Vienna in winter to celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve. What was lacking in weather was made up for in good food, wine, culture, and festiveness. Read on to discover a wealth of things to do in Vienna in December.
Shoppers were out in full force on the last shopping day before Christmas. Mariahilferstrasse was closed to traffic and pedestrians zig-zagged across the street to check out a variety of shops. Buildings were trimmed with festive lights.
Karlsplatz Christmas MarketWe set out on the cold foggy evening of our arrival to get our bearings. We headed to the Christmas Market on Karlsplatz. The stalls were nestled at the base of the brightly lit church. We found a spot next to a warming station for a cup of mulled wine (glühwein). The place was packed. A live nativity scene with adorable sheep was the centerpiece of the market. Artisans sold all manner of gifts to an eager crowd.
Eat Dinner at ArtnerWe soon made our way to Artner, a popular Viennese restaurant, for dinner. The bread was served with two kinds of sea salt and spreads (butter and 'pork drippings'). The atmosphere was warm and modern. A glass of Blaufränkisch, a popular Austrian red wine, helped us warm up from the cold. We were served a shot of a creamy palate cleanser before taking our soup. Our entrees included fresh grilled fish over a bed of risotto and the house specialty, Weinerschnitzel. Greens and a savory red sauce rounded out the meal.
Walk Vienna at NightOn the way back to our accommodation, we admired the neon lights that added a little cheer to the otherwise dreary chill of the winter night in Vienna. We passed a home store with a huge display of toilet brushes in the window made into the shape of whimsical porcelain animals. I chuckled when I saw a naked man with a tea cup on his bum in the window of a local furniture store. People often wonder: what is the weather like in Vienna in December? Does it snow in Vienna at Christmas? Yes. A small amount of snow had collected on the streets and a dusting of snow had collected on the cars. It was definitely getting cold so we rushed back to our rented apartment and called it a night.
Shop NaschmarktWe rented an apartment in Vienna not far from the Naschmarkt. The Naschmarkt is generally a food market but on Saturdays it expands with a full blown flea market selling all manner of junk and antiques. We perused the market on a gray morning and were certainly not alone. Many people were looking for last minute Christmas trees. The Art Nouveau buildings in the neighborhood made for a stunning backdrop to the stalls. We searched for some supplies for our apartment including exquisitely sweet dried fruit. Nuts of every variety were arrayed in puntzaks next to the path. Huge loaves of bread were for sale. We managed to conduct a transaction in German with the very patient lady running the stall. We found several stalls selling hummus and other Middle Eastern dips. We bought packages of mango and chili hummus plus 20 stuck of falafel. Next up, we ran the gauntlet of fruit and veggie vendors. We passed a giant vat of sauerkraut which seemed to be quite popular. Buds of every color were miraculously for sale in Vienna in December. We picked up an interesting dish: schwarma noodles. It was basically Middle Eastern shaved meat and Asian soba noodles served in a bento box for a nice fusion of cultures. We completed our circuit of the market and passed a stall selling an eclectic mix of flags, handbags, and trousers before heading for home.
Window Shop MariahilferstrasseWe set out toward Mariahilferstrasse, one of the main shopping streets in Vienna City Center. We admired the cobbled streets and ornate buildings along the way. Beneath a lovely church tower, we discovered a small Christmas market. We tried glühwein with waldbeeren (forest fruits) to warm us up.
Shoppers were out in full force on the last shopping day before Christmas. Mariahilferstrasse was closed to traffic and pedestrians zig-zagged across the street to check out a variety of shops. Buildings were trimmed with festive lights.
Spittelberg Christmas Market Potato PancakesYou'll find that Vienna Christmas markets are some of the best and more numerous among European cities. We headed for Spittelberg and yet another Christmas market. Another mug of glühwein really hit the spot. We saw a rather long queue snaking from a steaming booth. Curious, we stopped to check it out. This was the only stall with a queue so we figured it must be good and joined the line. I could see a man pouring batter into a large vat of oil. It was quite an assembly line of potato pancakes (erdäpfelpuffer). The gents in charge of cooking seemed to be having a fun time. We finally arrived at the head of the queue and ordered our potato pancake. We noticed a pan with a paintbrush sticking out of it. It was pretty clear what it was for but not so clear what it was. We decided to go for it and painted some of the concoction onto our treat. Turns out it was garlic butter. Yum! I could immediately taste why people were willing to wait for this! This just reinforced that Vienna Christmas market food is really the best part of the entire experience.
After our snack, we continued on and admired the lights and stalls of Vienna's Spittelberg market. A stall selling giant doughnuts caught our eye but we decided we'd had enough fried tasty treats for the evening. Instead, we popped into Schokov for a spot of chocoloate before calling it a night.
Explore FreyungWe hopped on Vienna's U-Bahn and took the train to the vicinity of Freyung in the Inner Stadt. We emerged from the station onto a deserted square that looked a bit forlorn on the cold, wet, gray day. We seemed to be the only ones brave enough to venture out into the cold in the days leading up to Christmas in Vienna. We discovered Ferstel Passage and soon realized that folks out and about had taken refuge inside. The grand passage featured intricate, floral, stucco patterns on the ceiling. A jaunty fountain anchored an indoor courtyard. Cherubs seemed to hold up the roof. We emerged at Freyung and yet another of Vienna's Christmas Markets. Fortunately, there were huge umbrellas over the tables by the glühwein stall as it was raining quite hard at the time. This market featured an array of locally crafted and upscale products.
Am Hof Christmas MarketNext we headed to Am Hof and the final Viennese Christmas Market of the day. We admired the amazing array of sausages and the decadent backdrop of the surrounding buildings. We were surprised to see a man on a ladder trying to fix some of the lighting. He actually got up on the ladder and then walked it back and forth from his perch. Safety first! Achtung!
Shopping KartnerstrasseKartnerstrasse is a posh, pedestrianized shopping street in Vienna's Inner Stadt. The area is anchored at one end by St. Stephensplatz. A number of fabulous cafes line the street. We stopped into Gertsner for a bite of lunch. We started with a foamy mélange. We warmed up from the cold of Vienna in December with a tureen of delicious soup (goulash and a creamy vegetable variety). Finally it was time for the pièce de résistance: slices of Gertsner's fabulous cakes. We had an array of choices and it was hard to limit ourselves to just two kinds.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Vienna is not the only magical city in Austria worth visiting for the holidays. Innsbruck for Christmas is also well worth an extended visit especially with an Innsbruck Card. If you are short on time, why not spend one day in Salzburg in winter and take advantage of your time there with a 24 hour Salzburg Card.
Buy Good Luck Marzipan PigsRefueled, we continued our walk and had our first encounter with Vienna's New Year traditions. We passed a bakery selling marzipan pigs! Pigs are a sign of good luck to ring in the new year and people traditionally exchange them on New Year's Eve.
Buy a SachertorteThe opposite end of Kartnerstrasse is anchored by Hotel Sacher, home of the world-famous Sachertorte and Cafe Sacher. Sachertortes come in a variety of sizes. We bought ourselves the second smallest size to enjoy on Christmas day in Vienna. The Sachertorte came in a decorative wooden box.
A Sunday Stroll in ViennaAcross the street, the buildings were wrapped in lighted bows and ribbons. It was a Sunday which meant that all the shops were closed. We were surprised to find a bustling antiques market operating from the Ringstrassen Galerien and took a pass through the area. The interior was a pleasure to stroll around. I really enjoyed the unique architectural elements. On the way back to our apartment, we walked through Karlsplatz and the associated Christmas Market. We were delighted to find a bicycle powered carousel! What fun!
See an Ice Hockey MatchIce hockey is my favorite sport so we were delighted to discover that Vienna has a team and that they were in town during our vacation. I couldn't imagine a more fitting Vienna winter experience. While some people prefer to go ice skating themselves, I prefer to watch others chase a puck around. We took the U-Bahn out to the arena. We were quickly welcomed by the Jumbotron. We were curious about the kind of snacks they might sell at an Austrian hockey game. You don't typically find ham and cheese sandwiches at an NHL game but the ones we say in Vienna did look good. We opted for more traditional arena food but with an Austrian twist. We had a käsekrainer (cheesy sausage) and a frankfurter served 'hot dog' style (eg: nestled into a hole drilled into a bun). We settled into our seats to await the Vienna Capitals and KHL Medveščak Zagreb. Vienna's mascot, some kind of skating leopard, took to the ice to rile up the crowd. Soon it was time to introduce the players. Each of the Vienna Capitals made a grand and fiery entrance! We were quite impressed with the showmanship!
Rathaus WeihnachtsmarktVienna Christmas markets can be quite magical, especially after dark. We took a late evening stroll to Vienna City Hall and the Wiener Christkindlmarkt at the Rathaus. We were really impressed by the town hall rising above the market stalls. We made sure to indulge in heisse maroni (hot roasted chestnuts). They are a perfect winter treat. We also discovered a shop selling cake squares (schnitte). I liked the little bust of Mozart nestled among the Mozartschnitte. There was a trail of festive lights at the periphery of the Rathaus Weihnachtsmarkt. We took a final pass through the market and admired some larger-than-life candles. Frohe Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!
A Christmas Eve Walk in ViennaOn Christmas Eve, we did a proper Sidewalk Safari in Vienna and took a random walk through the neighborhood near our apartment. While the shops were closed, it was still fun to do a bit of window shopping. The residential buildings were quite dramatic. Many looked as if they were being held up by gods. We did chance upon one small florist that was actually open across from the local glühwein vendor. Business seemed to be leaning toward the bar rather than the florist. We spotted more good luck pigs of various shapes and sizes. It was a cold and foggy day. The apartment buildings in Vienna were lined up in perfect rows. Art Nouveau flourishes were everywhere. After making a random turn, we were surprised to discover the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. Somehow I wouldn't naturally put together motorcycles and Viennese culture but here you go. We passed a small park surrounded by a mosaic-tiled fence. Our extremities were starting to get a bit numb at that point which was our cue to head for home.
Walk the Danube CanalWe took Vienna's U-Bahn out to a station just alongside the Danube Canal near Augarten Brücke. Our target destination was the Freud Museum but we were intrigued by the intricate graffiti along the canal path and decided to take a bit of a detour. On one side, we looked up at a castle-like structure. On the other, no brick seemed untagged. The street art varied in quality but made for an eye-catching scene. We spotted a Viennese gentleman adorning the corner of a large column. Detour complete, we wound our way through the quiet neighborhood past idyllic churches and structures with Art Nouveau flourishes.
Freud MuseumWe finally arrived at the Freud Museum. The museum is housed in Freud's rooms in a nondescript apartment block in Vienna. Inside, we learned much about Freud's life work on psychoanalysis. While much of the museum is recreated (for example, Freud's famous couch is on display in London), this simple set of rooms is worth popping into for an hour to learn a bit about the man and the world he occupied.
Vienna's Hofburg PalaceWe spent the afternoon strolling around near Vienna's Hofburg Palace. We also took a detour to see the famous Lipizzaner Stallions nearby. The horses looked quite chill hanging out in their paddocks near the palace.
Eat at a Classic Viennese CafeWe turned around the block and entered Cafe Braunerhof. This is a classic Viennese cafe. We were served a delightful café mélange on a silver tray. For lunch, we tried the Wienerschnitzel which was so large that it hung over the side of the plate. We sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the atmosphere. We were in no rush as we settled in with our newspaper on a stick, another hallmark of the Viennese cafe culture. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Vienna's Inner Stadt On FootVienna's Inner Stadt is worth taking time to savor and explore on foot. We went back for a second visit to the area around St Stephansplatz. Two things stood out during our walk: (a) the beautiful sculptures and fountains (b) the copious horse and carriages. Just beyond a particularly posh carriage, we could see Manner, Vienna's famous chocolate shop. We stopped in for a quick look and were immersed in a field of pink. We picked up a few Manner treats for the days ahead. Continuing the pink trend, we walked into Aida and picked up a couple cake slices for later in the evening. The biggest challenge was figuring out which one to choose! We saw more fine horses and sculptures near the Albertina. We took a shortcut through the Burggarten; a quiet and peaceful place.
We chanced upon yet another Christmas Market in the MuseumsQuartier and decided to pop in for a look. The market was set amid well-coiffed hedges and royal sculptures. Candied walnuts and glühwein were the perfect treat after a long walk on a cold afternoon. The Museum of Natural History towered above the market. We peeked in briefly and were impressed by the ornate domed ceiling. We soon headed for home passing row after row of meticulously ordered apartment buildings. We made one final stop at the Secession Building, a structure built in a counter-establishment style. A gold and blue turtle-footed urn really popped outside the entrance. Three gorgon heads almost writhed from their place above the door. Outside, we admired Mark Anthony driving a chariot of lions. That's certainly traveling in style! With that, we resumed our slightly less grand mode of transportation and walked back home.
Vienna VolksoperWe spent a sumptuous evening at Vienna's Volksoper where we saw a production of Wiener Blut. The interior was as lavish as you would expect for a Viennese Opera House. The Operetta was in German with English super-titles. The only challenging part was that they only directly translated the songs. All the dialog was paraphrased. Apparently, it was quite funny though as the German-speaking audience members roared with laughter. We felt we missed out just a bit. However, we were definitely able to appreciate the amazing sets which included giant ostriches! The cast was colorfully dressed and thankfully, the light plot came to a happy end. It can be quite expensive and often difficult to get tickets to Vienna's famous Staatsoper. The Vienna Volksoper is a more accessible alternative for a taste of Vienna's opera scene.
Explore WestbahnhofOn one of our visits to Mariahilferstrasse, our momentum carried us all the way out to the Westbahnhof. We tried two places in the neighborhood. The first was Le Backo Cafe. Here we enjoyed a Grosser Brauner, salad with chicken schnitzel, and a sweet and savory crepe filled with cheese and topped with currant jam. Our second stop was Cafe Westend a little later in the afternoon. We settled into a table and soaked up the ambiance. The waiter immediately placed a basket of treats on the table. I was smart enough to ask wie viel kostet das? (How much does it cost?). 2 euro. We took a look through the hefty menu and ordered an unusual combination of beer and apple strudel. Of course, the beer made the pretzels in the basket look awfully tempting. We munched on all three assuming that it cost 2 euro in total. We quickly learned, however, that they cost 2 euro apiece. Oh well, lesson learned for next time…
Celebrate Christmas Day in Vienna at Schloss SchönbrunnOn Christmas Day, we unwrapped our present to ourselves, an original Sachertorte from Hotel Sacher! We got our chocolate, apricot, and sugar fix before setting out for Schloss Schönbrunn, one of the only attractions in Vienna open on Christmas Day. After arriving at the closest U-Bahn station, we walked down a stark tree-lined path toward the palace. We soon arrived at the Schloss Schönbrunn Christmas Market located at the palace. This market was the poshest we'd seen in Vienna and featured a range of gifts including fine preserves, Wiener Schneekugel (snowglobes were invented in Vienna), hand blown glass ornaments, and other holiday decorations. Once again, the palace made for a sophisticated backdrop to the market stalls. We checked out a vendor selling all manner of alcoholic punches and piping hot baked potatoes. We soon added another Vienna Christmas market mug to our collection.
Despite the cold, we wandered around to the Schönbrunn Palace gardens which are free and open to the public. Thick brush that was tamed into neat boundaries framed the area. A variety of classic sculptures lined the property. We discovered a slushy fountain that a family of ducks was calling home. Amidst the usual mallards, we spotted a pair of male and female mandarin ducks. Their plumage is so striking. I could watch them for hours. The ice layer was heavy enough to support the ducks and we could see their footprints running every which way.
We finished up our tour of the Schloss Schönbrunn gardens with a stop at the base of the Gloriette. We didn't quite have the energy to make the climb, especially given the cold gray weather. We complete our circuit of the gardens and headed back to the apartment to while away the rest of the holiday.
A Day Trip from Vienna to KremsTraveling for a week or more at Christmas means there is plenty of time for some day trips. Krems in the Wachau Valley is an easy day trip destination from Vienna. We set out for the Franz Josefs Bahnhof and caught a train for the 1 hour ride from Vienna to Krems. It was a cold, wet day but we soldiered on. The center of Krems was bustling and we took some time to window shop along the main thoroughfare. Marzipan pigs waited patiently for someone to purchase them at a local bakery. Some lovely church spires rose up in front of us.
We discovered a set of stairs and decided to hike to the top of the hill to Piaristen Church. We spotted an array of grapevines tumbling over the side of the hill, a nice reminder that we were in one of Austria's most famous wine producing regions. More on that later...
At the top of the hill, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding town. We turned to the church and decided to have a quick look inside. We were impressed by the lavish baroque elements inside. Back outside, we wound our way down the hill once more.
Passing through Steiner Tor, we found ourselves on the main shopping street. We ate in reverse stopping at a bakery for dessert and coffee before eating lunch. The pastel interior at Biedermeier-Cafe was quite soothing. We opted for a café mélange along with a poppy filled crescent and a very sweet chestnut cake that looked like spaghetti. It was uber delicious! By now, we were in need of something savory after all that sweetness. We had a late lunch at Schwarze Kuchl. The interior felt quite homey and warm. We could even watch the staff bustling about preparing our meals. The pork and veal with spätzle were outstanding. Filled to the brim, we strolled back through Krems to the train station. The sun was beginning to set as we boarded the train. The light playing off the countryside made for a beautiful scene even through the glass as we chugged back to Vienna.
Admire Vienna's Posh DecorationsDuring the holidays, Vienna simply sparkles after dark. Giant chandeliers hang over Der Graben in the Inner Stadt. Stephansdom glows. Outside Oberlaa, a famous cafe on Neuer Markt, a giant coffee cup gave a hint to what lay inside. We popped in to pick up a sample of Oberlaa's famous macarons. On the terrace of the Albertina, we enjoyed great views of the Staatsoper.
Catch a Movie at the Film MuseumJust below, we found the entrance to the Film Museum where a series of silent films were being screened. We bought tickets to The Freshman featuring Harold Lloyd. We've seen quite a few silent films but this was the first one that was truly silent. All the others featured a recorded score or live musical accompaniment. It was completely quiet in the theatre which was a rather unusual experience. However, we quickly grew accustomed to it an appreciated the plot. The movie was hilarious.
Day Trip from Vienna to Sopron, HungaryThe border with Hungary is not far from Vienna. We set out from our apartment and headed for the Philadelphiabrücke U-Bahn station and the commuter train to Sopron. After a little over an hour on the train, we arrived at our destination and quickly covered the distance between the station and center of Sopron. Thick, heavy sculptures and more delicate church towers greeted us on the way.
We discovered an old round tower covered with moss, a remnant of the old town wall. We skirted along the wall and passed through a narrow doorway. The Fire Watchtower soon came into view. We took a stroll around the town square. The center of Sopron was pretty much deserted. We had the narrow cobbled streets of the old town to ourselves. We stopped at the small park outside Petőfi Színház (a small theatre). Looping back around, we picked up the path along another stretch of town wall. The wall was partially stuccoed over in certain parts. The texture was striking. We caught another glimpse of the watchtower but decided to find a bite to eat before undertaking the climb.
Walking in the main commercial district outside of the town wall, we discovered a local wine shop that sold Hungarian delicacies. After purchasing a bottle, we finally took time to climb Sopron's Fire Watchtower. It wasn't as straightforward as you might assume. The watchtower seemed to be the only attraction in town that was open the afternoon that we visited and it was actually free for a limited time. These two factors meant there was quite a queue to get in. We were encouraged when we made it through the front door into an exhibit hall within 15 minutes. We could see the stairs but we weren't allowed to climb them. We were kept here for about 30 minutes while stragglers from the last group descended. Finally, we were allowed to ascend. We jockeyed for position with other members of the group to get a decent view on the narrow platform. Overall, the view was lovely but definitely not worth the wait to make the climb. We could see the defensive wall snaking through town below. People went about their business in the old town. We took a final look at the town and countryside and then quickly descended to avoid the bottleneck on the steps.
Catch A Symphony at MusikvereinA classical music performance in Vienna is a must for every visitor. We bought tickets to a symphony performance at the Musikverein. The grandeur of the place was astounding and was almost worth the cost of the performance on its own. We were seated in a ring of seats around the edge of the hall with a partially obstructed view of the orchestra. If we did it again, I think we'd opt for better seats but it was still worth being there despite an imperfect view.
Walk to StadtparkIt was only December 30th but already Vienna was firmly over Christmas (as evidenced by a sad discarded pile of trees) and gearing up for New Year's Eve. We took a brisk self-guided walking tour toward Stadtpark past some striking Art Deco buildings. The park was a bit cold and desolate but was worth a quick pass through. We spotted a popular golden statue of Johan Strauss. Dramatic water fountains lined the path. Ducks quietly swam in the pond in the center of the park. Older ladies draped in fur were out for an afternoon stroll.
Just outside the Stadtpark, we saw one of Vienna's many coin operated scales. When you think about it, these things make a lot of sense. There are so many amazing sweets in Vienna that the scales can be a useful tool for curbing an appetite or sweet tooth. We passed the scale right on by and headed for Cafe Diglas. We sat at a window seat with a newspaper covered lampshade above. As usual, coffee and cake was the order of the day. We tried the New Year's Eve cake and a creamy chocolate coated confection. Both tasted a bit boozy but were quite good. The place was packed!
We stopped at the Vienna Rathaus and strolled the outdoor pathways around the building. The Rathaus is an impressive structure no matter what time of day. We decided to push on on foot and head back to our apartment.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other fun winter destinations to visit in Europe? Why not:
Eat LocalWe made an effort to eat in the neighborhood of our rented apartment a couple times. We really enjoyed Margareta, an Italian place offering a welcome respite from heavy Austrian cuisine. We tried a green salad with shaved parmesan and spicy meat ravioli. Veal with polenta cake rounded out the experience. There were just two things that were odd about the experience at Margareta but likely typical for Viennese dining: (a) the non-smoking section was in a separate room that felt a bit like a fish bowl. (b) Dogs are allowed in the actual dining room. This wouldn't normally be a problem but there was one small dog that got a bit agitated when a second larger dog came in. The first dog escaped from his leash and threatened both the other dog and the other diners not once, not twice, but three times before the owners finally saw fit to take it away.
We also enjoyed breakfast at Cafe Standard. Once again, we found ourselves in the non-smoking fishbowl. A Grosser Brauner and omelette filled us up. We had a fun time pretending to be locals as we tried various haunts nearby the apartment.
Silvester in ViennaWe started off our New Years Eve (Silvester) in Vienna right, with a good-luck-pig Sachertorte square and ice cream. In Vienna, the party gets started early and the music along the New Years Eve trail starts at 2:30 in the afternoon. We enjoyed a Michael Jackson tribute band outside the Rathaus. After a brief late afternoon siesta, we went back out and walked along the full New Years Eve trail. The streets were already full of revelers.
Along Der Graben, we stopped for a glühwein and got to talking with some locals and their adorable pooch Fiona! Der Graben was elegantly lit with giant chandeliers. Punch and hearty Austrian fare were on offer all along the trail.
We continued on to St. Stephansplatz and then up Kartnerstrasse. We took a quick detour into Cafe Gertsner for a tasty macaron and slice of cake. Smack in the middle of Kartnerstrasse, we heard a DJ playing funky beats and stopped to dance. Back at the Rathaus, we decided to station ourselves near the Superfly Stage for most of the evening. Funk and soul bands hit the stage one after the other. It was music just to our liking. Ramon was the first to kick things off. The advertisements projected onto the nearby buildings were making me hungry.
Just before midnight we counted down the seconds until the new year. The crowd spilled into the streets and watched the fireworks go off in many directions while a Viennese Waltz played and everyone started dancing. The fireworks continued for about 15 minutes and then everyone headed back toward the stage to catch the next act. The Superfly Orchestra put on an amazing show. Gimme da Funk! We got our groove on until about 1:30 and then caught the train back to the apartment for a short night's sleep before flying back to Dublin in the morning.