Christmas on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, Austria

The Christmas Market in front of Vienna’s Rathaus is the largest of the 27 markets within the city limits. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Christmas music is playing softly over the speakers here onboard Viking River Cruises Viking Freya as we glide silently into one of my absolute favorite European cities: the historic city of Vienna, Austria.

Due to issues with the last lock before reaching Vienna, our morning guided tour of Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse was pushed back by an hour to 10am to accommodate our late arrival at the berth.  While locks are scheduled as tightly as possible to avoid delays, issues can crop up – for us, a slow-moving cargo ship delayed our own transit through the lock.

Guests onboard Viking Freya watch as we arrive at our Viennese berth! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Not that anyone onboard Viking Freya seemed to mind; everyone seemed to enjoy their extra unexpected hour onboard, choosing to linger over breakfast longer, return to their staterooms, or enjoy the transit of the lock from the 180-degree views provided by the forward-facing Aquavit Lounge.

One of the best things, in my opinion, about river cruising is just how much is included in the cost of admission. Here onboard the Viking Freya, complimentary coffee, tea and water are all available around-the-clock on both sides of the ship just aft of the Viking Lounge.  Beer, wine, and soft drinks are also included with lunch and dinner onboard, and even if you choose to din in the more casual Aquavit Lounge, you can still partake.  Best of all, pours are generous and refills timely.  One lady I saw wanted a glass of wine and a can of Coke; both were delivered promptly.

Viking Embla, our sister-ship shadow, alongside in Vienna. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

So what do you pay for onboard?  Drinks outside of these venues come at an additional cost, charged to your onboard account in Euros.  Drink prices are very reasonable, with beers starting at just €2.70. My favorite evening, drink, though, is the Linie Aquavit. At €5.50, it comes in one of the coolest decanters I’ve ever seen, and it’s a nice nod to Viking’s Scandinavian influence.

A horse-drawn carriage passes in front of Vienna’s historic Hofburg Palace. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Before long, we were through the lock and berthed alongside in Vienna, Austria.  While the docking location is some four kilometers outside of the historic city centre (the Danube River itself does not run through Vienna), the river cruise berths are in an attractive residential neighbourhood lined with bicycle paths.  It’s also just a few blocks from the subway, allowing guests to travel to and from Stephensplatz in the heart of the city with ease.

The jaw-dropping interior of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with special lighting only put on at Christmas time. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Here’s why I love Vienna: at every turn, there’s something new to see.  From the ferris-wheel of the Prater to the Opera House, there’s no shortage of historic landmarks, museums and culturally-relevant sights. You can visit the site of Sigmund Freud’s Viennese practice or tour the opulent Austrian National Library, with its soaring ceilings and rows of ancient volumes. You can tour the Sisi Apartments at the Hofburg to learn about the Empress Elizabeth, who was assassinated by an anarchist in 1898; the exhibits even include the dagger used to do the deed.

Pedestrians stroll in front of Vienna’s Greek-style Parliament. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Known by her nickname Sisi, Empress Elizabeth was married to Emperor Franz Joseph, though it was their son who would be remembered by history. When Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914, it sparked the start of the First World War.

Christmas shoppers expore the Victorian-era Freyung Passage. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Beautiful at any time of the year, I think Vienna truly shines at Christmas. There are 25 different Christmas Markets in Vienna alone, with the Magic of Advent market in front of the city’s grand City Hall, or Rathaus, being the largest.  The Rathaus was built between 1872 and 1883, and is just a stone’s throw away from the imposing Votivkirche, one of the most important neo-Gothic churches in the world. It is also just a few blocks from Sigmund Freud’s former practice on Berggasse 19. See how quickly you can get sidetracked in Wien!?

Cafe Landtmann, just across the street from Vienna’s largest Christmas Market. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Before visiting the central market in front of the Rathaus, I stopped off for a cup of gulashsuppe and a Café Melange (espresso and hot milk) at the Café Landtmann, located directly across the street. Founded in 1873 by Franz Landtmann, the café was frequented by Sigmund Freud every morning during his time at the University of Vienna, and regularly hosts famous diplomats and media personalities.

Cafe Melange, Cafe Landtmann-style. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

I can see why: the soup was delicious, as was my Café Melange – both of which were served by my tuxedo-clad waiter, Englebert. While I was here, it started to snow, with enormous flakes coming down.  But by the time I emerged from the restaurant, the snow had stopped. Still, it`s a great sign – last year, I never saw any snow, so I have my fingers crossed for a wintery Europe yet!

A piping hot cup of Gluhwein at Vienna’s Weihnachtsdorfer market at Maria-Theresien-Platz. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

But in keeping with the Christmas spirit, another completely different market exists in front of the Natural History Museum at Maria-Theresien-Platz. Conveniently accessible from the Rathaus, the Weihnachtsdorfer Christkindlesmarkt is one of the younger Christmas Markets, celebrating its seventh anniversary this year. It is also home to a number of unique stalls and shops, all of which are nestled in the shadows of the Natural History Museum and the Kunsthist museum.

Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

I discovered this market last year, and while it may not have the size or grandeur of the one at the Rathaus, it has its own unique stalls, feel and cups. In fact, most of Vienna’s Christmas markets sport their own individually-designed Gluhwein cups.

Still in the Christmas spirit after two cups of Gluhwein and one delicious Frankfurter-on-a-bun, I strolled back into the Museum Quarter of Vienna, past the Hofburg with its elegant horse-drawn carriages to a market I hadn’t yet explored: the Altweiner Christkindmarkt.

The cozy Altweiner Christkindlmarkt only takes on a more festive feel as evening falls on Vienna. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Nestled in just off the wonderful Café Central near the Freyung Passage, this Christmas Market is all about hand-crafted wares.  It is small and intimate, yet still packs an incredible amount of stalls into what is, in the off-season, a very small space.

As the light began to fade, I wandered back to the Rathaus Christmas market to take photos and to meet the coach back to the ship. I hadn’t been to any museums, nor had I taken in half of what I experienced when I was here in October. But that’s okay, because the Christmas Markets of Vienna are a one-of-a-kind experience that simply have to be partaken in over all else.

Everything imaginable is available at Europe’s Christmas Markets, including plenty of hand-crafted gifts. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

With the sky turning blue and the chill in the air increasing as darkness fell on Vienna, I realized I had forgotten how  much  I love this – standing around in a square, sipping Gluhwein, watching families, kids, adults, seniors, and everyone in between gather at the markets. Some of them will buy souvenirs, but for me, a bit of food and a mug of Gluhwein is all the present I need.

Back at the Rathaus Christmas Market, wandering the stalls is in order! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

This is how Christmas should be. This is how Christmas used to be. And it is how Christmas still exists to this day in many European cities. The things I see in North America – the pushing, shoving, and jostling to get a parking space at the mall or that last-minute gift – are gone.  They just don’t exist here. Instead, friends and families come together after work and school, and they meet in the Christmas Markets.

There’s no better way to experience this holiday magic than onboard a river cruise, and few ships allow you to truly see and experience the Danube like Viking Freya and her sisters. That, to me, is real magic.

The Holidays – Vienna style! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Freya continues tomorrow as we sail the magnificent Wachau Valley before our arrival in Melk, Austria!


5 Responses to Viking Freya Live Voyage Report – Day 3

  1. Ruby says:

    Does Viking provide maps and details of the markets (e.g. handcrafted items, largest, etc.), and how to navigate between the markets, or did you know this from other sources?

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      No maps, unfortunately. But there are plenty of maps of the Christmas Markets available around Vienna, and the web is a tremendous resource. Google “Vienna Christmas markets” and you will find a wealth of helpful information.

  2. Nicholas Sabalos, Jr., CDR, U.S. Navy (Ret.) says:

    So THAT’s where Christmas went this year! Looks absolutely marvelous and festive!

    ENJOY, Aaron!

  3. Kim says:

    Bautiful wish I could have made it! I hope you kept the mug!!

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