Captivating Christmas Capitals of Europe: Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest
Wendy Sage Baker
Food & Wine
The Christmas markets of Eastern Europe are holiday magic. The cool air, the twinkling lights, tasty treats, and warm mulled wine make browsing the cheery booths for decorations and gifts a winter wonderland. Along the Danube, sit three capitals that are home to festive Christmas markets. Their close proximity makes it easy to visit all three on one trip.
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Where to stay in Austria
Hotel Bristol, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Vienna
High-end hotel with posh rooms in the heart of Vienna.
$100 hotel / resort credit.
Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.
Hotel Sacher Wien
Vienna's historic hotel with palatial style has hosted an array of distinguished guests and is the cherished meeting place of everyone from artists to heads of state such as U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II of England and more.
$100 food / beverage credit.
Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.
A timeless hotel housed in an immaculately-restored 19th-century building in Vienna's bustling Old Town.
100€ equivalent Food & Beverage & Spa credit during the stay.
Guaranteed upgrade to the next room category.
Things to do in Austria
Elegant Vienna with the stately Opera House, palaces, designer shops, museums, and delicious desserts served as our home base. Several Christmas markets are an easy walk from one another. Departing from the historic Luxury Collection Hotel Bristol with its prime location across from the stately Vienna Opera House, the first Christmas market was adjacent to the hotel (in fact my daughter’s room overlooked it).
The Genussmarkt bei der Oper (The Gourmet Market) – This small market is a row of stalls located on a covered pedestrian walkway across from the Opera House. As the name suggests, the focus of this market was food such as cheeses, meats, pesto, and other delicacies. You can pick up roasted chestnuts and a Weihnachtspunsch (warm punch) for the walk to the next stop.
Pass the line of people at the Café Sacher at the Hotel Sacher waiting to taste the famous original Sacher-Torte and walk under the glittering crystals hanging over the Kärntner Straße pedestrian street to the Christmas markets of Stephansplatz (St. Stephens Square) by St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), one of Vienna’s most visited sites.
Christmas Market at Stephansplatz – This mid-sized market has a variety of stalls selling ceramic and glass Christmas ornaments, crafts, food, hats and gloves, toys, jewelry, and other gifts. Warm up with some toasted almonds and a Glühwein (mulled wine) before strolling under the illuminated crystal chandeliers dangling over Graben as you make your way towards designer retailers such as Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Jimmy Choo, Chanel and Gucci.
Stop at the Rosewood Vienna hotel for a hot chocolate at Salon Aurelie then head towards Kohlmarkt passing Demel Café with a queue of customers waiting to taste their world-famous Sachertorte. There has been an on-going feud for centuries between Demel and the Hotel Sacher over the creator of the famed chocolate cake. Keep going until you reach Michaelerplatz, where horse-drawn carriages wait to take visitors for a tour of the city.
The K.U.K Weihnachtsmarkt – This is a small Christmas market that sits in Michaelerplatz next to the Hofburg – Imperial Palace. The white stalls peddle hats and gloves, decorations and the standard Christmas market fare. Make sure to get a large pretzel while you are there and check out the Roman ruins.
Walk through the arched gate of the Hofburg passing the Sisi Museum, which houses personal items and portraits of the legendary Empress Elisabeth known as Sisi. Keep walking through the inner courtyard and turn right towards Volksgarten public park. Walk through the park and exit the gate towards Rathausplatz, the square in front of city hall.
Christkindlmarkt – This famous Christmas market in Rauthas Park is one of the largest with about 100 stalls selling food, crafts, toys, glass ornaments, and other gifts. The large and festive market includes a merry-go-round, ferris wheel, large Christmas tree and an ice skating rink. You can rent skates and glide on the ice trails illuminated by sparkling lights. The best time to visit is in the evening to see the market lit up in its true splendor. Cross the street to Café Landtmann for dinner or just coffee and dessert. This grand coffee house has been serving Vienna for over 140 years.
Christmas Market at Schönbrunn Palace – While not within walking distance of our hotel, the market in front of the impressive summer residence of the Habsburgs is worth the trip. With approximately 75 booths selling handicrafts and gourmet foods, the feel is more refined. Enjoy a warm beverage and snack with the illuminated palace in the background. I also recommend an after-hours tour of Schönbrunn followed by a classical concert in the palace’s Orangery.
Note that each market has an exclusive mug used for warm beverages. You will pay more than the price on the menu for the drink in the mug, but when you return the mug, you get the mug deposit back.
Day trip to Bratislava
Just over an hour from Vienna by boat (limited service), train, or car, is Slovakia’s capital Bratislava. This walkable charming city has a medieval feel and old-world charm, and is an easy day trip from Vienna. Less crowded than the other capitals, you can easily cover the highlights in half a day.
Bratislava Castle - A fortification dating back to the 9th century has stood on this hill overlooking the town below and the River Danube. Reconstructed by Maria Theresa to serve as an imperial residence, it was destroyed by fire. The castle was rebuilt and now houses a museum. Note it can be icy and slippery in the winter.
UFO Tower – The tower sits on a Soviet era bridge that spans the Danube and bit out of place for the historic town. You can take an elevator to the top or just view it from Bratislava Castle.
Michael’s Gate – The only surviving gate from the medieval walls that surrounded the city and dates back to the 13th century.
Christmas Market – Across from city hall in Main Square, the Christmas market has red and white stalls selling mostly warm beverages and food. There are many flavors of warm mulled wine and grog (spiced hot rum). We enjoyed a warm Aperol Spritz or Gin & Tonic to accompany our potato pancakes. Take a short walk through the town passing the heavily photographed statues to Hviezdoslav Square for more Christmas market fun.
Statues – The life-size statues stand throughout Bratislava, with the most popular, Čumil and Schöne Náci, located near Main Square.
Day trip to Budapest
The massive Hungarian capital consists of two cities, Buda and Pest, that straddle the Daube. From Vienna by car, train, or boat it takes about 2.5 hours to reach Budapest. It is a full day excursion, and you are just hitting the highlights. To truly do Budapest justice, I would recommend visiting for 3-4 days.
Fisherman’s Bastion – In the Buda Castle area, this turreted and ornate lookout point provides fantastic views of Pest and the Parliament building below. Be sure to snap a photo as it is one of Budapest’s most popular photo stops.
Chain Bridge – This iconic bridge connects Buda and Pest. Currently is closed to pedestrians and motor vehicles except for public transport.
Heroes’ Square – The large and impressive plaza is home to the Millennium Monument that commemorates important figures in Hungarian history. The square sits at the entrance of City Park where skaters glide on the large frozen lake.
Christmas Markets – The two most popular Christmas markets are on the Pest side of the river. The Budapest Christmas Fair on Vorosmarty Square and St. Stephens Basilica Christmas Market are in easy walking distance of one another. Be sure to try the chimney cake for a Hungarian sweet treat.
Note that the Hungarian Forint is the currency. While vendors often accept Euros, they sometimes give change in Forints, which is confusing. Many stalls do accept credit card payments.
Need to Know
For more travel tips, check out Fora Advisor Rabia Malik's guide, Immersing Yourself in Vienna, Austria.
This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Austria.