Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Four: Schloss Wilhelminenberg

Don’t let yourself be fooled by dictionaries, which usually translate German “Schloss” as “castle”. Most English speakers, on hearing that word, think of a medieval building with a moat, a drawbridge, and battlements. The German word for that is “Burg”; Schlösser are nothing like that. They are large mansions, usually built in the 17th or 18th century by some count or prince. One of them is Schloss Wilhelminenberg, although the current building only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Like many of its kind, the castle has a rich history which came to an unfortunate climax during the second half of the 20th century, when it was used as a home for girls. In recent years, claims of abuse came up which are currently under investigation.

Anyway, the building, situated in a large park on one of the hills in the west of the city, is now a hotel. I found news of the Christmas market on a website I use a lot (only in German, I’m afraid). There, they advertised the market as a quiet affair in a beautiful location, so I went exploring.

The entire market is indeed not so much familiar as downright tiny, only 10 booths or so, and it would indeed have been quiet, if it hadn’t been for a number of children who were desperately and vociferously trying to get their parents’ attention. The game of Bavarian curling going on on the tiny ice rink didn’t help, either.

As to the view, I’m sure it would have been magnificent in daylight and less foggy weather. As it was, you could at least see a few city lights shimmer through.

The merchandise on offer didn’t catch my eye much. It was about the usual stuff you can get anywhere, only less of it. I don’t think I’m going to bother coming out here again any time soon.

Size: some 10 booths
Prices: low, hot beverages start at €2.70
Kitsch: high
Special offer: view of the city

Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Three: Belvedere

All right, I might be biased. After all it’s right around the corner from my place. Still, in my opinion the ambience of this market is the most romantic in all Vienna, especially after dark. So what? Sue me!

Situated in front of (well, actually behind) Schloss Belvedere, the magnificent baroque palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy – itself well worth a visit –, this is, of course, one of the tourist hot spots of the Viennese winter. You might expect a veritable kitschfest as a result. However, that is not the case at all.

What you get instead is a medium-sized Christmas village with both hot beverages and artisans well represented. There is a carousel and a little train for children. Some of the vendors try to take up the baroque theme and sell tree decorations in that style. Of course, Christmas trees weren’t widespread until much later, so if you are a stickler for historical accuracy, you will find that appalling. On the other hand, the merchandise is quite beautiful. There is one booth with pretty embroidery, doilies, tablecloths and the like, and another one with nice woodcarvings. Almost the only vendor that doesn’t quite fit in is one selling Murano glass and Venetian masks. Yet that is beautiful, too, and I am in a forgiving mood tonight.

The food is quite good, as well, and again they are trying to stay true to the location by offering regional specialities from Savoy, especially several baked dishes with lots of cheese. Savoyard cuisine seems to be a lot like its Swiss cousin. There’s also specialities from Styria and the Tyrol, and, of course, lots of gingerbread and other sweets.

A nice touch on the way out, although it’s easy to miss in the dark, is that it is lined with several Christmas trees, each of which has been decorated by a different primary school.

Size: some 40 booths
Prices: average, hot beverages start at €3.20
Kitsch: surprisingly low
Special offer: the baroque palace, Savoyard specialities

Vienna Christmas Markets, Part Two: Am Hof and Freyung

Am Hof

Located closest to the very centre of Vienna, the square Am Hof has a rich history. It has got its name because the Babenberg dukes had their court here during the high middle ages. The square is still surrounded by magnificent buildings, although in one of the most prominent ones, the former Bank Austria headquarters, there has recently been a fire which left the square somewhat scarred.

The market is presented by a society of artists and artisans who also organise several markets throughout the year. Some of the exhibitors change over time, so there is always something new, even if you visit several times a year.

They strive for high quality, and most of the time they are quite successful. You can find lots of beautiful pottery, jewellery, and also some traditional Austrian artwork here.

There is definitely less of the usual kitsch than elsewhere. Also, the focus is clearly on the art, as opposed to food and drink, although there is still plenty of that, too.

High quality and a prime location result in premium prices, of course. No way around that.

Size: some 30 booths
Prices: high, hot beverages start at €3.50
Kitsch: low
Special offer: art

Freyung

Right next to Am Hof, between beautiful Palais Ferstl and the benedictine monastery called Schottenstift, there is the triangular square called Freyung with its Alt-Wiener Christkindlmarkt or Old Vienna Christmas market.

This is one of the smaller, and also quieter, Christmas markets in town, which I, for one, like a lot. It’s also a favourite among my friends.

As the name suggests, they are trying to focus on a traditional Viennese Christmas: wooden toys, pottery, tree decorations, and sweets, sweets, sweets (mostly gingerbread). There’s also a vendor selling baskets, another one for bread, ham, and cheese, as well as one for Christmas cards. You get the idea. Traditional Austrian tree decorations are not so much glass balls as stars made of straw, apples, gingerbread, and nuts, by the way.

On the opposite side, in front of Palais Ferstl, there is also a charity Christmas market, for people who need to quench their conscience as well as their thirst.

Size: some 20 booths
Prices: high, hot beverages start at €3.50
Kitsch: low
Special offer: tradition