The four days we spent exploring Vienna last summer were far too short to really get to know this beautiful city, so we decided to go back in the winter, especially to experience the famous Christmas fairs of the Austrian capital.
We took advantage of the low priced flights at the beginning of December and arrived in Vienna even cheaper than we would have done it by the newly introduced Cluj-Vienna train, which also means an about 10 hour ride, while the flight takes only one hour. From the airport we hopped on a bus to the Westbahnhof, as our accommodation was in that area.
The Airbnb apartment we booked was very cool and unexpectedly cheap for Vienna, because we risked a bit this time and chose a newly added one on the website, with no reviews, but it turned out to be a great option. Sometimes you have to rely on luck (or instinct) if you want to get low prices as a tourist. 🙂
After having spent during our last visit a whole day at Schönbrunn – the summer palace of the imperial family, we were keen to see another aristocratic residence, closer to the center and stretched on a more modest territory – that is, for Habsburg standards, because for us, this area too, was huge.
There are actually two buildings on this land, the Upper Belvedere and the Lower Belvedere, built a few years apart, three centuries ago.
Besides the two baroque buildings, there are also the former stables (turned into museums), as well as the orangery (which is now part of a botanical garden). Of course, there is also the traditional beautiful garden with flowers, trees and neat hedges.
In the upper palace functioned one of the first public museums in the world, housing the imperial art gallery two centuries ago. In the last years of the dynasty, the palace served as home for the heir prince Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 triggered the First World War.
The buildings were seriously damaged during the Second World War, but they were carefully renovated, presenting themselves now as true architectural jewels.
It is worth visiting both palaces even if it is just to see the buildings from the inside – the gorgeous interiors specific to the Renaissance nobility, but also for the impressive art collections hosted here.
We must also mention the exhibition with the works of Egon Schiele, considered one of the greatest Austrian painters.
Haus der Musik or The House of Music
We came to this place without knowing much about it, and were very pleasantly surprised even before entering the building – the street it is on had music themed Christmas decorations with musical notes. This aristocratic palace in the center of the capital houses a museum dedicated to music – perhaps one of the most complete and interesting in the world, which welcomes the visitors with a set of musical steps that make it almost impossible for you to gather all the adulthood you are capable of and stop hopping on them.
We originally thought it was just an institution dedicated to classical music, a chapter where Vienna has a lot of outstanding figures. By the way, in case you didn’t know, Ioan Holender, originary from Timișoara, Romania was the director of the Vienna State Opera for almost two decades, a performance no one had ever achieved in the past.
But, contrary to our expectations, we discovered here a fascinating combination between old and new. On the first floor, visitors can find out about the famous Vienna Philharmonic and watch a concert in a small soundproofed room with perfect acoustics, a mini-cinema in fact. Also, at this level you have the opportunity to create a mini-symphony by throwing some dice and, upon further exploration, to find out that in this palace was placed, about 200 years ago, the first Christmas tree in Vienna – a custom brought here by the German wife of an Austrian duke who lived in this beautiful building.
On the second floor is the sonosphere, one of the most surprising places we have seen. It’s actually a high-tech interactive sound and music exhibition, where you can learn almost everything about how sounds are formed, how the human ear perceives them and how music is created. There is also a room where you can experience and hear the outside world as a baby does from the womb.
The third floor includes the exhibitions dedicated to the great Austrian composers: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler, the second Viennese school of Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. There are many personal items that belonged to them, including pieces of furniture, and if you want you can even write your name with musical notes – and, of course, we couldn’t resist the temptation to find out how the symphony of the AZ Travel Tips dream team would sound. 🙂
On the fourth and last floor there are some spaces where you can become a virtual conductor with your own digital orchestra. If you are sitting in the middle of the scene, you are 3D scanned and depending on your movements, a computer generates classical music. There are even chairs from where your companions can watch and applaud you.
We highly recommend this museum, it’s a unique experience and we don’t know another place where you could live it!
Austrian National Library
You may wonder why some tourists would go to visit a library. The reason wasn’t an unrelenting desire for reading (especially since we don’t speak German like, at all), but the interest in the actual building of this institution, which is sensational.
The origin of the library dates back to 14th century, when the first private book collections of several noblemen were moved to a library. The number of books was continuously growing so at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the current library was established within the Hofburg Palace (the winter residence of the imperial family). For two centuries, it belonged to the Habsburg dynasty and entered in possession of the state after the fall of the empire.
Currently, the library houses over 12 million objects, from books aged almost a millennium and medieval scrolls to maps from the times of the great geographic discoveries, as well as modern means of media storage.
The building itself is spectacular, with a humbling grandeur and an amazing level of detail. The dimensions are monumental, wall paintings leave you speechless, and the thousands of old books that fill the shelves make you feel small in the midst of this treasure of humanity. You should definitely go there when visiting Vienna.
The Leopold Museum
The former imperial stables have been transformed into an area with museums and artistic events, called the Museums Quartier, located very centrally in the heart of the capital. Of these, we have been to Leopold, a museum of modern art from the last century.
Apart from the works of Egon Schiele, of which we had already admired some at the Belvedere, we found here a permanent exhibition of the works of Gustav Klimt, another great Viennese artist from the end of the imperial period, as well as paintings by other artists who created in a similar style as their epochal master.
We also had the opportunity to see a contemporary photography exhibition, as well as a collection of more classical works from the 17th-19th centuries on the theme of rural life in Central Europe, which we liked very much.
The building of the museum does not have the magnificence of the Viennese palaces, being a functional structure, so it is worth visiting only for the art content. We recommend the Leopold Museum to those passionate about the current art, very different from what can be seen in the classic galleries in Vienna.
After long walks through the city center, we decided to have a day exploring the surroundings of Vienna, which are very beautiful, the capital of Austria being surrounded by forests. Even if the weather was not ideal for that, being quite cold and slushy, the places we visited were delightful.
We went on a half-day guided tour organized by the Vienna Sightseeing Tours. The route was several tens of kilometers long, in the southwestern surroundings of the city, a large part of it passing through the famous forest of Vienna, full of charm and mystery, where legends and fairytales were woven for centuries.
The inhabitants of the capital city come here for picnics or hiking in the summer, some choosing to spend one or more nights at the nice rustic guesthouses in the area, and the luckier ones even own holiday homes here. Green areas are being maintained impeccably, as expected.
The Memorial Chapel at Mayerling
The first stop of the tour was at Mayerling, where once functioned a hunting residence of the imperial family. This is the place where heir prince Rudolf, the sole successor of Franz Joseph died, in somewhat unclear circumstances. Apparently he has committed suicide after shooting his mistress, their illegitimate relationship being impossible within the strict rules of the court.
After his death, the house became a religious site, the bedroom where the unhappy couple died was demolished and transformed into a chapel in the hope of alleviating the capital sin committed by the prince.
The area is wonderful, with lots of greenery and fresh air, and inside the building, visitors can learn interesting historical information about the characters that found their end of life here.
Cistercian monastery Stift Heiligenkreuz
The second stop was at a nine centuries old monastery. The place is absolutely fascinating, it takes you back in time, in full European middle age! The building is very well preserved, and the high stone walls, the wide and simple corridors, the modesty and the simplicity of the place urge you to meditation and humility.
It makes you feel like in a movie with knights and priests from old times, or as a character from a book with decorations you only imagined and did not believe they existed in reality. The burden of history is pressing upon you in front of every stone, every vault and every old cross.
The monks here are nice and friendly, somewhat in contrast to the sobriety that such a place is inspiring. It was a great experience!
The underground lake at Seegrotte Hinterbrühl
The last stop of our itinerary was in a cave, actually a former gypsum mine, where the largest underground lake in Europe is now. After being exploited for centuries, the grotto was abandoned for a while, and then turned into a combat aircraft factory during the Nazi period.
After the war it re-entered the touristic circuit and is now visited by people from all over the world who walk through the narrow tunnels. An exciting part of this visit was the boat tour on the inner lake, which was very cool, even if it lasted only a few minutes. It somewhat reminded us of the Turda Salt Mine, but here the walls are made of rock, not salt.
Vienna’s Christmas Markets
We left the Christmas Markets in Vienna for the final part of this article, because we visited most of them on our last day in the city. And yes, the use of plural “markets” is correct here, because when it comes to Christmas magic in Vienna, you can’t talk about a single fair, as is the case in other cities. We’ve seen about 12 fairs in the capital of Austria, and there were still a few left when we decided to call it a night.
Here are some brief impressions about the ones we managed to attend:
In front of the Schönbrunn Palace, in the inner courtyard, there are dozens of booths with goodies and souvenirs, a huge Christmas tree brought from Tyrol, and lots of tourists.
At the other palace – Belvedere – the situation presents itself about the same, but the space is smaller. The smell of mulled wine and roasted meat is super inviting and urges you to taste some Viennese snacks!
On the famous Mariahilfer Straße shopping boulevard there are a few specific Christmas items, but one hardly could ask for more bling on this street than in an ordinary period anyway.
In Maria-Theresien-Platz, the fair looks like the ones in Romania, with small stalls surrounded by curious visitors.
The fair in Michaelerplatz is also not very big, but has a plus of charm added by the beautiful horses tramming the carriages with tourists eager to experience somewhat aristocratic rides.
Another mini Christmas market on a central street is Advent Genussmarkt bei der Oper. Here we found just a few festive stands, but it is surrounded by a pedestrian and shopping area, where during summer people spend time at terraces, while in wintertime are enjoying mulled wine from nice traditional ceramic cups (for which a warranty must be paid so people couldn’t decide to keep them as souvenirs for free – this is the case at all the fairs we have visited).
At the Prater amusement park there are just a few additional stalls with some special holiday products in as compared to the rest of the year. But most of the attractions are closed during winter, so it’s not necessarily an attractive destination for this period.
The fair at Karlsplatz is one of the largest in the city. The space is generous, and the offer as well: all kinds of deliciously smelling foods, Austrian sweets, traditional items crafted with great care by artisans, plus a skating rink and a children’s playground.
Near the Stephansplatz, the central square and symbol of Vienna, is one of the busiest fairs, but the atmosphere here is worth experiencing, the central streets are adorned with colorful lights and tasteful decorations.
The Adventmarkt Am Hof is another small, central fair that reminded us of the Romanian cities influenced by the Austro-Hungarians (Oradea Christmas Market, for example).
Nearby is the Altwiener Christkindtmarkt, which is said to be the oldest and most traditional Christmas fair in Vienna. It has indeed a more rustic air, with beautiful wooden booths created by talented craftsmen, baked apples, fried cabbage and woven socks.
The largest and most impressive fair in the imperial capital is located in the front of the City Hall: Rathausplatz.
Compared to what we were accustomed to, it’s huge, there are hundreds of kiosks across multiple alleys, with all the imaginable sorts of dishes, sweets, drinks and souvenirs.
The atmosphere here is unique, there is a feeling of fairytale in the middle of all the colorful and shiny lights that adorn every tree and every bush.
If something fits perfectly in the picture when you think about the magic of the winter holidays, then it is certainly this place. You don’t want to leave this amazing fair, being enchanted by everything you see – it makes you feel like a child again and everything around you is part of a magical landscape from a winter fairytale!
What else can we say about the Viennese Christmas markets? They are extraordinary, they are magical and they are delightful! If you have not seen them before, you have to do it next winter. The spirit of Christmas is alive here, between colorful lights, delicious food, happy people, and cute dogs confused by the myriad of smells. 🙂
Super happy about the Vienna winter experience, we continued our travels towards another festive city, one we never visited before – Warsaw . We will tell you everything about it in the next article.