It’s the most wonderful time of the year! At least I think so. Christmas time to me is magic, and even though I live in a Canadian city that pretty much guarantees a white Christmas, it’s no secret that during the holiday season, Europe is my favourite place to be. European Christmas markets are my personal heaven and even though I normally hate crowds, I will suck it up if it means I get to browse stall after stall of Santas, snowmen, and villages with a mug of warm gluhwein in my hands. YUM. And my favourite place to do this? Well, it’s a bit of a tough call but I can honestly say there is no place like Vienna at Christmas.
I’ve been to Vienna four times now, three of those times for the Christmas markets (once as part of a Christmas market river cruise!) Vienna at Christmas is truly a fairytale. The lights, the markets, the food and drink; it’s all amazing. But how do you narrow it down? After all, Vienna is a big city. But, don’t worry! Your Christmas angel is here, and I’m sharing the top must-have experiences to make the most of your visit to Vienna at Christmas.
Take a Stroll Through Rathaus Park and Christmas Market
When it comes to the prettiest Christmas market, the one held at the Rathaus (Vienna’s town hall) just might take the proverbial cake. Endless strings of twinkling fairy lights and adorable wooden stalls all done up with garlands makes it the postcard-perfect setting for experiencing Vienna at Christmas. Right in front of the Rathaus (which is a stunning historic building itself) is the market, but off to the side are a couple of trails through the park-like area which is just as decorated and perfect for taking a festive walk or sit on one of the many benches to take in the magic. Just make sure you visit at night because that’s when everything lights up and it really comes to life.
Insider tip: While I do think that this is the prettiest Christmas market in Vienna, I wouldn’t say it’s the best for shopping (unless you want food). So plan on coming for the atmosphere and the sights, but save your shopping for one of the other Christmas markets in Vienna.
Find Something Special at the Christmas Market at Schonbrunn Palace
Remember how I just said not to shop at the Rathaus Christmas market and to save your money for elsewhere? Save it for here. Out of all of the Christmas markets in Vienna, I find that the vendors at the Schonbrunn Palace Christmas market have the best merchandise. From handmade ornaments to wooden toys and more, you can find some quality items here. My personal favourite are the glass ornaments that are hand painted on either side. My first time in Vienna I bought one with a Christmas tree on one side and a panda bear (my favourite animal ever- they also have them at the Vienna zoo) on the other side. You can find this vendor on the left side of the market if you are facing the palace.
When you are done shopping, buy a large pretzel from one of the vendors and take a wander around Schonbrunn Palace. You can take a guided tour inside but the exterior is pretty stunning as well. Without a doubt, this Christmas market is a must-visit for anyone coming to Vienna at Christmas.
Drink all the Gluhwein and Punsch
Wondering how to keep warm as you stroll through Vienna’s Christmas markets and festive streets? The answer lies in those adorable little mugs filled with steaming hot drinks. What’s inside, you ask? Well, let me tell you.
There are two popular drinks that you can enjoy in Vienna at Christmas. The first is gluhwein, which is a mulled wine. The second is punsch which is a rum-based drink and is often stronger (you can even get ‘turbopunsch’ with an extra shot). Both are delicious though can be a bit dangerous in so much as they go down pretty easy and you tend to want to keep getting them because they are ideal for keeping warm as you explore.
Both Gluhwein and Punsch are served in real mugs that are unique to the year and the Christmas market. For example, the Rathaus Christmas market mugs are different than those at Schonbrunn. Which makes them a great souvenir to bring home. When you purchase your gluhwein, you will pay about 4 euro extra for the mug. This deposit is returned to you when you return the mug. But you don’t have to, you can keep it. Though I always return mine and ask for a clean one to take home with me as a souvenir.
Eat Your Way Through the Christmas Markets
Along with all the gluhwein and punsch you will be drinking, you’ll need some food. Granted, good food is never hard to come by in Vienna but especially not during Christmas time. Vienna’s Christmas markets are a foodie heaven with everything from pretzels and waffles to sausages and, my personal favourite, homemade soup in a bread bowl. Yum. For the best soup in a bread bowl, head to the soup stall in front of the town hall at the Rathaus Christmas Market. Their homemade tomato soup is to die for!
Take in the Christmas Lights and Displays
Vienna is a classy, elegant city so it’s really no surprise that the Christmas lights around town look more like sparkling jewels and diamonds rather than the typical kitschy Christmas displays. The best way to see and enjoy them is to walk along the pedestrian paths throughout the city centre. Make sure your route takes you by Kohlmarky, Graben, and Karntner Straße for the prettiest light displays in Vienna at Christmas.
If you aren’t too keen on walking around the city in the cold, or maybe just want another option, then you can take a Ring Road tour. These don’t show all of the same spots, but there are some beautiful displays along this route as well. This tram ride is a great option for this.
Find the Giant, Red Christmas Bow
A big, red bow is pretty Christmassy, right? Well, the Popp & Kretschmer sure seems to think so, because the exterior of their historic luxury fashion store is done up in a massive, glittery, red bow for the holidays. It’s probably my favourite decoration in Vienna at Christmas and I not so secretly wish I had one of my own for my house. Who doesn’t want to feel like they live in a giant present?
You can find this massive red bow at Kärntner Straße 51.
Check Out a Christmas Concert or an Opera
No doubt you know that Vienna has a rich musical history and there is no better time to enjoy that music than at Christmas. There are several options when it comes to concerts or operas in Vienna and the venues can be anywhere from a church to a palace to an opera house. Tickets vary in price as well but should be purchased in advance to avoid disappointment.
If you are a risk taker (you sneaky devil, you!) and don’t completely have your heart set on seeing something specific then you can try your luck at getting a last minute ticket. Normally, these tickets are standing room only but can be as cheap as a couple of euros if you get lucky.
Cozy Up in a Café
Whether you are done for the day and ready to just sit down somewhere warm or need a midday break, Vienna’s cafes make for the perfect cozy places to warm up and, of course, get something delicious to eat and drink.
Coffee houses are a huge part of the culture in Vienna, so there is no shortage of ones to choose from. Classic favourites include Café Central, Balthasar, and Café Sperl. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Sacher Café. Yes, it’s expensive and yes it’s touristic but there really is nothing better than ending your day in Vienna with a mug of hot chocolate or glass of wine and a slice of their famous sacher torte.
What to Pack for Vienna at Christmas?
Vienna at Christmas can be pretty cold, especially in the evenings so make sure to dress warmly! A few essentials include:
- Mittens or gloves: Personally, I normally prefer mittens (they keep your hands warmer!) but they can be annoying when trying to take photos or use my phone. If you plan on doing either, you may want to consider some touchscreen gloves.
- A warm hat: Keep your ears and head warm as you explore with a warm winter hat. Try this one for men or this one for women. Or, be super festive and get a plush Santa hat which will also keep you warm.
- Warm Boots: Vienna at Christmas may or may not have snow but either way you’ll want to make sure you have some warm winter boots. Big, heavy snow boots can be really hard to walk all day in so I normally bring my Manitobah Mukluks which are a Canadian brand and basically feel like I’m walking around in slippers. How’s that for comfy?
- A travel umbrella: Sure, snow would look prettiest as you explore Vienna at Christmas but you may get stuck with rain instead. Be prepared for that and throw this handy travel umbrella in your bag, just in case.
- Ugly Christmas Sweater: What? It IS Christmas so why not dress the part? You can find some pretty epic ugly Christmas sweaters here.
Whether you only have one day in Vienna or one week, your visit here will no doubt leave you wanting to come back. Vienna at Christmas truly is a magical experience.