While most cities are great summer destinations, many say that Vienna reaches its full potential during winter, when the smell of roast chestnuts and mulled wine invade the streets, the traditional taverns cook up the heartiest of meals and the cultural spaces fill with exhibitions and musical highlights.
Here are some of the best ways to enjoy Vienna during your winter holiday, whether you’re looking for some sightseeing, culture or culinary adventures:
Go Ice skating in the winter wonderland in front of the City Hall
Each winter, from mid-November until March, the park in front of the city hall (Rathaus) turns into a magically looking ice-skating rink called, Eistraum. Here you can rent skates and join in on the magic on any day of the week. For those looking for an extra romantic vibe, we recommend skating at night (it’s open until 10pm), when the wintery atmosphere is made complete by the lights in the surrounding trees. Warm up after your skating session with a mug of sweet ‘n’ spicy mulled wine (known as Gluhwein).
Get cultured in the great indoors: spend the day in a museum
Vienna is so rich in art, not dedicating some hours to a museum would be a sin when visiting this city. From checking out the grand masters of the renaissance in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, to soaking in some highlights from impressionism in the Albertina, this city has plenty to offer on the art front.
There’s also an art movement that can only be explored in Vienna – The Wiener Moderne (Viennese expressionism) represented by the famous artists, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. The Leopold Museum is the best gallery to explore the modern Viennese art of the 20th century, while the Belvedere Palace houses some of Klimt’s signature works, including his world famous painting The Kiss.
If you’re looking for something rather contemporary, however, look up the Mumok (Museum of Modern Art), or the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts).
Linger in a historic coffeehouse and forget the world outside for a few hours
If you want a really good coffee in Vienna, a coffeehouse probably won’t do the trick. However, if you want a cosy, warm, charming looking place serving up great cake and a laid back atmosphere, look no further! Vienna is famous for its coffeehouses, that attract locals and visitors alike with their unique vintage charm.
Time seems to be standing still here: the menu is an evergreen collection of amazing Viennese cakes like the Sachertorte and the apple strudel while you’ll also find a collection of snacks that belong to coffeehouse, like a small bowl of Goulash or Frankfurter sausages with a roll.
Did you know famous characters like Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig and Egon Schiele all had their regular go-to coffeehouses where they would work, get inspired, and of course, network with local artists and celebrities of the time? If you can fit a couple of coffeehouses in during your visit, don’t leave out Café Central, Jelinek and Kaffee Alt Wien.
Go to the snow!
It’s winter and you’re in Austria…it almost sounds like you have to fit a day of skiing in there! While the awesome slopes of Tirol are a bit of a drive, you’ll be happy to know there are some awesome daytrip options just one hour outside Vienna, like the Simmering or the Stuhleck area. There are trains and busses that will get you there and back, and you can rent all the equipment you need at the ski-lifts. If you’re not a skier, tobogganing is also a fun alternative, and the sights of the snow-capped mountains are alone well worth the trip.
Have some hearty Austrian food in a cosy Gasthaus
The Austrian cuisine is quite a heavy one which makes winter the perfect time to enjoy it! While most local restaurants will serve a Schnitzel and a Goulash, the full experience is to be had at a local Gasthaus, a family-owned inn or tavern that serves up all the favourites of the Austrian kitchen as “homemade,” as possible.
The décor in these warm and welcoming places is mainly dark wood, with country-side elements decorating the tables and walls, while you’ll often find the waiters and waitresses wearing Lederhosen, or Dirndls.
On the menu, you’ll be sure to find Schnitzels, roasts and stews, with potatoes or dumplings, and lots of sauerkraut. But be warned, these taverns are often meat-heavy, leaving little choice for vegetarians.
Try out Wratschko, Gmoakeller, or Gasthaus Nestroy but make sure to reserve, especially in the evenings on weekends.
Warm up at a thermal spa
The Viennese love their thermal spas and saunas in the winter months. There are great spa-hotels and thermal baths all over Austria, but you won’t have to travel far to get to some steam and a good swim. Vienna has its own thermal-spa at Therme Oberlaa, which is on the U1 subway line. It has a generous indoor and outdoor area, boasting pools, whirlpools and all sorts of sauna options. Just one thing you should know before hitting the saunas in Austria – you’ve got to go naked. Not only is it culturally appropriate to go into the sauna wearing nothing but a towel, it’s also considered the only hygienic option..
Spend a night at the Opera
In winter, there’s a lot happening at Vienna’s opera and theatre houses, so if you’re here for a limited time, it might be hard to choose amongst the great cultural events on offer.
However, one option with which can’t go wrong is the State Opera House – one of the most famous opera venues in the world that have the best artists perform classic pieces almost every night. While there is no obligatory dress code, you will feel a bit out of place if you wear your sneakers and sweatpants – the Viennese do like to dress up on such occasions.
If you want to get good seats, buy your tickets well in advance and be ready to spend a bit of money.. If you just want to tick the State Opera House off your bucket list, you can also line up at the side entrance half hour before the performance and get some standing tickets for just a few Euros. The view isn’t great, but the acoustics are amazing no matter where you sit in the audience. You’ll spend half the time marvelling at the magnificent adornments of the place.
The winter markets
Winters aren’t warm in Austria, but this doesn’t mean that the locals spend their days exclusively indoors. In fact, the streets during winter can sometimes seem busier and livelier than in summer, and this is mainly due to the markets that pop up around the festive season.
If you’re visiting Vienna in the month of November or December, there will be no way you’ll miss out on the Christmas markets since they are literally all over town.
While the most famous one is the one setup in front of the Rathaus (also the busiest by far), we’d recommend venturing into the more authentic markets that sell local crafts, food and drink. These can be in the cobblestone streets of the Spittelberg are, and under the mighty Karlskirche at Karlsplatz.
Outside the Christmas season you can still find some outdoor market charm, either around the Stephansdom, in the famous food market, the Naschmarkt or randomly around town. Most restaurants and taverns keep mulled wine on the menu all winter long and the roasted chestnuts can be smelled and enjoyed at little stands on the streets of Vienna throughout the winter months.