One of the first few trips we took in Europe as a family after moving to London was to Austria. We chose Alpbach as our introduction to the country, partly because it had recently been awarded the title of ‘most beautiful village in Austria’, but mostly because we’d heard it was in an area of the Alps known for its gentler mountains, making it a perfect spot for first-time skiers. In a hilarious overestimation of our abilities as non-skiers to be able to quickly learn to ski in the Alps of all places, we spent the majority of our time on that trip flat on our backs in the snow. (That tale is here.) Even still, our experiences on that trip became some of my favorite travel memories to date, bruises and all. But before I get too off-track and start reminiscing for 10 more paragraphs, the reason why I bring all this up is because I felt like I missed an opportunity on that trip. A pretty big one, one that took me almost two years to remedy.
From London, getting to Alpbach required flying to Innsbruck with a connecting flight in Vienna. We thought we had everything timed just perfectly, but as we know all too well now, connecting flights = risk, every time. Our plane was late leaving London and we missed our connecting flight in Vienna by five minutes. The next flight to Innsbruck wasn’t leaving until that evening, so we had half a day of waiting ahead of us. Instead of taking advantage of the fact that we were in Vienna and using those hours to visit a new city, we sat in the airport all day long. I kicked myself for that one for a long time, but Billy Joel was right – Vienna waits for you – and she doesn’t disappoint when you finally see her…especially if you can swing your visit to Vienna at Christmas!
VIENNA AT CHRISTMAS BY DAY
Vienna was the second stop on our Viking River Cruise down the Danube. While Budapest, our previous destination, had been decorated for the holidays, it wasn’t until we arrived in Vienna that the magic of traveling through Europe at Christmas really hit us. Vienna at Christmas is beautiful. I mean, I’m sure Vienna is lovely any time of year – it’s not like the cobblestone streets and elegant buildings disappear at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve – but there’s just something special about visiting a city when it’s dressed up in holly and twinkle lights. Even the horses were decked out in their festive gear!
Instead of joining the scheduled excursions with our group, we decided to spend our one day in Vienna exploring on our own. We figured we’d be able to cover a little more ground that way, plus have a few extra hours to see things if we skipped lunch on the boat. (If you feel confident navigating and taking the U-bahn on your own, I really recommend this. There’s just so much to see and experience in Vienna at Christmas, and one day is hardly enough to do it all!)
We started off walking through Stephansplatz and the shopping streets in Vienna’s historic center and then hit the Ringstrasse (Ring Road) to see some of Vienna’s most famous sights, like the Hofburg Palace, the monuments in the Volksgarten, Rathaus (the beautiful town hall pictured last above), Austrian Parliament, and the Vienna State Opera House. Then we walked over to Maria-Theresian-Platz, adjacent to the Ringstrasse, where some of the city’s best museums are located. We skipped lunch, choosing instead to eat pastries from Christmas market stalls on the go. (A very adult decision, obviously.) I was so thrilled with how much we were getting to see in Vienna, the only problem was, it was ridiculous cold outside. Like completely-numb-extremities-in-under-an-hour level of cold.
Ducking into one of the city’s many cafes for a warm drink and a slice of cake (Vienna is known for their delicious sachertorte) is a great way to warm up, but when you’ve only got limited time to explore, huddling up in a cozy cafe (wonderful as it is) can feel a bit like wasting time. Luckily, there are more than a few sights worth visiting in Vienna that are also great places to escape the winter weather!
SIGHTS WHERE YOU CAN STAY WARM IN VIENNA
THE MUSEUMS IN MUSEUMSQUARTIER & MARIA-THERESIAN-PLATZ
Vienna’s Museumsquartier is situated beside Maria-Theresian-Platz on the outskirts of Vienna’s Innere Stadt (the historic city center); both are easy to reach via a short walk through the Volksgarten from Stephansplatz. The two largest and most popular museums in this area are the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum). These palatial museums are nearly identical from the outside and face each other across Maria-Theresian-Platz. The museums in Museumsquartier – the Children’s Museum, Leopold Museum (modern Austrian art), MUMOK (museum of modern art), and the Architekturzentrum Wien (architecture museum) – are a bit smaller, but still attract plenty of culture-seekers visiting the city.
STEPHANSDOM IN STEPHANSPLATZ
Also known as St Stephan’s Cathedral, Stephansdom is the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna and one of the most iconic religious sights in Vienna. Just intending on ducking in for a quick look, we happened to arrive during one of the church’s scheduled services and stuck around to watch part of the mass. (Mostly because we were freezing, but whatever.) Since mass was being held, we didn’t get to see Stephansdom beyond the front entrance, but during regularly scheduled tourist hours, guided tours are offered in Stephansdom for the cathedral, the catacombs, and the church’s two main towers. (Views are great from both towers, but the North Tower is best for photographers since they allow visitors to walk outside of the tower on this side.)
Schönbrunn Palace was what I was most looking forward to seeing in Vienna. While in Innsbruck a few years earlier, we’d visited the Hofburg Palace which has quite a few historical connections with Schönbrunn Palace, and being the history nerd I am, I was pretty excited about hearing more about Maria Theresa and the Habsburgs. For those who find history utterly boring, Schönbrunn is still worth a visit simply to see the opulent rooms and royal halls inside the palace. (Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed.) Like the historic center of Vienna, Schönbrunn Palace has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage sight.
BEST CHRISTMAS MARKETS TO VISIT
SCHÖNBRUNN CHRISTMAS MARKET
If you’re visiting Vienna at Christmas, you can’t miss the Christmas markets. And I mean that literally. There are so many of them, you won’t be able to walk through the city center without crossing paths with at least half a dozen. One of my favorites, mostly due to the setting, was the Christmas market at Schönbrunn Palace. With a towering Christmas tree dominating the square in front of the palace and little wooden stalls stretching the length of the palace on either side of it, these markets totally win for most elegant setting.
WEIHNACHTSDORF IN MARIA-THERESIAN-PLATZ
I’ll give Vienna this, they certainly know where to place their Christmas markets for the most dramatic scenic effect! The Weihnachtsdorf (Christmas Village) in Maria-Theresian-Platz is almost as stunning as the markets at Schönbrunn thanks to the two mirror-image museums that light up the square at night. Besides a beautiful setting, these markets also offer a slightly less crowded experience than the other two on this list!
WIENER CHRISTKINDLMARKT IN RATHAUSPLATZ
And the best for last – the Wiener Christkindlmarkt located in the square in front of the beautiful Rathaus building. Although this is Vienna’s most popular Christmas market and therefore the most crowded, I dare you to try visiting these markets without leaving completely full of Christmas spirit! The holiday spirit is unavoidably infectious here thanks to the scale on which the whole square has been decorated, not to mention the park that sits aside it. We found the widest variety of gifts for sale and treats to eat at these markets as well. The passageways between the stalls can get busy, but the square is large and it’s fairly easy to find a place to sit and watch everything unfold when the crowds get to be too much.
VIENNA AT CHRISTMAS BY NIGHT
Vienna by day is obviously incredible to see, but Vienna at Christmas, in the evening, is like a magical winter wonderland. The twinkle lights turn on, the buildings and monuments illuminate, and for a little while at least, while I was standing in awe of everything around me, I was able to forget how incredibly cold it still was outside. We re-walked the same path we had taken through the city earlier in the day after it got dark just so we could see everything all over again at night. (It was almost like seeing a whole new city. Everything looked so different than it had during the day!) Visiting Christmas markets at evening in Vienna is a must, too, as they become far more festive after the sun goes down.
All of the stops on our river cruise had a wonderful Christmasy vibe, but Vienna really took it to a whole other level. (I put Vienna up there with London and Copenhagen in terms of holiday spirit, which is saying something because both of those cities are like the Connoisseurs of Christmas.) In a way, I’m glad my first visit to Vienna wasn’t a rushed affair on an unexpectedly long layover. Getting to see Vienna at Christmas, when it’s at its very best, definitely made for a more enjoyable first-time visit!
This post is part of a series. If you’d like to read more about cruising the Danube with Viking River Cruises, just follow the link!
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