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 Christmas trip to Vienna.
(Not to mention a few travel, event, and shopping tips, too.)
Where shall we begin?
The Christmas markets
(Karlsplatz Christmas market)
Our first stop is the Christmas markets. These attract millions of visitors for one good reason: they’re simply fantastic.
Forget for a moment the bustle and stress of modern life. Instead, travel back to a simpler age (albeit with smartphones).
Breathe in the aroma of fried sausages and goulash soup, the tang of roasted almonds and toffee apples, and the sweet fragrance of countless scented soaps and candles.
Wreathe yourself in wisps of steam from a mug of hot Christmas punch and fill your eyes with the dazzling displays of artists, craftspeople, cooks, and shopkeepers.
Then eat, drink, and generally be as merry as a reindeer in a carrot field who’s just heard she’s been picked by Santa for sleigh duty.
The markets normally start appearing mid-November. Visit the main market page for general information or click/tap the links below for the top locations. And if you want a local guide as you go around, try the market walking tour* once it opens up for bookings.
- Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz (the biggest)
- Spittelberg (winds through narrow Biedermeier streets)
- Karlsplatz (excellent for unusual gifts)
- Schönbrunn (gorgeous location in front of the palace)
- Am Hof (also good for unique art)
- Maria-Theresien-Platz (another big one, sandwiched between two 19th-century museums)
- Belvedere (the best photo opportunity)
- Stephansplatz (by the great cathedral)
- Altes AKH
- Michaelerplatz (in front of the mighty domed entrance to the Hofburg)
- Genussmarkt bei der Oper
- Wintermarkt (food and drink out by the giant Ferris wheel)
- Adventmarkt in Palais Niederösterreich (gorgeous interior location)
- Medieval Advent market (think mead and roast boar)
- Stallburg Advent market (in the stables of the Spanish Riding School)
(Christmas lights on the Graben)
All the main shopping streets put on a Christmas display and, of course, many large stores and hotels do so, too.
In terms of colours, Vienna tends not to do gaudy and garish. So expect plenty of classic whites, reds and greens, often with a touch of “alternative” thrown in.
The lights tend to go on sometime in the second half of November without too much advance notice on the specific date. Enjoy some photos and get tips on where to see the best displays with this Vienna Christmas lights guide.
Events and activities
(Stephansdom cathedral hosts Advent concerts)
Most museums, palaces and other attractions stay open throughout the Christmas period, but some bonus seasonal sights and sounds appear, too:
I have a whole article with Christmas concert tips. These normally include the televised Christmas in Vienna musical gala in the Konzerthaus and the special performances in the major concert venues.
Look out, in particular, for the atmospheric advent concerts in the central churches and cathedral.
Around the Rathaus
Traditional extras at the Rathausplatz Christmas market include choir singing and brass bands.
Each year, the bands typically play around the Christmas tree centrepiece from 8pm to 8.30pm during December.
The choirs sing Christmas carols and other seasonal works in the Festsaal (main chamber) of the Rathaus itself and usually come from all over the world. Performances generally take place on Fridays, weekends and public holidays from the end of November to Christmas Eve. The entrance is the front centre of the Rathaus.
As an extra treat, choirs commonly sing outside at the market each day for half an hour in the early evening.
I’ll post more specific details if and when timetables become available (little is certain these days!).
Ice skating and alternative “markets”
If you wish 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 that opens from early morning. Details here.
And if you’re too cool for Christmas (or just want a break from the norm), the MuseumsQuartier holds an annual Winter event that offers an alternative counterpoint to the traditional Advent market. The main features are the decorative light projections and art installations.
(Madonna with Sleeping Child by Paris Bordone, 1540 – 1560; image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.)
A tradition of late in Vienna is to put on world-beating art exhibitions for the end-of-year season, so I’m hopeful for some fine events in 2021. For example:
- The Kunsthistorisches Museum has plans for a major Titian exhibition in the autumn, which includes many of his contemporaries and continues over the Christmas & New Year period.
- An exhibition of works by Albrecht Dürer and his Austrian peers at Belvedere
- The MAK museum reviews the entire output of Josef Hoffmann in the Progress through Beauty exhibition (from December 15th, 2021)
- Rebecca Horn gets a major retrospective at the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien
- The Weltmuseum Wien has an exhibition of treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City
- And if you want something completely different, the Wittgenstein exhibition at the Leopold Museum offers the chance to explore the iconic philosopher’s legacy as a photographer
(The traditional tree and real candles)
As Vienna becomes more multicultural and multifaith, it’s tricky to talk about Christmas traditions. But the big moment of celebration is traditionally Christmas Eve (Heiligenabend) and not Christmas Day (Weihnachtstag) itself.
Sometime in the afternoon of the 24th, a handy relative (grandparents are most useful here) distracts the kids while the parent(s) decorate the Christmas tree. When all is ready, someone rings 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. A growing tendency is also to put the tree up earlier. Especially since modern kids are less easily convinced by tales of Christmas magic.
Late afternoon or early evening on the 24th 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.
Many people use Christmas Day itself 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 drink, more forced expressions of gratitude for an entirely inappropriate gift).
Food and drink
(Doughnuts and pastries)
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 represented the culinary highlight, especially for such an important meal as Heiligenabend.
Carp has, however, since lost its 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 and tofu fondue as this takes a while to eat, so we’re all together around the table for longer. Although whether this is truly a good thing depends on who’s invited.)
The advent period also offers 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 seasonal treats:
- 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 explosion
- Stollen – a seasonal cross between fruit bread and fruit cake. A little dry, but lots of people like it
- Weihnachtskekse – Christmas biscuits, of which an unending variety magically appear in December.
HardImpossible to avoid if visiting an Austrian family during Advent
- Spekulatius – a spiced biscuit with, frankly, nothing particularly recommending it. But, you know, tradition…
As you wander the streets of Vienna in winter, you’ll also find the little Maronistand booths 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 2020, for example:
- Average air temperature: 3.3°C (37.9°F)
- Highest air temperature: 12.9°C (55.2°F)
- Lowest air temperature: -4.1°C (24.6°F)
(Jams for sale)
The 25th and 26th of December are public holidays, so nearly all stores close 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 25kg of chocolate is still not enough to keep the teenage hordes happy).
Here some tips for seasonal purchases:
- The treats mentioned earlier make nice little gifts. Lebkuchen tends to survive travel better than biscuits and Stollen. For lovely gift-wrapped edible delights, try the Viennese Konditoreien, too
- 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; 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
(All markets are good for gifts, but consider a shopping trip to the Karlsplatz market. Every stallholder must make their own products and pass a jury test, which ensures a host of booths selling unique, handcrafted art and gifts. Another good one for excellent arts and crafts is the Schönbrunn market.)
- If you just want to stock up on basic, mass-produced traditional Austrian-style decorations, then most department stores have a Christmas section selling “standard” decorations for much, much less than, for example, at any market
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.
All the key Christmas locations mentioned above appear on this map:
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)
Merry Christmas! Frohe Weihnachten!