Possibly my favourite month in Vienna. December is the Christmas season: the aroma of Glühwein and hot Punch courses through the streets, the city glistens under thousands of seasonal lights, and everyone wears a smile on their face (well, almost everyone).
The previous December fell flat thanks to COVID. Let’s look forward to (hopefully) a better 2021 one…Vienna reopened in May, but check official websites for the latest and be aware of entrance requirements for many events, activities, and similar.
Top activities in December 2021
We shall begin with December’s main and obvious attraction…
It’s Christmas, people
May I simply direct you to 10 things to do in Vienna at Christmas? Those are my top tips for enjoying a truly Viennese advent experience: from the best places to see the lights to roast chestnuts and sausages. For example, many historical churches and popular venues host special advent concerts.
These are not gimmicks to keep tourists amused, but long-established traditional markets popular with locals, too.
Colleagues, friends, and families collect at them to share a mug of Advent cheer and enjoy a bowl of goulash or a pair of frankfurters (and then take home a chocolate-coated strawberry or three).
I should mention at this point that the markets deserve their reputation. Atmospheric, packed with local food and beverages, and stuffed with stalls selling arts, crafts and enough Lebkuchen to delight a hungry whale.
If you only have limited time, these tips should help you choose which of the many markets to visit.
In 2021, the market experience may even be gentler and less crowded than normal, since travel won’t have returned to pre-COVID levels and entrance restrictions will likely be in place.
An alternative to the traditional markets is the Edelstoff X-MAS edition: an indoor design fair in the MARX Halle on the weekend of December 4th and 5th.
New Year’s Eve
A huge number of folk normally spend December 31st on the Silvesterpfad (if it goes ahead this year).
Essentially, Vienna builds a trail of locations through the city centre that includes temporary stages and all sorts of entertainment: from public ballroom dancing lessons to DJs and funk bands.
You don’t need to pack sandwiches, either: numerous food and drink stalls line the route.
The days leading up to the big night also feature the natural successor to the Christmas market. Several New Year markets spring up (often in the same locations as their predecessors), though it looks like the major New Year versions will not do so this year. You miss the Advent ambience a little, but the big ones still remain rather wonderful.
Catch the New Year’s concert(!)
(The Musikverein, host of the New Year concerts)
Yes, you read that right.
Should you wish to catch the prestigious and globally-recognised January 1st New Year’s Concert from the Wiener Philharmoniker orchestra, you can do so in December. The orchestra plays the full programme on December 30th and December 31st, too.
The only problem is you need to have applied for tickets via a lottery system much earlier in the year.
Highlight exhibitions in December 2021
(The Albertina art museum)
In recent times, some of the more prestigious art museums have saved up their best exhibitions for the later part of the year, presumably to catch the December crowds.
In 2021, for example:
- A major Titian exhibition rolls into town at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The event also features many of his famous contemporaries, like Tintoretto or Veronese
- A Modigliani retrospective at the Albertina (a first for Austria)
- The start of the much-anticipated Josef Hoffman exhibition at the MAK museum (from December 15th)
- Belvedere’s look at the early Renaissance and its connection to Austria, as seen through the works of Dürer and contemporaries
- An exploration of Schiele’s place in the pantheon of portrait painting, hosted at the Albertina Modern. The same institution also takes us back to the artistic joys of The 80s
- A look at the history of the Viennese Rothschilds at the Jewish Museum (from December 7th)
- An intriguing exhibition on the politics of art under the Nazis at the Wien Museum MUSA
- The equally intriguing prospect of an exhibition on Wittgenstein at the Leopold Museum. This focuses on his photography skills rather than his philosophy
- Talking photography, how about a five-decade Susan Meiselas retrospective at the Kunst Haus Wien?
- Something completely different at the Natural History Museum: dinosaurs and the movies (cough…Jurassic Park…cough)
- See the main exhibition listings for more suggestions.
On the subject of movies, the this human world international human rights film festival comes to Viennese screens in December (2nd to 12th).
Escape the cold
The bracing December weather means you may wish to take advantage of Vienna’s classic cafés, where coffee is an art form and time stands still long enough for you to warm your toes on strudel and your hearts on sachertorte.
And, if you want to make a day of staying warm, Vienna has its own thermal spa. You can reach Therme Wien easily on the U1 subway and it also lives next door to one of the more famous Viennese patisseries: Kurkonditorei Oberlaa.
(So if you do choose to swim, rather than soak, you can earn yourself a slice or two of cake afterwards.)
Dance on ice
The huge Vienna Ice World complex doesn’t normally open until January. But that’s not the only famous open-air ice rink in Vienna. For example:
- The Eislaufverein holds a special place in the history of the city (and of ice skating) and the rink normally opens throughout December.
- The Christmas on the Rathausplatz festivities may include (unconfirmed at the time of writing) lighted ice trails through the park as a taster for the larger Ice World event to come
Bonus tips for December
December is winter time in Austria. And the Christmas markets are at their best at dusk and later, so you don’t even have the sun to keep you warm.
Time your market visit
The markets are usually incredibly popular, particularly the nearer you get to December 24th. So consider visiting earlier in the month or at least going midweek in the late afternoon, when you probably get the best tradeoff between atmosphere and crowds. Here are some more tips for visiting the markets.
2021 may prove an exception, of course, thanks to changing travel patterns in the wake of COVID.
December is the second most popular month for visitors in Vienna; occupancy rates in hotels are only higher in August. So plan and book accommodation early, especially if you want to stay in the city over the Christmas and New Year public holidays. Again, 2021 may be different as less people are travelling.