Every year at the Christmas holidays, I return home to Chicago and spend time with my family and friends. December, as you can imagine, is a less than ideal time to visit Chicago. The weather is never in my favor. And every year I tell my mom we should go somewhere else for the holiday. Usually we imagine ourselves on a beach somewhere, singing Christmas songs with tropical drinks in hand. But about a year ago, I suggested to my mom that we go to Europe for the holiday – my treat. I had tons of Delta miles to use, I am always itching to go to Europe, and my mom had never been there. She was totally into it and I told her I’d get back to her with more details after my summer trip to Italy.
As soon as I knew we were going to take this trip, I was certain of which cities I wanted to visit. Paris was a no brainer. I hadn’t been since 2000 and I knew it was at the top of my mom’s list. And since we would be going at Christmas, I naturally wanted to visit a city that was known for its Christmas markets and general holiday atmosphere which led me to Vienna. Besides, Vienna seemed like the kind of city perfect for a mom and daughter trip where we could eat good food, drink wine, do some sightseeing, and just chill out in a cafe. My mom, agreeable as ever, was aligned with my itinerary and I set to work planning. Knowing that my mom and I together are notoriously bad decision makers, I tried to organize as much as possible in advance to limit the amount of “What do you want to do?” conversation. I sketched out general daily itineraries, booked reservations for meals and activities in advance, and had solid list of ideas to turn to when the situation required it. Since we were going during the holidays, I also had to plan around closures since many restaurants close for the entire holiday time and many tourist venues have different hours on the major holidays.
All of my planning paid off in Vienna. We never felt rushed, had enough time to do all of our sightseeing, and even have some downtime to just relax. We were there 4 nights which felt like the maximum amount of time needed. We even had enough time to do a day trip to Slovakia!
The touristy parts of Vienna are mostly clustered around the old town (Innere Stadt) and it is easy to get around on foot or via public transportation (also easy from the airport). It is such a walkable city though; we often skipped the trams and enjoyed walking through the town (and walking off all the delicious food). During the holidays, the streets are decorated so beautifully it is a pleasure just to walk around in the evenings a little buzzed from a few glasses of Gruner.
We stayed in the Innere Stadt, very central and perfect for a first visit to Vienna as we were easily able to get to major sights/places. The only thing I didn’t like was just how touristy it was in this area. Karntner Strasse, the main street near our hotel, was always full of slow-moving tourists, lots of cheesy souvenir shops and chain stores (H&M, Zara) and fast food. We tried to avoid this street as much as possible when returning to our hotel, Aviano Pension.
This hotel is the type of place I like to stay in Europe. Small “hotel” with very friendly service, lovely rooms, and decent breakfast. Our room was surprisingly very large, we even had a couch and some sitting chairs as well as a little table and chairs. My mom and I were both surprised how much space we had (and knew that we would not have such generous accommodations in Paris)! The breakfast was good, typical fare: meats, cheeses, bread/pastries, jam, fruit, coffee. While not incredibly updated, it’s a great place to stay in Vienna and I would absolutely stay there again.
We spent most of our time in Vienna at museums or at Christmas markets. While the weather was relatively warm, it was still late December and you could only spend so much time outside without wanting to be indoors (or a warm beverage). In Vienna, it seems like there are Christmas markets everywhere! And when Christmas is over, there are suddenly New Year markets popping up!
We went to four or five of the markets during our stay; our favorite was the Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz. This market is large and had a large ice skating course (it was not a rink, but more like a course/path that you could follow), as well as some carnival rides for kids. The markets are perfect for just wandering around: you can grab a snack (generally gingerbread, sausages, pretzels) and a drink (mulled wine was our preference though there are many warm drinks to choose from), find a spot to sip your hot wine and soak in the holiday spirit. There is something really lovely about these markets and it was fun to visit a few different ones to see what was unique about each. I really just love the tradition, the traditional Christmas-y feel you get while hanging out here. While the markets are rather commercial, it is done in a way that feels more attuned to local traditions and less about last minute sales and gift-wrapping.
There are plenty of museums in Vienna and so much history to take in. Highly recommend the Belvedere Museum which is in an old palace just outside of the town, a short tram ride away. Browse the collection (featuring Klimt’s The Kiss which will surely draw a large crowd) and admire the beautiful palace both inside and around the grounds. You can also visit Schonbrunn Palace which is further outside of the city, about 25-30 minutes on the U Bahn. This is the Viennese version of Versailles, a summer palace with large gardens to walk through. Since it was pretty cold the day we went to the palace, we didn’t walk around all of the grounds but they are quite expansive. We skipped seeing the inside of the palace and hung out at the Christmas market here (my least favorite). Probably far more enjoyable to come here on a warm day!
The Leopold Museum is in the Museum Quarter, a modern museum with Klimt and Schiele permanent collections. This is actually the largest Schiele collection anywhere in the world. I really enjoyed this museum as I was able to learn a lot more about both of these Austrian artists.
Within the Hofburg Palace you can also visit the Imperial Treasury. This museum features the crown jewels and other items from the Hapsburg Empire. This isn’t a huge museum so it’s easy to see pretty quickly and there are many interesting items here. We kind of stumbled in here when we didn’t have much to do and it was worth the visit.
I’d also suggest visiting the Kaisergruft, a crypt housing the Habsburg family. This is a quirky cool thing to see. It doesn’t take long to walk through, but it’s impressive to see some of the very ornate coffins.
Of course, Vienna is also known for its musical history and it is worth exploring concerts in advance of your trip if you are interested in seeing a performance. Sure, you can probably book some crap tourist concert last minute, but I wouldn’t recommend that. We saw Hansel & Gretel at the Volksoper which is the more laid back opera in town (the name translates to People’s Opera). The Vienna State Opera is the primary opera and much more difficult to get tickets (and more expensive). There are standing room tickets available for every performance, these only cost 3-4 euro. However, you have to queue up a few hours before the box office opens in order to snag one of these. Even if you don’t go to the opera for a performance, I would recommend taking a tour of the State Opera. Tours are offered hourly and it was a really good way to see the opera and learn a bit more of its history and how it works. Keep in mind that the operas are often closed during the summer months.
While I enjoyed my time in Vienna, it felt a bit uptight compared to other European cities that I have visited. I had heard that before and noticed it pretty immediately. The city is clean and very beautiful. It’s obvious that it was once a center of great wealth. But it’s personality was a bit hard to find. The cafes (more on those later) were one window into the lifestyle here, but I otherwise struggled to see the looser, more laid back Vienna. It’s definitely worth it to take a day trip and explore outside of Vienna, whether you visit Bratislava or Melk. Salzburg is a bit further away and might be tough to do in a day.