Ok, so the title is a lie. Vienna at Christmas is simply beautiful – markets are a-plenty, gluhwein hot and fairy lights twinkling against a clear dark sky.
I visited for a quick weekend getaway to stock up on some festive feelings and hearty cuisine and got much more besides. Here is a quick guide to 24 – 36 hours in the capital of Austria:
Breakfast is best served with some history and Cafe Central has it in buckets. Famous (and infamous) patrons have included Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky. It has offered traditional Viennese coffee and Austrian Frustruck (breakfast) and an extensive (and delicious) patisserie menu since 1876 in a beautiful almost chapel-like setting.
With a full stomach but wanting to get my cultural fill of the great Austrian masters, I headed off to get up close to some Klimt and Schiele at the Belvedere Museum. Worth a visit for its beautiful baroque summer palaces alone, the paintings are what drew me here and include Klimt’s The Kiss – probably the most famous romantic painting in the world.
Schonenbrun, another of Vienna’s many palaces, is home to a huge Christmas Market from Mid-November onwards. At least 60 stalls sell everything yuletide inspired, including handpainted glass baubles, wooden nativity scene ornaments and beautifully iced gingerbread biscuits! Between browsing the stalls, I picked up a very late but traditional lunch of Spaetzle (Austrian pasta), a huge fresh doughnut and drank a hot gluhwein. The market had a surprisingly calm atmosphere and is perfect for a spot of people watching.
Moving back into the centre of Vienna I stopped off at the gloriously gothic and romanesque St. Stephan’s Cathedral – built from 1339–1365. It has an amazing multicoloured tile roof, ancient tombstones and incredible vaulted pillars and has been under restoration since 2007.
Fancying a stroll through one of Vienna’s many shopping arcades I stopped at Freyung Passage, one of the quaint historical undercover row of boutique shops and cafes in the city. It isn’t in a touristy area but is very close to Cafe Central and worth a look for the stunning and intricate interior design, not to mention the specialist restaurants and wine bars.
Ready for some supper I made my way to Ofenloch – a cosy traditional restaurant with wood panelled walls, candle-lit tables and tuck-away booths that has been serving Viennese locals for centuries. I had the venison with chestnut mash potato and braised cabbage and bacon, washed down with some surprisingly good local wine. It was truly delicious.
Walking through Vienna’s impeccably clean streets and past its multitude of designer shops, it is clear this part of Europe is still incredibly wealthy, as it was when the great palaces, cathedrals and coffee shops of Vienna were first built. Its reputation for espionage and secrecy, built up in the 1980s, may have now gone with the fall of Communism. However, the feeling the city evokes, walking around its historic arcades, cosy eateries and quiet twinkling streets, still, I think, gives it an intriguing old-world elegance.