At this time of year, there's nothing better than to mooch around the stalls of a traditional market, mulled wine in hand, picking out a few last minute gifts and decorations. And Vienna offers a huge choice of locations to do just that, with the added attractions of tasty gingerbread and spiced cookies, fine organic produce, pony rides, craft workshops, the chance to make your own Advent wreath...
With its traditional cafes and romantic corners, Vienna is a fine place for sight seeing and for art and culture buffs at any time of year. But in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the historical streets of the Austrian capital fill with the scent of spices and the sparkle and glitter of traditional decorations as seasonal markets spring up offering local produce and baked goods, gifts and handcrafts.
It's hard to resist the big shopping streets like Landstrasser Hauptstrasse and Mariahilfer Strasse, lit by thousands of twinkling lights and enlivened by music: the shop windows encourage you inside to sample the sweet offerings – don't miss the confectionery at Oberlaa, formerly supplier to the Viennese Court – or deli treats – try those of the megastore Julius Meinl – or splash out on fine jewellery from Kocher – where the Emperor Franz Joseph bought his beloved Isabel stars to twist in her hair... But, tempting as these shops are, there's a special feeling to be found among the bright street stalls, where Christmas music accompanies you and the delicious aroma of mulled wine and spices warms you as you browse. And Vienna offers you plenty of markets to choose from:
City Hall Square Market
The Market of the Christ Child – the Christkindlmarkt – is the largest in the city, worthy of its privileged location alongside the Rathauspark, in the shadow of the magnificent City Hall. Hundreds of stalls offer a vast array of Christmas decorations and gifts, and if you're travelling with children there are numerous attractions: a miniature train, pony rides and even a cookie workshop! Adults can enjoy mulled wine while they stroll around admiring the lights and decorations that include a huge 40 foot Advent wreath.
Christmas Village in Maria-Theresien-Platz
The beautiful square known as Maria-Theresien-Platz, between the Fine Arts and Natural History museums, hosts some 60 stands in its Christmas village, making it a perfect place to buy gifts and traditional crafts. You'll also find the pre-Christmas atmosphere enlivened by traditional Austrian folk music.
Close to the Maria-Theresien-Platz Christmas village lies the Museum Quarter, home to renowned museums such as the Leopold, the Modern Art Museum and the Kunsthalle. At this time of year, it plays host to the MQ market, where a mix of music provides ambience for delicious treats for the palate served up by local restaurants in magically lit 'ice pavilions'. There's a curling rink, light shows, kids' games, gifts, design, fashion and much more.
A former suburb, but close to the city centre, with art galleries, designer workshops and modern pubs, Spittelberg is now one of the most fashionable areas in Vienna. For a quarter of a century, the picturesque streets and squares have been transformed annually for the bustling Christmas market where some hundred stalls offer their wares: crafts, gifts and traditional culinary delights.
Karlsplatz is a truly artistic setting, housing the Vienna Museum, whose collection includes works by Klimt and Schiele as well as an excellent exhibition about design in Vienna in the twenty-first century; the Musikverein – where the Vienna Philharmonic's famous New Year concert is hosted each year; the Kunstlerhaus art gallery, the Kalskirche – the outstanding baroque church of St Charles... It's highly appropriate, then, that at Christmas it plays host to a market in which over seventy artisans unveil their original work. There are activities for children, too, including pony rides, as well as music and dance programmes.
Freyung Old Viennese Christmas Market
Right in the city centre, split between the two squares that separate the Kunstforum – where there's a marvellous retrospective of Frida Kahlo until the end of the year – the ancient market of the Baby Jesus is a great place to buy fine handicrafts and decorative items specifically for Christmas. There are lovely accessories on sale – and what better than a handmade hat, scarf or gloves to combat the winter cold?
For three years now, the Cobenzl market has been trading under the slogan "everything natural and organic". Located near the distinguished neighbourhood of Grinzing, accessible by tram, it boasts the honour of being the highest market in Vienna. The district is famous for the heuriguer - traditional taverns serving young wines produced exclusively by Viennese winemakers and homemade food, often accompanied by live folk music. The market itself offers pork products from Managlitza pigs, chocolates with incense, and the popular sweets with the form of 'Krampus', the evil helper of St. Nicholas. To keep the children distracted, there's even an animal farm with kids' workshops.
And the list goes on: you'll find others at Riesenradplatz – in the shadow of the giant ferris wheel, at the Old General Hospital, in Belvedere Palace Park, at Schonbrunn Palace, at Am Hof Palace...