Shake the snow from your boots, put a log on the fire and share a hot beverage with me as we discover the sights, sounds, tastes and traditions of a merry Christmas in Vienna.
Not to mention a few travel, event, and shopping tips, too.
The Christmas markets
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 below for the top locations. And if you want a local guide as you go around, try the four-market walking tour* that operates Thursdays to Sundays.
- Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz (the biggest)
- Schönbrunn (in front of the palace!)
- Am Hof
- Belvedere (the best photo op)
- Altes AKH
- Genussmarkt bei der Oper
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 colours, 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 with 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:
I have a whole article with Christmas concert tips.
These include the televised “Christmas in Vienna” musical gala in the Konzerthaus, special performances in the major concert halls, and the atmospheric advent concerts in the city centre churches and cathedral.
Around the Rathaus
Traditional extras around the Rathausplatz Christmas market are choir singing and brass bands.
This year, the bands play around the Christmas tree centrepiece from 8pm to 8.30pm each day from December 1 to December 23.
The choirs sing Christmas carols and other seasonal works in the Festsaal (main chamber) of the Rathaus itself and come from all over the world. Performances take place on Fridays, weekends and public holidays from November 30 to December 24 (3.30pm to 7pm, but only 3.30pm to 4.30pm on December 24). The entrance is the front centre of the Rathaus.
As an extra treat, choirs sing outside at the market from 6.30 to 7pm each day from December 1-23.
Ice skating and alternative markets
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 that opens from early morning. Details here. There’s also ice skating at the Christkindlmarkt.
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 concept art pavilions.
A tradition of late in Vienna is to put on world-beating art exhibitions for the end-of-year season. In 2019, let me point a cultured finger at the Dürer exhibition at the Albertina and the Caravaggio & Bernini exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
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 historical 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 Christmas dish: roast poultry and pork are popular alternatives and the turkey tradition is growing through Anglo-American cultural influences.
(We have a meat fondue as this takes a while to eat, so we’re all together around 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, sizes and flavours for eating or as hard-baked decorative shapes that look like they could probably survive a nuclear holocaust
- Stollen – a seasonal cross between fruit bread and fruit cake
- Weihnachtskekse – Christmas biscuits of which there are a seemingly unending variety
- Spekulatius – a spiced biscuit with nothing particularly recommending it, frankly
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 (consumption of both counts toward your collection of authentic Christmas activities).
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 2018, for example:
- Average air temperature: 3.8°C (38.8°F)
- Highest air temperature: 12.9°C (55.2°F)
- Lowest air temperature: -2.5°C (27.5°F)
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 2 pm – 4 pm 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. Lebkuchen tends to survive travel better than biscuits and Stollen
- More and more Christmas markets serve their punch in a collectable 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
- 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)