Wien Winter Wonderland: 3 Days in Vienna

At long last our girls winter weekend has finally happened. This weekend had been in discussion, and a bit of planning, for literally several years. My sister’s 18th and my mum’s 60th happened to fall within the same year, so of course this made the perfect excuse for massive celebrations, and what better way than for the four girls of the family to take a trip? Any excuse, really. During the course of preparation many destinations had been thrown about encouraging a few debates along the way. After convincing them against New York (we’d only be getting over the jetlag by the time we have to leave) my mum went into the travel agents to get a better idea of where we should visit.

Eventually I got a call a month or so ago from mum and she told me that she had booked a weekend to Vienna. I was of course excited to visit a new city, but not sure what Vienna would have to offer us. Perhaps the beauty of the trip was that I knew so little about this underrated city before visiting, and didn’t have a spare minute to research it either. However, after having spent 4 days there, I can recommend Vienna to anyone as a sort of winter wonderland not dissimilar to that of a fairy-tale. The city encapsulates everything the season has to offer with the icy weather, numerous Christmas markets, passion for mulled alcohol and the peaceful ambience that made the city feel so hospitable. For anyone looking to get into the festive spirit, this is an absolute must (and likewise a must-avoid-at-all-costs for any Scrooges and Grinches)!

So, if Vienna is on your list of places to see, particularly in Winter, here is my experience bulked out with top tips and things to do.

Christmas Markets

City Hall itself is a grand expression of beauty and acts as the perfect landmark for the Christkindlmarkt Am Rathaus market set affront it. I have visited a few Christmas Markets elsewhere and felt equally underwhelmed by the majority (they’re usually too busy, too repetitive and always feel a little too cliché). But Vienna’s biggest Christmas market somehow feels authentic. This could be down to the German Wiener Wurstchen being sold to you by German accents, the mulled wine being an essential more than a novelty because you need the burning twang of alcohol to stay warm, and the market itself having originated in the 18th century. Instead of feeling like I’d visited another clone of a Christmas market, I felt like I had engaged in a genuine cultural experience. Of course just days before Christmas the market was bursting with visitors and movement from stall to stall was slow, but the festive atmosphere is contagious and the setting really is beautiful, with the city hall behind and the stunning Burgtheater infront. The market offers everything you would expect from market stalls yet provides a real flavour of Viennese culture with cream-filled pastries, speciality meats, roasted nuts and pretzels the size of my head, literally. My particular favourite was the kinder-punsch (essentially mulled orange cider) served in adorable boot-shaped mugs (why, I’m not sure, but they make a good souvenir). It tasted delicious and was a short but sweet relief from the bitter cold.

If you wish to, you could easily put half a day in at this market as there is plenty to do besides visiting the festive stalls. At 3:30pm daily during the month of December the city hall hosts an advent carol service. My sisters and mum enjoy the more traditional element of Christmas and decided we would attend and I myself ended up embracing the advent carols which, hooray, were in English. This also gave us the perfect opportunity to check out the beautiful indoor architecture of City Hall and I can probably attribute this hour to the moment I finally got into the Christmas spirit. Never underestimate the power of an old fashioned carol service.

On our way out we happened to witness a wedding party getting their professional photographs. Most admirably the bride, who was dressed immaculately in ivory lace, was scoffing on a cream bun before brushing the crumbs away and getting her pictures taken.

Top tip: There is a small, modern wine bar just accross the road from the City Hall exit which makes the perfect stop for a refreshment after the service if you’re not ready for the cold again.

One of the main attractions of this market is the amazing array of Christmas lights, so visiting in the evening is more popular (it gets dark from 4pm onwards).

Perhaps what made the Christmas market so enchanting was the ice rink which really does excel above most ice-rink tourist attractions I’ve encountered. The ice rink is ideal for both learners and pros with 3 different rinks interconnected with lanes paved in ice to glide from rink to rink, equipped with a roundabout and even a fast lane for the pros. This was probably one of my favourite parts of our trip, and definitely the most entertaining. When we decided to skate, I had visions of myself gliding around like Torvill and Dean. The reality was less graceful than bambi taking his first few steps. Toddlers glided around with ease, going backwards and basically pirouetting into the air before heading skates first into the fast-lane, whilst I struggled to do anything more than hold onto the railings. After 20 minutes of my sisters trying patiently to teach me the very basics, even they could see I was a complete lost cause. So for the remaining 20 minutes I was essentially dragged around the ice rink by their hands, much to my own enjoyment, and probably everyone else’s bemusement. So I wasn’t a pro but it was still a trip highlight and a must for any December visitors.

Price: €6.50 for ticket and €7 for ice skates.

Wait time: The queues look intimidating but once you have your skates you can go straight on to the ice-rink and there really is no time limit enforced so enjoy at your leisure.

In terms of architecture, I was awestruck by Vienna. Unlike any city I’ve ever been (where beautiful buildings stand out among the mass of average buildings), every individual building was stunning in its own right. The streets are perhaps the cleanest I have ever seen. My sisters and I couldn’t get over not being able to see one piece of chewing gum squashed into the sidewalk! Imagine. Pastel coloured buildings line the streets, with cobbled side streets and beautiful squares.

Here were some of my favourite buildings:

City Hall Take an hour out of your Christmas market visit to attend the carol service

Burgtheater  Take a guided tour and discover the history of this German language theatre

Votive Church neo-gothic cathedral complete with stained glass windows, hand carved statues, candle-lit chandeliers and…a giant billboard of George Clooney? Amen to that.

Hofburg Palace Check out the all-White Christmas market located here or take a ride in one of the horse and carriages

There is also a cute fairground called Wiener Riesenrad where we took a Ferris wheel ride and enjoyed the view of multi-coloured Viennese rooftops. We also ordered white hot chocolate, and when asked for a shot of rum added,  we basically got a 70cl.
Top tip: On our first day, we purchased a 3 day tour bus ticket for Big Bus Vienna buses. These cost about 30 euros each. Although the actual tour audio element of the bus is only useful the first time round, having the ticket allowed us to transport around the city from one popular site to the next for the duration of our stay. However, the tram probably does work out cheaper.

Food and Drink
I like to think of myself as a very experimental eater, but as someone with a mostly Mediterranean diet (anything green, basically) I was very sceptical when reading most of the Viennese menus: think a lot of meat, dumplings and potato salads. However, don’t be put off by this if you too aren’t a massive German food lover, because everything I tried ended up tasting lovely, even if the descriptions weren’t so appealing. What Vienna does excel in is coffee and there is no lack of cafes in which you can try out a beautifully rich and perfectly roasted cup of coffee. I also liked how nearly everywhere  the coffee was served on a little silver tray along with milk and cubes of sugar, how retro. Try:
Café Diglas, Café Mozart
On our final day in Vienna we walked for miles exploring the outer city and the museum quarter. Exhausted, we decided to have our obligatory end of the day coffee break and opted for the first coffee shop we seen. What was intended to be a quick latte and maybe a pastry quickly and unintentionally turned into a champagne lunch. We ended up stumbling into one of the poshest coffee shops in Vienna called Gersner. When a waiter dressed in a tuxedo led us up a spiral staircase and into a closet (yes, a  closet) we all looked at each other with confusion. Visions of us being forced to have a cup of coffee in this tiny closet because we weren’t sophisticated enough filled all of our minds, but we were instructed to hang up our coats and taken into a slightly intimidating and breathtaking venue that specialised in Viennese cakes and chocolate truffles.
Red faced from all the walking, we couldn’t have stood out as confused tourists more if we tried. But we fully embraced our accidental venture and enjoyed bellini’s, cake, angelic décor and feeling like Kim and Kanye for a few moments. This café is also surprisingly well-priced, so if you want to convince yourself you are classy for a moment check this place out.

Whilst I didn’t have any money or frankly any time to spend shopping in Vienna, there was no shortage of amazing shops including high street brands such as Zara and Forever 21. I would assume Vienna particularly attracts shoppers of designer brands, because the streets were flooded with stunning buildings home to designers such as Chanel, Prada, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander Wang, Louis Vuitton and everyone in between.
Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial

I won’t deny it, we stumbled across this entirely by accident. Being lost in the city and refusing to turn on data roaming and have access to google maps, we decided to let the youngest sister lead the way. In doing this she somehow managed to accidentally lead us to nearly all the monumental sights that we visited, some sort of weird tourist sixth sense perhaps?
This memorial, known as the “Nameless Library”, commemorates the 65,000 Austrian jews who were murdered by the Nazi Regime during the second world war. The monument sits isolated and alone in the middle of Judenplatz square. The scene is peaceful yet there is an eerie undertone as you envision the square in the late 1930’s. Images of Austrian civillians watching anxiously from their windows as Nazi soldiers storm into the square to perform a house raid filled my head. Not to say this ever actually happened in this particular square, but if you visit it for yourself you will probably find this scene comes into your mind too.
Whilst Vienna itself is somewhat of a masterpiece, the art of the city is not restricted to inside museums and the beautiful architecture. If you want to see the hipster-touched side of the city, head down to the Danube canal or the Danube river and check out the graffiti that lines the walls the entire length of the water. Everyone has their own opinion on graffiti, but I loved the street art and felt it urbanised an otherwise traditional city.
As expected, Vienna is pretty damn cold in the Winter. Don’t let this put you off though, because the winter sun brightens up the city perfectly and the cold is crisp and refreshing when walking about all day. The only suitcase I could bring as hand luggage was tiny, so I had to pack super light, to my own horror of course. I found that a fur coat, mom jeans, boots and a few jumpers to alternate between made the perfect combination to pack light but stay warm.
Vienna really is a beautiful, friendly and inviting city full of culture and history. Although I’m more than willing to come back and see Vienna in the summer, I feel that the festive atmosphere and winter chill complimented the city’s landscape perfectly. Between the markets, shops, historic sites and cafes, there’s no shortage for things to do on a weekend in Vienna. Put it on your list! We had such a good weekend full of laughs and drinks and this really was the perfect way to celebrate the youngest of the Douglas clan turning 18.
On a final note, I can’t finish up without acknowledging just how beautiful our hotel was (The Hilton Plaza). I mean, look at that lobby.

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