzburg should last about 2-3 days, a trip to Vienna should last at least 3 days, possibly longer. There is just so much art, architecture, history, and culture in Vienna.

Vienna or Salzburg: How to get there and around

Salzburg and Vienna are both easy to reach because they are at the intersection of other popular tourist destinations like Prague, Budapest, and Berlin. For many travelers, Salzburg and Vienna are, therefore, part of their trip around Europe. Salzburg and Vienna are connected by a 2,5-hour train connection. Therefore, you don’t actually have to choose between Salzburg or Vienna. It’s easy to visit both. More on that later.

Reaching Vienna or Salzburg is also easiest by train since connection from all the nearby points of departure is frequent and convenient. Vienna is the more convenient destination if you only visit Salzburg or Vienna, or if you are coming from a distance and therefore have to fly since the airport is 8 times bigger and offers more and cheaper flight connections, but you may be lucky and find a direct flight to Salzburg.

Vienna is ten times the size of Salzburg, so it is more spacious than Salzburg. While Salzburg is perfectly walkable, in Vienna you need public transport to get around but public transport in Vienna is efficient. There is a subway and a tram and the 24, 48 or 72-hour tickets also help you save money on public transport. In Vienna, there is a train station at the airport that takes you directly into the city center for a normal public transport fare.

When visiting Salzburg, you will probably arrive at the train station. Here is an article, if you would like to know more about getting to Salzburg. The train station is about 10 minutes walking from the old town and walking from one side of the old town to the other takes about 20 minutes. There are electric trolleybuses in Salzburg, no subway or trams, but in all the years I have lived in Salzburg and its vicinity, I have not used the city bus more than ten times.


Is Vienna or Salzburg better? There is no answer to that question. The two are very different and if you can, you should visit both. You should spend less time in Salzburg than in Vienna because Vienna is more than 10 times bigger than Salzburg but Salzburg has certain features that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Salzburg is convenient since everything is within walking distance but public transport in Vienna is very efficient as well. Vienna has an abundance of museums, palaces, cemeteries, and other architectural highlights, while Salzburg’s old town takes only a day or two to explore, but the surroundings are also highly recommended.

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