Time to swap Christmas baubles for palace balls, punch for sparkling wine, and sausages for…nope, keep the sausages. It’s New Year’s Eve in Vienna.
Discover the delights of December 31st in Austria’s capital, what to expect at the New Year markets and any official city celebrations, plus local tips on getting the most out of your year-end trip. Warning: may include waltzes.
We begin with how the locals welcome in the New Year…
Celebrating New Year’s Eve
(Waltz your way along the Graben street below giant chandeliers)
The German word for New Year’s Eve in Austria is Silvester. The term comes from the same-named pope and saint, who died on December 31st, AD 335. None of which has any relevance, though, to how Vienna celebrates the turn of the year.
People party just like the rest of the world (when advisable). Aside from parties, though, Vienna has one or two little traditions not shared by such cities as New York, London or Tokyo.
In the hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve, for example, the main national TV station plays Dinner for One, a short comedy sketch recorded in 1963 (in English!).
At midnight itself, the giant Pummerin bell of Vienna’s St Stephen’s cathedral rings in the New Year with the chimes simultaneously broadcast across TV and radio.
Once the last echoes of the Pummerin fade away, firework displays across the city burst into action.
Broadcasters then switch to the Blue Danube waltz and everyone dances in the New Year as lights explode across the night sky.
Then, just to add that special touch of romance to the evening, we all swap marzipan pigs. Seriously.
Our porcine friends count as lucky charms here. Although that doesn’t stop Austrians eating pork in vast quantities: see the Schnitzel.
(Expect lots of this at midnight)
The firework shows make quite a sight (and noise), leaving Vienna a smoky haze in the early morning redolent with the smell of gunpowder (possibly just my overwrought imagination).
To get a good view of any fireworks over the city, head up into the hills. Alternatively, find your way to a place known for great views of Vienna (at least those that open late at night). Inevitably, you’ll need to reserve a place/seat at the commercial locations and book well in advance.
(Read more about Vienna’s New Year traditions.)
New Year’s Eve in Vienna is all about the Silvesterpfad, which translates literally as the “New Year’s Eve trail”.
The name covers a series of interlinked stages put up by the city throughout the centre. The fun normally begins at 2pm on December 31st and runs through to 2am the following day.
Consider it a grand city-wide party.
Some 800,000 people celebrated along the Silvesterpfad in December 2022 after a two-year break.
(One of the stages at a previous Silvesterpfad)
The Silvesterpfad sees those temporary stages host live singers, bands, orchestras, and DJs to entertain everyone until midnight and beyond. Dozens of food stands ensure you don’t go hungry or thirsty.
A ballroom dancing school typically offers public waltz courses on the Graben (the pedestrianised zone that leads away from St Stephen’s Cathedral).
Finally, at midnight, people gather on Stephansplatz square in front of the cathedral to hear the Pummerin’s midnight chimes.
In past years, folk also assembled on the Rathausplatz square in front of the Rathaus (town hall) at the same time for a communal waltz and firework display. However, the Rathausplatz was closed off last time out, and the fireworks did not take place.
(Read more about Vienna’s Silvesterpfad.)
New Year markets
Vienna is, of course, famous for its Christmas markets, but why stop there? Why indeed.
A couple of these markets morph into New Year alternatives (known by various German words, including Neujahrsmarkt, Silvestermarkt, and Silvesterdorf) from around December 27th.
At the best ones, you get all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that make the Christmas versions so popular, but without the nagging sense of guilt that you ought to buy a few presents while there.
(One of the New Year markets that opened pre-pandemic)
Even after 25+ years in the city, I still love browsing these seasonal markets and enjoy a warming mug of Glühwein or similar.
I have a soft spot for the Schönbrunn Neujahrsmarkt. It’s a little away from the centre but has a bit more space than most seasonal markets. And the setting is magnificent.
(Read more about Vienna’s New Year markets.)
New Year events
The big traditional event is the New Year’s Concert given by the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Musikverein. What few people know is they actually hold three concerts with the same programme:
- A “preview performance” on Dec 30
- A Silvesterkonzert on Dec 31
- The actual New Year’s Concert on Jan 1st
Good luck getting tickets for any of these. And I don’t mean that sarcastically: a lottery system decides who can buy a ticket. You need to register at a special page on the orchestra’s website much earlier in the year to have a chance.
You’d think tickets would be astronomically expensive and some are, but prices actually start from around €20. Vienna has a strong tradition of ensuring access for (almost) anyone to cultural activities like opera, theatre and classical concerts.
(Read more about the New Year’s Concert and how to get tickets.)
A lot of hotels and prestigious locations host special Silvester gala evenings for the 31st, too. Prominent events include the gala at the Rathaus city hall. Venues like the renaissance-style historical Kursalon put on additional seasonal concerts alongside their usual offerings.
I should also mention the exhibitions, should you wish a dose of culture before the Pummerin chimes. The museums always pull out their best efforts for the end of the year: check the suggestions for December and January.
New Year’s Eve 2023/2024 is still a way off at the time of writing, so exhibition schedules are not fixed in stone yet. However, you can expect such highlights as:
- The Michelangelo and Beyond exhibition at the Albertina, with a focus on the human form and featuring numerous notable names from the Renaissance to the early 20th century (look out for the amazing Gottfried Helnwein there, too)
- A retrospective for Robert Motherwell’s paintings at the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien
- Monumental Renaissance tapestries at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, featuring giant silk joys threaded with precious metals and based on designs by the likes of Raphael
- A solo exhibition for Louise Bourgeois, with her early oil paintings in dialogue with later works to illustrate the themes that consistently characterised her art through the decades
(One day of snow back in the days before the climate crisis)
If you’re out and about at New Year, dress up warm. Obviously, nobody can say quite what the weather will be, but you’re on safe ground if you assume “cold”. Temperatures below 0°C are not unusual, especially late into the night.
Having said that, December 31st, 2021 broke heat records for the time of year and December 31st, 2002 also felt unseasonably warm.
On New Year’s Eve, public transport extends operations during the night.
Last time out, for example…
The subway lines ran at shorter intervals after midnight, only reverting to the normal nighttime schedule in the early hours. Many daytime tram lines and bus lines also operated into the night. The subway lines did not stop at Stephansplatz station from late evening because of the huge crowds on the Silvesterpfad.
A few bus lines modified their schedule but nothing too dramatic. With one notable exception: the 1A, 2A, and 3A buses that drive around the old town (the city centre) took a break because of the large number of pedestrians that block the routes.
During the day, the transport authorities typically switch to a Saturday timetable, though I await news for this year, when New Year’s Eve is a Sunday.
January 1st is a Monday but also a public holiday in 2023; public holiday travel in Vienna is usually better than many city’s normal timetables, frankly, so you needn’t worry about getting around on public transport on New Year’s Day.
Check locally, though, for full 2023/2024 arrangements.
Useful German phrases
Finally, to end this little guide, how about a couple of useful New Year phrases in German:
- Happy New Year / “guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr” (often shortened to just “guten Rutsch”)
- Sorry, I can’t hear you over the noise of the fireworks / “Ich kann Sie wegen der Kracher nicht hören”
- A marzipan pig – how delightful / “Ein Schwein aus Marzipan. Wie nett”