Be still my beating heart, Vienna has captured me.
Europe abounds with Christmas markets but with Vienna’s imperial backdrop decked in fairy lights, this is an unforgettable winter destination.
The key reason to visit now is the Christmas markets which typically begin in the penultimate weekend of November. These markets make London’s Winter Wonderland look like Winter Blunderland. Most of them will be smaller but the focus on unique homemade artisan crafts, which are often selected by the local authority’s Christmas panel, and traditional local foods make for a much fuzzier festive feeling. Seeing three generations of a family buying Christmas presents together at these markets is not an uncommon sight. After work, particularly on a Friday, colleagues gather for a mug of gluhwein (mulled wine). Speaking of gluhwein, kinder means without alcohol and they often also serve punch in a variety of fruity flavours. Maybe avoid the turbo punch unless you think you can hangoe it but do try the hot honey cider.
Best markets by day
St Charles Market under the church of this name by Karlsplatz underground was my favourite. It had a particular focus on artsy crafts and gifts. And the kids soft play area was fun for adults too! This is the market that locals favour certainly.
Belvedere Palace has its own delightful Christmas market behind it, walk through the gardens first to get there to appreciate the palace in all its beauty. It’s small but perfectly formed and perfect for a lunchtime pitstop of raclette and hot apple schnapps.
The Am Hof and Freyung markets are near each other, close to St Stephen’s Church. There is a particular focus on arts and crafts at Am Hof but also on booze! There was a wine market situated here in 1358 and through the year there are Easter, beer and wine markets here. These markets tend not to get absolutely heaving so you can enjoy browsing and shopping.
Markets for after dark
The giant market at Rathausplatz is both wonderful but can be slightly overwhelming So go here to enjoy the atmosphere rather than shop. If ice skating is your thing, this is the place to do it, there is what can only be described as a giant skating maze. It is the most spectacular sight under the Vienna town hall. If it gets a bit much, head to friendly pub, Cafe Einstein for a drink and some dumplings, or for fine dining try Wiener Rathauskeller in the basement of the town hall. The black panelled dining room is stunning and it’s a great place to try Austrian wine but consider eating elsewhere if your group is vegetarian.
If you’re feeling chilly and need to warm up I recommend
Sacher Café in the Hotel Sacher. This is where the famous Sacher torte was invented. Order a slice with a hot chocolate for chocolate-heaven.
Café Central– if Harry Potter made cafes it would look like this. I could not stop staring at the ceiling. Everyone around me was ordering giant plates of torn pancakes with stewed plums…. and finishing them!
Café Demel is an institution, there isn’t much seating, it’s bar style but always full with shoppers desperate to take home some of their Viennoise patisseries. It’s wonderful but not one to sit in for a leisurely cuppa.
Fabio’s is where to go to see and be seen. There is a restaurant too but we didn’t enjoy that. However, the cocktails were amazing so go straight to the bar.
The Rooftop of 25 hours hotel is where you go for the amazing views and atmosphere. Its a must visit!
Palmenhaus is like having a drink on the set of jumanji – an extravagant glasshouse and a jungle in one. The most instaworthy bar I could find.
At the markets I definitely recommend the raclette and the noodles. The latter look like pasta but they are in fact made of potato and served in interesting ways. I was sceptical but really enjoyed the noodles with poppy seeds and plums.
Vienna is great for fine dining and Konstantin Filippou is the one place everyone must try. He cooks hearty Austrian food with a Mediterranean twist.
Steirereck comes at number 10 on of the list of world’s 50 best restaurants. Housed in an extraordinary glass cube, it’s worth going for the building alone. But actually the food is obscenely creative mixing kale and caviar for example in one dish! Please book this!
Grand Ferdinand: If Palmenhouse is the most instaworthy bar this is the most instaworthy hotel. Beautiful tiles, jaw dropping chandeliers, industrial walls, rooftop pool, plants draped over balconies, a champagne bar! Sounds mental doesn’t it! But it’s stunning. Sunday brunch is epic but the rooms are a bit small so got a superior room at minimum or for a suite.
If it’s more history you are going for then you have got to stay at the Sacher Hotel. There’s really nothing like it, theres a priceless work of art on most walls or if you want a more contemporary feel get a suite on the top floor with a giant balcony.
Vienna is an absolutely beautiful city that punches well above its weight. I’ll be heading back in the Summer, but I can confidently say, it was made for winter festivities. A highly underrated European Capital.