If our brief but wonderful two day stay here on our way to Budapest has taught us anything, it is that Christmas in Vienna truly is “the most wonderful time of the year”!
Each and every single one of the squares and courtyards around the city is adorned with Christmas decorations, filled with stalls selling all sorts of things. The air is cold but welcoming, enticing you with sweet sweet smells of cinnamon, sugar, Lebkuchen, Vanillekipferl and grilled chestnuts. And most importantly, nobody even bats an eye when they see you wandering around with a mulled wine in hand at 10 am in the morning … My kind of heaven!
Sounds like your kind of heaven too? Well, then you will love these:
Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz
Set against the beautiful backdrop of the City Hall (Rathaus), this is by far the biggest and the snazziest of the Christmas markets in Vienna… even if not the most favoured one by the locals (“too touristy” we’ve been told).
While open from 10 am onwards, the market really comes to life at night when the lights are turned on. For the prettiest Christmas in Vienna postcard picture view without getting into the market (or generally too close to the crowds), try climbing the steps of the Burgtheater on the other side of the street.
The Christmas Market on Maria-Theresien-Platz
A smaller but equally impressive alternative is the market on Maria Theresa Square. Located a stone’s throw away from the Hofburg -the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburgs-, between the two beautiful 19th century buildings now housing the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) and the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum) and graced with a monument dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa -the sole female ruler of the Habsburgs- in the middle, this square has grandeur in spades.
And if it’s art you are after, there really is no better market to find it than here in the centre of Vienna (okay, maybe it’s a tie between this and Karlsplatz Christmas market). In fact, this is where we met the kind and welcoming linocut artist Michail (pictured below), and purchased many of our handmade gifts including this delicate arrangement of dried fruits with the most divine smell:
QUICK TIP: If you want to visit both museums and the Christmas market at the same time, try not to come on a Tuesday (like we did :)) when the Natural History Museum is closed…
The Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace
Another market nestled next to a gorgeous museum is the one in front of the Belvedere Palace, where you can feast your eyes first on the beautiful works of Klimt and other Vienna Secession artists, then on the beautiful light display on the lake in front of the palace.
Karlsplatz Christmas market
The slightly more modern, more alternative one of the bunch – Karlsplatz Christmas market has a very specific focus on arts and crafts and organic catering. With demonstrations, workshops and performances, and its own dedicated mugs, it is more of an Art Event than just a Christmas market… And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it takes place in the square in front of the Karlskirche, with a certain wow factor:
The Christmas Market on Stephansplatz
The smallest but perhaps the oldest of all of them is the market on the St. Stephen’s Square. With the juxtaposition between the traditional multi-coloured tile roofed Stephansdom Cathedral and the postmodern Haas Haus, the noise of horse-drawn carriages melting into the melodies of Mozart (who lived nearby), and the smell of punch lingering in the air, this square is quite the feast for the senses.
While here, make sure to try the „Taubenkobel“ fruit punch in the gourmet punch stall, and wander down Graben and, Kärntner Straße, the two main shopping streets running west and south from the square, respectively.
Schönbrunn Palace Christmas Market
Now, I have to admit, we didn’t actually have a chance to get to this is one, as it’s slightly outside of the centre. But having been to Schönbrunn Palace – the main summer residence of the Habsburgs- before, and seen the movie Christmas in Vienna (a girl has to prep herself somehow :)), I can kind of guess how magical it must feel to walk around this market. I also heard that this is *the* best market to find handicrafts and original gifts. So, it’s definitely on my list for next time!
While the Christmas markets are the main event at this time of the year, if you would like to have a cheeky little tour or taste of the city while you are here, you might also be interested in the following. But beware, winter time in Vienna is the time for repair and constructions (or at least, so it seemed to be in our case), so be ready for constant backdrop of cranes or pretty buildings being partially covered up.
And of course, be mindful of COVID restrictions: We went to Vienna on 20th of December, which was the day the restrictions were lifted and hotels and restaurants reopened. When we booked our trip (right before Austria went into lockdown), two vaccinations were enough, then on 17th, just days before our flight, they introduced the booster requirement. Luckily, we were able to get our boosters in time and had no issues entering places, but it’s definitely something to consider if you are not yet fully vaccinated and had a booster. FFP2 masks were also mandated in all public places.
ART & ARCHITECTURE
Museums & Exhibitions
Christmas market stalls aren’t the only thing this beautiful city isn’t short of. With several museums and palaces scattered all around the city, you are never too far away from the next masterpiece or architectural wonder.
Some of the highlights include; the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Albertina, The Hofburg (palace with 4 museums), Belvedere Museum, Leopold Museum and MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna).
While some of the lesser known ones include Ephesos Museum and House of Austrian History (Das Haus der Geschichte Österreich, or HdGÖ):
During this trip, I was particularly blown away by a temporary exhibition in the HdGÖ called “Disposing of Hitler: From the Cellar to the Museum”, which tackled a very controversial topic in the history of Austria – collection of Nazi-era objects – in a very tactful manner.
Imagine a room with a dozen tables, each with an object and question cards on it, telling you where the object comes from, who used it and what it meant to them and for those around them. Some objects are beyond recognition, ripped to pieces by the ancestors of the original owners who did not want to have anything to do with them. Some found in the depots years later, forgotten but not forgiven.
Before you leave, you are asked a question… “What would you do if you came into possession of such an item?”
Away from the Historic Centre
Once you have had your fill of Christmas markets, museums and tourist highlights, you can leave the first district – the Inner City (Innere Stadt)– behind you and take a little walk on the banks of the Danube Canal (Donaukanal):
Until you hit the Riesenrad, Vienna’s famous 212 ft tall Ferris wheel at the entrance of the Prater amusement park, or the Hundertwasser House (Hundertwasserhaus):
And if you still have some extra time in your hands and want to pay a visit to some of the artists whose works are/were exhibited in the city’s many museums, you can head to Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) in the outskirts where many of Vienna’s artistic geniuses found their last resting place.
Vienna’s musical pedigree stretches back centuries, with countless classical geniuses calling this city home at some point in their life. So, seeing an opera or a classical music concert while in Vienna is an absolute must.
During my previous visit, I was able to attend a classical concert in Kursalon Hübner, which was really beautiful. This time, I had my eyes on Don Giovanni in the gorgeous Renaissance Revival venue that is Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper), but with all the uncertainty surrounding lockdown in Austria, we were too late to book. Having said that, it seems there will be another run in June 2022, so fingers crossed!
A LITTLE SIDE NOTE: If you would like to fully immerse yourself into the history of music in Vienna, you might want to take a look at “In the footsteps of famous musicians” itinerary.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD!
No trip to Vienna would be complete without trying Sachertorte – a cake so delicious and popular that it prompted a legal battle between Hotel Sacher and the Demel Cafe. You can pick a side, or try both (good choice, you!). Both are sure to tickle your tastebuds. On this particular trip, we opted for Hotel Sacher:
But first, coffee!
Described as an institution “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill”, the Viennese coffee house is an inseparable part of the Viennese culture and way of life.
Interestingly though, its origin stems from the Ottomans who, after the failed second siege of Vienna in 1683, left behind sacks of beans that were unknown to many, except for a few (some name an officer named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki) who knew how to adapt this strong and bitter drink to European tastes by adding milk and sugar to it. These adaptations soon morphed into distinct coffee variations that you can find in pretty much any coffee house even today, like Wiener Melange, Einspänner, Fiaker, Verlängerter and many more.
But the coffee was not the only thing that was changing… Over time, these coffee houses each turned into a hub of cultural, academic or political exchange; each a milieu with its distinct atmosphere and clientele. And what a clientele it was: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Sigmund Freud and a great many thinkers, writers, poets, artists and politicians.
Some of the popular ones include: Aida, Café Central, Café Demel, Café Hawelka, Café Landtmann, Café Sacher and Café Sperl, and booking in advance highly recommended if you don’t like queuing.
Looking for something more casual? Why not drop by Unger und Klein im Hochhaus, where they make a mean coffee and an amazing lemon and ginger tea that would warm your frozen bones.
Vienna is not only a Christmas capital, but also home to a wealth of eateries, including 12 Michelin starred restaurants at your disposal if you’re looking for a little something special during your stay here. We tried Amador, a no-frills three-starred treat, which you can read more about here.
However, if it is the good old Wiener Schnitzel you are after, then you really can’t go wrong with Figlmüller and Meissl & Schadn. During this trip, we went for the latter and tried their Wiener Schnitzel á la Meissl & Schadn, and it was glorious! Especially when washed down with a nice cold glass of Riesling.
Move away high street brands (although you can of course find them aplenty here), and make room for unique gifts, stocking fillers, and all sorts of souvenirs from Vienna:
I have to admit, I didn’t know Viennese soap was a thing until Mister suggested we visit Wiener Seife – a cute little shop on Herrengasse, where you can find soaps made by hand according to a secret recipe handed down by the last Viennese soap maker, Friedrich Weiss.
Not only do they come in a wide range of fantastic smells, but they are also created using natural ingredients sourced through controlled organic cultivation (whenever possible, that is) and sold wrapped in beautiful recycled paper. So, if you are trying to find ways to embrace conscious gifting like me (or are already an expert at it), then this would be the perfect stop for you:
Boutiques and Concept Stores
During this trip, I quickly discovered it is physically impossible to walk around Vienna for more than 10 minutes without seeing a cute art & design shop or beautiful concept store.
One such place is Duft und Kultur – a family run concept store, which is slightly pricey side, but just too good to resist:
Other, more traditional ones include:
- Theehandlung Schönbichler, a gorgeous tea shop dating back 150 years, serving you not only great tea but also a variety of spirits and great vibe, and
- Nagy Hüte, a slightly rundown hat shop on Schottengasse with quite a take-it-or-leave-it type of service but an extensive collection nonetheless.
Phew… If that isn’t a whistle-stop tour of brief “Christmas in Vienna” getaway, I don’t know what is! Hopefully you enjoyed it and you agree that Christmas in Vienna is a lovely treat whether you are a lover of art, architecture, good food, shopping, or simply Christmas markets.
So, what do you think? Would you add it to your list for next year?
Photo credits: Goya Galeotta © 2021 | Tom Dymond © 2021