As the cold late November night fell on Stephansplatz Street in downtown Vienna, the looming gothic spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral glowed with warm golden and red lights in the quickly chilling air. Around this massive 351.7-foot long and 112.2-foot wide cathedral, which reaches up to Heaven with four towers, the twinkling white Christmas lights were oddly jaunty yet fitting for the scene.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral may be the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, but it was teeming with scarf-clad couples and families exploring the Stephansplatz Christmas Market and its more than 40 stalls selling everything from local honey, snow globes, cashmere scarves, and hand-carved wooden ornaments.
I sipped my warm Glühwein, which literally translates to glow-wine, a type of spicy mulled hot red wine, and it warmed me more than the puffy jacket I was wearing. Above the streets of downtown Vienna, Austria, festival lights in the shape of massive chandeliers added to the magic of this European city during the holidays as I debated about buying some homemade sloe gin that a vendor had made himself.
While on a hosted trip to Vienna, I had 3 days to explore why this Austrian city is a favorite European Christmas destination. Sure, I had heard of the Christmas markets (called Weihnachtsmarkt in German), but Vienna has so much more to fall in love with during Christmas. The food alone is worth the trip across the pond for me.
From the sounds of the famed Vienna Philharmonic and Opera to the delectable cakes found in little coffee shops to the history that walks these cobblestone streets like old emperors and empresses, here are seven reasons why you’ll fall in love with Vienna during Christmas.
1. Take A Tour With A Local
I’ve always said the best thing to do in a new city is to book a walking tour. Luckily for us, we had one of the best Vienna tour guides in the city, a walking wealth of knowledge named Tom Bachingerm, one of the 800 officially trained and licensed tour guides in Vienna.
We started the tour at our hotel Hotel Josefine, which was recently renovated and updated with delightful little rooms, where we strolled Mariahilfer Strasse, one of Vienna’s longest shopping streets filled with jewelry, clothing, and more. From there, we discovered one of the 27 Christmas markets a little off this massive street before walking to the Museum Quarter.
Tom owns a small and privately owned business that leads travelers who are looking to enhance their Vienna stay with personally curated experiences. Besides his wealth of knowledge about the history of the city (which he was tested on to get his official license) and his born-in-Vienna insider knowledge, a catered walking tour is the way to go in Vienna.
We popped into the famous Vienna coffeehouses for a snack of strudel and warm coffee, walked downtown to the St. Stephens Cathedral, sipped on mulled wine, talked with artisans, watched chefs create culinary masterpieces in the window fronts and discovered more Christmas markets along the way that we never would have found on our own.
Of course, seeing Vienna during Christmastime with a knowledgeable guide only added to the experience.
Be aware that this tour usually has a lot of walking, so wear warm clothes and your most comfortable shoes. You can tailor each tour to your interests, but our particular tour lasted about 6 hours. Ask Tom about different tours if you only want to see the Christmas markets, want to learn about history, or if you have mobility issues.
Pro Tip: If you are visiting Vienna, you’ll want a Vienna City Card, which gives you access to all the city’s public transportation, the hop on/hop off buses, discounts at museums, and more. This card and app also have a ton of information about how to get around, where to find the Christmas markets, sightseeing, and more.
2. Dozens Of Festive Christmas Markets
No trip to Vienna during the holidays is complete without exploring the city’s 27 different official Christmas markets.
Some are smaller neighborhood affairs while others boast dozens upon dozens of stalls, but they all have the feel of holiday magic about them. Twinkling white Christmas lights shine upon stalls selling steaming mugs of alcoholic and non-alcoholic punch, the smell of roasted chestnuts and giant baked pretzels, the shine of glass baubles and ornaments, laughter, and the crafts of local artisans.
While the markets are the most popular at night after the work day has ended, when all the locals meet up for a drink or for a sausage baked inside a fluffy Viennese roll, the markets are less crowded and easier during the daylight hours too.
3. Vienna Philharmonic And Vienna Opera House
Decked out in an elegant red floor-length gown, I leaned forward in my box seats at the Musikverein — a Neoclassical concert hall gilded in gold and Greek art that was built in 1870 — as the Vienna Philharmonic soared in a wildly passionate rendition of Witold Lutoslawski’s Konzert Fur Orchester and a piece by Austria’s own Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Vienna is a city of music, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s close association with this rich musical history comes alive in this golden performance space. But, at Christmastime, the sweet, sweet music of Vienna can also be enjoyed at the Vienna Operahouse — The Wiener Staatsoper. One of the leading opera houses in the world, the schedule features 350 performances annually of more than 60 different operas and ballets.
4. Palaces And Museums
Gustav Klimt is one of Vienna’s most recognizable artists, and at The Belvedere Palace Museum, you can see his famous work “The Kiss” in person along with nearly 800 years of art history in this Baroque palace.
Vienna loves its art, and at the Museum Quarter (MuseumsQuartier), you can explore 11 different museums in one central location, including the famed Leopold Museum; the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MOMOK), known as the largest museum of modern and contemporary art in central Europe; the Tanzquartier Wien dance venue; and more.
Art lovers and history lovers flock to Vienna for good reason. With more than 100 museums and art installations to enjoy, you can spend your entire Christmas in the presence of hundreds of years of artistic expression.
5. Take A Private Shopping Tour
Known worldwide for its excellent shopping and local artisans, Vienna is a Christmas shopper’s dream destination. But with the sheer amount of stores and districts in this city, it’s easy to get lost among the big stores and miss the little hidden gems.
We booked a private shopping tour with Shopping with Lucie, featuring New York-raised and Vienna-based firecracker and fashion expert Lucie. Creating Vienna’s first official “shopping tour,” Lucie doesn’t just bring her clients to unique fashion houses like the Muhlbauer hat boutique and Vienna fashion designer Schella Kann, but to multi-generational artists like the famous glassmakers Lobmyer, contemporary glassblower Studio Comploj, the Wiener Silber Manufactur silver artisan company, and more.
Lucie can tailor any private shopping excursion to any interest and budget, and she’s a truly unstoppable force of enthusiasm and energy.
6. Home Of The First Snow Globe
Snow is a big part of Vienna’s Christmas season, and even if the pretty white stuff hasn’t fallen yet, you can enjoy the city’s snowy experiences.
Although the Vienna Ice World event kicks off in January, you can still don your trusty ice skates at the Rathausplatz square and park in front of the neogothic Rathaus (city hall) to take a few spins around this giant ice skating venue.
Did you know that the snow globe was invented in Vienna? In 1900, an Austrian man named Erwin Perzy was asked by a local surgeon to improve the then-new lightbulb, so Perzy placed a water-filled glass globe in front of a candle and added some glitter to the globe to help brighten it. Although he didn’t invent a brighter bulb, he did create the world’s first snow globe.
At the numerous Christmas markets in Vienna, you can find vendors selling these uniquely Viennese gifts, but the Vienna Snow Globe Museum is worth the somewhat long trip to see.
7. Eat Like A Local At The Christmas Markets
Traditional Wienerschnitzel, hearty beef goulash, blood pudding, tafelspitz, sachertorte, strudel, more variety of coffee than you can imagine, and of course, the pastries! I could write an entire book about the food in Vienna, ranging from the original comfort food Gasthauser (guesthouses) like Steman to high-end new culinary adventures like C.O.P and Meierei am Stadtpark. The food of Vienna is a Christmas miracle unto itself.
The coffee culture is alive and well in this city, so much so that UNESCO included Viennese coffee house culture on its list of intangible cultural heritage in 2011. While this city has hundreds of coffee houses to choose from, some are more famous and well-known than others and are filled with locals and visitors alike who are enjoying espressos, Melange, and cappuccinos.
One of Vienna’s most famous desserts is the sachertorte, a decadent chocolate cake created by then-16-year-old Franz Sacher in 1832. This cake earned a cult following, and you can taste the original today at the Sacher Hotel, which was founded by Franz’s son Eduard Sacher as an exclusive luxury hotel in 1876.
From the wine and sausage vendors at the Christmas markets to little cafes to high-end international cuisine like Chez Bernard, you might come away from Vienna with a few extra pounds that are well worth it.