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.
Want impressive views and surrounds?
(The gateway to Schönbrunn Christmas market)
Vienna’s full of historical buildings, so you have to be quite unlucky not to have impressive views and surrounds.
My favourite in this context is Belvedere, simply for the view across the lake toward Upper Belvedere palace (took my breath away when I first saw it). It feels almost like a fairytale and you quite expect some Disney princess to suddenly appear on a sleigh pulled by animated frogs. (This has yet to happen.)
The Schönbrunn market sits just in front of the magnificent Habsburg summer palace, which is a rather handsome location, too. 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 the museums, Heldentor gates and Museumsquartier on all four sides, with a large monument as its centrepiece
The market on Stephansplatz curls around the illuminated Stephansdom cathedral in the old town. And the k.u.k. Weihnachtsmarkt sits on Michaelerplatz, next to the great domed entrance to the Hofburg area, the gothic St Michael’s church, and the somewhat younger Loos House.
All the above look really rather impressive at night, when the surrounding architecture lights up, too.
Shopping for decorations?
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 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.
Shopping for unusual gifts?
(Ceramic decorations at the Christmas market on Karlsplatz)
Again, you can find unique gifts at pretty much any market. However, three locations fill this niche very 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 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 arts and crafts
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, live animals, and an adjoining playground. The Karlsplatz market also usually has rides, plus a large, open, straw-strewn area for kids to romp around in.
Then there’s the Wintermarkt. This is not a traditional market in the true sense of the word, being almost entirely food and drink. However, it occupies a square at the entrance to the giant Prater funfair.
Just on the square itself you have, for example, Madame Tussauds, a carousel, a winter train, dodgems, and the famous Riesenrad Ferris Wheel.
(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 little Christmas market, too.
Don’t like crowds?
Good luck. (I feel your pain as an introvert myself.)
There’s no market that never gets busy. But, actually, you can avoid the crowds simply by going a little earlier in the day, as many markets open mid-morning.
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 come as the sun sets and the 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.
Inevitably, 2021 may see far fewer crowds, either through restrictions on entry or simply from reduced international travel.
(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 room 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.