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 how (and where) to celebrate when visiting, what to expect at the New Year markets, and local tips on getting the most out of your year-end trip. Warning: may include waltzes.
- See also: Christmas in Vienna
Let’s begin with how the locals welcome in the New Year…
NB: Events, etc. continue to be subject to public health restrictions in late 2020 and likely beyond. Be prepared for changes (e.g. compulsory face masks at all seasonal markets)
How is New Year’s Eve celebrated?
New Year’s Eve is known as Silvester in Austria. It’s the Roman Catholic feast day of 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, but there are one or two little traditions in Vienna not shared by such cities as New York, London or Tokyo.
Just 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 broadcast across TV and radio.
Once the last echoes of the Pummerin fade away, all hell breaks loose as fireworks 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 – they count as lucky charms here.
The fireworks make quite a sight (and noise), leaving Vienna a smoky haze in the early morning redolent with the smell of gunpowder (possibly just my imagination).
To get a good view of the fireworks over the city, head up into the Vienna hills (but this takes you away from the action).
Alternatively, find your way to any of the places known for great views of Vienna, though the Gloriette is inaccessible at night. You will probably need to reserve a place/seat at the commercial locations (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 events and activities around the city centre that typically begin at 2pm on December 31st and run through to 2am the next day. Last year (2019/2020), some 800,000 people celebrated along it.
Unfortunately, the Silversterpfad skips this year because of the impossibility of meeting COVID-related public health requirements given the huge numbers of people that would be in the streets.
In normal years, the city puts up temporary stages, so live performers, bands, orchestras, and DJs can entertain everyone until midnight and beyond.
The Viennese ballroom dancing schools offer free waltz courses on the Graben (the pedestrianised zone that leads away from St Stephen’s Cathedral). And the State Opera House puts up a big screen outside with opera highlights. Dozens of food stands ensure you don’t go hungry or thirsty.
Finally, at midnight, people gather in one of two places:
- The Stephansplatz square in front of the cathedral to hear the midnight chimes “live”
- The Rathausplatz square in front of the Rathaus town hall for a communal waltz and firework display
It’s a grand city-wide party. Though it seems unlikely that even informal mass celebrations will be possible (or wise) in 2020/2021.
(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 from around December 27th. At the best ones, you get all the sights, sounds, smells, and (most importantly) 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.
Several such markets dot the city, but the three big ones are:
- Schönbrunn Palace (not opening for the 2020/2021 season)
- The Silvesterdorf on Maria-Theresien-Platz
- The Silvesterdorf at Belvedere
Even after 25 years in the city, I still love browsing these seasonal markets and enjoying a warming mug of Glühwein or similar.
(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 there are actually 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 during the preceding February 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 and concerts.
(Read more about the New Year’s Concert and how to get tickets.)
A lot of hotels and town palaces host special Silvester gala evenings for the 31st, too. The most well-known is probably the Hofburg Silvester Ball in the winter palace of the Habsburgs (unfortunately, already cancelled for 2020).
If you’re out and about enjoying the New Year celebrations, dress up warm. Obviously, nobody can say quite what the weather will be, but you’re on safe ground if you assume “cold”. The temperatures at 7pm on December 31st for recent years were:
- 5.6°C / 42°F (2019)
- 4.2°C / 40°F (2018)
- 7.9°C / 46°F (2017)
- -1.1°C / 30°F (2016)
- -2.5°C / 28°F (2015)
- -3.8°C / 25°F (2014)
- 4.3°C / 40°F (2013)
Typically, the municipal transport services (Wiener Linien) extend operations for New Year’s Eve. So the subway lines run through the night at short intervals, only reverting to the normal nighttime schedule in the early hours. Many daytime tram lines and some bus lines also operate through the night, too.
Given the crowds on the Silvesterpfad, the trams that encircle the city centre on the Ring boulevard and buses that go through the centre usually don’t run once the festivities are in full swing. For the same reason, the Stephansplatz subway station is typically closed.
January 1st is a public holiday, but public holiday travel timetables in Vienna are usually better than most city’s normal timetables, so you needn’t worry about getting around on public transport on New Year’s Day.
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 nicht hören wegen der Kracher”
- A marzipan pig – how delightful / “Ein Schwein aus Marzipan. Wie nett”
(Let’s hope 2021 turns out a little better than 2020 and New Year celebrations can return to normal.)