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. They count as lucky charms here.
(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 normally all about the Silvesterpfad, which translates literally as the “New Year’s Eve trail”.
The name covers a series of events and activities put on by the city around the centre. The fun typically begins at 2pm on December 31st and runs through to 2am the next day.
The Silvesterpfad missed the last two years, but some 800,000 people celebrated along the route back in 2019/2020.
Hopefully, these public celebrations can return in December 2022 in some form after the two-year break (the authorities plan to go ahead with the Silvesterpfad with the precise details expected in early December).
(One of the stages at a previous Silvesterpfad)
A typical Silvesterpfad sees temporary stages around Vienna host live performers, bands, orchestras, and DJs to entertain everyone until midnight and beyond. Dozens of food stands ensure you don’t go hungry or thirsty.
The Viennese ballroom dancing schools commonly offer free waltz courses on the Graben (the pedestrianised zone that leads away from St Stephen’s Cathedral).
And even the State Opera House joins in by erecting a big screen outside with opera highlights.
Finally, at midnight, people gather on the Stephansplatz square in front of the cathedral to hear the Pummerin’s midnight chimes.
Other folk assemble on the Rathausplatz square in front of the Rathaus town hall at midnight for a communal waltz and firework display. However, the authorities have indicated the Rathausplatz will not be a stop on the Silvesterpfad this year.
Consider it a grand city-wide party. But, like I say, I await details of what official celebrations will look like at the end of 2022.
(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 typically 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, as it’s a little away from the centre and has a bit more space than most seasonal markets.
(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 historical venues host special Silvester gala evenings for the 31st, too. The most well-known is probably the Hofburg Silvester Ball (skipping 2022, though) in the former Habsburg complex that dominates the city centre.
Other prominent annual events include the gala at the Rathaus city hall*.
I should also mention the exhibitions, should you wish a dose of culture before the Pummerin chimes. The museums usually pull out their best efforts for the end of the year: check the suggestions for December and January.
The three standout options so far (in my biased opinion) around New Year are:
- Jean-Michel Basquiat in the hallowed halls of the Albertina (until January 8th)
- The Idols & Rivals Old Masters exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (until January 8th)
- …and the Helmut Newton Retrospective in the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien (until January 15th)
…though I have a huge soft spot for the Alt watercolours (also at the Albertina until January 29th) and George Nuku’s wonderful exhibition at the Weltmuseum (until January 31st). The Technisches Museum’s BioInspiration exhibition proved quite fascinating, too.
(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.
It’s early for details of transport arrangements, but on New Year’s Eve, the municipal public transport in Vienna (Wiener Linien) typically switches to a Saturday schedule during the day on the 31st, then extends operations for the night.
The subway lines traditionally run at shorter intervals after midnight, only reverting to the normal nighttime schedule in the early hours. Many daytime tram lines and bus lines also operate into the night, too.
If the Silvesterpfad is on, the trams that encircle the city centre on the Ring boulevard and buses that go through the centre usually cease operation once the festivities are in full swing. For the same reason, the Stephansplatz subway station typically closes.
January 1st is a public holiday, but public holiday travel timetables in Vienna are 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.
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”