Vienna is hugely popular for a Christmas trip. But what should you do when you’re there? Here are some recommendations…
1. Take a photo at Belvedere
(Upper Belvedere palace, lake and market)
This is missed by most people, but an absolute must in my opinion. Which is why I put it at the top of this list.
Baroque Upper Belvedere palace has a small lake in front of it. In the evening, when the sky turns twilight blue and the lights go on, the building and its reflection form one of those breathtaking fairytale visions you see in tourism brochures and Disney films.
During Advent, the added bonus of lovely Christmas market stalls and water illuminations makes this glorious photo opportunity even more impressive.
I have the photographic skills of a sea cucumber. But you get the idea from the above shot.
(Each year I promise myself I’ll take a better version. And each year I fail miserably.)
2. Visit a Christmas market
(The Christmas market on the historical Freyung square)
This is why most people visit in the first place.
Vienna’s numerous Christmas markets open across mid- to late November and make you believe the world’s a better place than news broadcasts and social media might suggest.
The markets feel like being wrapped in a cosy blanket before a roaring fireplace, with a steaming mug of something warm and the company of good friends. The only downside is they can get remarkably busy at peak times.
If you’re on a diet, you may want to stay away: the typical Christmas market has made “culinary temptation” an art form. Imagine the sugar fairy got loose, made a pact with the chocolate fairy, then abandoned all reason and accountability.
Common sweet treats include chocolate-covered fruit, roasted & caramelised nuts, lebkuchen, innumerable pastries, and various varieties of pretzel.
Having said that…most market stalls stock arts and crafts, bits and bobs, seasonal decorations and many things in-between: all to a surprisingly high quality.
3. Drink Weihnachtspunsch
(Souvenir punch mugs from Belvedere)
A fine idea for the aforementioned steaming mug of something warm is Weihnachtspunsch (Christmas punch): the drink comes in dozens of flavours and keeps the chill at bay on a cold winter’s evening. Non-alcoholic options exist, too.
The markets serve their punch in collectable mugs, and each market normally has its own unique mug design.
You pay a deposit when you order, so you may keep the mug and lose the deposit (which is perfectly acceptable behaviour). Or even just buy the mugs separately. Many visitors take them home as souvenirs.
Incidentally, drinking punch is not a “tourist thing” at all. Locals regularly meet friends after work for a mug or two around a bar table outside a Christmas market booth or freestanding punch stall.
4. Listen to an advent concert
(Stephansdom cathedral with a Christmas market alongside)
Vienna fills with the sound of Advent concerts in December, including special “Strauss and Mozart” Christmas performances. I list many of the concert highlights here as I come across them.
For a particularly advent atmosphere, take in a church recital or concert. Top ecclesiastical venues around the centre include, for example, the atmospheric Baroque Peterskirche, Annakirche and Karlskirche churches.
5. View the lights
(The chandeliers that line the Graben in the town centre)
Vienna’s Christmas lights glitter without being glitzy, with thousands of crystals and giant chandeliers bringing a ballroom atmosphere to the main pedestrianised areas in the centre.
Take a walk in the evening, starting from the State Opera House building, moving down Kärntner Straße to Stephansdom cathedral, then along the Graben and up Kohlmarkt to the Hofburg palace complex.
The lights switch on sometime in the second half of November most years. (Hours of operation may well depend on the state of energy prices!)
6. Take a trip around the Ring
(The front of Hotel Imperial)
The lights don’t end there.
Big hotels, luxury stores, and at least two Christmas markets flank the wide Ring boulevard that encircles the old city, for example, and all have their own Christmas decorations and lighting.
7. Go through the Rathauspark
(The ice skating trails in the park)
One of the Christmas markets along the Ring is the famous Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz square in front of city hall.
The small park surrounding Vienna’s most popular Advent market makes a delightful evening walk, too, with its hidden displays, nativity scenes, decorated trees, and illuminated trails.
The tree full of giant lighted hearts provides a nice photo backdrop for those of a romantic disposition (if you don’t mind a bit of kitsch). Should you wish something a little more classy, try these romantic dinner suggestions.
8. Visit a roast chestnut stand
(Chestnuts, wedges, roast potato slices and potato patties)
Every market has one. And just about every major street corner in winter, too: a “Maronistand” selling potato-based snacks and roast chestnuts.
Generations before you have shared this Christmas experience.
You can easily imagine medieval children blowing on their fingers to cool them down after picking open a piping hot chestnut. Follow in their footsteps (but with better dental hygiene).
9. Enjoy a sausage
(The sausage booth just outside Karlsplatz station next to Hotel Bristol)
You can eat a sausage at one of Vienna’s many sausage stands any time of year. But they come into their own in winter.
When the night chill threatens to bite, and you’re tired from seeing the sights and gaping at the lights, then fill up with a tasty
cholesterol stick Käsekrainer or Bratwurst. It’s a true Viennese experience.
So there you have it. For an in-depth look at Vienna at Christmas, check out my full guide here.