Christmas in Austria
Festive traditions, national delicacies & spectacular markets
Austria is a stunning and captivating place to spend time during the festive season. From the end of November to the beginning of January, the country is transformed into a Christmas wonderland that plays host to a range of exciting events, traditional parades and some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, which means there’s more to see and do than at any other time of year.
The country has its own fun and fascinating festive traditions to experience, as well as an array of unusual and wonderful delicacies for you to sample. Additionally, Austria’s cities and towns are extravagantly decorated and covered in fairy lights in the lead-up to Christmas each year, maximising the country’s beauty and making it a particularly popular hotspot during the festive season.
One of the biggest attractions for those visiting Austria is the country’s collection of Christmas markets. These can be found in Austria’s biggest cities, such as Linz and the capital Vienna. They offer you the chance to shop for delicious treats, treasurable souvenirs and gifts for your loved ones back home. Plus, many of them allow you to partake in Christmas craft sessions, where you can produce unique keepsakes of your own.
If you’re thinking about visiting Austria at all, then the Christmas period is a great time to do so. To help you plan the best trip possible, we’ve put together a guide to Austrian Christmas traditions and attractions that we recommend you enjoy while you’re there.
Christmas traditions in Austria
From advent wreaths to Christkind, here are some of the most prevalent Christmas traditions that you might encounter if you visit during the festive period.
What is St Nicholas’ Day?
St Nicholas is a Christian saint who is particularly popular among European children thanks to his reputation as a bringer of gifts.
On the night of 5th December (or 6th December in some regions), Austrian children put their shoes in front of their fireplace or front door. A man dressed as St Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff, then goes from house to house placing small gifts in the children’s shoes, which they’ll wake up to find the next morning.
More recently, St Nicholas has been accompanied by Krampus, a ragged-looking devil-like creature who mildly scares the children and supposedly punishes any who have been naughty.
Who is Krampus?
In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Krampus is described as half-goat, half-demon. During the Christmas season, the horned, anthropomorphic creature supposedly punishes children who have misbehaved. This is in contrast to St Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts.
In traditional parades, and during events such as the Krampuslauf, young men participate by dressing up as the terrifying creature.
Also, toned-down versions of Krampus can often be seen strolling around some of Austria’s most popular Christmas markets, entertaining and unsettling tourists who have come to experience Austria’s festive traditions. Although based on the original idea, these tourist-friendly interpretations tend to be more humorous than fearsome.
Across Europe, Krampus is known by several different names, including Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Schmutzli, Pelznickel and Klaubauf.
Who is the Christkind?
Santa Claus doesn’t tend to visit Austria at Christmas time. Instead, boys’ and girls’ presents are delivered on Christmas Eve by a little winged angel with blonde curly hair called the Christkind. She’s the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in Austria, and — much like with Santa Claus — children are told that she won’t bring them any presents if they aren’t on their best behaviour. Sometimes, parents will secretly ring a bell to announce the departure of the Christkind, which is then a signal that their children can run to the tree and find their presents.
Some kids even believe that the Christkind is responsible for decorating their family’s Christmas tree.
As soon as the closest Sunday to 30th November comes around, there’s an advent wreath in almost every Austrian home. Originally, there were 24 candles on each wreath, but there are now only four — one for each Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas. Many Austrians also have an advent calendar, which is much more common in western countries, to help build anticipation between 1st December and Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve in Austria
In Austria, Christmas starts properly at around 4pm on 24th December. In fact, for most Austrian families, Christmas Eve is even more special than Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, families make an event of decorating and lighting up their Christmas trees. They plaster them with gold and silver ornaments, before placing a star made out of straw on the very top. Everyone then gets together to sing carols around their Christmas trees, with their song of choice often being Silent Night, which was written in Austria in 1818.
Christmas Eve is often the night that Austrian families get together to exchange Christmas presents and enjoy their main festive meal. Gebackener karpfen (fried carp) is often served as a main course and desserts may be chocolate and apricot cake called Sachertorte, or Austrian Christmas cookies called weihnachtsbaeckerei.
Christmas Day in Austria
Austrians spend Christmas Day in a similar way to those from most western countries. They wake up to open their presents and spend time with their loved ones.
It’s a public holiday, so the majority of people visit relatives that aren’t part of their immediate families and have a special Christmas dinner, which usually comprises goose, ham served with glühwein (a delicious blend of red win and spices), rumpunsch (a spiced rum punch), and chocolate mousse.
New Year’s Eve and Day in Austria
When it comes to celebrating New Year’s Eve in style, Austria’s capital Vienna does an amazing job, as the last few days of each year are filled with a programme of brilliant concerts and entertainment. The Vienna Symphony performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on both New Year’s Eve and Day without fail, while the Vienna Philharmonic plays a selection of waltzes, polkas and operetta tunes.
Don’t fret if you can’t make it to the New Year’s concert, though — it’s shown live on TV in 90 different countries and is projected onto giant video walls in City Hall Square, as well as the square in front of the Vienna State Opera. Other music events can also be enjoyed at the Musikverein, Konzerthaus, Theater an der Wien and the Kammeroper.
The most impressive event of the night is the New Year’s Eve ball at the Hofburg Palace. Women in jaw-dropping ball gowns and men dressed to impress flood the ballroom each year to toast the turn of the year in the most magnificent way possible.
Additionally, throughout Austria, there are fantastic firework displays, parades and evening fanfares. Most cities stage their own smaller events and, wherever you go, you’re sure to see people dancing in the streets to the famous Blue Danube waltz.
On New Year’s Day, children leave their homes to sing carols at their neighbours’ doors. The first day of the year also marks the start of carnival season, known as Fasching, which lasts until Lent. During this period, countless balls, parades and parties are arranged all over Austria.
Christmas food and drink in Austria
All year round, Austrians make fantastic food that is influenced by the former Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as trends and traditions from the likes of Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, Germany and the Balkans. Many much-loved dishes have risen out of this fusion. Here’s a guide to some of Austria’s best festive food and drinks that you can try when you visit.
When Prince Wenzel von Metternich needed a special dessert for his guests in 1832, his personal chef had unfortunately fallen ill. Therefore, the responsibility was left to his 16-year-old apprentice Franz Sacher, who made one of Austria’s most iconic desserts — the Sachertorte.
The original Sachertorte recipe consisted of a dense chocolate cake with two layers of apricot jam. The entire cake was then coated in a dark chocolate icing and served with unsweetened whipped cream. Today there are some variations — for example, some contain only one layer of apricot jam. There are even some versions that include different kinds of jam and marzipan. Sachertorte is usually served as dessert on Christmas Eve.
The Linzertorte is often said to be the oldest cake in the world and dates back to at least 1653, but nobody’s sure who invented it. The dessert is named after the Austrian city of Linz, which is understandably proud of the delicious creation.
The Linzertorte is a tart-like creation with a layer of raspberry preserve and crisscrossed strips of shortcrust on top. However, this is no ordinary shortcrust: it’s infused with almonds. The torte is conventionally a two-layer affair, as there tends to be a layer of almond cream under the raspberry preserve. However, it’s not unusual to find three- or four-layered versions on sale in Austrian bakeries.
Marillenknödel is a common Austrian pastry that’s particularly popular in Vienna. Marillen is the term for apricots in Austria and marillenknödel is found predominantly in areas where the fruit is grown.
Small dumplings are formed from dough, and apricots or mirabelle plums are placed inside. These dumplings are boiled in slightly salted water and then covered in crispy fried breadcrumbs and powdered sugar. The dough used tends to be made from potato, although there are variations in which it is made from ice cream.
Germknödel is a very popular Viennese dessert. It’s a rather large, hemispherical yeast dough dumpling that’s filled with spicy plum jam and served with melted butter, poppy seeds and a sprinkle of sugar on top. It can be served as either a main course or dessert.
The dumpling is steamed and then served hot, occasionally accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, although this way is less traditional.
Kaiserschmarrn, or Emperor’s Mess, got its name from the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who was a huge fan of the popular dessert.
It’s a light, caramelised pancake that’s made from a sweet batter consisting of flour, eggs, sugar, salt and milk. This mixture is then cooked in butter to form the pancake. Other ingredients such as nuts, cherries, plums, caramelised raisins, small pieces of apple and slivered almonds can be added, too.
While the pancake is being fried, it’s pulled apart using two forks. Then, once it’s cooked, it’s sprinkled with powdered sugar and served hot with a fruit sauce or compote. It’s usually eaten as a dessert, but is also served as a main course in tourist areas, as it’s quite a filling dish.
Salzburger nockerl has become an icon of Austrian cuisine. The golden dumplings are supposed to represent the hillsides that surround Salzburg’s city centre, while the dusting of powdered sugar signifies the snow-covered peaks.
The sweet dumplings are made of flour, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla, which are mixed into a thin dough. Egg whites are whisked until stiff and folded carefully with the dough. This concoction is then formed into dumplings and baked on a low heat.
Salzburger nockerl is always freshly prepared. Traditionally, it’s served warm with powdered sugar and, sometimes, raspberry sauce. Like many sweet Austrian dishes, it’s quite filling, so can be eaten as a main course.
Apfelstrudel, or apple strudel, is considered to be Austria’s national dish. Traditionally, it has a filling of grated apples, breadcrumbs, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. When it’s being made, its base should be rolled so thin that it’s possible to read through it — this is what gives strudel its characteristic crispiness when baked.
Apfelstrudel can be served on its own, but tastes wonderful with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, custard or vanilla sauce. It also tends to come accompanied by tea, coffee or even champagne — especially in Viennese cafés.
What’s the weather like in Austria at Christmas?
December might be one of the coldest months in Austria, but it’s a gorgeous time of year to visit. Gloves, hats, scarves and thick coats are essential, but there are plenty of ways to escape the cold and blustery weather, such as visiting world-class museums, concert halls and palaces that contribute to the city’s undeniable beauty.
The average temperature of Austria in December is -1°C, with average highs of 2°C and lows of -3°C. December also has the shortest days in terms of daylight, with the 21st being the shortest of the year. Additionally, it has the most days with precipitation. So, wrap up and take an umbrella to ensure you’re well prepared.
Will it snow in Austria at Christmas?
It has snowed in Vienna every year since 1953, and the depth of the snow can range from 2cm to over 2m. Therefore, you’re quite likely to see snow if you visit over the Christmas period. However, there’s no guarantee that there’ll be a blanket of snow on the ground on Christmas Day itself — over the last 20 years, there are only seven examples of there being a blanket of snow on the 24th or 25th December.
Austria’s Christmas markets
From mid-November to the end of the year, Austria is transformed into a hub of romantic and magical Christmas markets. City centres are draped in fairy lights, stalls selling traditional foods and souvenirs pop up in every available space, and tourists flock to experience some of the best Christmas market experiences that Europe has to offer.
Here’s an idea of what you’re likely to find at two of Austria’s most popular Christmas markets.
Vienna Christmas Market
When: 12th November–24th December 2016. The market is open daily 10am–10pm, but closes at 7pm on Christmas Eve.
Where: It is positioned in the heart of Austria’s capital, directly in front of Vienna’s City Hall. This is an absolutely stunning location that helps to maximise the market’s magical atmosphere.
Attractions: The Vienna Christmas Market is one of the largest in the country, so it’s no surprise that it offers a huge array of stalls and attractions.
Besides buying souvenirs and sweet treats for you and your loved ones, there’s a whole host of other exciting activities you can partake in. Spend a magical hour on the market’s romantic ice rink, or create your very own gingerbread design in the People’s Hall. The ground floor of the City Hall will be dedicated to children’s activities and there’s even a beautiful carousel that you can ride — your entire family will love Vienna's Christmas market.
Specialities: You can pick up a range of Viennese delicacies from Vienna’s Christmas market stalls.There’s glühwein, sausages, knitted puppets and wooden puppets. Also, it’s impossible to not get into the spirit when you have a paper cone of hot chestnuts in one hand and a dangerously sticky toffee apple in the other.
Typical prices: Expect to pay €3.50–€4 for a glühwein or weihnachtspunsch. These drinks come in decorative cups, which you can keep as souvenirs for a few extra euros. Outside of the market, in the city’s bars and eateries, you can expect to pay €50 for a three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant, €3 for a cappuccino, €2.33 for a soft drink and €3.50 for a pint of domestic beer.
For more general information about Vienna, visit the city’s tourism website.
Linz Christmas Market on the Main Square
When: 19th November–24th December 2016. The market is open daily 10am–8pm. Food is served until 9pm.
Where: It’s located in the city’s central square and has existed since the end of the 1970s, when the area was turned into a pedestrian zone.
Attractions: The beautifully decorated stalls of the Main Square Christmas market in Linz are nestled among baroque town houses that are centuries old, making it a spectacle in itself. There’s a huge number of stalls selling a wide range of souvenirs and specialities. Plus, it’s located right by the shopping mile of Linz, making it a great market to visit if you’re a fan of shopping holidays.
Specialities: Again, there are various stalls selling glühwein, plates of bratwurst, and other savoury snacks such as largos (garlic-buttered pastries). You also can’t leave the city of Linz without trying its most famous dessert, the Linzertorte.
Typical prices: In Linz, you can expect to pay€3 for a cappuccino, €4 for a pint of beer, and €3 for a soft drink. A three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant will set you back €55 and a meal at an inexpensive restaurant costs around €12.
For more general information about the city of Linz, visit its tourism website.
Useful Austrian phrases
For the most part, Austrian natives speak German and, although people are likely to speak English in the tourist spots, it’s worth learning a few phrases of their language that you might be able to use while you’re there. Austrians are incredibly friendly people to begin with, but they’ll warm to you even quicker if you’ve gone to the trouble of learning and using some the words from their vocabulary.
Here are some German phrases you might benefit from knowing.
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Eve
Die grüße der Jahreszeit!
Happy New Year!
Frohes neues jahr!
I’m sorry (for a mistake)
Es tut mir leid
Where is the toilet, please?
Wo ist die toilette, bitte?
What time do you close?
Um wie viel uhr machen sie zu?
At what time do you open?
Wann öffnen sie?
How much is it?
Wie viel kostet das?
Do you take credit cards?
Akzeptieren sie kreditkarten?
Are these available in my size?
Sind diese in meine größe verfügbar?
I don’t speak German
Ich spreche kein Deutsch
Do you speak English?
Sprichst du Englisch?
Ich bin verloren
I don’t understand
Ich verstehe nicht
I’m looking for a pharmacy
Ich suche nach einer Apotheke
I feel sick
Mir ist schlecht
I need a doctor
Ich brauche einen Arzt
Where is the hospital?
Wo ist das Krankenhaus?
Where is the police station?
Wo ist die Polizei Station?
Call an ambulance
Rufen Sie einen Krankenwagen
Visiting Austria at Christmas
Some of Austria’s best Christmas market cities are located along the Danube river, so the best way to access them is by boat. That’s why, here at The River Cruise Line, we offer two festive cruises that have been designed to offer you the best Austrian Christmas experience possible. If you want to focus on seeing Austria’s best Christmas markets, our Vienna and Linz Christmas Markets cruise will suit you best, while our Christmas Cruise on the Danube will allow you to explore Vienna and Budapest, Hungary — a city that’s just as vibrant.