After the leaves have fallen and you begin to see your breath upon exhale, you know that the holiday season is fast approaching. This year, I had the the pleasure of travelling to Austria to experience the world famous Christmas markets during the advent season and get into the holiday spirit like never before. Austria is truly one of the best places in the world to experience all things Christmas - a country so rich in culture, history, and beauty.
Our Austrian experience began when we boarded our Austrian Airlines direct flight from Toronto to Vienna. Upon boarding, the flight crew’s smiles and enthusiasm made us feel we were already in Austria. With their bold red uniforms and exquisite cuisine and service, the Austrian experience was brought to life.
After landing well rested in Austria’s capital, Vienna (or Wien as the locals call it), it was morning and we wanted to make the most of our first day. We took a short cab ride into the city and checked into an awesome boutique hotel called the Ruby Marie Vienna. We were definitely into the funky and artsy vibe and decor of the hotel.
After settling into our spacious room and recovering from a bit of jet leg, we took to the streets and just around the corner from the hotel, we found our first Christmas market, already in full swing. Here we had our first mug of delicious Gluwein (spicy mulled wine) and mingled with the locals. At these markets, Gluwein is served in actual mugs as opposed to disposable cups and you can choose to keep them as souvenirs (which we did at the end of the trip). We toured the market where vendors and artisians displayed their handmade Christmas ornaments, baked goods, and much more. As day turned into night, the city transformed into a glittering sea of colour as the streets are illuminated with glittering festive Christmas lights. As we continued on our stroll, not only were in in awe of these beautiful light displays, but also with the amazing architecture, like the breathtaking Stephandsom Cathedral. After a full first day and lots of walking, we had sure worked up an appetite and decided to have a bite to eat at a sausage stand along with a glass of wine - again - real wine glasses were served even though we were at a street vendor.
The next morning, we woke up early and took advantage of the delicious organic breakfast buffet at the Rubie Marie Hotel. This was the perfect fuel for the busy day ahead. After breakfast, and equipped with our 3 day Vienna transit pass (Vienna City Card), we made our way to the famous Schoenbrunn Palace, arriving as soon as it opened. This allowed us to tour the grounds and monuments before the large crowds arrived. This is one of many must-see historic sites in Vienna!
In the afternoon, we journeyed to another beautiful area in the heart of Vienna. Here we walked through some historic side streets consisting of beautiful cafes and shops, horse drawn carriages, and more. Here we also walked through a place called Ferstel Passage where we found more shops and were treated to some heavenly sounds as an elderly woman played a harp next to an enormous fountain.
Next on the agenda was the world famous Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz. This would be the biggest and brightest market we would see in Austria. Here we encountered bustling crowds and countless vendors in the square situated in front of the city hall building. This market also had ice skating, a ferris wheel and other rides, elaborate lights and Christmas tree displays, and much more. It was the perfect way to wrap up our Vienna experience. The next morning we would make our way to Solden, Austria.
As soon as the car rental office opened, we picked up our car and drove along the infamous Autobahn highway through the picturesque mountains and valleys of both Austria (and briefly Germany). It was a beautiful, sunny day and the further we drove, the closer we got to all the snow covered mountains until we finally arrived in the mountain town of Solden. Here we checked into the Hotel Bergland. When we arrived we were greeted by staff wearing traditional Austrian dresses and were given a welcome prosecco before we checked into our room. After dropping off our bags, we went down the street, picked up our gondola pass, and headed up to the top of the mountain. At the top, we entered the ice Q restaurant, which you may recognized from the James Bond Spectre movie. At the top we were 3048m above sea level (and could feel it) and had a spectacular view of the mountains that surround and the valley below. We’d be back the following day to have lunch at ice Q, but for now it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner, served between 7 and 9 each night.
The next morning we woke up to fresh snow and before heading out to enjoy it, we once again fuelled up with an enormous breakfast buffet in the hotel. We then went out to explore the forest trails, a beautiful waterfall, and some of the shops along the main street. It was then time to head up the Gondola again to have lunch at ice Q. With all the glass windows, it was one of the most incredible backdrops one could wish for while enjoying a delicious meal. Later, we enjoyed dinner back at the hotel then prepared for our next destination: Innsbruck.
The next morning we made the short drive over to the three time Winter Olympic city, Innsbruck, known as the capital of the Alps. Here we checked into the Adler’s Hotel in the heart of the city. As we entered our room, we were taken aback at the amazing panoramic view of the city and surrounding Tyrolean mountains. Once we settled in, we went out and - you guessed it - explored the Christmas market that takes place just a couple blocks away in Maria-Theresien-Strasse. We were mesmerized by the sparkling trees in the boulevard, the smell of baked goods and gluwein, and the sounds live bands and children’s choirs. It was magical.
The next morning we awoke to even thicker fog, so I decided that we needed to drive somewhere above the fog. This turned out to be a great success. Above the fog we found a quiet little town called Gries Im Sellrain and the place looked like a real life Christmas village that you’d find under a tree or in a storybook. While the moon was still out, we trekked up a hill through the snow to get a good view of the town and take in the sunrise. It was picture perfect. As we stood there, we watched villagers slowly wake up and get on with their day as the church bell rang every 15 minutes. After an amazing pink sky, the sun lit up the snowy mountaintops and made them golden.
We then drove back through the thick fog back to our hotel in Innsbruck. Upon arrival, we enjoyed yet another incredible breakfast buffet in our hotel. After a head start on the day, we managed to get some Christmas souvenir shopping done for family and friends in the Historic Old Town.
The next item on the agenda was to go up the Hungerburgbahn funicular for sunset. We had access to this attraction thanks to our all inclusive Innsbruck Card When we reached the top of the mountain, we could not believe our eyes. It was literally breathtaking. 360 views of mountains and an out of this world view of Innsbruck below. We were beside ourselves. Here was experienced some of the most spectacular views I’d ever seen. When the whistle was blown for the last ride down, it was time to go back. When we got back down to the bottom, we walked into the much smaller scale Hungerburg Christmas market to enjoy a warm beverage. When we decided to head back to the car, we noticed some torches lit up and crowds of people surrounding a chained off area. We were intrigued so we moved closer to see what was going on. Spooky music and scary sounds played in the background. After a short while, we began to hear the rattling of chains as several large silhouettes approached the area. These terrifying figures charged in and prompting the startled screams of children and adults alike. It was Krampus! We were at a Krampus fest! This isn’t a thing in North America, but in European folklore, the Krampus comes to terrorize children who have been bad. This was terrifying and exciting at the same time. If we had been feeling tired from our early morning, surely we were wide awake now thanks to Krampus. We then drove back to our hotel and walked to dinner couple blocks away. There we enjoyed some traditional Austrian food. This was our last night in Austria and we were not ready to leave but we vowed to come back again.
Lyrics from the film The Sound of Music summed up our feelings at the end of this trip best: “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night… I hate to go and leave this pretty sight.”
Written by Patrick Levesque | Photos by Callum Snape