Vienna is hugely popular for a Christmas trip. But what should you do when you’re there? Here are some recommendations…
(The below refers to a normal Christmas period. Check official sites, though, nearer the time in case the COVID situation affects any of the below.)
1. Take a photo at Belvedere
This is missed by most people, but an absolute must in my opinion.
Upper Belvedere Palace has a small lake in front of it. In the evening, when the sky turns twilight blue, the vista becomes one of those breathtaking fairytale visions you see in tourism brochures and Disney films.
Take a glorious photo of the Baroque building, the Christmas market, the seasonal lights, and the reflections in the water.
I got there a little too late and (sadly) have the photographic skills of a sea cucumber, but you get the picture:
Last time I went, they had a large Christmas tree made entirely of sledges, which added a red highlight to the very centre of the photo opportunity.
2. Visit a Christmas market
This is why most people visit in the first place. Vienna’s numerous Christmas markets open in mid- to late November and make you believe the world’s a better place than news broadcasts might suggest.
It feels like being wrapped in a cosy blanket before a roaring fireplace, with a steaming mug of something warm and the company of good friends.
Warning: if you’re on a diet, you may want to stay away. The typical 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.
Typical sweet treats include chocolate-covered fruit, roasted & caramelised nuts, lebkuchen, innumerable pastries, and various varieties of pretzel.
3. Drink Weihnachtspunsch
A fine idea for that 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 can 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 a mug or two of punch is not a “thing” just for tourists. Locals regularly meet friends after work around a bar table outside a Christmas market stand.
4. Listen to an advent concert
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.
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5. View the lights on the Graben and Kärntner Straße
Vienna’s Christmas lights glitter without being glitzy, with thousands of crystals and giant chandeliers bringing an imperial ballroom atmosphere to the main pedestrianized areas in the center.
Take a walk in the evening, starting from the State Opera House building, moving down Kärntner Straße to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, then along the Graben and up Kohlmarkt to the Hofburg Palace.
The lights first switch on sometime in the second half of November most years. (In 2021, though, they started up relatively early on November 12th.)
6. Take an evening trip around the Ring
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 displays.
7. Walk through the Rathauspark
One of the Christmas markets along the Ring is the famous Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz (the square in front of town hall). The small surrounding park 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).
8. Visit a roast chestnut stand
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
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.