Salzburg has an almost obscene amount of culture for a city of such petite proportions. For centuries, the ruling prince-archbishops frenziedly built castles, palaces and abbeys here to hide away treasures from prying eyes. And when it comes to music, you know the score: this is where Mozart was born and Maria taught the world to sing.
Whether you’re into contemporary art, royal bling, Christmas sparkle or bewigged composers, the city’s extraordinary stash of museums can easily keep you absorbed for hours on days when the rain sweeps over the Alps. Read on for our pick of Salzburg’s best museums.
Festung Hohensalzburg has museums of riches, puppetry and torture
Salzburg’s cake-topper of a fortress lifts the gaze from the moment you arrive. This 900-year-old castle fits the knights-in-shining-armor fantasy bill looks-wise. But its history is even more compelling: it started life as a humble bailey, built in 1077 by Gebhard von Helffenstein at a time when the Holy Roman Empire was at loggerheads with the papacy, and owes its current grandeur to Leonard von Keutschach, prince-archbishop of Salzburg from 1495 to 1519 and the city's last feudal ruler.
While it’s tempting to simply roam the ramparts and swoon over the views of the Salzach River and Alps, factor in time to see the castle’s clutch of museums. These include the dazzling Golden Hall, where the prince-archbishops once threw lavish banquets, the Marionette Museum, with its operatic collection of puppets from the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, and the Fortress Museum, which showcases a 1612 model of Salzburg, as well as medieval instruments, armor and some pretty grizzly torture devices.
Get your fill of classical music at Mozart's Birthplace and Residence
Mozart assumes many forms in Salzburg these days – chocolate balls, bath ducks, aftershave, you name it – but to really get a handle on Austria’s A-list baroque composer, you’ll want to visit two museums devoted to the man and his music.
Begin at Mozart’s Birthplace, the bright-yellow townhouse on Getreidegasse where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 and spent the first 17 years of his life. Among the portraits, letters, instruments and family heirlooms, highlights include the mini-violin Mozart wowed royalty with as a toddler, plus a lock of his hair and buttons from his jacket.
Craving more space to entertain as Mozart shot to fame, the family moved to a more spacious, eight-room abode on the other side of the river in 1773, now Mozart’s Residence. This is where the increasingly prolific and revered Wolfgang composed works like the Shepherd King (K208) and Idomeneo (K366). Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s close friend and the librettist of The Magic Flute, was a regular guest. Mozart’s original fortepiano is the star exhibit. As you explore, an audio guide serenades you with opera excerpts.
Salzburg Museum is the best for local history in a nutshell
Everything and anything you ever wanted to know about Salzburg is explored in fascinating detail at the city’s flagship museum in the baroque Neue Residenz palace on Mozartplatz. This romp through the city's past and present wings you from Roman excavations to riveting tales about prince-archbishops and Salzburg’s illustrious musical heritage.
The crux of the permanent exhibition is Salzburg Myth on the second floor, an all-out celebration of the city as a source of artistic, poetic and scientific inspiration. The exhibition spells out the past in artifacts: from glowering portraits of prince-archbishops to Flemish tapestries and more questionable treasures like Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich’s gold-embroidered pontifical shoe. The city’s love of music is in the spotlight too, raising the tempo with legends from Mozart to The Sound of Music and Silent Night.
Downstairs, you’ll find rotating art exhibitions (all with Salzburg as their leitmotif) in the Kunsthalle, as well as the subterranean Panorama Passage, where Roman remains, including frescoes and a pottery kiln, give a feel for how the city would have looked 2000 years ago. Salzburg’s 35-bell carillon, which chimes daily at 7am, 11am and 6pm, is on the western flank of the Neue Residenz.
See fantastic contemporary art at Museum der Moderne
Salzburg generally moves to a traditional beat, but the Museum der Moderne swerves away from the historic with its outstanding exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century art. Perched high on Mönchsberg’s cliffs and reached by a lift, the glass-and-white-marble, oblong-shaped gallery is the architectural antithesis to the whopping Hohensalzburg fortress on the other side of the hill.
The rotating exhibitions are incredibly varied, swinging recently from the emotionally charged work of Cameroonian–Nigerian photographer Samuel Fosso to the international media art of Austrian-born Richard Kriesche. While you’re up here, pop into m32 for coffee with a far-reaching view over Salzburg.
Rupertinum is the best museum for cutting-edge photography
Gathered around a beautiful baroque arcade in the Altstadt, the Rupertinum is the Museum der Moderne’s sister gallery. Here, the focus is on rotating exhibitions of modern art, in particular graphic works and photography, which are at times quite edgy and boundary-pushing.
Get behind-the-scenes insights into the von Trapps at Sound of Music World
Did you know that there were ten, not seven, von Trapp children? Or that instead of climbing every mountain to Switzerland to escape the Nazis, the von Trapps left for the US, where their concerts were a success well into the 1950s? On Getreidegasse, in the beating heart of the Altstadt, Sound of Music World shines a light on the truth behind the Hollywood legend.
The focus here is less on warbling nuns and problems like Maria than the lives of the real von Trapp Family Singers and how the movie differs from reality. That said, true fans might well want to burst into song exploring the memorabilia, photos, costumes and furnishings that bring the story vividly to life.
Haus der Natur is Salzburg's best museum for kids
This hands-on museum takes a deep dive into nature (and human nature) in all its weird and most wondrous forms. Kids can brush up on their knowledge of dinosaurs and alpine crystals in the natural history rooms, and gawp at bearded dragons and green mambas in the reptile enclosure. Budding scientists have a blast with hands-on experiments in the science museum, launching rockets, damming water, taking a biological tour of the human body and – literally – feeling Mozart’s music by stepping into a giant violin case.
Catch 10:30am breakfast time at the aquarium: you can see sharks on Mondays, octopus and moray eels on Tuesdays, archerfish on Wednesdays and piranhas on Thursdays.
Freilichtmuseum is home to traditional Austrian crafts and trades
Giving you a taste of rural Austrian life over the past six centuries, the open-air Freilichtmuseum sits in the foothills of the 1973m (6473ft) peak of Untersberg on the city’s fringes. Allow time as there is lots to see on the 7km (4 mile) trail that takes you on a fascinating spin of 100 traditional dwellings, showcasing the crafts and trades of yore in everything from timber-built farmhouses to watermills, stables, threshing barns, chapels, breweries, laundries and grocery stores.
There’s plenty to amuse the kids, with an old-fashioned train to ride, goats to feed, butterflies to observe and a huge adventure playground to let off steam in. Bus 180 runs hourly from Salzburg's Hauptbahnhof; the journey takes around half an hour.
See works by Old Masters in the gallery at the opulent Residenz royal palace
The icing on Salzburg’s Unesco World Heritage cake is the lavish Residenz, the baroque palace where the prince-archbishops held court until the Hapsburgs rocked up in the 19th century. It’s still a grand affair today, with horse-drawn carriages pulling up out front, and state rooms that are a swirl of lace-fine stucco, tapestries and frescoes by much-lauded Austrian painter Johann Michael Rottmayr.
Head up to the 3rd floor Residenzgalerie for a feast of 16th- to 19th-century art. The gallery is particularly strong on Flemish and Dutch masters, with standouts like Rubens’ Allegory on Emperor Charles V and Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro Old Woman Praying.
Dommuseum houses the best sacred art
Sacred art lifts spirits to the heavens at the cathedral museum, where vaulted, stuccoed rooms hovering above the south side-aisle chapels display an astounding array of ecclesiastical treasures from the 8th to the 18th century.
Prepare to be dazzled by gem-encrusted monstrances, stained glass, altarpieces, and one-off wonders like the Cross of St Rupert (750 CE), believed to be the largest surviving early medieval metal cross, which bears the hallmarks of both Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean ornament.
One of the most exquisite rooms is given over to a cabinet of curiosities, showcasing marvels and oddities from globes to rare crystals and corals, armadillos to puffer fish, which would have baffled and beguiled baroque aristocrats with time and money to burn.
Get in the festive spirit all year at the Christmas Museum
If you are head-over-heels in love with Christmas, you won’t want to skip this museum above Café Glockenspiel on Mozartplatz. Here you can get a year-round flavor of the festive season, with a snoop through the private collection of yuletide treasures, from elaborately decorated advent calendars to hand-carved cribs, sparkly baubles, nutcrackers and incense smokers.