Vienna's Christmas Markets: A Magical Wonderland for All Ages
By Ginger Warder
I am what most people would call “a Christmas nut.” I watch Miracle on 34th Street every Thanksgiving, and from that time on, I drive my friends crazy playing Christmas music, decorating, and spreading holiday cheer.
I came by it naturally, inheriting the gene from my father, who couldn’t wait to drag out the life-size plastic carolers, and his personal set of sleigh bells with which he greeted all visitors. My dad and I put up the tree, hung the mistletoe, and made sugar cookies in the shapes of bells, stars and reindeer.
When I was a child, he took me into the city to see the animated Christmas windows at the big department stores, chaperoned a carload of giggling girls to see the latest holiday movie, and rose at 5 a.m. every Christmas morning to turn on the tree lights before I woke up.
If you remember what it was like to wake up at the crack of dawn, and see the Christmas tree twinkling, surrounded by presents that magically appeared while you were sleeping, then you’ll know exactly what it feels like to be in Vienna during the holiday season.
Quaint yellow Christmas-market stalls are sprinkled throughout the city, nestled beside imposing Baroque architecture. The air is filled with the mingled scents of mulled wine, roasting chestnuts, and the hint of snow, and every confectioner’s window features images of St. Nicholas and the devil, Krumpus, reproduced in cakes, candies, and gingerbread.
The holiday celebration in Europe is centered around Advent, and instead of a lump of coal, “good” children receive a St.Nicholas treat during the holidays while “bad” children get a Krumpus.
In addition to the small neighborhood markets and festive decorations in the pedestrian shopping streets of the Alstadt (Old City), Vienna boasts four major Christmas Markets, each with a distinct flavor and appeal: Schloss Schönbrunn, Belvedere, Spittleberg, and Christkindlmarkt.
To Market We Go
Fittingly, the ornate summer palace of Habsburgs, Schloss Schönbrunn, hosts the Christmas Market with the most finely crafted ornaments in the city. Exquisite hand-blown, one-of-kind glass orbs, incredibly detailed hand-painted tin molds of Christmas trees, beribboned nosegays of cloves and cinnamon, and traditional red hearts are but a few of the colorful offerings.
If you collect tree ornaments and holiday decorations, you’re sure to find some future family heirlooms at this market.
While several vendors do accept Mastercard and Visa, you’ll need cash for many merchants, as well as for the glorious food stalls, offering hot mulled Gluhwein and fruit “punsch,” steaming baked potatoes with a variety of toppings, golden kartoffelpuffen (potato cakes), and an array of sausages and hams.
While it is the stunning collection of artwork, in particular, that of Gustav Klimt, that draws most visitors to the Austrian National Gallery at Belvedere, this palace is also an elegant location for a holiday market, and if you have small children, the old-fashioned carousel is especially whimsical in this grand setting.
Once the home of Prince Eugene of Savoy who is credited with driving off the invading Turks, ironically today Belvedere sits diagonally across Prinz Eugen-Strasse from the Turkish Embassy. As far as shopping, the museum’s gift store holds more treasures than the market, with unique Klimt-inspired merchandise like a teddy bear covered in fabric imprinted with his famous painting “The Kiss”.
The Spittleberg market in the Seventh district is held on two narrow parallel streets lined with 18th and 19tth century houses. This neighborhood is the Green Party’s bastion, and its holiday market reflects that progressive attitude with hand-crafted items in a decidedly more modern vein.
Home décor and design fans may want to spend an afternoon browsing the furniture and accessory stores in the neighborhood or checking out some of the funky bookshops, art galleries and cafes in this hipster part of town. This market is geared much more to adults than children.
By far the largest of the Christmas Markets, the Christkindlmarkt at Vienna’s City Hall, the Rathaus, is a wonderland for children.
The park surrounding the Rathaus is transformed into a Disney-esque Christmas world with snow-blowing gargoyles, and giant lights in the shape of snowmen, stars and traditional red Viennese hearts filling the huge old oak trees.
A pint-sized Santa train runs around the outer edge of the park, and pony rides, animated window displays, and many hands-on activities for young children like cookie-baking make this an unforgettable experience for St. Nick’s young fans.
Live concerts occur nightly in front of the giant Christmas tree and nativity display, and each evening one window of the Rathaus’ giant advent calendar is unveiled.
The merchandise here is inferior to that of the other markets, but even adults will enjoy the sparkle of lights, the smell of gingerbread, and the awestruck expressions of the children. Definitely, visit this market after dark.
For families and adults, the magic of an old-fashioned Christmas in one of the cultural capitals of Europe is like getting a St. Nicholas instead of a Krumpus.
Hear the Vienna Boys Choir for free on Sunday mornings at the historic Hofburg Chapel (first come, first served).
Enjoy a flaky croissant which the Viennese claim to have invented or a decadent slice of Sacher torte.
Ride the tram all the way around the Ringstrasse, the path of the old city walls, and see the Rathaus, the Parliament buildings, Freud’s favorite hangout Café Landtmann, and the park where Johann Strauss held his salons.
St. Stephans Cathedral, the Votivekirche, and the Ferris wheel made famous in the movie The Third Man provide a fitting backdrop to the scenic loop.
Visit the free display of nativity scenes at St. Peter’s Church and then pop around the corner to Schokoladekonig, “the chocolate king.” Formerly the button purveyors to the king, the shop still has the original cabinets and buttons, and owner Wolfgang Leschanz pays homage to its colorful history with his signature chocolates in the shape of, what else, buttons!
Visit the Spanish Riding School and see the magnificent Lippizan stallions. To see a performance, order tickets in advance before leaving the U.S.
Ginger Warder is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.