Fourteen years ago my husband Tony and I spent Christmas in Vienna. We travelled from Brisbane, Australia, to spend Christmas with our son who lived in Vienna at the time. It was my first visit to Europe and my first experience of Christmas in the northern hemisphere.
In this Christmas story, I want to transport you to the city of Vienna, one of the jewels of Europe, as I reveal the wonder and joy of a Christmas celebration quite different from what I am used to in Australia.
By the way, look out for my “Visitor Tips”, as you tour the city of Vienna with me.
About Christmas in Vienna
In Vienna, and throughout Austria, the run up to Christmas, just like Christmas itself, is quite different to what it is like in Australia.
The Christmas period spans a period from late November or early December to early January the following year. It begins with Advent, the first season of the church year according to the Western Christian tradition. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, on the Sunday on or nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve (December 24). The next season of the church year, Christmastide, begins on Christmas Eve and ends on January 6. In Austria, these seasons are celebrated, not only by the Roman Catholic majority but also by people of other Christian traditions, other faiths or none.
In 2004, Advent began on Sunday 28 November. My husband and I arrived in Vienna on Tuesday 7 December 2004, during the second week of Advent. Christmas in Vienna was well under way.
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During the two weeks or so we stayed in Vienna, our son was our tour guide par excellence, interpreter and companion. He took time off his work to show us around and spend time with us. He had been living in Vienna for 3 years. We were amazed by his knowledge of the history of Vienna and Austria, the buildings, the art in the galleries, the culture and the food. He was fluent in “Austrian” German. Indeed, he spoke the language so well that many of the locals couldn’t pick him as a foreigner (Auslander in German). Jokingly, we asked if he had considered working as a Viennese tour guide!
Our first day in Vienna
On our first day in Vienna, our son took us on a whirlwind walking tour of the city. We walked past the many shops on Mariahilfer Strasse (a long shopping lane that leads to the city centre) to reach the Museums Quarter (Museumsquartier). The Museums Quarter is one of the largest art and cultural precincts in the world. Located at the border of the city centre, it boasts modern architecture along with marvellous Baroque buildings like the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum).
From the Museums Quarter we entered the city centre and the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) complex. The Hofburg is huge and impressive, comprising a number of wings, the earliest dating from the 13th century. It was built as the principal palace and winter residence of the rulers of the former Hapsburg dynasty. After Austria became a republic in 1918, it became the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria.
We ended our tour of the city centre by going to a Viennese coffee house, Tirolerhof. (It was the first of several Tony and I visited during our stay). Our son was keen to give us a taste of the Viennese coffee house culture. Here we partook of coffee and cake, in the traditional Viennese manner, relaxed and “warmed up”. After all, Tony and I had been in Vienna just 8 hours, we were tired and feeling the cold!
Visitor Tip No. 1.
In Vienna, you need a “gas mask” when you’re in the coffee houses and restaurants! It seems that the majority of adults there smoke. Compare this with Australia, where only 13% of the adult population smoke.
For dinner that evening, Tony and I had our first experience of “real” Austrian food. Our son took us to Gmoa Keller, a cosy restaurant in Am Heumarkt, not far from where he lived when he first came to Vienna. This Viennese inn had been serving traditional Viennese dishes since 1858. I ordered Beef Goulash (Rindsgulyas) and Tony chose Pork Vienna Schnitzel with Potato Salad (Schweins-Wiener Schnitzel mit Erdäpfelsalat). We were not disappointed – our meals were superb.
Visitor Tip No. 2.
When you are in Vienna, you must try Vienna Schnitzel. It is said, “Only the Viennese can cook Vienna Schnitzel”!
From our very first day in Vienna, Tony and I felt a real sense of expectation and joy everywhere we went.
We were struck by the fantastic Christmas decorations in the streets, shop windows and department stores, and the hustle and bustle of the crowds. At night, as soon as darkness fell (and that was very early, around 4.30 p.m.), the city resembled a fairyland – the lights were spectacular.
That was our first impression of Christmas in Vienna.
Vienna is the capital city of Austria. Its population of 1.868 million (2017) [Ref. 1.] is about the same as that of Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland (Australia), where I live.
Vienna used to be a walled city. The walls were built as fortifications in the 13th century. In the mid-19th century the walls were removed and replaced by a grand boulevard that, along with a road along the Danube Canal, encircles the old city. It’s called the Ring Road (Ringstrasse). Many majestic buildings line the Ring Road.
The city of Vienna is divided into 23 municipal districts. The city centre is the 1st District. Districts 2-9 wrap around the 1st District. Districts 10-23, which are mainly residential, are further out.
Visitor Tip No. 3.
Vienna is built on the Danube River, but you won’t see it in the city centre. I took the above photograph during a visit to Vienna’s 2nd District a couple of days before Christmas. Note, the Danube is frozen over. It is very cold in Vienna at Christmastime!
Our second day in Vienna
On our second day in Vienna, Tony and I visited Belvedere in the 3rd District. Belvedere comprises two Baroque palaces (Upper Belvedere and Lower Belvedere), the Orangery and the Palace Stables. It was built in the 18th century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The two magnificent palaces sit at opposite ends of a spectacular Baroque garden, with fountains, cascades, sculptures, topiary trees, clipped hedges and gravel pathways.
Upper Belvedere houses the Austrian Art Gallery (Österreichische Galerie Belvedere), collections from the 19th and 20th century. Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) are featured there. In fact, the gallery houses the world’s largest collection of Klimt paintings, including “The Kiss” (1908), an allegoric and symbolic work depicting two lovers. It’s one of Klimt’s best known works. We happily spent several hours there.
Lower Belvedere houses a Baroque museum, which includes a Marble Hall, Marble Gallery and Hall of Grotesques. Tony and I weren’t able to visit it in 2004, but did so on a visit to Vienna in 2015.
Christmas in Vienna: Christmas markets
At Belvedere Tony and I had our first taste of Vienna’s Christmas markets. In 2004, the Belvedere Christmas market was set up in front of the Upper Belvedere Palace. There were about 40 stalls, rows of quaint timber huts, with vendors offering traditional Christmas handcrafts and food. I was fascinated by the exquisite handmade jewellery, Christmas ornaments, candles and numerous other “Christmassy” objects on sale.
Glorious smells of roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate, warm spiced gingerbread (Lebkuchen) and hot Christmas punch (Weihnachtspunsch) filled the air. The latter, Christmas punch, is a sweet and spicy alcoholic drink sold in a mug. It’s on sale at every Christmas market in Austria. You can also purchase Kinderpunsch (that is, Children’s Punch), a non-alcoholic version, but it’s quite a disappointment once you’ve tried the real thing.
Vienna’s Christmas markets have a long tradition.
The first Christmas market, called a Krippenmarkt (Cribs Market), was held in the Middle Ages, in December 1298!
Today, Vienna’s most famous Christmas market is the Wiener Christkindlmarkt (literally “Christ child market”) on the Rathhausplatz, the square in front of the City Hall. It’s Vienna’s (and Austria’s) largest and busiest Christmas market. In 2004 the Weiner Christkindlmarkt comprised approximately 140 festively decorated stalls.
The Wiener Christkindlmarkt is open all day but we found that the best time to visit is at night, when the lights and smells combine to give the visitor an unforgettable sensory experience. We visited it a couple of times, including briefly on Christmas Eve.
At the centre of the market, right in front of the City Hall, there was an enormous Christmas tree. A real tree. At Christmastime each year, a different province of Austria sends Vienna a gift of a tree. Its arrival marks the unofficial start of the Viennese Christmas season, and Advent, with the Christmas markets opening soon after.
In 2018, the tree is a 140-year-old spruce from the woods of the Diocese of Gurk, near the town of Metnitz in Carinthia. It’s 28 m (92 feet) high, so it has plenty of room for lights and good wishes.
Christmas in Vienna: Christmas trees
Just two days before Christmas Day, we saw Christmas trees for sale in Gumpendorfer Strasse, in Vienna’s 6th District. Traditionally, people in Austria don’t put up or decorate their Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. People in Austria, as in many other European countries, choose real trees as Christmas trees. Apparently no one wants a cheap imitation one. The real trees really do smell and look beautiful.
There were lots of trees, fir trees, for sale in the street. After a customer bought a tree it was pushed through the huge funnel (pictured) and wrapped in plastic net for transport home. Later, we saw people on the tram carrying a wrapped Christmas tree and people in cars with their tree tied on top of the car roof!
Vienna, a green city
Like Brisbane, Vienna is a “green city”. Five percent of the city consists of parks. There are roughly 2,000 parks in Vienna. Almost 200 square kilometres or roughly 50% of the city’s land area is adorned with bushes, covered with meadows and shaded by trees. [Ref. 2.]
The City Park (Stadtpark) is situated in the heart of the city. It’s a large public park that extends from the Ring Road in the 1st District to the Hay Market (Heumarkt) in the 3rd District.
One evening, we spied this spectacular nativity scene in front of the City Park’s administration building (Stadtgarten-direktion). We were enthralled and excited to see it. Sadly, in Australia today, displays such as this, in municipal spaces, are rarely seen.
Another beautiful green space in the city centre is the Burggarten, a park that borders the Hofburg. The garden contains a number of famous monuments, including one of Emperor Franz Joseph I and one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In Vienna, there are a number of statues of Mozart, but the largest and most impressive monument is in the Burggarten. It’s a huge white marble statue of the composer, together with reliefs depicting scenes from his work and childhood.
Eating and drinking in Vienna
During our stay in Vienna, our son introduced us to Austrian food and beverages. At home, he prepared for us some wonderful meals (unlike his father, he’s a great cook). He had dined at (or knew about) most of the well-known Viennese restaurants. He took us the coffee houses, food markets and street stalls he frequented (only the best, of course). Not surprisingly, Tony and I developed some very delectable tastes in all sorts of things – various sausages, salami, cheese, bread, strudel, cake, chocolate and coffee.
On Thursday 23 December, the day before Christmas Eve, we visited the Rochus Market (Rochusmarkt), a food market in the 3rd District. Here we purchased a fresh chicken and vegetables for our Christmas Eve dinner. We also bought meat and bread there.
Living and getting around in Vienna
Our son lived in an apartment in the 6th District, near the centre of Vienna. The apartment was within walking distance of the Mariahilfer Strasse shopping precinct and the Westbahnhof, one of Vienna’s main railway stations.
The apartment was on the third floor of an old building in Haydngasse, a street named after the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. For the last 12 years of his life, Haydn lived in the building directly over the road from our son’s apartment block. Today that building is a museum, the Haydnhaus.
Although the building in which our son lived was old, the apartment was centrally heated, so the temperature inside was comfortable. However, if you were going outside, where the temperature was just above freezing point, you had to don your coat, scarf, hat and gloves, remove your slippers and put on your boots. It was quite a lengthy process, which Tony and I had to get used to. The reverse process occurred when you returned home.
Visitor Tip No. 4.
In Vienna, many of the old residential buildings do not have lifts, so you’ll have to get used to going up and down lots of stairs. To reach our son’s apartment on the third floor, we had to negotiate three sets of circular stairs, each with 26 steps, plus 10 steps to get off street level!
In Vienna, Tony and I did lots of walking, but we also made good use of Vienna’s efficient and reliable transport systems. There were four options: the U-Bahn (city subway), Schnellbahn or S-Bahn (suburban train), Strassenbahn (tram) and Autobus (bus). Zieglergasse was the U-Bahn train station within easy walking distance of our son’s apartment.
Visitor Tip No. 5.
When out walking in the streets of Vienna, you have to be careful where you step. It seems that every second person in Vienna owns a dog, and dog-owners walk their dogs in the city streets!
Visitor Tip No. 6.
Don’t be surprised to see a well-bred Viennese lady in her fur coat and leather gloves carrying her dog on public transport. Not only are dogs allowed, but they are charged half fare!
Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof)
On Friday 24 December, Tony and I took a tram ride to Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof). Despite its name, the cemetery is not situated in the centre of Vienna but on the outskirts of the city in Simmering (11th District).
You may be thinking: Why would they visit a cemetery? And on Christmas Eve?
The Zentralfriedhof is one of the world’s largest cemeteries by the number of interments. It’s the best-known among Vienna’s nearly 50 cemeteries. Many famous people are buried there, including Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, members of the Strauss family, and Schönberg (all German or Austrian composers of note).
Because it was Christmas Eve, the cemetery was a hive of activity. As is the tradition throughout Austria, on this day many people visit the graves of their loved ones. There were even police present to direct the traffic. Outside the cemetery walls, there was a row of stalls and vendors selling floral wreaths.
The St Charles Borromeo Cemetery Church is located in the Vienna Central Cemetery. A Roman Catholic Church, it was constructed from 1908 to 1911 to designs by architect Max Hegele. The church is a heritage listed building. What I remember most is the ceiling of its huge dome, which was a sparkling azure blue!
How we spent Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve (Heiligabend), December 24, marks the end of Advent. In Austria, it’s the much-anticipated time when families come together, share a special meal, decorate the Christmas tree, sing traditional Christmas songs and open their Christmas gifts.
In 2004, in accord with Austrian tradition, Tony and I, together with our son, celebrated Christmas with a formal dinner at 8.00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
My son and I spent most of the afternoon cooking the food. We prepared a main meal of roast chicken and baked vegetables (“Aussie-style”), followed by Fail-Me-Never Steamed Pudding accompanied by still-warm homemade egg custard (a perfect wintertime dessert).
After the meal, we exchanged Christmas gifts, told stories of “home”, shared jokes and laughter. Before long, however, we had to get ready to go out.
We took a tram to the 3rd District to attend the Christmas Eve service at Christ Church, the Anglican-Episcopal Church in Vienna. The three of us were familiar with the liturgy and, given it was in English, Tony and I were able to join in. The service commenced at 10.45 p.m., and finished after midnight. By the time we returned home, it was close to 1.00 a.m. We slept well that night!
How we spent Christmas Day
On Christmas Day, Saturday 25 December, our son took Tony and me on an outing to the Vienna Woods. To get there we had to take the U-Bahn to Heiligenstadt (“Holy city”), in Vienna’s 19th District, then a bus to Cobenzl (a hill).
At Cobenzl, we walked along one of the many paths of the Vienna Woods. Although a popular destination for day-trippers, both tourists and locals, on Christmas Day there weren’t too many people about (despite the fact the day was clear and sunny). I guess they were tired from staying up late on Christmas Eve!
The Vienna Woods (Wienerwald in German) lie in the northeastern foothills of the Northern Limestone Alps in the states of Lower Austria and Vienna. It’s a heavily wooded region, 45 km (28 miles) long and 23-30 km (12-19 miles) wide, protected under Austrian law and recognised by UNESCO in 2005 as a biosphere park of international significance.
At Cobenzl we took a second bus to Kahlenberg, a mountain, height 484 m (1,588 ft), on which there is a transmission tower, church (the Chapel of St Joseph’s) and lookout over the city of Vienna.
From Kahlenberg we took yet another bus to neighbouring Leopoldsberg. It’s also a mountain, height 425 m (1,394 ft), which overlooks the River Danube and the city of Vienna. Leopoldsberg’s most prominent landmark is St Leopold’s, a church on top of the mountain, which (on a clear day) is visible from Vienna below.
By the time we arrived in Leopoldsberg, around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the three of us were tired, cold and hungry. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and the temperature had dropped quite a bit. We found a restaurant that was open, where we rested, warmed up and enjoyed a bowl of hearty soup and a hot drink. It was certainly an unusual Christmas Day lunch!
On returning to the city, that night, we attended a Christmas Day service at St Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom).
The service was conducted in German, so Tony and I were unable to understand much of what was said. You could say we were observers, not participants. We had a copy of the songs (music and words), which helped us follow the liturgy. We recognised and joined in singing “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), one of the Christian Church’s best-known and much-loved Christmas carols.
Do you know that “Silent Night” originated in Austria?
“Silent Night” was first performed 200 years ago this year, on Christmas Eve 1818, in Oberndorf, a small village 17 km north of the city of Salzburg, in Austria. The organ wasn’t working, so it was played on guitar. The words were written a couple of years previously by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr. The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolteacher and organist from the nearby village of Amsdorf.
Boxing Day (26 December)
As Boxing Day fell on a Sunday, we began the day by worshiping at our son’s former church, the Vienna Christian Centre. It was located in the 3rd District, not far from where he used to live. After church, the three of us went into the city centre. Once again, the day was fine and sunny.
December 26 is also St Stephen’s Day (Hochfest Heiliger Stephanus). Appropriately, we visited Stephansdom, where we had been the night before. Stephansdom is the main church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and Vienna’s most prominent church building. Its massive south tower, 136 meters (446 ft) high, is a dominant feature of Vienna’s skyline. Another feature of the building is its steep-pitched ornately patterned and richly coloured tiled roof.
That morning, the St Mary or Pummerin (“Boomer”) bell of the cathedral rang out to mark St Stephen’s Day. The bell is rung only a few times a year, on special occasions. It’s the largest swinging bell in Austria and the second largest in Europe. Its deep resonance filled the airwaves and was surely heard all over the city, not just in the city centre.
We spent most the day exploring the city centre on foot. There was so much to see – churches, monuments, amazing buildings. We went “Italian” that day: For lunch we had pizza at an Italian restaurant and for afternoon tea we enjoyed cake and coffee at “Zanoni & Zanoni”.
Visitor Tip No. 7.
Don’t be surprised to see dogs in restaurants and coffee houses in Vienna. As well, don’t be put out when the dog is provided with a drink before you are!
How we spent New Year’s Eve
On Friday 31 December, Tony and I returned to Vienna’s 1st District to visit the Albertina (a museum) and the Imperial Palace (Hofburg).
The Albertina houses one of the largest print rooms in the world, with drawings and old master prints, modern graphic works, photographs and architectural drawings, and a large collection of Impressionist and early 20th century art. The museum also includes a number of staterooms from the Hapsburg era, which are always open to the public.
Between December 2004 and March 2005, the Albertina hosted a special exhibition of the work of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall. Entitled “Chagall: Die Mythen der Bibel”, the exhibition featured Chagall’s illustrations of Bible stories, especially those from the Old Testament (Chagall came from a Jewish background). Chagall’s work was truly amazing – whimsical, colourful and captivating. Afterwards, I bought the following postcard, depicting Chagall’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (Vertreibung aus dem Paradies).
A visit to Vienna would not be complete without a tour of the Hofburg. So, on our second last day in Vienna, Tony and I visited the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum and the Silver Collection. The décor of the rooms was magnificent, rich and ornate, to the extent it was overwhelming. I loved the Sisi Museum, which featured Elisabeth’s sumptuous clothing and personal items. But we got a little bored with the rows and rows of exhibits of knives and forks, serving trays, plates and table centrepieces in the Silver Collection.
Visitor Tip No. 8.
You’ll see lots of horse-drawn carriages in Vienna. They are everywhere, ready to take you on a clippity clop tour of the inner city. This one was parked outside the Albertina, in Albertinaplatz earlier that day.
New Year’s Eve Celebrations
We began our New Year celebrations with a party hosted by our son’s landlady. She had worked all day in the kitchen preparing food for her guests. Our son helped by making a couple of dishes. The party commenced around 7.00 p.m.
Later in the evening, around 11.00 p.m., we went to the city centre to witness Vienna’s official New Year celebrations. They are held annually in the Rathhausplatz, the square between the City Hall (Rathhaus) and the City Theatre (Burgtheater). The celebrations usually include a fireworks display but in 2004 the display was cancelled, in support of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsanami appeal. Nevertheless, the square was crowded. It seemed that people from everywhere came to Vienna for New Year’s Eve, including large numbers of tourists from Italy (it seemed that every second person was speaking Italian).
Some revellers brought their own fireworks and make-shift trumpets, so there was lots of noise in the city centre and in the streets throughout Vienna for hours after midnight. It was hard to get to sleep that night!
Visitor Tip No. 9.
In Austria, fireworks can be purchased in the shops. Not so in Australia, where one cannot buy fireworks or use them unless licensed to do so.
Our last day in Vienna
New Year’s Day, Saturday 1 January 2005, was our last full day in Vienna. With our son, Tony and I began the New Year by taking the U-Bahn to Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn), the grand summer residence of the former Hapsburg rulers. It’s an Austrian treasure and, since the 1960s, one of Vienna’s major tourist attractions. In 1996, it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites.
We took the Grand Tour of the palace, “forty rooms and forty fascinating stories spanning three centuries”. The tour included the private suites of successive Hapsburg rulers and the luxurious state rooms. It took about an hour.
Schönbrunn Palace is set in a huge park open to the public. The spectacular grounds include formal gardens and fountains, maze, orchard, greenhouse and zoo. For us, the highlight was the Gloriette Monument and Terrace. I think the following photographs speak louder than words. The shower of rain did not spoil our pleasure – it only added to the beauty we experienced by providing a rainbow over the palace!
On our return to the city, our son had one more surprise for us. He took us to see the Hundertwasserhaus, two separate fairy-tale buildings in the 3rd District. The buildings were the brain-child of Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser with architect Joseph Krawina as a co-author. The buildings, which contradict all generally accepted architectural norms and rules, and include lots of greenery, were constructed between 1983 and 1985.
We had already seen and photographed Vienna’s Thermal Waste Treatment Plant (Fernwärm Wien) at Spittelau. Our son pointed it out to us during our train trip to the Vienna Woods on Christmas Day. It’s another one of Hundertwasser’s Viennese projects, said to be his greatest achievement in exterior design. According to one of Hundertwasser’s biographers [Ref. 3.], “he succeeded in converting a thankless unattractive heap of industrial volumes cluttered with pipes and metal-bearing frames into a mosque-palace worthy of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’”. The work was undertaken from 1988 to 1992. Today, the Spittelau plant is one of Vienna’s landmarks. It’s a palace of a different kind!
The end of our “Christmas in Vienna”
Our wonder-filled Christmas in Vienna ended early on Sunday 2 January 2005 when we said goodbye to our son and boarded a plane at the Vienna International Airport. After what seemed such a short visit, we were heading home to Brisbane, via Frankfurt and Singapore.
My head and heart were bursting with memories of so many amazing experiences, which I didn’t want to forget. I knew our photographs would help, as would the “bits and pieces” Tony had collected.
But, carefully tucked away in my suitcase, I had a couple of special mementos of our visit to Vienna. I bring them out at this time every year and hang them on our Christmas tree. They are two beautiful little ornaments I purchased at the Wiener Christkindlmarkt. Every time I see them, I recall the wonderful time Tony and I had with our son during our Christmas in Vienna in 2004-2005.
- ‘Statistics – Vienna in Figures’. City of Vienna. Online: https://www.wien.gv.at/english/administration/statistics/
- ‘Nature in Vienna’, Chapter 5, Vienna Environmental Report. Online: https://www.wien.gv.at/english/environment/protection/reports/pdf/nature-06.pdf
- Restany, Pierre. (2001). Hundertwasser: The painter-king with the five skins. Taschen GmbH, Hohenzollernring 53, Cologne, Germany.