Vienna or Salzburg: Which City Should You Visit?

Steve Cummings

Fortress Hohensalzburg

For the frugal traveler, Austria is a charming destination, with stunning scenery and many interesting sites and landmarks throughout the country. The main issue you may have if you plan a trip there is choosing between two of its most popular cities, Salzburg and Vienna. 

Many wonder if Salzburg or Vienna is better. The best answer, of course, is to visit both and form your own opinion. However, we understand you may need more funds to source such an expedition in these financially challenging times. Therefore, at The Frugal Expat, we are here to do much of the heavy lifting for you. By looking at the two cities side by side in this guide, we are sure you will find it easier to decide which is right for you. 

Overview of Salzburg and Vienna

Vienna, Austria
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So, is Salzburg or Vienna better? Vienna is the country's capital and a hugely exciting place to visit. It is beautiful, clean, and features many ornate and intricately built buildings and wide-open spaces. There is a very laid-back and elegant atmosphere, which makes it a pleasant destination to explore. One of the most appealing things about the city is its culinary diversity, which offers lots of local food alongside cuisines from elsewhere. 

Salzburg is the epitome of what makes Austria so great. It is charming, has a lot of heritage and history, and a friendly, warm heart. You will also find equally tasty food, breathtaking alpine landscapes, and many festivals, huge social events, and celebrations. 

Food and Drink

Friends drinking beer
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It is difficult to say which one is better, Salzburg or Vienna, regarding food and drink. All regions of Austria have their variations and specialties. Vienna is known for its diversity when it comes to cuisine. The capital represents a wide range of different European nations and cuisines. The city is best known for its exciting coffee culture; coffee houses are a must-visit if you choose to go there. There is also a fantastic choice of outdoor food markets. 

The most well-known dishes from Vienna are Tafelspitz, Wiener Schnitzel, and Sacher torte chocolate cake. 

Salzburg has a high concentration of gourmet restaurants with awards on their walls. If you want to get the best of the old and the new, past and present, Salzburg is the place you want to visit. You can try some of the fantastic local dishes like Mozartkugel (chocolate marzipan sweets), Bosna (the iconic sausage in bread), and Salzburger nockerl (sweet meringue dumplings with a decadent raspberry sauce). 

The Weather

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When trying to figure out which is more beautiful, Salzburg or Vienna, you need to consider the weather of both cities. In Vienna, the hottest month of the year is July. It experiences average temperatures of around 19 Celsius/66 Fahrenheit degrees. The coldest month is January, when the average temperature is -1 Celsius/30 Fahrenheit degrees. Therefore, the best time to visit the city is during Spring and Autumn when it is neither too hot nor too cold. Book in May, June, September, or October to avoid the heat and cold. 

Salzburg is best visited during late summer and into autumn, not only because of the temperature but also because many heat-seeking crowds have dissipated by then.

Christmas in Salzburg or Vienna

The above should be taken as merely recommendations. We know many people are interested in frugal trips during wintertime, especially around Christmas. If that’s you, you are unlikely to be put off by low temperatures. However, should you choose Salzburg or Vienna for Christmas? Interestingly, this will come down to personal preference because both cities have a lot of good things going for them at the tail end of the year.

If you head to Vienna during Christmas, you will have a magical experience with lots of twinkling lights and markets acting like a feast for your senses. If you choose to go to Salzburg, you will find Christmas markets. That city has so many festivals and social events! In addition to these typical features, you can do something a little different, such as enjoying skiing at one of the great resorts in the city's surrounding area. 

Shopping in Salzburg and Vienna

Retail therapy is essential to many people's travels to far-flung destinations. If you are interested in shopping, you may wonder which one is better, Salzburg or Vienna. Vienna wins out for many people in terms of diversity and the number of shops. It is ideal for an impressive mixture of the high-end boutiques you would expect to find in Marseilles, Milan, and other classy European cities with many local businesses. That's not all, though, as the city is also home to many antique and art stores where you will find curious and stunning pieces to decorate your home.

The Goldenes Quartier is especially elegant. It is a luxury retail area in the 1st district. However, if bargains are more your thing, you can check out the illustrious Naschmarkt in the city's heart. There, you will find 400 stalls selling an incredible selection of goods. It is open every Saturday from 6.30 am to mid-afternoon at around 2 pm.

Salzburg, on the other hand, has an intriguing and enticing variety of modern department stores and family businesses that have stood in the same part of the city for centuries. To support local artisan businesses and residents, check out the many shops in the Getreidegasse. If you want to find high-end pieces, go to the Designer Outlet Center near the airport. Traditional market stalls are located at the iconic University Church from Monday to Thursday. 

Things To Do

Traveler eating
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Obviously, when you are not shopping or eating, you will want to know that there are enough activities, enough things to see and do, and places to visit while visiting a city. 

Therefore, you may wonder which is best to spend more time in, Salzburg or Vienna. Let's take them one by one to note the differences. Vienna is the biggest of the two and is more prominent. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are many sites, attractions, landmarks, and activities, regardless of your interest. For a good start and something not too expensive for the more frugal travelers, you should take an awe-inspiring ride on the magical Riesenrad Ferris Wheel that offers fantastic city views from above. 

If you are more interested in learning about the city's checkered past and fascinating history, there is the Hofburg Palace and plenty of places within the Museumsquartier. You will find many restaurants, cafes, bars, and a beautiful sculpture park featuring a mini-golf course. Another key tourist attraction is the sublime Upper Belvedere Palace because it has one of the world's most famous paintings on display, The Kiss by Klimt. It is one of those works of art you must see in person to understand its intricate and creative beauty. 

For fans of the Von Trapp family, Julie Andrews, and silver screen musicals, it's worth noting that Salzburg has deep connections to The Sound of Music, as many of the film's iconic scenes were filmed in various locations around the city. Although you can visit these places on your own, a guided tour can be a great and fun way to learn more about the movie's making. Many also include singalongs with memorable numbers from the film. The locations used and featured in the movie include Stift Nonnberg, Mirabell Gardens, Residenzplatz, and Petersfriedhof. 

Another claim to fame that Salzburg has is that Mozart was born there. As arguably the city's most famous resident, various landmarks celebrate one of the true masters of classical music. The Baroque Hall of St. Peter regularly has concerts in the evening. You should visit Mozart Resident (or Mozart Wohnhaus) to learn more about the great man. In addition, you should also explore the International Mozarteum Foundation's Garden, which has the inspirational Little Flute House, where Mozart composed his famous opera, The Magic Flute.

Other great things to do during a trip to Salzburg include the Heilbronn Palace gardens, the streets of the Old Town, Fortress Hohensalzburg, and St. Peter's Abbey. 

Getting Around

Vienna Public Transportation
Credit: pandionhiatus3/Depositphotos

It isn't easy trying to decide which is prettier, Salzburg or Vienna. They both have their own merits. However, they differ in how you can experience their natural and architectural beauty. As the bigger and more expansive of the two cities, Vienna has a more complex transport system which consists of streetcars, buses, and the U-Bahn. While it's fair to say that the uniform fare is the same for all modes of transport, frugal travelers should invest in a Vienna Card. This will offer you lots of enticing discounts and benefits.

If you don't intend to use too many of the above options and want to hop on and off buses, the Vienna Card for just the card is for you. This is less expensive and restrictive, and it will be a good alternative if you have no interest in trains or other transportation modes. 

Salzburg is a much smaller and less expensive city. Therefore, trams and buses are the only modes of public transport for getting around the city. These cost the same price. You can save money by investing in a 24-hour ticket that offers unlimited journeys compared to single-journey tickets. We recommend you use the bus taxi to return to the hotel or your accommodation at night. However, during the day, by far, the best and easiest way to explore Salzburg is by cycling or walking. 

What about visiting Both Cities?

As you can see, it is quite difficult to determine if Salzburg or Vienna is better. One way to put this argument to bed is by visiting both, and then you no longer need to choose one and miss out on the other. It may be a little difficult to take a day tour to one city from the other, as Salzburg is between 2 and 4 hours away from Vienna, depending on your transportation mode. 

However, you may be able to arrange an itinerary that includes both of these wonderful cities. For example, you could spend a few days in Salzburg and then some in Vienna. While it may not suit everyone, if you can and are flying from the U.S., it makes sense to get the most out of your trip abroad by taking in as much of the delights of Austria as you can. 

If You Have to Choose

Woman with laptop thinking and stressed
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What if you really have to find an answer to the question, “Should I go to Vienna or Salzburg?” Well, unless you have a natural draw to Salzburg, if you want an action-packed holiday with more things to do than you will realistically have time for, then we would always recommend Vienna. It is big, pretty, and has warm and friendly people, and you can spend two weeks here and still miss out on some things.

Final Thoughts

Although at a push Vienna is the better option if you have to choose between going to one or the other, there are many ways one is better. For instance, if you are looking for warmth in your decision between Vienna or Salzburg in summer, you should choose the latter rather than the former. However, Vienna is best during spring and autumn if you want a bit cooler and breezier time without it being too cold.

Whichever city you choose, you will enjoy your time there. We always ensure our lists and guides are as detailed and helpful as possible. Therefore, if you believe we need to include any tips or hints, sites, attractions, landmarks, or anything else, please let us know in the comments section below.

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