Visiting European Christmas markets has long been on my travel bucket list. And Vienna is a great place to check that item off the list. The ancestors of the current markets have been around since 1298, so the Viennese have had a long time to get the concept right. Now, there are more than 20 to visit, keeping the most diehard among us merrily shop-shop-shopping and gluhweining to our Christmas hearts’ content.
What I didn’t realize until we got here was how different each of these markets were. The four that I had the time to visit varied widely in size, setting, popularity and the type of products you could buy, so some delighted me more than others.
1) The market on Stephenplatz: Standing under the protection of the towering St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of downtown Vienna, this smallish market was packed when we visited on Saturday, so full it was hard to get near the 40 or so booths. Sign-carrying guides from river cruises and bus tours herded around passengers clutching souvenir Christmas mugs of gluhwein, and aggressive hawkers on the plaza did their best to interest people in buying tickets for the church’s concerts. We hastily retreated from the crowds that day, but returned on a weekday evening just as the sun was setting and enjoyed ourselves much more.
2) The Christkindl Market at Rathausplatz: This is Vienna’s biggest and busiest Christmas market with estimates that more than 3.5 million people visit in the 5 weeks it’s open. We visited on a Sunday afternoon, and once again the crowds detracted from our experience. I was also a little surprised by the number of commercial goods for sale, rather than handcrafted items. But I enjoyed the backdrop of the town hall, and the displays in the park surrounding the market.
3) By Monday, I was starting to feel slightly disillusioned by Christmas markets. Were they all jampacked with people and commercial goods? Luckily, tapping into the local knowledge of a few Viennese bloggers saved my experience and reassured me that the type of Christmas market I was looking for did exist. Highly recommended on a couple of blogger lists was the market on Karlsplatz, also called the Art Advent market. Here, all the goods were made by the sellers and jury-judged for quality. When we visited on a Monday afternoon, the shoppers seemed to mostly be locals and there was a relaxed, friendly vibe under a few simple Christmas lights.
4) My favorite of the markets we visited was the cozy Markt Am Hof. Tucked away in a square near the downtown pedestrian walkways, we visited at dusk when most of the patrons seemed to be Viennese who’d dropped in for a drink and a nosh on their way home from work. Once again, the goods at this market are juried, and the smaller number of booths featured high quality food items as well.As the sun set behind the surrounding historic buildings, including the one where Mozart gave his first concert, I felt as though I’d finally found the Christmas market of my dreams.
Hints for visiting Viennese Christmas markets:
1. If you dislike crowds, try not to visit the most popular ones on the weekend.
2. Keep in mind that not all the products for sale are handmade.
3. The best photo ops are at dusk.