Christmas Markets of Vienna
Vienna has long been known as the City of Music, Art and Culture. Situated on the banks of the Danube, this romantic European capital with a population of two million has become one of the most popular urban destinations in the world. Visitors crowd the city streets during the hot summer months and into the colorful, lazy days of October. But it is the winter season when the city truly comes to life with opera, dance, theatre, exhibitions concerts and lights. The city at this time of year belongs once again to the Viennese people and the few tourists who come to experience such world renowned events as the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra and the Christmas markets.
It was the Christmas markets in November and December that drew me to Vienna. The days were short and the first snowflakes of the year fell and were illuminated in the soft glow of lanterns as we made our way from one market to another. Our group opted to stay at the recently opened Style Hotel in the heart of Vienna’s shopping district. Located directly opposite the famed CafÃ© Central, the Style has a faÃ§ade that is protected as an historic landmark and a completely renovated interior which offers an impressive range of comforts and conveniences. The fact that it is within walking distance of most attractions was of major importance to us.
The weeks leading up to Christmas are romantic and idyllic. The city shimmers in the mild glow of candles, while the sweet aromas of gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, mulled wine and Christmas baking pervade the air. The shops are decorated with pine branches, wreathes and colorful silk ribbons while Christmas music wafts through the shopping arcades and garlands of glistening lights span the sky above many streets.
One of our first stops was at the chocolate shop owned and operated by Wolfgang Leschanz. Located directly behind the church of St. Peter in what was once one of the oldest and most beautiful button shops in Vienna, this delightful establishment is filled with an assortment of chocolates that delight the eye as well as the palate. From tiny button shapes, to an elaborate bust of Mozart, chocolate reigns supreme. Each patron is presented with a steaming cup of hot chocolate so thick, it can barely be considered a liquid, to sip while browsing through the towering trays of rich dark and creamy white confections.
The markets themselves can be found by wandering down small narrow streets and along major thoroughfares. Each market is unique, but all have some things in common. The stalls are all manned by small, independent craftsmen. The diverse and inspiring array of gifts, crafts, foods and decorations for sale are all handmade. The toy stalls, crowded with red-cheeked children, sell absolutely no war toys. Each market has several versions of the ever-popular gluhwein and as the evenings wear on and the sleepy children have departed for their warm beds, the noise level increases as the adults continue to revel in the music and camaraderie of the season.
The largest of the markets in front of Vienna’s City Hall transforms the park around the festively lit building into a fairy tale world of lights, music and activity. Definitely the most child-oriented, the little ones can ride the old Viennese carousel, the mini railway or the irresistible small ponies. The City Hall building itself has been transformed into a virtual Santa’s workshop where small hands make Christmas cookies, roll out dough for savory pies or craft self-made presents. Parents hover, but are not allowed to help, as tiny tots as young as three struggle to produce perfect cookies or glue glittery stars on Christmas cards fashioned with love and various degrees of skill.
Shoppers at the art market in front of the Schonbrunn Palace cannot fail to be awed by the delightful backdrop of the imperial residence. A bit more “up-market”, the Schonbrunn market features a wide array of handmade jewellery, clothing, Christmas ornaments, cakes, smoked meats and rural crafts. We spent a morning in the ornate Schonbrunn Palace where the spectacular gardens were barely visible through a sudden snow flurry. Inside the palace there are a number of exhibits and demonstrations pertaining to the season. Shoppers can watch skilled artisans create fanciful cookies from specially made dough and then purchase the raw materials to create their own designs.
Loaded with atmosphere, the Spittelberg market winds through long, narrow lanes with stall after stall of fine arts and crafts, ceramics, hand-blown glass, rugs, batik, silk paintings and an array of silver, enamel and brass jewelry. And if you are still in the shopping mode, the Karlskirche, the Heiligenkreuzerof and the traditional Uni-Campus markets are all within walking distance. Stroll from one to another while listening to choirs singing Christmas carols, brass bands playing and impromptu concerts on street corners. Sip your warm gluhwein as you move along and remember the one-of-a-kind mugs are yours to keep.
The Christmas markets, fascinating as they are, leave plenty of time for visiting the more traditional sites. St. Peter’s church was resplendent with a large display of nativity scenes. The Mozarthouse Vienna, where Mozart lived and composed many of his famous works, will be a major attraction in 2006, the 250th anniversary of his birth. The Belvedere Gallery, featuring Gustav Klimt’s “Kiss” was at one time a summer palace situated just outside the walls of the city. The Museum of Fine Arts provides a luxurious setting for art, plus the culinary delights of a sumptuous evening buffet. Forced to choose between the many musical extravagances presented each evening, we attended a performance of the Vienna Boys Choir, “Christmas in Vienna” at the Konzerthaus. The elaborate gold and white concert hall was decorated with dozens of Christmas trees dressed in glittering white lights which provided the perfect back-drop for the diminutive singers and their soaring soprano voices. The Viennese, who filled every seat, were dressed in their most elegant finery and added to the festive spirit. An after-concert supper in the elegant Weinzirl restaurant on the premises provided the perfect ending to a lovely evening.
All too soon a week had passed and it was time to board our Austrian Airlines flight for our return to the United States. The direct flights deposited us at several locations on the eastern seaboard. Our luggage was a bit heavier and our carry-ons a bit more numerous. We could all relax and enjoy the approaching holidays knowing that the major part of our shopping was already accomplished. As I carefully wrapped and prepared to part with each of my lovingly chosen treasures, I retained the memories of the festive stalls, the eager children, the music and the tantalizing smells of the Christmas season in Vienna.