Given the cynical over-hyped world we live in, few experiences 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 popular markets, which always begin opening from mid-November. Discover which ones are best and get a few insider tips on how to make the most of a market visit.
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, arts 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
The Christmas markets here are generally a tasteful affair, where plastic is rare and wood, straw, glass and fabric (and enough food and drink to feed a blue whale) 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.
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).
The main Christmas markets
I’ve not listed every Christmas market in the city, but these are the more popular and/or central ones…
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 or the lighted ice skating routes.
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. (More information)
People often meet up here after work for a bite to eat and a mug of something warming.
Locals 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 Altwiener Christkindlmarkt on the Freyung. (More information)
Also notable for the organic farmer’s market with its wonderful specialties from the more rural parts of Austria. Try the Bergkäse cheese: it’s sharp as a knife.
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. (More information)
The Biedermeier surrounds make for a unique ambience, too.
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) back in 2019, but I’m not sure if this is intended as an annual event. A remarkably atmospheric, though very small, market in the main courtyard of the stables of the Spanish Riding School (More information)
This is not a place you can usually access without going on an official tour, so it was worth going to just to get nearer the wonderful Lipizzaner horses.
Weekend and other markets
(Share some mead with a dragon at the medieval advent market)
Other rather nice markets normally spring up for just a couple of days:
- Medieval advent market (2022 dates TBA): a hugely popular event outside the excellent Heeresgeschichtliches Museum
- Palais Niederösterreich (2022 dates TBA): the So Schmeckt NÖ Adventmarkt features the cuisine and wares of the province of Lower Austria
- Weihnachtsquartier (November 25th to 27th in 2022): more a design market than a Christmas market, but great for gifts
- Edelstoff design fair Xmas edition (2022 dates TBA): another design market with a special seasonal edition
Other markets exist (which I will try and get to eventually).
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 the huge Prater entertainment complex
- Genussmarkt bei der Oper: another mainly 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