Because Vienna, Austria is known for its Christmas markets and other holiday festivities, we thought it would be the perfect place for us – and our two-year-old daughter – to end our year of slow travel in Europe. Our family spent not just Christmas, but the entire month of December in Vienna. Dannie and I thought the city was beautiful, but we often felt a little guilty. There was plenty for adults like us to enjoy, but Christmas in Vienna wasn’t quite as magical for kids Lisa’s age. In this article we’ll go over the ups and downs of Christmas with kids in Vienna, and finish off with a list of activities Lisa actually enjoyed.
I think if Dannie and I had been there alone, it might have been one of our favorite stops. But our journey has been a family adventure from start to finish. As I mentioned, our daughter Lisa was two years old at the time, and though it was her third Christmas it was the first one she actually had a shot at remembering. One of the reasons we chose Vienna for Christmas was because of its reputation – we really wanted it to be special for Lisa.
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Vienna’s reputation for Christmas is well earned. The city was decked out in lights and festivals. But Lisa had a lot more fun during our months in Prague and Budapest, which were, honestly, just as beautiful as Vienna, sometimes more so.
Why Christmas in Vienna, Austria is Better for Adults Than Kids
Different Cultures Celebrate Christmas Differently
Obviously, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it does mean that you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. The Viennese love Christmas, and the celebrations and decorations are everywhere, but the focus is very different from what you might be accustomed to in the United States. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Vienna, and the holiday is more religious than it often is in America. You will occasionally come across an image of Santa Claus in a storefront or an ornament, but he looks a little different and he isn’t the central figure by a wide margin.
Christmastime in Vienna is, on the whole, less geared toward children. To be sure, there are activities that children can engage in, and I think that the children of Vienna, probably enjoy themselves, but for visitors, it’s harder to enjoy the festivities the same way. Imagine this:
If you are child who lives in Vienna, then you will probably have fond memories of Christmastime, going to gatherings with family and friends, going to Christmas mass, and just generally celebrating as part of a community. But if you are, for example, an American toddler visiting Vienna during the holidays, you won’t be a part of any community, you won’t have much of your family to celebrate with, and the things that your parents are nostalgic for from their childhood (American Christmas music, mall Santas, etc), the ways that they know how to celebrate, are simply not around.
We were staying in an Airbnb with a kitchen (read our Airbnb Tips for Slow Travel), so we were at least able to decorate Christmas cookies, but the closest we could really come to celebrating with the community was walking around town, looking at the decorations (which were lovely). Granted, this will be a problem if you are celebrating anywhere but your home country, but it’s worth mentioning.
Vienna, Austria at Christmastime is Cold and Windy, But Not Very Snowy
We were in Vienna for the entire month of December, so I feel like we have a big enough sample size to make this judgment. The air was cold while we were there and the wind was brutal. Lisa’s hat was always blowing off, and we wound up using her stroller‘s rain cover, even when it was sunny out, just because we felt bad for her sitting in there.
But for all the cold, we still didn’t have a white Christmas. It snowed twice at night while we were there, but both times it was gone by the middle of the next day. Of course, we had come to Europe from Florida where it never snowed, but at least on the snowless days there you could go outside to play.
We did go out for plenty of walks anyway, but it was always a means to an end – either seeing a Christmas market or going to the grocery store – and being outdoors was always uncomfortable, mostly because of the wind. We spent a lot of time inside our apartment, where Lisa got plenty bored and kept getting scolded for playing with the plastic Christmas tree. At least we weren’t in a hotel room.
The Vienna Christmas Markets are Beautiful but Repetitive
The Christmas Markets in Vienna are worth seeing. No matter where you are staying, you probably won’t be far from one, though the best ones are either in the city center or just around the perimeter. For adults who can enjoy walking together, talking and sipping on a hot cup of mulled wine, Christmas markets could probably be enjoyed almost endlessly. But Lisa enjoyed exactly one Christmas market – the first one we went to. After that, I think she just thought we were returning to the same place over and over again.
At the first market we visited, we bought her a little doll, a Christmas ornament, and some candy. They were a bit overpriced, but hey, it’s Christmas! Then, when we went to another one, we saw that the stalls were all stocked with the exact same foods, toys and decorations. It was still really pretty and everyone there was in the right spirit, but it got frustrating for Lisa. We can afford to buy her expensive treats once in a while, but not constantly, especially if it’s not even something new. Dannie and I still enjoyed walking around, once Lisa stopped begging for things, but we knew it wasn’t as much fun for her as it was for us.
Toddlers Can’t Sit Through A Show (Especially in Another Language)
One thing that a lot of “Things to do in Vienna” articles mention is taking in an opera or some other kind of show. Dannie and I talked about how much we’d love to do that together, but knew in our hearts it wasn’t meant to be. We didn’t have a babysitter, and Lisa was at that stage where her idea of watching a show was to tell us what she is seeing loudly and repeatedly (Doggy! Doggy! Doggy! Doggy!). It would have been a nightmare.
The fact that she wouldn’t have understood a word that was being said in German was also a deterrent.
Kids’ Christmas Activities in Vienna, Austria We Actually Enjoyed
We complain sometimes, but it’s not like we sat around pouting the whole time. Here are some of the things that put a big smile on Lisa’s two year old face while we were in Vienna.
Ice Skating at Wiener Eistraum
Vienna’s Wiener Eistraum is a winter festival that takes place every year in front of the City Hall aka Rathaus (Google Maps). We took Lisa to Wiener Eistraum for free ice skating, and she loved it so much that we had to come back a second time. There were two skating areas: one was a beginners area where kids could practice using supports, the other was a big ice trail that went all over the park, weaving in between trees and forming a huge loop. The trail looked like fun, but we stuck to the practice area.
Wiener Eistraum also happens to be next to what we considered to be the best Christmas market in Vienna.
Prater Amusement Park
We weren’t looking for Prater Amusement Park (Google Maps) – it’s across the canal from the city center – we just happened to walk by it while shopping for some travel gear. Prater is a legitimate amusement park with rides and activities for all ages. There are roller coasters, a ferris wheel, haunted houses and obstacle courses. If you aren’t scared of heights, there’s also the giant Prater Turm, a 117 meter tall swing carousel. But Lisa is two years old, so she liked steering the bumper cars in Dannie’s lap. She also went on one of the smaller, slower roller coasters, and enjoyed a merry go round. In front of the park, there was a small Christmas market.
Miniature Midnight Snowmen
This activity isn’t specific to Christmas or Vienna, but it isn’t precluded by them! Though there was very little snow while we were in Vienna, there was a dusting overnight one time. Dannie and I saw it out the window and we ran to wake Lisa up and take her outside. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen snow, but it was the first time she was old enough to remember it, and we weren’t sure when we’d see it again. The snow on the sidewalk by our Airbnb wasn’t very deep, but we piled it up enough to make little snowmen and have a snowball fight (they ganged up on me)!
We all had sniffles when we went out to the park the next morning, but it was worth it. By then the little snow that had fallen was almost gone, so Lisa made due with chasing the ducks by the water. We hadn’t taken pictures the night before, so we packed our little camera with us to capture the moment.
Sweets and Sausages
Some things that are great about Vienna, Austria are great year round. Because we’re vegetarians, we couldn’t really enjoy the sausages they sold at a lot of the Christmas markets around the city. Luckily for us, Vienna’s supermarkets had the best selection of meat alternative sausages we’d seen in Europe. We had to cook them ourselves, but it let us feel like we were taking part in the culture.
There is never a shortage of pastries and deserts in Vienna, but we couldn’t help but think that there were an awful lot of them around at Christmastime. We tried to restrain ourselves, but we definitely indulged a little more than we should have. Sometimes Dannie and I pretended we were buying some as a treat for Lisa, but really, we knew it was we who wanted it.
Some of the best cakes we had were at Cafe Central where we had breakfast the day after Christmas.
The Christmas Lights on the Vienna Ring Road
Even though it was cold outside at night, we did take the long way home a few times just to look at the Christmas lights that were hanging all over the city. The long road that surrounds the city center of Vienna, Austria is called the Ring Road or the Schottenring (Google Maps), and it is lined all the way around with rows of trees, decorated in string light during the holidays. Looking at the map, you can see the road carving out the uneven hexagon of the city center.
But of course, that pales in comparison to the decorations in the city center, especially around the shopping centers, where stores deck out their windows and the city hangs ropes and sparkly figures over the pedestrian streets.
So Vienna, Austria wasn’t exactly the Christmas fantasy we’d envisioned for Lisa, but it was still really beautiful. If Dannie and I had been there on our own, then I think it would have been a truly magical experience. But being there with Lisa, our own expectations kept clashing with the icy realities of celebrating a winter holiday in a country that doesn’t share your personal nostalgias. Maybe no city would have been perfect.
It’s true that no one travels because they want to experience the same things they have seen before at home. We’re no different. But by the time we got to Vienna we had been traveling for almost a year, and I think we can be forgiven for feeling a little homesickness and nostalgia. I kind of think we were projecting our own homesickness onto Lisa as well. She had been traveling since long before her permanent memories started forming. She didn’t remember Christmas… or her home country. She had no expectations for what the holiday should or shouldn’t have been like. When she looked at the photos from our trip, months later, she smiled at the scenes she remembered, so maybe she had more fun than we realized.
Except when it was really windy. That was just miserable.
If you went to Vienna with your children (or if you plan on going) I’d really love it if you shared your experience in the comments so that they can add to our own story to give our readers a fuller picture. If you found this article useful, or if you at least enjoyed reading it, you might want to check out our other articles about Vienna, Austria, or perhaps one of the many other destinations we’ve visited throughout the world since we started traveling full time. If you’d like to help support our travels and content like this, consider checking out our resource page or our shop when you are getting ready for your own adventures. Thanks for reading!
Update: A year later, we have now celebrated Christmas in Dali, China. It’s quite a contrast if you’re interested.