This Weekend’s Itinerary

By Jacob Aldridge

Vienna is home to the world’s most famous Christmas markets. Spaced around this city, once the capital of the Austrian (and later, Austro-Hungarian) Empire, are a variety of markets, similar and yet unique in their own way. Catharina has lived in Vienna for 8 years, and promised to give us the best guide to the markets and the city.

Christmas Market at Night

The Rathausplatz Christmas Market, the largest in Vienna

It’s a crisp December morning as we head first to St Stephen’s Cathedral. From the striking coloured tiles on the roof – almost a quarter of a million of them – to the Gothic architecture inside and out, this is a Cathedral befitting a capital. It’s free to poke your head inside and to visit the ‘Dom Shop’ (Dom is German for Cathedral, in case it sounds like the Vatican have liberalised) but for €4,50 we take a closer look throughout.

Catharina leads us through the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, seeming to choose at random streets lined with quaint shops before magically coming out onto the circular Michaelerplatz. Here stands the Hofburg Palace, winter home of the Emperors’ families until the end of the dynasty in 1919 – worth a photo not a visit to Catharina, who has warmth in mind and quickly walks us through the adjacent Volksgarten and into the Museum Quarter Christmas market.

Christmas Market Gluhwein

Is Gluhwein better than Beach Cricket at Christmas?

America and Australia represented in statues

Walking the fine line between respectful and racist

Lunch options are plentiful, but the focus is Gluhwein – mulled red wine, a warm and spiced beverage incomparably perfect on a winter’s day. We grab two – there’s a deposit for the mugs, which can be returned at any drinks stall or pinched as a souvenir – and observe the facade of the Museum building. Each continent is represented in statue form, but look for Australia as an Aboriginal mother.

While central Vienna is a walkable city, the half hour public tram loop is much more suited to December. We grab a €6,70 24-hour metro pass, and Catharina plays guide as we go around the city, pointing out the Opera House, the Danube River (where we swap trams to keep the loop going), and the Parliament (was that a statue of a man punching a horse?), to the amusement of commuting locals.

Dinner is a fancier affair at Der Kuckuck on Himmelpfortgasse, washed down with several bottles of local red wine. And then, like the cuckoo the restaurant is named for, we pop out onto the streets in search of warmer drinks, this time at the markets at Rathausplatz, near the Town Hall. The largest Christmas market in Vienna, a wander around will reveal any number of boutique Christmas gifts for the family back home.

Saturday is a misty affair, as we jump onto the U-Bahn, taking the green line U4 out to Schönbrunn Palace. It’s a grand palace, even without the gardens in their summer splendour, and tells the story of two powerful women. Maria Theresa, Empress from 1745-1765 and the only woman to rule the Hapsburg empire, spent much time here with her many children (including daughter Marie Antoinette). A century later, Schönbrunn was home to Elisabeth, wife of King Franz Joseph. Better known as Sisi, she was the Princess Diana of her era, and sadly also met a tragic end.

Schonbrunn Palace exterior

Schloss Schönbrunn from the rear, on a dreary winter’s day

Building facades in Vienna

Building facades in Vienna

Personal Portrait of Sisi

Franz Joseph was especially fond of this ‘personal’ portrait of Sisi

The Schönbrunn Christmas market offers lunch – surprisingly limited sausage options, but a wider variety of warm drinks of which the Apfelstrudel is our favourite. Catching the U-Bahn back (our 24 hour pass is still valid), we alight early at Pilgramgasse and spend an hour walking the rest of the way into the city along the canal, admiring the architecture that has survived the fall of an Empire, two World Wars, and decades of uncertainty in a gateway city on the edge of the Iron Curtain.

Catharina gives us the option of attending an Opera in the glorious Wiener Staatsoper building – The Barber of Seville is on tonight, and it’s always possible to see world class opera here with their last minute standing tickets.

Sunday is a sleep in, and another opportunity to brave the winter air in search of Gluhwein or unique souvenirs. We don’t worry about the cold too much anymore – tonight we have an Emirates flight to Muscat, Oman, and know that a new week will bring a much warmer climate.

One more Gluhwein (at least!) before we go.

Want to Go? Need to Know…

Souvenir Mugs - "No Kangaroos in Austria"

Good to know

  • Grab a longer metro pass, and visit more of the Christmas markets on the periphery of the city
  • Gluhwein is the most famous warm beverage, even if you don’t normally like red wine, and there are plenty of other options including mulled white wine, and warm schnapps
  • Metro Ticket Machines offer the cheapest public transport tickets – you can’t buy a 24 hours pass onboard
  • In summer, book your Palace tickets in advance – it’s less of an issue in the winter. A ‘Grand Tour’ with audio guide is €13,50
  • You can purchase standing room Opera Tickets from as little as €5 – go the entrance on Operngasse (around the corner) 90 minutes before the show starts and join the queue. Your ‘space’ will have a translation machine to help you follow the show
  • The Rathausplatz Market can easily produce all of your Christmas gift and decoration needs – for years to come!
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