Merry Markets in Vienna
It’s the infectious Viennese festive merriment that makes Wiener Christkindlmarkt so distinctive
The time is very nearly upon us. I can almost smell the turkey. Or will it be goose this year? It doesn’t really matter, does it? Because Christmas, as much as it remains a celebration of Christ’s birth, is all about that rare sensation of a transportation back to childhood: a world where bright night time lights, festive smells, family get-togethers, plentiful gifts and clichéd television evoke a distinctive warmth in the pit of your soul.
But how best to immerse oneself in nostalgia-laden Christmas merriment, I hear you ask. Well, there’s one destination that invariably tops the list for tasteful festive exuberance: Vienna. No less than thirteen Christmas Markets, or Christkindlmarkts, grace the sparkling streets of Austria’s capital in the wintertime, transforming the city into a mystical, luminous winter wonderland, making shopping in Vienna at this time of year the envy of Europe.
Mulled wine (known in these parts as Punsch or Glühwein), toasted almonds, gingerbread, roasted chestnuts and cinnamon waffles warm the heart-cockles and immerse the senses in rich, Christmassy aromas. No gaudy flashing Santas and snowmen here – only elegant golden lights and stars winding up Christmas pines and criss-crossing between little wooden stalls selling handmade decorations and wooden crafts, as well as typical Austrian cakes, pastries, pretzels, cheeses, and sizzling local bratwurst sausages.
Austrian Christmas markets date back hundreds of years, and remain an essential feature of the region’s culture and heritage. The Old Viennese Christmas Market on Freyung first opened in 1772, when Vienna stood as the Imperial capital of the Habsburg Empire. Today, the market remains true to age-old traditions of selling handmade ornaments, ceramics and glass decorations; all to the accompaniment of live festive music in the evenings.
The centrepiece of Vienna’s famed Christmas experience remains the heaving fairytale land of Wiener Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz, complete with 28-metre Christmas tree and ice rink, backed by the regal Vienna City Hall and Burgtheater. Expect rather a lot of fellow yuletide revellers at this one – but the spot remains Austria’s favourite Christmas market for good reason – it’s undeniably enchanting. You can expect regular choir and brass band performances, puppet shows and bakery workshops for kids, as well as a huge selection of gifts and foodstuffs. But above all, it’s the infectious Viennese festive merriment that makes Wiener Christkindlmarkt so distinctive.
The nearby Spittelberg market is almost as popular, attracting 500,000 visitors annually. It’s not hard to see why; Spittelberg resembles a wintry picture-book village, with over 100 stalls, bars and cafes spread throughout a series of winding lanes and backyards, providing a range of food, drink, arts and crafts. Most of the handmade goods remain fashioned using the same techniques as in the Habsburg era from which they originate.
Away from the crowds, Vienna also provides a wealth of local, hidden-away market charms in which to lose oneself around the city. The old AKH square, for example, plays host to a glimmering Christmas village that weaves in and out of narrow alleyways in the north of town. It’s a great place to stock up on unique handcrafted gifts, in between obligatory stop-offs for another mug of Glühwein or an Austrian beer. The Universitätsbräuhaus, opposite Elvis the donkey’s wooden barn, provides some of the best traditional Austrian food in town. As well as being great for kids, the AKH market also plays host to live Christmas music every evening.
Meanwhile, the quieter market at Schönbrunn castle offers perhaps the most scenically appealing and atmospheric Christmas strolls, as well as some of the city’s best hand-made Christmas decorations – a good place to browse if you’re not sure what to get your mum. Plus, as ever, there’ll be bountiful Wein und Wurst.
As if that wasn’t enough, couples in search of a romantic hideaway will enjoy an amble through the Christmas market at Maria Theresien Platz, one of the smallest but also prettiest and most peaceful markets. Make sure you grab some chocolate-covered fruit on a stick to go with your mulled wine or hot ginger.
For authenticity and festive charm, Viennese Christmas markets remain some of the most rewarding in Europe. As the snow starts to lightly fall, there’s nowhere better to clasp a warm beverage in one hand, a big Austrian bratwurst in the other, and fully embrace the Christmas spirit.
For more information on all Vienna’s Christmas markets as well as everything else 'Vienna' check out My Guide Vienna.