Given the cynical over-hyped world we live in, there are few experiences today that really live up to their image. One of those that do is a visit to a Christmas market (German: Weihnachtsmarkt) in Vienna.
Use the list below to find your way around the different markets, which plan to start opening from mid-November in 2021. Discover which ones are best and get a few insider tips on how to make the most of a market visit.
Although all the major markets plan to go ahead this year, recent life has taught us that nothing is certain. Current indications are that the authorities will license around 20 markets but subject to COVID regulations. In particular, 2G/3G access restrictions may be in place to help ensure visitor safety. Check with official sites for certainty.
What’s a Christmas market?
The markets go by various names, but all tend to follow the same pattern…
Now throw in the scent of baked potatoes, fresh bread, strudel, candied nuts and more.
Then spread it all out in front of a magnificent Baroque palace.
There you have it – a Viennese Christmas market. (I may have exaggerated a little, particularly the number of candles.)
The dictionary definition is simply a collection of wooden stalls during the weeks leading up to December 24th (and often beyond), with a mix of stands selling traditional Christmas foods, decorations, art and crafts, handmade toys, honey and other delicacies, candy, jewellery, and so on.
That rather clinical description fails to do justice to the concept, though.
Taste not tack
In recent years, the Vienna authorities and market organisers have worked hard to ensure an almost complete absence of tackiness from proceedings.
As a consequence, the Christmas markets are generally a tasteful affair, where plastic is rare and wood, straw, glass and fabric (and enough food and drink to kill an elephant) dominate.
Though they’re worth visiting just for the atmosphere, the markets also make for excellent shopping.
You’ll find a range of potential gift items: carved flowers made of soap, Victorian-style candy, sculpted candles, handcrafted decorations, wooden nativity scenes and much, much (much) more.
Numerous Christmas markets pop up across the advent period, varying in size from a couple of stalls selling food to the hundreds of stalls that make up the famous Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz. There’s even a city walking tour* that takes in four of them.
The only downside is the main markets can get busy – fighting your way through the latest bus group sometimes takes the edge off the romanticism (but see my tips for advice on when to go). This may not be the case in 2021, as, for example, fewer people seem likely to travel.
The main Christmas markets
The biggest and most famous Christmas market, located in front of the Rathaus city hall. A large Christmas tree dominates the centre with dozens of surrounding stalls offering the full spectrum of seasonal offerings. (More information)
The adjacent park has plenty of Advent surprises, too. For example, look out for the tree full of glowing hearts and the illuminated ice skating trail.
For a good photo of everything, cross the road at the main entrance and stand on the steps of the Burgtheater building opposite.
Kind of my favourite, but I’m a bit of a Belvedere fan with its wonderful art exhibitions. Not the largest market and a little bit away from the centre, so fewer crowds usually gather than at most other alternatives.
Hard to beat in terms of elegance and style. The market forms a grand circle of stalls in the forecourt of Schönbrunn Palace, with its giant Christmas tree and imperial splendour. Also a particular favourite of mine. (More information)
The stalls here always seem very high quality, so a fine place to pick up gifts and those little bits and pieces that make life a better place even if you don’t really need them.
In the grounds of the old hospital. Not a regular haunt for tourists, but quite popular with locals because it has a nice central area with food and drink stalls and plenty of bar tables. People often meet up here after work for a bite to eat and a mug of something warming. (More information)
Locals sometimes come here with their kids, too, as the courtyard has a playground and the market normally has one or two rides or donkeys to amuse the little ones.
This Christmas market is about as central as they come since it curls around the edges of Stephansdom. The cathedral makes for a wonderful backdrop and the market allows you to refresh yourself after strolling through the pedestrianised centre of Vienna. (More information)
One end of the market meets the parking spot for the horse-drawn carriages that ply their trade in town, which adds another level of historical atmosphere to proceedings.
This one’s fairly central, too, and located on a square surrounded by historic buildings (including the one where Mozart first performed in Vienna). A section dedicated to independent artists serves as an excellent source of unique gift ideas. (More information)
I have a soft spot for this one, because Am Hof is the historical centre of Vienna where the first Duke of Austria set up his court. Markets have occupied this space for centuries.
Just up from Am Hof is the Freyung, perhaps most notable for the organic farmer’s Christmas market with its wonderful specialties from the more rural parts of Austria. Try the Bergkäse cheese – it’s sharp as a knife. (More information)
The Freyung market has an authentic feel, thanks to the smaller size and, particularly, the mix of historical buildings that surround it: medieval churches, Baroque townhouses, and 18th-century apothecaries.
One of the biggest Christmas markets and another glorious location, sandwiched between the Natural History and Art History museums, and under the watchful eye of Empress Maria Theresia. (More information)
The market feels particularly magical and atmospheric after dusk. Both museums look gorgeous lit up at night and the square’s topiary has its own tasteful illuminated decorations.
And another big one, sprawled beneath the giant Karlskirche church. It’s a little “alternative” and features many arts and craft stalls. The organisers have strict rules about who can set up a stall here, ensuring diversity, quality, and authenticity. Still a bit of a local secret. (More information)
Definitely consider the Karlsplatz market, if you’re looking for unusual or unique items to take back home with you. We always make sure to pop in here to pick up a few smaller gifts for people.
A little different to the others, in that this Christmas market sprawls around narrow streets in one of Vienna’s more bohemian quarters. Light spills out from neighbouring bars and specialty stores, giving it all a more cosy local feel.
Quite a small market, but a lovely and very central location. It sits at one end of the Hofburg palace with its huge domed entrance. Also notable for the unique white booths that match the imperial tone perfectly. (More information)
The square once sat at the crossroads of Roman trade routes and the market actually backs on to Roman excavations. Do not, however, expect to find a dormouse-on-a-stick or larks’ tongue pretzels.
Stallburg (Spanish Riding School
New (to me) in 2019, but I hope they repeat the exercise in 2021. A remarkably atmospheric, though very small, market in the main courtyard of the stables of the Spanish Riding School. This is not a place you can usually access without a tour guide, so worth going just to get nearer the wonderful Lipizzaner horses. (More information)
Two rather nice markets normally spring up for a couple of days at the end of November:
- So schmeckt NÖ advent market: a two-day event showcasing the products and music of Vienna’s neighbour: Lower Austria. Held in the fabulous Palais Niederösterreich
Finally, if it’s all too Christmassy for you, then try these alternatives:
- MQ Wintergarten: sort of the nightclub version of a Christmas market. Not a carol in sight, normally. Or a market, frankly. Just innovative light displays, outdoor cafés and restaurants, art installations and wintry (ish) sports in the thriving contemporary art complex that is the Museumsquartier
amRiesenradplatz: food and drink stalls only, and right next to a circus, carousel, mini train, and huge entertainment complex
- Genussmarkt bei der Oper: another food and drink market, usually full of Austrian and Italian specialties (quite small, but undercover, so better if the weather turns bad)
- Vienna in December: discover all the other events and activities going on that have nothing to do with the Advent season