Christmas in Austria is a truly magical time. Romantic lights, seasonal treats, festive carols, and snow-covered roofs and treetops as far as the eye can see: this is Austria in December! So let me show you the highlights.
Millions of visitors from around the world travel to Austria’s cities and small towns from mid-November every year to take part in the celebrations leading up to Christmas Eve. But what is it that makes the festive season so special in Austria? And what are the must-dos and must-sees? Read on!
Christmas Traditions in Austria
The Advent wreath and the Advent calendar are both used to count down the days to Christmas Eve. Every Sunday, people will light a new candle on the wreath (there are four in total).
At the same time, the doors on the calendar are opened daily from 1 December, just like in the UK. Self-made calendars are especially popular.
Good St Nicholas and dark Krampus
If you are in Austria on 5 or 6 December, friendly Saint Nicholas and his sinister companion Krampus might knock on your door. According to tradition, well-behaved children are rewarded with sweets, peanuts and tangerines. However, the naughty ones might get a little warning!
St. Nicholas’s day is officially on 6 December while Krampus is the day before. However, these two often show up as a pair. In traditional villages, people dress up in scary costumes made of sheepskin and wear carved masks with goat horns to mark Krampus Day.
Unlike in other countries, in Austria it’s not Santa Clause or Father Christmas who brings the Christmas presents but the Christkind (“Christ Child”, “Baby Jesus”), an angel-like figure with white feathery wings, a halo above its head, and blond curls.
Children toss their Christmas letters into the fireplace or put them on the window sill to make sure the Christkind receives them. The presents are traditionally opened on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.
“Silent Night”, written and performed for the first time on 24 December 1818 by Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber in Oberndorf in SalzburgerLand, is still the most popular carol to sing under and around the Christmas tree.
Christmas Markets in Austria
A stroll through one of the traditional Christmas markets is the highlight for many travelling to Austria during the festive period. Let me introduce you to some classics – and some lesser-known markets that are just as charming.
Christmas Markets in the City
Every major town has at least one Christmas market and it goes without saying that Vienna has the most. In fact, Austria’s capital has more than 20! The most popular ones are in front of the town hall, at Schönbrunn Palace, and in the Spittelberg district. However, it’s well worth looking into other cities, too!
Tirol’s Innsbruck has a market right under the famous Golden Roof, on the main square and the shopping street Maria Theresien Straße. There is also one at Hungerburg Castle, where you can sip your punch while enjoying spectacular views over the town.
Bonus tip: You can hop on a ski lift right in the heart of town before or after the markets! An annual highlight is Innsbruck’s Christkind Parade (18 December 2022), featuring the Christkind riding down Maria-Theresien-Straße and the historic lanes in a splendid carriage, accompanied by a marching band, shepherds, angels, sheep, and some 600 local children.
Just outside the city, the romantic Advent Magic at Hellbrunn Palace awaits. It has over 700 conifers in the inner courtyard, all decorated with 10,000 red Christmas balls and strands of lights. In addition, the palace’s windows turn into an XXL advent calendar.
Christmas Markets at the Lake
Romantics and lovebirds will surely enjoy Austria’s Christmas markets at the water. Salzkammergut’s Lake Wolfgangsee and its villages St. Wolfgang, Strobl and St. Gilgen turn into a Christmas wonderland every year. They have Christmas markets, open fires, and musical events. The 16m-high, floating “Peace Lantern” on the lake, just off St. Wolfgang’s shore, is the official symbol of the region. The best way to enjoy all the festive decorations and markets is an advent-themed boat tour.
Another great region for markets at the lake is Austria’s southernmost province Carinthia. Head first to Klagenfurt, the region’s capital. Then, go further on to Lake Wörthersee and check out all the stalls and festive lights in Pörtschach and the famous floating Advent wreath in Velden.
Christmas Markets in the Mountains
It goes without saying that Austria’s Alpine regions also top up their game to get their guests into the festive mood.
Besides Innsbruck, Tyrolean resorts such as Kitzbühel, Seefeld, St. Johann, and Kufstein all have their own Christmas markets. Zell–am–See – Kaprun in SalzburgerLand has several of them. Moreover, a handful of them is right in the heart of the skiing towns and one at Kaprun castle. They featured more than 30 stalls, processions, and lots of regional delights. Obertauern and Bad Hofgastein are also well worth considering for a mix of skiing and Christmas magic.
In Austria’s westernmost province Vorarlberg, Kleinwalsertal and Schwarzenberg in Bregenzer Forest are the go-to places for festive celebrations and markets amidst the Alps, while Montafon holds several Christmas-themed concerts throughout the Advent period.
More about winter holidays in Austria
To sum things up
With its snow-covered houses and treetops, charming villages and historic towns, Austria is an amazing winter destination. Even more so in December, when the Christmas Markets open and festive lights, decorations and tasty holiday treats abound, in every little town and village. Christmas in Austria is an experience to remember.