How hard can it be? Visit the market. Eat. Drink. Admire the items for sale. Buy the items for sale. Go home happy and at peace with the world.
But one or two tips can help make your visit to a Christmas market in Vienna just a little bit more of a pleasure.
Start with deciding which market is best to visit, since we have quite a few. Fortunately, none of the main markets disappoint so you can’t make a bad decision.
Seriously – the standard is very high across the board. But for useful advice on matching the market to your particular needs or interests, see this special guide.
Dress for the cold
Few markets have any indoor facilities and while hot punch and a steaming plate of Bratwurst can give you a warm glow inside, there’s a reason Austria is so good at winter sports. (Hint: we have a lot of winter here).
Vienna’s had fairly mild winters of late, but temperatures below freezing point are still not unexpected.
Take cash with you
Electronic transactions have become more popular at the markets, particularly for those with Austrian debit cards. Nevertheless, you’ll have trouble paying with cards at many stalls. So stock up on Euros.
All the markets should now have an ATM somewhere on the premises or nearby. You’ll also make lifelong friends if you carry small notes and coins so you don’t require change.
Visit the markets at (and after) dusk
The dark provides the right backdrop for lighted stalls and buildings and (obviously) reveals the tasteful splendour of Vienna’s Christmas lights. So it’s when the markets look their best.
However…a lot of people know this, so expect crowds once the sun hits the horizon. Plus many locals meet up at a market after work.
Dusk on a weekday evening is your best chance of combining the perfect ambience with enough space to actually enjoy it.
Alternatively, avoid the crowds completely by going late morning just after the markets open.
Take public transport
Finding street parking in Vienna is a delicate skill requiring many years of intensive training. As a visitor, you can also easily fall foul of local parking restrictions without knowing it. Unless you want to pay fees for a garage, use public transport if you can.
The main markets all have subway stations or tram stops nearby. Many markets also fall within walking distance of city center hotels (see map above).
Frankly, you don’t really want to be driving around the centre anyway when you can enjoy the seasonal atmosphere on foot.
Punch need not pack a punch
Steaming mugs of Christmas punch form a traditional part of any Christmas market visit. You’ll find a lot of different punches on offer, from the traditional fruit punches to more esoteric varieties. But if you want to keep off the booze, Kinderpunsch (literally, “children’s punch”) is the name typically used for the alcohol-free (alkoholfrei) version.
P.S. Glühwein is the local name for mulled wine.
Punch isn’t as expensive as it seems
The mugs carry a deposit so don’t be shocked when they ask for €8 for the punch priced at just €4 on the board above the stall. Return the mug for the deposit or simply keep it as a souvenir – most markets have their own unique annual design, which many visitors treat as collectibles.
Incidentally, you can often buy the mugs separately for the same price as the deposit.
Unless you fall head-over-heels in love with an item, don’t buy anything straightaway. The markets have lots of interesting stalls, and you might regret having spent your holiday money when you turn the next corner.
Each market has its own set of stalls, too, though some stalls do repeat across locations. So if one market has nothing for you, the next one might. The Am Hof, Schönbrunn, and Karlsplatz markets are especially good if searching for unique gifts.
Be discerning about decorations
If you’re looking for special handcrafted decorations, the markets are the place to buy. For more standard packs of Austrian-style decorations, shop at a Viennese department store – they’re much cheaper there.
(Nip into those department stores just after Christmas and seasonal stock should be on sale.)
Be prepared to stand
Most market provide few opportunities to sit down. For notable exceptions, see the guide on which market to visit.
The big markets in the very centre get quite intense when busy. If you’re a bit sensitive to crowds (like me), then the smaller markets a little out of the way can be a delight. Try Belvedere, for example.
If you merely wish to try the Vienna approach to punch, then you can avoid the markets completely. Standalone punch stalls often pop up around town, particularly on well-travelled pedestrian or shopping streets like the Graben or Mariahilfer Straße.
Vienna is relatively safe when compared to other big cities. Remarkably so, given its size. But Christmas markets can get packed, so are obvious targets for, particularly, pickpockets. Follow the advice offered by the US Embassy in Paris.
And your bonus tip:
The Viennese Christmas markets deserve their excellent reputation. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere and enjoy the sights, sounds, scents, and tastes of Vienna at perhaps its best time of year.
I’ve lived here over 25 years and still enjoy dropping in for a sugared monstrosity on a stick and some hot punch, regardless of the price.
Just be careful with timing – the markets can get incredibly busy near Christmas, at weekends, and in the evenings. And jostling for space takes some of the pleasure out of browsing. As I said, earlier, aim for early dusk, preferably on a weekday.