Christmas markets have never been the same for me in the UK, they feel wrong somehow, as they are not part of the country’s Christmas tradition. Growing up in Germany we had Christmas markets in every town, even the smallest ones, it was always a feeling that the festive season was around the corner. Chris had spent a few days on business in Vienna in December a few years ago and had always wanted to go back for a proper visit, therefore we decided to spend a weekend in Vienna, our first time as a family, at the end of November.
We arrived at Hotel Lamee early enough for dinner. Around the corner we found a lovely little restaurant Heindl’s Schmarren serving authentic local Palatschinken. Palatschinken are Austrian pancakes and we had them savoury as a main course followed by sharing the sweet Kaiserschmarren.
After breakfast we walked the short distance through the alleys to the Steaphan’s Dom (cathedral), dropping in to some of the local shops and window-shopping on the way. The cathedral dates back to 1365 and has become the symbol of Vienna. Instead of venturing into the cathedral we decided to climb the “Steffl”, as the Viennesse call the south tower of the cathedral and the highest point of the Vienna skyline.
We started to climb the 343 steps, which turned out to be quite an exercise for us. The higher we got the better view of the ornately patterned roof. 230.000 bright coloured tiles cover the roof on both sides and make it an attraction itself, we certainly had not seen anything like it before. From the room in the tower we could see over the whole city and beyond to the hills in the distance.
Back downstairs we avoided the Fiaker, horse drawn carts, and strolled past little shops and through narrow alleys towards the Stadtpark.
We strolled though the park, soaking up the early winter sunshine. Statues were dotted through out the park; Famous composers, Johann Strauss and Franz Schubert, were among them. A coffee and hot chocolate from the little mobile coffee vendor in the park warmed us on our walk.
From here it was a short walk to the Belvedere. The Belvedere used to be Prince Eugene of Savoy’s summer residence. After his death the Upper Belvedere became the first public museum in the world. The Lower Belvedere is dedicated to modern art and we visited the exhibition of “Klimt/Schiele/Kokoschka und de Frauen” there. Jerome did not seem to be interested in their art and headed for the Marble Rooms and the Gold Cabinet instead. These rooms were stunning, marble on the floors, stucco reliefs on the ceiling, beautiful intricate painted walls and golden mirrors. This was opulence at its best and we could only imagine what life was like for the prince and emperors centuries ago. The sun shining in through the windows made the Gold Cabinet look like it was on fire.
We ventured outside into the manicured Palace Garden with its hedges and terraces, and walked along the path leading us to the Upper Belvedere, past many marble statues and fountains. The garden is a gem of Baroque landscape design. It was used by the prince and his guests for strolling and conversation, and showed the owner’s power and wealth.
We entered the Upper Belvedere through the main entrance and walked up the grand staircase to see the art pieces in the magnificent rooms. There was more marble, colourful ceiling frescos, gilded stucco and a lot of paintings by famous painters dating back to medieval times to see and admire. The most famous exhibit is the “Kiss” by Gustav Klimt and a must see when in Vienna. Jerome enjoyed some of the paintings and we played a game to choose our favourite one in each room to see who liked what.
After some time admiring the art we all got a bit of an overload and needed a break. Not far from the Belvedere we found the typical Viennese Kaffeehaus Goldegg. Jerome started reading his newly acquired Asterix book, which we had bought in one of the interesting local book shops in the morning. Chris and I just enjoyed a “Melange” coffee with a homemade slice of cake.
A pleasant tram ride later – we had to wait for an old tram on Jerome’s request – we arrived at the Christmas market our main reason for the trip.
The main Christmas market at the Rathausplatz is held annually from the middle of November until 26th December and we had luckily caught one of the opening weekends. A Christmas market is an unforgettable experience for young and old. If you have the chance you should go and visit one at least once whether in Germany or Austria.
First of all we noticed the huge Christmas tree in front of the Rathaus, lit up with hundreds of fairy lights. In front we found little stalls lined up in several rows. We took one of the alleys and started to head into the crowd, going from one stall to the next. Some sell food, some chocolates and treats either for Christmas or to eat straight away; others have local crafts, gifts and wooden toys; still more have Christmas decorations and festive gifts. Children and adults will both love the colour, smells and interesting items on sale.
We drank a hot Glühwein (mulled wine) and Jerome a hot juice equivalent in lovely heart shaped cups which made a great souvenir. Christmas markets are a great place to try unusual local Christmas food and buy creative gifts for everyone back home. We selected a wooden board game and some funny shaped cookie cutters.
It started to snow on our walk back into the old town, which made the atmosphere even more Christmassy even though there were still four weeks left until Christmas Eve. We had classic Wiener Schnitzel for dinner at Restaurant Pfudl, another must have dish when in Vienna and Austria in general.
The following day after a long lazy Sunday brunch with friends at JOMA, the snow showers from the previous day had sadly turned to rain and we attempted a walk dodging the raindrops. After a brief stop at the baroque palace Winterpalais, they were just setting up the next exhibition so there was nothing for us to see apart from the architecture of the building, we went to the Schmetterlinghaus.
This butterfly house is housed in one of the most beautiful Art Nouvaeu palm houses in the world. It was built in 1906 for the emperor Franz Joseph I, who used to come here to relax. We were glad to get out of the rain and into the warmth.
Inside the glasshouse we found a tropical garden, with waterfalls and exotic plants. They have created an environment especially for the 400 free flying butterflies. The butterflies were not easy to spot at first, some of them were high up in the palms, others flew around, some sat on the colourful flowers and ate the nectar. In what looked like an aquarium next to the entrance door we could see the pupas, which was very interesting for Jerome and the other children around.
We reached the Naturhistorisches Museum (natural history museum) after a brief walk through the Burggarten and past Heldenplatz.
The Naturhistorisches Museum is not only the home of the famous 29.500 year old “Venus of Willendorf” and a “Stellar” sea cow, which became extinct over 200 years ago. Another highlight was the largest and oldest collection of meteorites. We spent hours looking at the immense collection of animals. There were hundreds of ladybirds, jellyfish in formaldehyde, birds, fish, pretty much any animal imaginable. What is amazing is this museum is largely unchanged since it was first built and so is like museums used to be before the days of modern video displays and interactive screens. Jerome seemed to enjoy the old antique feel and real exhibits, and Chris was all nostalgic for how the London museums used to be before modernisation.
We could have spent hours looking at all the glass cases but we had bought tickets for the planetarium, and therefore cut our visit short. It was the first time at the planetarium for Jerome and an incredible experience for us all. The show was called “Reise zu den Sternen” (journey to the stars), check their website for English show times. I think even if you do not speak a word of German you would still be able to enjoy sitting under the dome and watching the stars and planets close up.
After the show we rushed back to Hotel Lamee to get our bags and take the City Airport Train from the main station back to the airport. I think the weekend showed us winter travel and visits can be as much fun as summer.