It has been a dream of mine for many years to spend Christmas in Austria or Germany, and while we are still working on making that a reality, we created a “next-best-thing” experience that allowed us to visit some of the Christmas markets of Vienna, and create new travel memories with my daughter.
Once the Covid travel restrictions of Europe started to relax, we got busy making plans. My daughter and her spouse had been planning since 2020 to join us on a European trip, so we worked on an itinerary together based on destinations we all wanted to visit. We decided to meet in Innsbruck in November, and take a road trip across Austria and Slovenia, stopping in Salzburg, Hallstatt, and Graz, ending in Vienna in time for the Christmas markets.
Dave and I traveled by train from Zurich to Innsbruck, where we would have two nights alone in our Airbnb before Jenna and Lisa arrived the next morning. Getting from Zurich to Innsbruck was a challenge due to work on the tracks, and we had to employ a very expensive taxi to get us from one station to another (20 miles away) to make our train to Innsbruck.
We arrived at dark and made our way to the apartment, which was an easy walk from the train station. Once we were settled, we needed supplies from the supermarket, and I wanted to see the old town before bed. As we approached the end of the square, we could see the giant Christmas tree being erected, and the stalls being set up. The markets were still a few weeks from opening, but seeing the preparations got us in the holiday spirit!
With three days to explore, we decided to purchase the 48-hour Innsbruck card, which included the Top of Innsbruck, the Alpenzoo, Swarovski Crystal Worlds, the Palace, and many other top attractions. During the holidays, a visit to Lumagica, a holiday light exhibit, is included in the pass. The Swarovski Crystal World is a short drive from Innsbruck, so we visited before our card expired on our way to Salzburg. It was interesting, but I wouldn’t make a special trip to visit. Before purchasing any city cards, always calculate the cost of the exhibits you actually believe you will visit vs. the cost of the card.
The Top of Innsbruck is an experience that should not be skipped. As we made our way to the top of the peak via funicular and cable car, we watched the scenery change from green to white. Arriving at the top in November, we were treated to a winter wonderland, and after gawking at the incredible landscape, we found a table in the snow, and ordered some refreshment. On our way back down the mountain, we stopped midway to check out the Alpine Zoo, which was included in our pass. It was a great zoo, and the animals are in a more intimate setting than most zoos.
Dave and I have been to Salzburg twice before, but the girls wanted to stop for their first visit, so after we left the Swarovski Crystal World, we detoured there for lunch. We visited the famous Café Tomaselli for a drink, wandered the narrow lanes and passages, peeked in to the Christmas shop, strolled across the Residenzplatz, and finally across the threshold of an Austrian restaurant for schnitzel and beer. As it turned out, a Vietnamese family had taken over the schnitzel house, so we had ramen and dumplings instead (they were delicious!).
Other must see sites in Salzburg are the Mirabell Palace, a palatial estate with sprawling gardens, Mozart residence and birthplace (two separate locations), and a funicular ride to the Fortress Hohensalzburg, where you can explore the fortress and have a little lunch. This is where you’ll find the best views of Salzburg.
The drive to Hallstatt offered some exhilarating scenery and cute towns. We arrived after dark and imagine our surprise to learn that we could not drive our car to the hotel! Dave stayed with the car at the town gate, and us girls walked to the hotel, which took about 15 min. We checked in and got instructions for the shuttle, which would transport us and our baggage to the door of the inn. Be sure to ask your host about this if you plan to stay the night inside the village. Within no time we were walking around, taking in an evening exploration of the village without other tourists. The brisk temperatures drove us back to the warmth of the inn, where we enjoyed a bottle of prosecco and some snacks to celebrate mine and Dave’s anniversary.
In the morning we noshed on the hotel breakfast and set off to explore. We spent some time walking the road along the river and admiring the swans. The salt mine is a popular attraction and is open year ‘round, although hours vary. Another must see is the Hallstatt Cemetery and Ossuary. There’s a small path to the church, where you can visit the cemetery and pay your respects, or just admire the spectacular views. The absolute best thing to do in Hallstatt is roam around the streets looking for hidden passages and staircases; you might come across a waterfall or a perfect cup of hot cocoa.
<We took a weeklong detour through Slovenia, stopping in Bled and Ljubljana, which will be covered separately>
Graz was not on my travel radar until I specifically started researching potential destinations for overnight or day trips. When I searched for “most beautiful towns in Austria”, Graz was on every list, so we decided to check it out for a few nights. We are SO glad we did! I was frequently taken aback at the beauty of Graz…the murals and art on the buildings can not be replicated by photos! The wide streets are lined with shops and cafes, and lots of pedestrians. Again, we arrived while the Christmas market was being assembled, and some stalls were already open, but we would not be treated to the copious holiday lights that were being strung all across the city.
Graz has a great tram system that connects the city center to the central train station. There are only a few lines, but they stop all over the city and run frequently. Tickets can be purchased from machines at larger stops. Some of the main attractions are the castle atop the hill (with a funicular), the main square, and the Murinsel, a floating café/theatre/art structure in the center of the Mur River. The Old Town is a jewel, and the Eggenberg Palace is open to the public.
The last stop on our Austrian holiday was where I would finally get all the Christmas markets, twinkle lights and glühwein I could handle. We settled in to our gorgeous Viennese apartment, complete with wood burning fireplace, and mapped out our four days in Vienna. We arrived late afternoon by train from Graz, and after securing our usual provisions (coffee, cream, water, juice), we headed to dinner at a cozy Osteria before venturing to the Weihnachtsmarkt am Spittelberg (Spittelberg Christmas Market).
We visited five Christmas Markets during our week in Vienna; Spittelberg was the closest to our apart and turned out to be our favorite. It’s laid out amongst a few parallel streets in the Spittelberg neighborhood, and had a young, energetic vibe. At each market, you can buy a signature mug for a small amount, and take it around the market for glühwein or punch. When you’re done for the evening, you can return the mug for a refund, or keep it as a souvenir. Just note that you can’t use a mug from one market at a different market. Other things you will see at every market are pastries, sausages, holiday décor, and knitwear. The stalls are only permitted to sell handmade crafts and goods; no plastic or mass-produced items are permitted.
The next day we saw a ton of the city, and our apartment was close enough to a couple tram stops that we didn’t have to walk our feet off. We started the day at the Hofburg Palace, strolling through the park-like grounds, ogling at the gorgeous architecture. This is also the location of the Spanish Riding School, and if you’ve never seen the amazing athleticism of the Lipizzaner’s, it’s a sight to behold.
We eventually found our way to Graben, the famous, oft photographed pedestrian avenue of Vienna. Our first view was during daylight, but the many Christmas lights strung overhead was a harbinger of what nightfall would bring. We couldn’t wait! At the end of Graben was Stephansplatz and the Stephansplatz Christmas Market. The stalls here wind around the church and it feels very festive.
After walking around in the cold air for a few hours, we were ready for a warm up, and found ourselves at the Café Frauenhuber, which claims to be the oldest coffee house in Vienna, and to have once hosted Mozart and Beethoven. Here we had the most decadent hot cocoa (with whisky and whipped cream, of course). The warmth kicked our appetite in to gear, and we were settled in front of a Swiss fondue in no time! After dinner, we were finally able to see the glory of the Vienna holiday lights. It was so magical and everything I had hoped it would be. We ended the evening at the Café Central, a popular meeting spot in Vienna since 1876. We indulged on rich chocolate cakes and cold bubbly, which we thought was the perfect topper on our first day.
As we meandered back to our flat, we stumbled upon the Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz, which turned out to be our second favorite market. This one wound around the Rathausplatz, and was definitely the largest market of the five we visited. It had a great energy, with lots of people, Christmas carols, and plenty of stalls for glühwein and holiday treats. We didn’t linger too long, as we were anxious to get back to our apartment and enjoy a crackling fire before bed.
The remainder of our time was spent wandering the various areas of Vienna and checking out the markets. We decided on a nighttime visit to the market at Belvedere Palace, which is in an insanely beautiful setting, but is definitely a tram ride from the city. The Belvedere Palace is open to visitors year-round, with rotating exhibits on display. Other must-visit areas of Vienna are the Museum Quarter, which is home to the Museum of Natural History, the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna, and the mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. If you’re in search of green space, Vienna offers the Volksgarten, Stadtpark, the sprawling Leopoldstadt, and hundreds of small parks scattered around the city.
On our last day in Vienna, we visited the Schönbrunn Palace, which has its roots in its current location since 1548, and was expanded by the Habsburg empire. A visit to the Palace is a must, and is fairly easy to reach by tram, which has a stop in front of the palace. There are a couple different options to see the palace; I suggest seeing as many rooms as your budget will allow. As we walked back to our apartment from the tram stop, we could hear the sounds of the Spittelberg Market beckon, and we couldn’t resist one last cup of glühwein before our morning departure whisked us away from the Holiday Wonderland of Vienna.