Vienna at Christmas: Grand and Sparkling

Vienna - or as the locals say, "Wienna" - is quite the place to spend Advent and Christmas. European cities all seem to get dressed up for Christmas and sprout Christmas markets, but none lights itself up quite like Vienna.

Its reputation for Christmas splendor was one of the major reasons we headed for Vienna this December - the other was the music scene. Brendan especially, with his love, and previous study, of orchestral music, felt the draw of the musical history in Vienna. We certainly saw lots of musicians around the city, carrying their instruments, and it seemed that every block had a venue for classical performances. That said, I'm sad to say that most performances in Vienna have taken on an identical formula aimed at drawing in tourists for a single performance, but not holding their interest for repeat shows. The music selected tends be something like "Mozart and Strauss's greatest hits volume 1." Add to that a fun, but cheesy, accompaniment of opera singers and ballet dancers, then copy and paste.

We attended, and enjoyed, such a performance on Christmas Eve. The orchestra added some festive numbers to the mix, including a performance of Sleigh Ride, complete with santa hats and reindeer antler headbands. It was enjoyable to hear familiar pieces performed live, and to get a few laughs out of their showmanship, but when another opportunity arose to see a similar show, we declined.

Our Christmas celebration, the first we've done alone, was quiet but enjoyable. We had Christmas Eve dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant, and on Christmas day we made lasagna and ham - combining classic holiday meals from both of our families. We even had our own little tree with presents underneath.

Christmas tree

The day was incredibly foggy, which made for a magical afternoon walk through the nearby Belvedere Palace's gardens.

Belvedere front Belvedere stars

The Belvedere is just one example of Vienna's numerous palaces. Really, the whole city has a grand, imposing, oversized feeling, reflecting its history as an imperial capital. Some of the buildings are so large it seems impossible to capture them properly in a photo.

Aside from our Christmas stroll through the gardens, we visited the Belvedere two other times to explore the artworks contained in its upper and lower buildings. The upper houses artwork stretching from Medieval Europe through the early 20th century, focusing largely on Viennese artists. Perhaps most popular among its collection is "The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt - they even have a replica of it in another room for taking selfies! The lower Belvedere has more modern works and temporary exhibits; during our visit, it featured a look at women in the art of Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

This was just a prince's palace, however. The more well-known palaces, which were home to Empress Maria Theresa and her descendants up through the end of World War I, are the Hofburg - located in the center of the city - and the Schönbrunn - their summer home, located a metro ride away. We only viewed the gigantic complex that is the Hofburg from the outside:

Hofburg Hofburg

...but we took two trips to the Schönbrunn - once with our new Viennese friend, Timo, and once with our intrepid travel buddies, Michael and Tiff, who came out from New York to join us on a whirlwind trip to Poland. More on that in a later post! With Timo, we strolled the grounds and explored the Schönbrunn Tiergarten - the oldest zoo still in operation!

With Michael and Tiff, we took the tour of the palace, which is richly decorated and full of historic treasures - but you'll have to take my word for it because they don't allow any photography inside. They also had an area set up where kids could try on period dress - I wish they had had adult sizes, too!

Schonbrunn with Michael and Tiff

Everything was covered in snow for this visit, which made the grounds quite enchanting.

Michael and Tiff's visit also got us out into the city to see the sights and taste the food more. It's good to have tourist companions! Viennese food tends to be somewhat heavy, much as we had found in Prague, with lots of sausage, breaded meat cutlets (Wiener schnitzel), potatoes, and cabbage. We found ourselves frequently eating at Italian restaurants (which are quite prevalent) instead of traditional Viennese spots. What Vienna has going for it, though, are its desserts and classy cafe scene:

... and the influence of its former ties to lands further east. One of our favorite spots in the city was the Naschmarkt - a several block-long stretch of outdoor market, filled with both touristy shops and fresh and prepared food vendors, with a heavy trend toward Turkish food. We visited three times and loved it each time.


On Saturdays, the market has the additional attraction of a giant flea market, selling a wide variety of antiques, jewelry, and clothing.

Comparing Vienna to our preceding visit to Prague, and our subsequent visit to Budapest (another post to be written!), the city has a somewhat cold, sterile feel to it (apart from the smell of horse pee from all the Christmas carriages). It really does feel grand and imperial, which can make it feel like there is not much room for an innovative, youthful scene. Part of why the Naschmarkt appealed to us was its differentness from the uniformity of the rest of the city, but even in that scene, there seems to be a formula - shop types repeat as you walk along. Everyone is hawking the same goods. We wondered how so many kebab vendors so close together could stay in business.

In a month that involved a lot of traveling elsewhere, though, Vienna offered a stability and quiet comfort that we appreciated. The city feels remarkably safe and predictable, if not warm and lively. After our stay, we felt ready to move more quickly through subsequent stays - to speed things up and challenge ourselves more. And so - on to Budapest and Brasov, Romania!