Located in the eastern part of Austria on the Danube River, Vienna doubles as the country’s capital and largest city. Known for its cultural richness, historical significance, and Viennese charm, millions of tourists flock to Vienna at all times of the year, and the winter is no exception. During the Advent season, city squares take on a new life as Christmas markets spread a magical atmosphere and festive cheer all throughout the city. As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to visit Vienna in December, my older brother Alexander has lived there for a little over a year now, so it was about time I made the trip. The Vienna Tourist Board kindly provided me with Vienna City Cards during my stay and I enjoyed five days of city sightseeing and Christmas market exploring in Austria’s capital.
I had a direct flight from Oslo to Vienna, arriving at the airport around noon on Friday. There are many connections from the airport to the city center, and the Vienna Airport Lines (VAL) brought me downtown in 30 minutes. Alexander met me at the bus station to let me into his apartment and gave me a brief overview of the city before returning to work. After unpacking my bag and taking a quick shower, I made my way to Innere Stadt, Vienna’s “Inner City” and 1st district. Separated from the rest of the districts by the Ringstrasse, Ring Road, Innere Stadt is the historic core of Vienna with many cultural attractions and architectural sights. I walked by Stephansdom, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a gothic construction completed in the 12th century that still stands tall today, 136.44 meters to be exact. Then I came to the Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna State Opera, a world renowned opera house with a large repertoire. Next up was the Hofburg, the former imperial palace and center of the Habsburg Empire, which has since become a home for several museums.
It suddenly started to rain, so I slipped into a coffee shop until it was time to meet my brother at the Christmas Market on Spittelberg. Located in the 7th district, this market is set up on a series of narrow streets and alleyways, a contrast to the majority of Christmas markets that sit on open city squares. I tried my first taste of Weihnachtspunsch, Christmas punch, and we browsed the stalls while sipping our steaming beverages. Each market has its own unique mug design so you are free to roam with your drink in hand, simply return the mug to any stall when you are finished to get the deposit back. On the way to dinner, Alexander taught me how to tell what district you are in, which is really quite straightforward. Just look at the nearest street sign and the number preceding the street name will tell you which one of the twenty-three districts you are currently in. After a delicious dinner at Ulrich, we took a stroll through the MuseumsQuartier (MQ), a lively art complex with bars and restaurants and of course, a lot of museums.
My brother’s apartment is located in Karmeliterviertel, Carmelite quarter, a neighborhood in the middle of the 2nd district. Every Saturday morning, local farmers sell their produce at Karmelitermarkt, an authentic market at the heart of the district that shows the ethnic diversity of this neighborhood. We passed through the market first thing in the morning on the way to Harvest Café-Bistrot for a vegan brunch. Afterwards, Alexander offered to take me through the historic district from a local’s point of view, which was perfect since the rain had cut my self-guided tour short the previous day. If you don’t have a local tour guide of your own, joining a free walking tour is a great alternative. We started at Jesuitenkirche, Church of the Jesuits, a Baroque Roman Catholic church built in the early 1700s with two floors, two towers, and a fake dome. The interior of the church is a beautiful display of art, and the dome painted on the ceiling is simply an optical illusion. Next on the tour was Ankeruhr, Anker Clock, an impressive Art Nouveau design that forms a bridge between two buildings. We arrived a few minutes before noon, in time to watch the daily rotation of the twelve historical figures and listen to the music play from each respective era.
Next we came upon Judenplatz, Jewish Square, the center of Jewish life in the Middle Ages and where the Schoa memorial by Rachel Whiteread stands today. Around the corner is Am Hof Square, one of the oldest squares in Vienna and at this time of year, a bustling Advent market. Alexander and I came across a stand serving vegan Baumkuchen, which translates literally as “tree cake” in German, and we tried one rolled in Mandel and Zimt, almond and cinnamon. After a short break back at the apartment, we ventured to Karlsplatz where we stepped inside Wien Museum Karlsplatz for a history lesson starting from the Neolithic. Both Alexander and I enjoyed seeing how the city has developed over the years, with the 1st district remaining much the same. Back outside, we stayed warm with Glühwein, German-style mulled wine, at the Christmas market in front of Karlskirche, St. Charles Church. When it was time for dinner, we headed to a Gasthaus called Schöne Perle, a German-style tavern serving traditional Austrian dishes with an organic twist.
On Sunday, Alexander and I decided to take a day trip to Salzburg. The city of Salzburg is located near the Austria-Germany border at the edge of the Alps, approximately two hours by train from Vienna. Known for being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the filming location of The Sound of Music, Salzburg is unsurprisingly a popular tourist destination. We had a wonderful day exploring the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Mozarts Geburtshaus, the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Salzburg Cathedral, and the Christmas markets. I wrote a separate blog post all about our day trip from Vienna to Salzburg, which you can read here.
On Monday morning, my brother went to work and I continued sightseeing, starting with Schloss Belvedere, the Belvedere Museum and Palace. Built in the early 18th century, this Baroque landmark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is divided into Oberes Belvedere and Unteres Belvedere, Upper Belvedere and Lower Belvedere, respectively. The Upper Belvedere is the largest of the two, housing what is arguably Austria’s most famous piece of art, “The Kiss”, along with several other paintings by Gustav Klimt. The room at the top of the staircase is the two-story Marble Hall, with a magnificent painted ceiling and stunning views of the city. At the other end of the Gardens is the Lower Belvedere, housing the top temporary exhibitions which when I visited was “Aging Pride”, a collection that showcased aging in a new light. By the time I had walked through both the Upper Belvedere and Lower Belvedere, the Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace was opening its market stalls. I spent some time looking at the handcrafted goods and other traditional pieces before continuing on to the Hundertwasserhaus.
The Hundertwasserhaus, the Hundertwasser House, is a colorful apartment building designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Together with architect Joseph Krawina, the two decorated the façade with paint, windows, balconies, and over 200 trees and bushes planted on the roof. Across the street, the Hundertwasser Village carries the sustainable design and green theme indoors, built from a tire workshop in the early 1990s. From the Hundertwasserhaus, I caught the tram to Prater, an amusement park and the site of the Wiener Riesenrad, a 64.75-meter tall Ferris wheel. The winter is of course the off-season for amusement parks, but the Riesenrad along with a few other rides are open year round. After walking through the park, I headed back to the apartment to meet my brother before dinner. We treated ourselves to a bit of a fancier dinner at Labstelle, a restaurant that uses mostly locally-sourced ingredients and serves contemporary Austrian cuisine.
On Tuesday morning, I began another day of solo adventures at Schönbrunn Palace, a 1,441-room Baroque palace. The audio-guided Grand Tour walked me through forty of the rooms and spanned three centuries, from the state rooms and private apartments of Franz Joseph and Sisi to the 18th century interiors of Maria Theresa. The Park and Gardens lie behind the palace, made up of the Great Parterre, the Roman Ruin, the Neptune Fountain, and much more. Both the Palace and the Gardens were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996, a beautiful display of Viennese culture and imperial history that both locals and tourists enjoy. I walked through the Christmas market in front of Schönbrunn Palace on my way out before taking the U-Bahn to Naschmarkt, a one-and-a-half kilometer long market and a dreamland for foodies and thrifters alike. From trendy restaurants and chic cafes to local Austrian cheeses and one-of-a-kind antiques, I spent the afternoon rummaging through hundreds of stalls.
From Naschmarkt, I made my way to Vienna’s main railway station, Wien Hauptbahnhof, to meet my college friend and sorority sister Brittany. We started at the Christmas Village on Maria-Theresien-Platz, where the Maria Theresa Monument stands between two identical buildings, the Natural History Museum and the Art History Museum. Then we walked to Wiener Rathaus, Vienna City Hall, a Neo-Gothic building on Rathausplatz and the site of the largest and most visited Christmas market in Austria – Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz. We bought ourselves Lebkuchenherzen, gingerbread hearts, and Nusskipferl, nut crescents, and took in the Christmas spirit all around us. Thanks for meeting me Britt, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer last evening in Vienna. And thanks for having me Alexander, I’ll have to visit again!
A special thank you to the Vienna Tourist Board for hosting me in Austria’s capital. As always, all opinions are my own.