I have always been fascinated with white Christmas, and visiting Europe during Christmas was high on my travel to-do list. And while it didn't snow, I did get a chance to see the gorgeous city of Vienna, all dressed up in glittering festive lights for Advent. Last week, the Tourist Board of Vienna invited me to come and experience the traditional Christmas markets of the city, so I hopped on the plane for a (too) short visit! I had visited Vienna in summer last year, and fallen in love with its elegant streets lined with statuesque buildings, its parks and the sheer sense of history and culture that is all-pervasive, not to mention its historic coffee houses and their sweet delights.
Vienna is in its element in winter, with the Christmas markets and decorative lights transforming it into a shimmering fairyland. I was quite lucky weather-wise; though the temperature was in the range of 3-6°C, it didn't rain and the fog was minimal as well. Of course, this Mumbai girl was wrapped up in several layers of warm clothes, and it certainly made my Christmas market hopping easier!
Here are the 5 best Christmas markets in Vienna that you should definitely visit.
The Largest One - at Rathausplatz
Vienna's (and Austria's) largest Christmas Market is set against the backdrop of the imposing City Hall (Rathaus) in Rathausplatz. This market is home to the tallest Christmas Tree in the city, usually standing some 30 feet tall. The market also has many other decorated trees - some with hearts, some with gift boxes; there was even one with cupcakes! Huge butterflies adorned the market, and in the evening when the lights came on it looked pretty festive. Over the past few years Vienna has replaced more than 75% of its Christmas lights with eco-friendly LED lights, and the tree in Rathausplatz is completely bedecked with these.
(Probably) The Oldest One - at Freyung
Freyung is one of the prettiest squares in Vienna and its cobbled streets have hosted a Christmas market since 1772, which makes it the oldest (most likely) market in the city. This one was my favourite, probably because it's smaller and somehow seemed more intimate. I loved wandering around the shops, with a glass of punsch in hand, and looking at the fine selection of arts and crafts. Many of the stalls here donate a percentage of their profits to charity, so I decided to pick up a nice colourful cap - necessary to combat the chilly evenings. What do you think? --->
The Royal One - at Schönbrunn Palace
This one is truly not-to-be-missed. With a backdrop such as this, is it any wonder that Schönbrunn is one of the most popular Christmas markets in Vienna? Take the U-bahn from the city to the palace (about 10 kilometres outside the city) and you are standing in front of the summer palace of the imperial Hapsburg family. The palace itself is worth a look, and you can get a glimpse of how the royals lived. The Christmas market here is quite well-organised, with beautiful arts and crafts on sale, as well as lots of goodies to eat. I went on a Sunday evening, so naturally the place was choc-a-bloc, but I got a chance to hear some choir bands in action.
While you're at Schönbrunn Palace, don't forget to drop by at the Apfelstrudel show that takes place in the court bakery, below the cafe-restaurant Residenz. The show takes place daily, every one hour, and includes a demonstration of how to make the traditional apfelstrudel. You can also buy a sample of the strudel fresh from the oven, and enjoy it with a cup of coffee.
The Arty One - at Spittelberg
The cobbled streets of Spittelberg district, just off Burggasse, host a traditional Christmas market. This one is known especially for its high quality handicrafts. There was a puppet theatre and a candle making workshop in progress the day I visited.
The New One - at Hofburg
This is the first year that the Royal and Imperial Christmas Market was held in Michaelerplatz, outside the Hofburg palace complex. The pristine white stalls hosted many of the former Imperial and Royal Court suppliers - who were the suppliers to the Hapsburg family that ruled over the Austro-Hungarian empire from Vienna. I loved browsing through this one, as it was a small market with some really high quality products (especially candles and soaps).
What to Eat/Drink
- Bratwurst (sausage) and käsekrainer (cheese-filled sausage; it's the best!), stuffed in a roll, or sliced and served with fries
- Kartoffelpuffer (shallow fried potato pancakes, seasoned with garlic)
- Ofenkartoffeln (baked whole potato with choice of stuffings)
- Lots of glühwein (mulled wine) and punsch (hot punch) of course! You will need a glass in your hands to keep you warm at all times :)
- Remember if you bring the mug back to the stall, you will get some deposit money back. But if the mug is cute, feel free to bring it back home!
- Lebkuchen or soft gingerbread biscuits, usually decorated with Christmas themed designs
- Candied toasted almonds
- Roasted hazelnuts
What to Buy
- Snow globes - did you know that the first (patented) snow globes were made in Vienna in 1900?
- All kinds of baubles for your Christmas tree - painted glass balls, wreaths, lace-covered decorations etc.
- Gingerbread, Christmas cakes and cookies
- Handmade puppets and other toys
- Beeswax candles and soaps
- Local honey
- Handcrafted wooden carvings and artefacts
- Knitwear such as gloves, scarves and woollen caps
Some tips to navigate Vienna's Christmas Markets
- Bundle up! This is a no-brainer really. The Christmas markets are outdoors and winter evenings in Vienna can be very chilly. Keep an extra pair of gloves and a scarf in your handbag.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Most of the markets listed above are within walking distance, plus there aren't many places you can sit in the markets itself; so you will be on your feet a lot.
- Bring cash, in small bills and some coins. Many of the stalls will not accept cards, so have enough cash on you.
- And of course, keep your bag / wallet safe! Vienna is a pretty safe destination, but it only takes an odd pickpocket to ruin your day. So be vigilant, especially in the evenings when the markets are really crowded.
- Go to the same market twice - once during daytime and once after sundown. The markets are prettiest in the evening, of course, but you can really check out the stalls better (and do your shopping) during daytime. There are fewer people and you can take your time looking around, deciding what to buy.
- Bring along a shopping bag to put all your purchases away in a single place, instead of carrying multiple bags.
- And most importantly, come hungry! Because you WILL snack your way through the markets :)
Disclosure: My experience in Vienna was made possible by Vienna Tourist Board. Views are entirely my own.
Labels: Austria, travel, Vienna