Now that’s a tough question.
First, the good news: none of the main Christmas markets are going to let you down. The general standard is high, so you’ll be fine if you wander into one at random.
However, if you’ve specific needs or tastes, then these tips may help.
Bear in mind this is just my subjective analysis, based on my own experiences at each of the markets mentioned (and I haven’t been to every single market in Vienna).
Want impressive views and surrounds?
(The gateway to Schönbrunn Christmas market)
Vienna’s full of historical buildings, so you have to try quite hard to find a market without impressive views and surrounds.
The vista took my breath away when I first saw it and feels almost like a fairytale. You quite expect some Disney princess to suddenly appear on a sleigh pulled by animated frogs. (This has yet to happen.)
A close second is the Schönbrunn market, which sits just in front of the magnificent Habsburg summer palace. A rather handsome location, and the piped-in classical music adds a subtle historical touch to the atmosphere.
The two markets bordering the Ring both enjoy a more-than-decent imperial backdrop:
- The market on Maria-Theresien-Platz has two gorgeous 19th-century museum buildings, the Burgtor gates and Museumsquartier on all four sides, with a large monument to Empress Maria Theresa as its centrepiece
In the very centre of town, the market on Stephansplatz curls around Stephansdom cathedral. And the k.u.k. Weihnachtsmarkt sits on Michaelerplatz square, next to the great domed entrance to the Hofburg complex and the gothic St Michael’s church.
All the above look really rather impressive at night, when the surrounding architecture lights up, too.
Shopping for unusual gifts?
You can find unique gifts at pretty much any market. However, three locations fill this niche particularly well:
- The stalls on Karlsplatz only sell products they’ve made themselves and must pass a jury-based quality test. So the market has a justified reputation for fine, original (and often a little unusual) handmade items
- Similar quality criteria apply to the small boulevard of artist booths at the Am Hof market
- I was very impressed with the Schönbrunn market last time, too: lots of tremendous quality arts and crafts
Shopping for decorations?
(Ceramic decorations at the Christmas market on Karlsplatz)
You’ll have to walk a long way to find a Christmas market that doesn’t sell decorations of one kind or another.
Schönbrunn is again excellent, with many stalls dedicated to quality handmade decorations using a variety of materials.
The Freyung makes an excellent choice, too, as do the larger markets on the Rathausplatz and Maria-Theresien-Platz.
Got young kids?
Keep them busy at just about any market with an unfeasibly large pretzel covered in chocolate or other such sweet distractions. Chocolate-coated strawberries used to work for us.
Local families often gravitate to the Altes AKH, because of the rides and live animals that traditionally appear, plus the adjoining playground.
The Karlsplatz market also usually has rides, plus a large, open, straw-strewn area for kids to romp around in.
Browse for your Christmas accommodation
(service provided by Booking.com*, who I am an affiliate of)
Then there’s the Wintermarkt. This location is not a traditional market in the true sense of the word, being almost entirely populated by food and drink booths. However, it occupies a square at the entrance to the giant Prater funfair.
And the main Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz has the surrounding park kitted out in advent splendour. This normally includes nativity scenes, lighted ice skating, rides and other entertainments.
Incidentally, if you do have children with you, then you might like a few general tips for visiting Vienna with children.
Short on time?
(The central Christmas market on Stephansplatz)
Public transport in Vienna offers easy access to all of the markets, but the Altes AKH, Belvedere, Wintermarkt, Spittelberg and Schönbrunn locations do mean travelling a little outside the city centre.
If you’re in the very centre, pop up to the Am Hof, Michaelerplatz or Freyung markets. They’re not far from Stephansplatz (the central square in front of Stephansdom cathedral) and relatively small, so you can get around them quickly.
And, of course, Stephansplatz itself now provides a home for a Christmas market, too.
Don’t like crowds?
Good luck. (I feel your pain as an introvert myself.)
No market never gets busy. But, actually, you can avoid the crowds simply by going earlier in the day, as many markets open mid-morning. I’ve had goulash and Glühwein for brunch more or less on my own.
If you want to enjoy the soft lights in the darkening twilight of imperial Vienna, then go midweek for the best chance of space.
The crowds arrive as the sun sets and the famous Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz, for example, gets packed very quickly. On weekend evenings, you may need a Search and Rescue Service to get you out.
The Schönbrunn market also gets busy, but the market booths form a giant circle in the palace courtyard, which opens up quite a lot of space should you wish to avoid the bustle.
(Look for benches in the illuminated park adjoining the Christkindlmarkt)
First off, avoid the crowds (see above). But if you need to be able to sit down, it gets a little trickier: the markets are generally standing only.
Curiously, the busiest market may be your friend, here. The park surrounding the main Christkindlmarkt has benches to sit on and munch your toffee apples.
The streets of the Spittelberg market burst with bars and restaurants, so you can escape easily (the downside is the market alleyways are quite narrow).
A handful of restaurants also ring the large courtyard location of the Altes AKH, which is also rich in benches.
Hate Christmas markets?
If you develop a sudden allergy to pine needles or advent choirs, then pop into the Wintergarten at the MQ: not a wooden stall in sight and very little mention of Christmas at all in fact. Though I believe you may still find one or two suitably-decorated trees around the place.
Finally, let me again stress that the quality of the main markets ranges from good to excellent: you really can’t make a terrible mistake. And all offer a broadly-similar range of stalls. Whichever ones you do visit, be prepared to enjoy the experience.