Given the cynical over-hyped world we live in, there are few experiences today that really live up to their image. One of those that do is a visit to a Christmas market (German: Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt) in Vienna.
What’s a Christmas market?
Imagine crisp winter air, even crisper snow, the glitter of a thousand candles, steaming mugs of punch, laughter, smiles, roasted chestnuts, the tinkle of glass baubles and the delicate crafts of a hundred artisans.
Now throw in the scent of baked potatoes, fresh bread, strudel, candied nuts and more.
Then spread it all out in front of a magnificent Baroque palace.
There you have it – a Viennese Christmas market. (I may have exaggerated the number of candles.)
The dictionary definition is a collection of wooden stalls during the weeks leading up to December 24th (and often beyond), with a mix of stands selling traditional Christmas foods, decorations, art and crafts, handmade toys, honey and other delicacies, candy, jewellery, and so on.
That rather clinical description fails to do justice to the concept, though.
Taste not tack
In recent years, the Vienna authorities have worked hard to ensure an almost complete absence of tackiness from proceedings.
Today’s Christmas markets are mostly a tasteful affair, where plastic is rare and wood, straw, glass and fabric (and enough food and drink to kill an elephant) dominate.
Though they’re worth visiting just for the atmosphere, the markets also make for excellent shopping.
You’ll normally find a range of potential gift items: carved flowers made of soap, Victorian-style candy, sculpted candles, handcrafted decorations, wooden nativity scenes and much, much (much) more.
There are many Christmas markets around, varying in size from a couple of stalls selling food to the hundreds of stalls that make up the famous Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz. There’s even a city walking tour* that takes in four of the bigger ones.
The only downside is they can get busy – fighting your way through the latest bus group can take the edge off the romanticism (but see my tips for advice on when to go).
The main Christmas markets
The biggest and most famous Christmas market, located in front of the Rathaus city hall. The adjacent park is full of Advent surprises, too. Look out for the famous tree full of glowing hearts and the illuminated ice skating trail. For a good photo, stand on the steps of the Burgtheater opposite. (More information)
Hard to beat in terms of elegance and style. The market is a grand circle of stalls in the forecourt of Schönbrunn Palace, with its giant Christmas tree and imperial splendour. (More information)
In the grounds of the old hospital. It’s not a regular haunt for tourists, but quite popular with locals because there’s a nice central area with food and drink stalls and plenty of bar tables. People often meet up here after work for a bite to eat and a mug of something warming. (More information)
This Christmas market is about as central as they come since it curls around the edges of Stephansdom cathedral. It makes for a wonderful backdrop and a place to refresh yourself after strolling through the pedestrianised centre of Vienna. (More information)
This one’s fairly central, too, and located on a square surrounding by historic buildings (including the one where Mozart first performed in Vienna). There’s a section dedicated to independent artists, which is great for unique gift ideas. (More information)
Just up from Am Hof is the Freyung, perhaps most notable for the organic farmer’s Christmas market, where you’ll find all sorts of wonderful specialities from the more rural parts of Austria. Try the Bergkäse cheese. (More information)
One of the biggest Christmas markets and another glorious location, sandwiched between the Natural History and Art History museums, and under the watchful eye of Empress Maria Theresia. (More information)
Another big one, sprawled beneath the giant Karlskirche church. It’s a little “alternative” and features many arts and craft stalls. They are very strict about who can set up a stall here, ensuring diversity, quality, and authenticity. Still a bit of a local secret. (More information)
A little different to the others, in that this Christmas market is spread around narrow streets in one of Vienna’s more bohemian quarters. Used to be known for its artistic flair, but has got a touch more commercial in recent years. (More information)
Finally, if it’s all too Christmassy for you, then try these two alternatives: