Not to mention a few travel and shopping tips, too.
Our first stop is the Christmas markets. These attract millions of visitors each year, and for a reason. They’re just great.
Forget for a moment the bustle and stress of modern life and travel back to a simpler age (albeit with smartphones).
Breathe in the aroma of frying sausages, the sweet tang of toffee apples and the fragrance of countless scented candles.
Wreathe yourself in wisps of steam from a mug of mulled wine.
Fill your eyes with the soft lights and dazzling displays of artists, cooks and shopkeepers.
Then eat, drink and generally be as merry as a reindeer in a carrot field.
The markets start appearing mid-November. Visit the main market page for general information or follow the links for the top locations:
- Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz (the biggest)
- Schönbrunn (in front of the palace!)
- Am Hof
- Belvedere (the best photo op)
- Altes AKH
All the main shopping streets put on a Christmas display and, of course, many large stores and hotels do so, too.
In terms of shapes and colors it’s usually low on gaudy and garish and big on classic whites, reds and greens, often with a touch of “alternative” thrown in.
Enjoy some photos and get tips on where to see the best lights at this Vienna Christmas lights guide.
Events and activities
Many museums, palaces and other attractions stay open throughout the Christmas period, but there are some seasonal sights and sounds to enjoy, too.
Around the Rathaus
Traditional extras around the Rathaus Christmas market are choir singing and brass bands.
In 2016, the bands played around the Christmas tree centerpiece from 8pm to 8.30pm each day from November 25.
The choirs sing in the Festsaal (main chamber) of the Rathaus (city hall) itself and come from all over the world. Performances are usually planned for the advent weekends. The 2017 schedule is not out yet, but you can typically catch choirs on Friday, weekend and public holiday afternoons from late November onwards. The entrance is the front center of the Rathaus.
“Christmas in Vienna”
This is the televised annual musical event in the main concert hall. They usually wheel out a few international star singers to accompany choirs and one of Vienna’s top orchestras for a seasonal sing-song and feel-good evening of entertainment.
The program can range from traditional carols to pop classics, opera arias to orchestral compositions. Find full details at the website. And if you miss it, the national broadcaster (ORF) usually shows it on TV (as do many other countries).
The 2016 event took place on Saturday, December 17th, but you could also watch a “before the premiere performance” on the 16th.
Advent concerts, ice skating and curling
As you might expect in the home of classical music, numerous advent concerts add an angelic touch to the Christmas period. Check out Vienna’s official event listings, or try these highlights:
- Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s cathedral) and Minoritenkirche (church of the Italian community): regular evening advent concerts throughout late November and December
- Vienna Boys Choir: catch their Christmas events in their own concert hall
- St. Peter’s Church houses an annual display of nativity scenes, and features regular organ and choir recitals.
If you want to twirl and glide through the crisp Viennese air, then the Vienna Ice Skating Association is the place. They have a large outdoor ice rink next to the concert house that opens from early morning. Details here.
The Museum Quarter holds an annual Winter event that is kind of an alternative artistic counterpoint to the traditional Christmas market. The main features are the decorative light display and pavilions, where you can practice your curling while enjoying punch and snacks.
As Vienna becomes more multicultural and multifaith, it’s tricky to talk about Christmas traditions. But “traditionally”, the big moment of celebration is actually Christmas Eve (Heiligenabend) and not Christmas Day itself.
Sometime in the afternoon of the 24th a handy relative (grandparents are most useful here) distract the kids down the park while the parent(s) decorate the Christmas tree. When all is ready, they ring a tinkly bell which announces that the Christkind has been.
The Christkind is the traditional gift bringer, a manifestation of Jesus as a child or an angel, often represented with golden locks and the obligatory wings. When the bell rings, the kids enter the room and marvel at the magical transformation. Or just make a beeline for the presents.
Inevitably, commercial interests have pecked away at the influence of the retailer-unfriendly Christkind, and pushed for more sleighs and Santa – you can read up on that battle here. There’s also a growing tendency to put up the tree earlier. Especially since modern kids are less easily convinced by tales of Christmas magic.
Late afternoon or early evening then sees the family gather for the Christmas festivities, including carol singing, a hearty meal (see below) and the exchange of gifts and well wishes.
Christmas Day itself is often used to visit other parts of the family, recover from overeating or, if you live in an Anglo-Austrian household like mine, celebrate Christmas again the UK way (more food, more gifts, more forced expressions of gratitude for an entirely inappropriate pair of socks).
Food and drink
The traditional Christmas meal in Vienna is carp, often fried in breadcrumbs. This stems from the earlier Christian idea of the advent period being a time of fasting (hard to believe these days). In the absence of meat, fish was the culinary highlight, especially for such an important meal as Heiligenabend.
Carp has, however, since lost its broad appeal as the traditional Christmas dish: roast poultry and pork are popular alternatives and the turkey tradition is growing under the influence of Anglo-American cultural influences.
(We have a meat fondue as this takes a while to eat, so we’re all together round the table for longer. This is a good or bad thing, depending on who’s invited.)
The advent period is also an excuse to break out the rolling pin and get baking, with certain baked foods only appearing for the Christmas period. Among the more popular are:
- Lebkuchen – similar to gingerbread, sold in various shapes and sizes for eating or as hard-baked decorative shapes that look like they could probably survive a nuclear holocaust
- Stollen – a cross between fruit bread and fruit cake
- Weihnachtskekse – Christmas biscuits of which there are a seemingly unending variety
- Spekulatius – a special spiced biscuit
As you wander the streets of Vienna in winter, you’ll also find the Maronistand, selling roast chestnuts. These add to the old-fashioned flair of Christmas markets, together with the many stands selling Christmas punch.
The chances of it actually snowing on Christmas Day are revealed here. Don’t get your hopes up though.
And pack those thermal socks you got last Christmas, but never dared wear. Here are the stats for December 2015:
- Average temperature: 4.1°C (39.4°F)
- Highest temperature: 14.6°C (58.3°F)
- Lowest temperature: -4.8°C (23.4°F)
- Days when temperatures dipped below zero: 6
The 25th and 26th are public holidays, so nearly all stores are closed on those days. Even those that normally open on Sundays and holidays may be closed (see here for general info on opening times in Vienna).
The 24th is not a public holiday, but many (most) shops close early to give staff a chance to get away for Heiligenabend preparations and travel. The supermarkets tend to stay open until 2pm – 4pm so you can buy the cranberry sauce you forgot or in case you’re worried 25 kg of chocolate is still not enough to keep the teenage hordes happy.
Here are some good tips for seasonal purchases:
- The seasonal treats mentioned earlier make nice little gifts. Tip: Lebkuchen tends to survive travel better than biscuits and Stollen
- More and more Christmas markets serve their punch in a collectible mug (for which you pay a deposit). If you don’t mind losing your deposit, you can keep the mug and they make quite unique souvenirs
- The markets are a treasure trove of gift ideas. Candles are everywhere, as well as hats, bags, scarves and other fashion accessories, glass, wood, leather and pottery items, jams, honey, wine, schnapps (lots of schnapps), various forms of art and numerous undefinable things you’ll have trouble finding elsewhere. The Karlsplatz and Spittelberg markets are a hot tip here, as they both have a more handicraft and artistic slant
- If you just want to stock up on basic, traditional Austrian-style decorations, don’t buy them from the Christmas markets. Most department stores have a Christmas section selling “standard” decorations for much, much less than at the markets
Trains, buses and trams run normally across the Christmas period, but with slightly reduced timetables on selected days. For full details, see the Christmas travel article.
Useful German phrases
- Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas)
- Alles Gute im neuen Jahr (Happy New Year)
- Mein Bauch wird gleich platzen wenn ich noch ein Weihnachtskeks esse (if I eat another Christmas biscuit, my stomach will explode)