Are you looking for the perfect city in which to spend Christmas? This may not be an easy choice, especially if you are travelling alone.
In 2017, I took the plunge and decided to spend four days in Vienna at Christmas as a solo traveller. Despite being an experienced traveller, I admit that I was more than a little bit nervous about this decision.
Solo travel can be lonely at the best of times but, with its focus on family togetherness, Christmas can be a particularly tough time to travel alone. Therefore, it is important that your destination has plenty to occupy you to keep loneliness at bay.
Many cities, especially those in Europe, essentially shut down on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and beyond. The last thing that you want to be faced with on arrival is a city that has no public transport over the festive period and whose museum and restaurant doors are firmly shut. Therefore, it pays to do your homework before you book that flight.
With its imperial architecture, magnificent museums, classical music scene and cafes galore, Vienna is a superb destination at any time of year. But at Christmas, it is transformed into a sparkling, festive wonderland, and one that is well and truly open for business. To convince you, here are my seven best reasons for spending Christmas in Vienna.
1. Vienna is open for business on Christmas Day and Boxing Day
Unlike my home city of London, most of Venice’s main attractions are open on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, its transport system is operational and many of its restaurants welcome diners. For me, this is a non-negotiable criterion for a Christmas short-break destination.
Having said that, don’t expect much to be happening on Christmas Eve from 2 pm, as this is when Austrians celebrate Christmas. However, I arrived in Vienna on Christmas Eve night and, with the help of my hotel, was able to eat at Bistro/Restaurant Süd Länder, an excellent local restaurant.
Although not all restaurants will be open over the festive period, I didn’t struggle to find somewhere to eat, and you can always refuel at one of the city’s Christmas markets. And that’s not a hardship!
Four days in Vienna – places to visit
To get your bearings, I suggest you start off by taking a walking tour of Vienna’s old town. Although organised tours may not be operating over the holiday period, armed with a guide book, it is very easy to do a self-guided walking tour.
After that, it’s time to hit Vienna’s highlights! Here’s my pick of the best with travel tips on how to reach them, 2019 ticket prices and opening hours on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. However, to avoid disappointment, please check opening times before your visit in case these have changed.
Housed in a sumptuous former Hapsburg Palace, the vast collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum transports you from Ancient Rome to the Renaissance. There’s no way that you will be able to ‘do it all’ in a few hours, so my advice is to pick a section and stick with that. If your time is limited, spend your time in the Picture Gallery getting to know its collection of Old Masters painting.
But don’t leave before checking out the museum’s café.
- Kunsthistoriches Museum opening hours on Christmas Day: 10 am – 6 pm
- Kunsthistoriches Museum opening hours on Boxing Day: 10 am – 9 pm
- Admission cost: 16 Euro
- Getting there: Kunsthistorisches Museum is at Maria-Theresien-Platz. The nearest subway stations are Volkstheater and Musuemsquartier.
Schloss Schönbrunn is another of the Hapsburg Empire’s palaces in all its gilded glory. It would be a crime to visit Vienna at Christmas and not include this on your itinerary as it is also home to one of the city’s best Christmas market stalls, albeit on a small scale.
If you are a Mozart fangirl or fanboy, this is a must-see as this is where Austria’s wunderkind gave his first public performance in front of Empress Elisabeth.
- Schloss Schönbrunn opening hours on Christmas Day & Boxing Day: 8 am – 5 pm
- Admission cost: 16 Euro for the ‘Imperial Tour’
- Getting there: Schloss Schönbrunn is at Schönbrunner Schloßstraße 47. The nearest subway station is Schönbrunn.
I preferred The Belvedere to both the Kunsthistoriches Museum and Schönbrunn Palace. This UNESCO World Heritage site is so elaborate and romantic it will make your head spin, and is rightly considered to be one of the world’s finest baroque palaces. The palace that Prince Eugene of Savoy liked to call home now houses an art collection to rival that seen in the Kunsthistoriches Museum.
Its most famous exhibit is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1908), not to be missed by art history buffs. And get this; The Belvedere has thoughtfully provided a ‘selfie room’ where you can Instagram yourself next to a replica of Klimt’s masterpiece without running the risk of annoying other visitors.
Make sure that you make time to wander around the palace’s manicured gardens. It’s no accident that the palace and gardens were named Belvedere, literal translation ‘beautiful view’, as from here Vienna’s skyline is laid out before you.
- Schloss Belvedere opening hours on Christmas Day & Boxing Day: 9 am – 6 pm
- Admission cost: 16 Euro
- Getting there: Schloss Belvedere is at Prinz Eugen-Straße 27. The nearest subway stations are Taubstummengasse and Südtiroler Platz.
Now for something completely different. A short tram ride from the city centre, Hundertwasserhaus is a residential apartment block with a twist. In contrast with Vienna’s stately architecture, this is completely wacky with uneven surfaces, curved lines, bright primary colours and mosaic pillars.
Sadly, you can’t take a peek inside the houses – people live here – but there’s plenty to admire from the outside.
- Opening hours on Christmas Day & Boxing Day: As Hundertwasserhaus are residential buildings, opening hours do not apply
- Getting there: Hundertwasserhaus is at 03, cnr Löwengasse and Kegelgasse. The nearest tram stop is Hetzgasse
2. To relive the Third Man on the Riesenrad Ferris wheel
As a film buff, this was a must-do in Vienna for me. Soaring above the open spaces of the Prater, the Riesenrad Ferris wheel was the setting for a pivotal scene in the 1949 film-noir The Third Man. The film’s central character, Harry Lime, takes a slow, tense ride on this wheel, culminating in his ‘cuckoo clock speech’, now enshrined in the annals of film history:
In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
- Riesenrad Ferris wheel opening hours on Christmas Day & Boxing Day: 10 am – 10 pm
- Admission cost: 12 Euro
- Getting there: Riesenrad Ferris wheel is at Riesenradplatz 1. The nearest subway station is Praterstern.
3. To hear the Vienna Boys’ Choir sing on Christmas morning
The world’s most celebrated choir has been around since 1498 when Maximillian I replaced castrati with young boys whose voices had not yet broken. Hearing the Vienna Boys’ Choir sing at Mass on Christmas morning had been on my bucket list for a long time and one of my main reasons for spending Christmas in Vienna.
It was an extraordinary and unmissable experience. The acoustics of the Wiener Hofburgkapelle (Hofburg Chapel) in Vienna’s Imperial Palace, made the celestial notes of Haydn’s Mass in G Major simply soar.
How to get tickets for the Vienna Boys’ Choir
You will need to book tickets to hear the Vienna Boys’ Choir on for Christmas morning well in advance. Prices are from 12 Euro (restricted view). Mass starts at 9.15 am.
4. To attend a classical music concert in one of Vienna’s Baroque churches
Why stop at hearing the Vienna Boys’ Choir? Austria’s capital is not lacking in musical heritage – both Mozart and Beethoven are buried here – and, accordingly, the city is awash with opportunities to attend a classical music concert in a magnificent setting that is all decked out in Christmas decorations. So festive.
On my final night in Vienna, I attended a concert of Mozart’s Requiem, with a few bonus numbers thrown in, at Karlskirche (St Charles’s Church) Seated ticket prices from 20 Euro.
Spine-tingling stuff and enough to make you want to watch Amadeus all over again
5. To gaze Vienna’s Christmas lights
The Viennese do Christmas really well. No tacky Tango lights here (London, hang your head in shame). Instead, the streets of Vienna are decked with classy Christmas decorations and illuminations.
6. To drink glühwein at one of Vienna’s Christmas markets
One of the very best reasons to spend Christmas in Vienna is to visit one or more of its Christmas markets. It’s hard to beat strolling around one of these festive wonderlands, lights twinkling, the smoky aroma of roasted chestnuts perfuming the crisp night air. This is a tradition dating back to the late 13th Century, and the city has plenty of choices, each market having its own personality.
Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz is the biggest Christmas market in Vienna. Although it is not exactly a well-kept secret, the backdrop of the Rathaus is spectacular and its location in Old Town is central. Check out this guide if you want to learn more about Vienna’s Christmas markets, including location and opening times.
Not only can you pick up authentic Vienna souvenirs at the Christmas markets, including gingerbread houses or the iconic snow globes, but they are also the place to drink glühwein (mulled wine).
First, pay a deposit for a festive mug from one of the mug stalls and fill it glühwein as times as you want. When you’ve had enough of the warn spicy stuff, then return the mug and get your deposit back. Alternatively, you can hold on to the mug as a cheap reminder of the time you had one glühwein too many at Christmas market in Vienna!
To soak up the alcohol, tuck into Viennese Christmas market food. Sausages galore, gingerbread, pancakes, doughnuts, pastries … the choice is yours. My favourite was Bratkartoffeln, a tasty pan-fried potato dish.
7. To get cosy in one of Vienna’s cafes
Continuing with the foodie theme, it would be scandalous to visit Vienna at Christmas and not spend time in at least one of the city’s cafes. Vienna has Europe’s oldest café culture – its first coffee shop opened in 1683 – and one of its most thriving. The Viennese take their coffee and cake very seriously, and the city’s coffee houses have an atmosphere, unlike many others that you may have visited.
I sampled Sachertorte, layers of chocolate cake glued together with apricot preserve, in Café Goldegg, which was old-fashioned art nouveau heaven with green velvet booths and billiards tables. Other cafes are more formal and waiters will bring you your caffeinated nectar on a silver tray. Why not try both?
Spending Christmas in Vienna: The verdict
Vienna is a perfect destination to visit at Christmas, particularly as a solo traveller. Its museums and many of its restaurants are open for business and public transport is operational on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
There is more than enough to keep even the most restless soul entertained, from boning up on your art history, visiting historic palaces, taking advantage of the Vienna’s vibrant classical music scene to simply exploring the city on foot. Cosy restaurants and cafes are easy places to hang out whilst savouring Austrian cuisine.
If you are nervous about taking a Christmas break as a solo traveller, I completely understand. I too was uncertain about spending Christmas away from family and friends. But I had such a good time that I took a short break at Christmas the following year, that time in Krakow.
Finally, have you have spent Christmas away as a solo traveller? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Where I stayed in Vienna
I stayed at the Hotel Kaiserhof Wien at Frankenberggasse 10, which I highly recommend. It is in a great location, less than ten minutes’ walk from Karlsplatz subway station, had a cosy salon bar and friendly, helpful staff. The generous and varied breakfast (with prosecco!) also deserves special mention.
Getting around Vienna
As Vienna’s attractions are fairly spread out, it is inevitable that you will need to use public transport. The good news is that this is highly efficient, frequent and integrated.
As of 2019, the flat rate for one journey is € 2.20. 24-/48-/72-hour tickets are also available for €7.60, €13.30 and €16.50 respectively.
Another option is the Vienna Card, which gives you unlimited use of the metro, tram, and bus in downtown Vienna, including to and from the airport, as well as discounts on several of the city’s attractions.
I didn’t buy one as it didn’t represent value based on what I was doing in Vienna. However, depending on where you plan to visit, you might arrive at a different conclusion. Think about where you might be able to visit and how much individual tickets and transport will cost compared with the cost of the Vienna Card.