Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Six: Karlsplatz

Years ago, this was my favourite Christmas market in all of Vienna. Since then, little has changed.

And I mean it, literally. Many booths are still in exactly the same place, selling exactly the same stuff that was original and new in maybe 2007. It’s a little like shopping for groceries. Sure, there’s one or two novelties each week, special offers or suchlike, but mostly you know where to find what, and the whole thing reeks of routine.

That said, this market is still in one of the most beautiful locations in the city, right in front of St. Charles’s Church, or Karlskirche. There is a shallow basin in front of the church which in Summer is filled with water, but now stands empty. This is used as the central square of the market and scattered with straw, because there are ponies which children are allowed to ride.

If you’re not a regular visitor, you will also find the merchandise interesting. While the kitsch level is rather high, there are several intriguing little things on offer that you’ll have a hard time finding in any of the other markets. Most remarkable, for me, is that one guy who sells Steampunk design, mostly hats and bags. If you like pens, or pottery, or elaborate glass-, wood- or metalworks, you will also find the perfect vendor, at least as long as you can afford the stuff, because nothing of it comes cheap.

The special highlight of this market is a stage at the very center where you can watch some kind of performance almost every day. This could be a band playing, or just some writer reading from his latest book.

The place is also very easy to get to. Karlsplatz is by far the largest underground station in Vienna, where three lines meet. All of that, and the fact that they have their own ATM – very unusual – makes for a rather crowded market, especially next to the exits where most of the glühwein is sold.

While you’re in the area, don’t forget to have a look at a few other landmarks that mark the borders of the large square: Musikverein is just across the street, so is Künstlerhaus and the University of Technology. The underground station is one of the many Vienna landmarks built by Otto Wagner.

Size: some 70 booths
Prices: high, hot beverages start at €3.50
Kitsch: high
Special offer: ponies, stage performers, unusual merchandise

Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Five: WeihnachtsQuartier

The Vienna Museumsquartier is one of the more successful urban development projects of the last two decades. Just like the name suggests, it’s home to several art museums; but it’s also a large public space that serves as a very popular hangout for city people year-round.

Besides the two big museums, the Leopold Museum and the modern arts museum that goes by the name of MUMOK, or Museum Moderner Kunst, there’s also space for the performing arts and a couple of bars and restaurants, as well as a lot of small cultural groups and initiatives which have found a home here. This is the perfect environment for a Christmas market for artists and designers, and that’s exactly what WeihnachtsQuartier (website in German) is.

Unlike most of the markets introduced on this blog the WeihnachtsQuartier is only open for one weekend, usually the first advent weekend, which was at the end of November this year. If you’re in town at the time, it’s definitely worth a visit.

As soon as you enter you find yourself in a whirlwind of all shapes and colours. The artists work with all kinds of materials, like clay, glass, fabric, or metal. You don’t get the usual kitsch there at all. Instead, every piece is created with a brain and a heart, and you can see it.

Not much of the merchandise is Christmas themed, of course. You won’t find any tinsel trees, blinking Santa hats or similar atrocities here. What you can find and even buy, if you have deep enough pockets, is a lot of wonderful presents that surely will make some people really happy. If you love shopping for gifts just for the sake of the joy of it, this is the place to go.

One of the highlights in a fields with very high standards is the stall of a friend of mine, Sissy Staudenmayer, who makes delicious little things from glass, mostly jewellery, in all shapes and colours. Her newest invention are cupcakes that are absolutely free of sugar or calories, which unfortunately doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good for your teeth.

As you would expect, each piece is unique. Sissy is also happy to entertain visitors at her studio and teach them the art of creating fine glass beads.

Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Four: Schloss Wilhelminenberg

Don’t let yourself be fooled by dictionaries, which usually translate German “Schloss” as “castle”. Most English speakers, on hearing that word, think of a medieval building with a moat, a drawbridge, and battlements. The German word for that is “Burg”; Schlösser are nothing like that. They are large mansions, usually built in the 17th or 18th century by some count or prince. One of them is Schloss Wilhelminenberg, although the current building only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Like many of its kind, the castle has a rich history which came to an unfortunate climax during the second half of the 20th century, when it was used as a home for girls. In recent years, claims of abuse came up which are currently under investigation.

Anyway, the building, situated in a large park on one of the hills in the west of the city, is now a hotel. I found news of the Christmas market on a website I use a lot (only in German, I’m afraid). There, they advertised the market as a quiet affair in a beautiful location, so I went exploring.

The entire market is indeed not so much familiar as downright tiny, only 10 booths or so, and it would indeed have been quiet, if it hadn’t been for a number of children who were desperately and vociferously trying to get their parents’ attention. The game of Bavarian curling going on on the tiny ice rink didn’t help, either.

As to the view, I’m sure it would have been magnificent in daylight and less foggy weather. As it was, you could at least see a few city lights shimmer through.

The merchandise on offer didn’t catch my eye much. It was about the usual stuff you can get anywhere, only less of it. I don’t think I’m going to bother coming out here again any time soon.

Size: some 10 booths
Prices: low, hot beverages start at €2.70
Kitsch: high
Special offer: view of the city

Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Three: Belvedere

All right, I might be biased. After all it’s right around the corner from my place. Still, in my opinion the ambience of this market is the most romantic in all Vienna, especially after dark. So what? Sue me!

Situated in front of (well, actually behind) Schloss Belvedere, the magnificent baroque palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy – itself well worth a visit –, this is, of course, one of the tourist hot spots of the Viennese winter. You might expect a veritable kitschfest as a result. However, that is not the case at all.

What you get instead is a medium-sized Christmas village with both hot beverages and artisans well represented. There is a carousel and a little train for children. Some of the vendors try to take up the baroque theme and sell tree decorations in that style. Of course, Christmas trees weren’t widespread until much later, so if you are a stickler for historical accuracy, you will find that appalling. On the other hand, the merchandise is quite beautiful. There is one booth with pretty embroidery, doilies, tablecloths and the like, and another one with nice woodcarvings. Almost the only vendor that doesn’t quite fit in is one selling Murano glass and Venetian masks. Yet that is beautiful, too, and I am in a forgiving mood tonight.

The food is quite good, as well, and again they are trying to stay true to the location by offering regional specialities from Savoy, especially several baked dishes with lots of cheese. Savoyard cuisine seems to be a lot like its Swiss cousin. There’s also specialities from Styria and the Tyrol, and, of course, lots of gingerbread and other sweets.

A nice touch on the way out, although it’s easy to miss in the dark, is that it is lined with several Christmas trees, each of which has been decorated by a different primary school.

Size: some 40 booths
Prices: average, hot beverages start at €3.20
Kitsch: surprisingly low
Special offer: the baroque palace, Savoyard specialities

Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Two: Am Hof and Freyung

Am Hof

Located closest to the very centre of Vienna, the square Am Hof has a rich history. It has got its name because the Babenberg dukes had their court here during the high middle ages. The square is still surrounded by magnificent buildings, although in one of the most prominent ones, the former Bank Austria headquarters, there has recently been a fire which left the square somewhat scarred.

The market is presented by a society of artists and artisans who also organise several markets throughout the year. Some of the exhibitors change over time, so there is always something new, even if you visit several times a year.

They strive for high quality, and most of the time they are quite successful. You can find lots of beautiful pottery, jewellery, and also some traditional Austrian artwork here.

There is definitely less of the usual kitsch than elsewhere. Also, the focus is clearly on the art, as opposed to food and drink, although there is still plenty of that, too.

High quality and a prime location result in premium prices, of course. No way around that.

Size: some 30 booths
Prices: high, hot beverages start at €3.50
Kitsch: low
Special offer: art


Right next to Am Hof, between beautiful Palais Ferstl and the benedictine monastery called Schottenstift, there is the triangular square called Freyung with its Alt-Wiener Christkindlmarkt or Old Vienna Christmas market.

This is one of the smaller, and also quieter, Christmas markets in town, which I, for one, like a lot. It’s also a favourite among my friends.

As the name suggests, they are trying to focus on a traditional Viennese Christmas: wooden toys, pottery, tree decorations, and sweets, sweets, sweets (mostly gingerbread). There’s also a vendor selling baskets, another one for bread, ham, and cheese, as well as one for Christmas cards. You get the idea. Traditional Austrian tree decorations are not so much glass balls as stars made of straw, apples, gingerbread, and nuts, by the way.

On the opposite side, in front of Palais Ferstl, there is also a charity Christmas market, for people who need to quench their conscience as well as their thirst.

Size: some 20 booths
Prices: high, hot beverages start at €3.50
Kitsch: low
Special offer: tradition

It’s the holiday season. Halloween is over; outside my window I can see the first snow flakes of the year dancing in the wind, and since we in Europe don’t celebrate the “conquest and genocide of Native Americans by European colonists”, it’s time to get into the Christmas spirit. In Vienna, as in many other towns and cities, this means it’s time for various Chrismas markets and villages to open.

There are some 200 of those in the city. Most of them, typically charity events, are only open for a weekend or two and very small. A few are larger and open daily at least until Christmas, some even until after New Year’s.

One of those is located in one of the cities larger parks, the Türkenschanzpark. Situated on one of the hills that form the western border of Vienna in the middle of a rather posh residential area, it is usually filled with young families, old women, and their dogs. The christmas village has a rather good reputation, which is why we went there, although it’s quite far away from anywhere I would usually go in Vienna.

At first, we had a hard time finding it. We came into the extensive park at the other end. Lovely as it might be in daylight, at night the area is positively creepy.

When we finally found the market, the first impression was that it was disappointingly small, only 20 booths or so. In the dark it’s also hard for the park itself to work its charm. To be fair, just like the park, the market caters primarily to young families. There is a carousel and a playground nearby.

On the upside, it was pleasantly devoid of kitsch, plastic toys and the like. Instead, you found delicious waffles, nice traditional wooden toys and Christmas decorations, regional goods, and of course, hot punch and spiced wine. All in all a nice, familiar affair, worth a visit if you’re in the area anyway.

Size: some 20 booths
Prices: low, hot beverages start at €3.–
Kitsch: low to medium
Special offer: very good for children