by Rebecca Quin
The City of Music and the City of Dreams, Vienna is one of the Europe’s most breathtaking destinations and an outstanding example of how the past and present can merge into one beautiful, vibrant place to visit. Famous for its grand historical palaces, baroque interiors and mosaic-topped Cathedrals, Vienna is also an important cultural capital, regularly hosting contemporary arts events and festivals. The city is worth a visit any time of the year though it is in winter particularly, when the home of Mozart, Brahms and Freud comes alive with the magic of Christmas. Here’s a peek into a Christmas in Vienna, Austria.
Vienna Christmas Events
For a truly original and authentic Christmas market experience, Vienna is the place to visit. From mid-November to Christmas Eve, more than ten unique markets can be found in and around the city centre, with almost 1000 stalls selling a variety of traditional and contemporary gifts, decorations, food and drink. The biggest Christmas market can be found in the magnificent Rathausplatz (City Hall square)- transformed each year into a spectacular fairytale land known as Vienna Magic of Advent. The trees of the surrounding park are decorated with twinkling festive lights. Warm your hands and stomach with some delicious glühwein as you wander around gazing at the deftly-crafted wooden nutcrackers and smell the oh-so-Christmassy cinnamon cake.
Being the home of Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, Vienna isn’t shy of celebrating Christmas in grand musical style. Each year, the city hosts Christmas in Vienna, a gala concert featuring over 150 musicians performing traditional Christmas pieces and classical arias. The Vienna International Advent Singing Festival at the Rathaus (City Hall) is also a popular tradition, as choirs from all over Europe and the USA come to showcase their singing in a series of free nightly concerts.
From the end of November onwards, Advent concerts take place in St Stephen’s Cathedral in the centre of the city. Chamber music, advent songs, readings and performances are performed by local and international musicians in the glorious setting of the mosaic-roofed Stefansdom. You can usually get tickets on the door or from tourist kiosks.
Other Winter Events
Winter in Vienna is the start of the famous ball season and there are over 450 held each year. The old tradition of carnival balls reaches its peak in January and February, with over 200 hours of Viennese waltzing available. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna on New Years Eve, the Emperor’s Ball is held at the magnificent Imperial Palace, from which the empire of the Habsburgs was ruled for more than seven centuries. For an epic Valentines Day gift, the legendary Opera Ball at the Vienna State Opera on February 16th provides a unique opportunity to see the famous opera house from within and step-step-slide alongside some of the world’s most renowned musicians. Many tour operators offer holiday packages to Vienna with ball tickets included though you can obtain them independently online (150-700 euros per ticket, depending on how reckless you’re feeling.)
Vienna Ice World
From January 19th to March 4th, the Rathausplatz is again transformed into a winter wonderland known as Vienna Ice World. A gigantic surface of ice over 7000 square metres is laid for skating lovers to glide around the rink to music ranging from Strauss to Status Quo. For those less steady on their feet, there are several romantically lit ice paths as well as four curling lanes for sport enthusiasts. Waffles, cheese spätzle, baked potato and sausage abound as well as a heated ‘Alpine Chalet’ in which to take an après-skate break. Even the ice skates are preheated with warm air – they really do think of everything.
Christmas Food and Drink: Viennese Cuisine
A traditional Austrian dish is the ‘Wiener Schnitzel’, a huge, boneless cut of meat thinned with a mallet and deep-fried with breadcrumbs. Vienna is also famous for its version of the Hungarian dish ‘Goulash’, a meat hotpot served with special dumplings. Other dishes to try are the Rindsuppe, a golden-coloured beef soup and the spicy Liptauer cheese. To wash it down, visit a traditional heurige or wine tavern which serves Viennese wines from the 700 hectares of vineyards just outside the city.
Of course, what Vienna is best known for is its dessert. The Austrians have dedicated a whole set of establishments to the best part of the meal known as Coffeehouses. Going for Kaffee and Kuchen is a staple of Viennese daily life and there are some gorgeous 18-19th century café’s dotted throughout the city. Try some of Vienna’s signature cake, the sachertorte (a chocolate layered cake filled with apricot jam), at the famous Hotel Sacher – the guardian of the one and only original recipe, or a delicious slice of apple strudel at the imposing Café Central, the regular meeting place of Trotsky, Freud, Lenin and even Hitler (though not all at the same time I think).
Where to Stay for Christmas in Vienna
There is a wealth of accommodation in Vienna ranging from pricey hotels with a view of the Cathedral to quirky apartments next to the Hundertwasser House – a block of apartments with a wacky exterior redecorated by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Vienna is divided into named districts, so if you’re hoping for somewhere central look for accommodation in the Innerstadt. Pension Aviano is a wonderfully old-fashioned hotel with great views of the Neur Markt square. On the other hand, if you’d prefer to be away from the bustle of the centre, leafy Leopoldstadt is just north east of the centre right next to the Danube. Austria Classic Hotel Wien is a comfortable, traditional hotel next to the Praterstern station, from which you can take the 5 minute U-bahn ride to the centre. The ultimate place to stay is of course the Hotel Sacher – chocolate cake always just a flight of stairs away, I’m not sure it gets any better.
Vienna is a fantastic place to celebrate Christmas in true, winter fairytale style. Austrian Airlines operates international flights to the Vienna International airport from the USA, Asia and the Middle-East so wherever you live, you’re only one plane trip from a very special seasonal celebration.