Christmas in Austria is filled with centuries-old traditions that still come alive today in homes and on town squares around the country. There are plenty of reasons to visit Austria at Christmas time – from the atmospheric Christmas markets and the scrumptious treats to the snow-capped mountains.
Austria at Christmas time is the favourite part of my year. I can’t wait for the first Christmas markets to open from the middle of November onwards. The Christmas season in Austria is called Advent and officially starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas, which is also called the 1st Advent. Here is my insider’s guide to spending the best Christmas holidays in Austria.
Best cities to spend Christmas in Austria
For a combination of city comforts, snow-capped mountain peaks and Christmas markets in a historic old town setting, Innsbruck is the best place to spend Christmas in Austria. Nowhere else can you go from the heart of the city to playing in the snow on an Alpine peak within an hour.
There are five Christmas markets in Innsbruck, of which four are within walking distance from each other in the city centre. The other is at the Hungerburg on the slopes of the Nordkette mountains with sweeping views over the Inn Valley. A trip with the Nordkettenbahnen is a must on a clear day in Innsbruck.
There’s a lot of sparkle in Innsbruck at Christmas time. The famous Golden Roof balcony is the centrepiece of the old town Christmas market while a giant crystal Christmas tree from Swarovski dominates the skyline on the market square.
Did you know that Swarovski comes from the village of Wattens near Innsbruck? I can highly recommend visiting the Swarovski Crystal Worlds at Christmas. You can catch a shuttle bus from Innsbruck with a special ticket that includes entry and transfer.
The UNESCO World Heritage historic centre of Salzburg, the city of Mozart, is the ideal setting not only for traditional Christmas Markets but also for advent concerts.
Take your time browsing through the Christmas markets on the squares in front of the Salzburg Cathedral and Residence. And if you’re up for some action, exchange your boots for ice skates on the adjacent Mozart Square.
A visit to the Hohensalzburg Fortress is always a highlight when visiting Salzburg but especially so at Christmas. The views over the Christmas markets below as well as the surrounding countryside are amazing. There is also a special Christmas concert in the fortress featuring the works of Mozart and his contemporaries.
Don’t forget to visit Hellbrunn Palace for its own charming Christmas market.
For a great end to any day in Salzburg, I can personally recommend the Mozart dinner concert in the world’s oldest restaurant in St Peter’s Abbey. And if you can’t be in the city of Mozart for Christmas, the fireworks on New Year’s Eve in Salzburg is so worth ringing in the new year here.
The capital of Austria is unmistakably busier and more cosmopolitan than Innsbruck and Salzburg at Christmas.
During the lead-up to Christmas, Vienna is transformed into a glittering sea of colour. Thousands of crystals and giant chandeliers create the impression of a giant outdoor ballroom in the pedestrian areas of the city centre. A great way to take it all in is by hopping on the sightseeing tram around the famous Ringstraße, especially the last one leaving at around 17:30.
More Christmas highlights in Vienna to look out for include the Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz and the nativity scenes in St Peter’s Church. The beautiful baroque church is also the venue for a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s concert.
Best villages for a traditional Christmas in Austria
Zell am See-Kaprun
It will be hard to find a more romantic Christmas setting than around Lake Zell in Austria. The beautiful lakeside town of Zell am See with the quaint village of Kaprun a few kilometres away has everything to make Christmas memorable.
Thousands of stars, in the streets and on the lake, turn Zell am See-Kaprun into a fairytale destination. Add some traditional Advent markets, a Krampus run, the Kitzsteinhorn glacier for skiing, and a Christmas tree which is submerged in the lake and pulled up by divers on Christmas Day and you’ve got something for everyone.
Seefeld in Tirol
Not far from Innsbruck, this Tyrolean village is set on a sunny plateau surrounded by mountains. It has its own little lake and is especially popular in winter for the hundreds of kilometres of cross-country skiing in the area.
We love Seefeld’s traditional little Christmas market. Everything in the village is walking distance from each other, with ski buses taking visitors from their hotels to the nearby Rosshütte ski resort. This resort is ideal for families with small children and one of our favourites for an all-around pleasurable skiing experience.
Back to Salzburgerland, this time the UNESCO World Heritage region of Hallstatt-Dachstein. The beautiful setting on the shores of Lake Hallstatt make Hallstatt one of Austria’s most visited small towns.
While many visitors opt to visit Hallstatt on a day trip from Salzburg, the town turns quiet at night. That’s why I would recommend staying over to enjoy the real spirit of Christmas when the crowds have left. Just make sure you book early because accommodation in Hallstatt is limited.
Best regions for a Christmas ski holiday in Austria
Tucked snugly between Germany, Italy, and the two Austrian provinces of Vorarlberg and Salzburgerland, there’s a reason why the Tyrol is one of the most popular winter destinations in Europe.
Innsbruck, the Tyrolean capital, is also called the capital of the Alps. At Christmas, visitors are treated to a choice of Christmas markets with a beautiful mountain backdrop.
If you don’t want to stay in the city, there are plenty of quaint Alpine villages within easy reach of Innsbruck. This is where you’ll experience a real traditional Austrian Christmas. The villages of Igls, Sistrans, Rinn, and Tulfes in the Mittelgebirge or “middle mountains” above Innsbruck are excellent choices.
Staying in one of the smaller valleys branching off from the Inn Valley guarantees a traditional Christmas in Austria close to some world-class ski resorts. The Alpbachtal, the Stubaital, and the Zillertal are valleys to consider if you want to stay close to Innsbruck.
For a fairytale lakeside Christmas surrounded by Alpine peaks, the Achensee or Lake Achen provides the perfect setting.
A region that could come up with perhaps the most beautiful Christmas carol ever written is certainly worth spending Christmas in. You guessed it, Silent Night was first sung in the village of Oberndorf close to Salzburg, the capital of Salzburgerland.
There is a big variety of big and small ski resorts in Salzburgerland, most of them covered by the Salzburg Super Ski Card, which combines 25 skiing regions, and 2,700 km of slopes.
Salzburgerland is also home to the beautiful Salzkammergut lake district. You really won’t regret spending your Christmas holiday in Austria in one of the towns on the shore of Lake Wolfgang.
Salzburgerland is also mountainous, so the chances of finding snow at least on the mountain peaks are good. And if there’s no snow to play in, there are plenty of thermal baths to relax in.
Tip: If you prefer to base yourself in Salzburg for Christmas, there is a special Silent Night Tour to Oberndorf as well as a St Wolfgang Advent tour from there. The latter includes a boat ride as well as a visit to three romantic Christmas markets next to the lake.
The Austrian province of Vorarlberg shares its borders with Switzerland and Germany. It is here, in one corner, where all countries meet where you will find the Bodensee or Lake Constance. The cities of Bregenz, Dornbirn, Hohenems, and Feldkirch are all close to the lake and all excellent bases for a Christmas holiday in Austria.
Moving down the Inn Valley, the Vorarlberg turns into an Alpine region with three valleys, the Brandnertal, Klostertal, and Walsertal, spreading out like a star from the pretty town of Bludenz. There certainly is a case for celebrating Austrian Christmas traditions here away from big-city hype. I hear the Val Blu Sport Hotel & Spa in Bludenz is a hidden gem for families in the Bludenz Valley.
Tip: A day trip to the petite country of Liechtenstein is easy to do from Vorarlberg.
Christmas markets in Austria
Christmas markets in Austria are called a Christkindlmarkt or Adventmarkt. What can you expect to find at an Austrian Christmas market? How do chestnuts roasting on an open fire sound? Or Glühwein (mulled wine) and Kinderpunsch (the children’s version of mulled wine) to keep the cold at bay? Not to mention the hand-crafted Christmas decorations, traditional music, and children’s activities.
If you’re in Tyrol in the weeks before Christmas, you must visit the Rattenberg Christmas Market. Rattenberg is Austria’s smallest town. What makes the market so special is that the entire town is only lit by candlelight and fires when the Christmas market is held.
By early December, many Christmas markets in Austria are officially open. The commercial ones in the big cities start doing business from mid-November. In the smaller towns, some only open on the four Advent weekends.
It’s true that the Christmas markets of Vienna, Graz, Salzburg, and Innsbruck have become big tourist attractions. In Vienna, the main Christmas market called the Vienna Christmas World is held on the Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.
Innsbruck Christmas markets are centered around the old town, with the most romantic one in front of the Golden Roof. In Salzburg, the main Christmas market is held on Cathedral square in the heart of the historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While these big Christmas markets remain authentic, my advice would be to visit at the end of November/beginning of December to avoid the crowds. Glühwein and traditional treats like Kiachl and Zillertaler Krapfen tend to lose their appeal if you must queue half an hour in minus degrees for them.
What we love most about the markets during Christmas in Austria are the authentic medieval settings. You can bet there is a church tower of at least a few hundred years old towering over the festivities at most Christmas markets, big or small.
Silent Night – A proudly Austrian Christmas song
Who doesn’t know the melody of Silent Night, even if they don’t know all the words. It’s easily the most famous Christmas Carol of all time. And it was sung for the first time in the Saint Nicholas Chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg in 1818.
Franz Xaber Gruber, a school teacher, composed the melody on that very same Christmas Eve day after he was given the lyrics by local priest Joseph Mohr. Mohr had already written the words for “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” in a poem in 1816.
In 2011, Silent Night was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. The song has been translated into more than 150 languages. Here is the first verse of the original German.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Listen to this beautiful performance of the original version by the Vienna Boys Choir.
Other well-known Austrian Christmas carols include Leise rieselt der Schnee (my favourite) and O Tannenbaum.
Christmas traditions in Austria
Most Austrian families we know still adhere to the tradition of making or buying an Advent wreath. Modern Advent wreaths aren’t necessarily round. Some are rectangular and some square – it doesn’t matter. The important thing is for them to have four candles.
The lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath is one of the best kept Christmas traditions in Austria. The first candle is lit on the 1st Advent Sunday, with another one added on each Advent Sunday thereafter until all four candles are burning on the 4th Advent.
In some families, the lighting of the Advent candles during Christmas in Austria is accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols or the telling/reading of Advent stories.
In Tulfes in Tyrol, our hometown, it’s customary for the women to gather in the town hall in the last week of November to make Advent wreaths.
As a neighbour to Germany, where the Advent calendar originated in the 19th century, you will find some of the most unusual and beautiful Advent calendars counting down the days to Christmas in Austria.
The first “Advent calendars” were chalk lines made to count down the days to Christmas. Another theory is that they originated with a German pastor who made a wooden crown with 24 candles. The lighting of a candle a day was meant to make the wait until Christmas more bearable for children. (This is also where the Advent wreath with 4 candles originated.)
In Austrian shops today, there are Advent calendars filled with beer, tea bags, chocolates, toys, books – you name it. But the most beautiful ones are those which you can fill with whatever you want. Real works of art in the shape of Christmas trees, or trains, or painted wooden boxes with drawers.
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Sadly, you will find none of these unique Advent calendars in our home. Our Lego fanatic son insists on either a Lego City or Lego Star Wars Advent calendar.
Personally, I have an Advent calendar filled with Lindt chocolates to look forward to each year. Technically, it’s C’s calendar which he gets from an international shipping company at work. However, he has learned that it’s best to just give it over to me. I do make up for it by buying him his own (ordinary) version of a chocolate Advent Calendar.
Christmas in Austria won’t be the same without my daily treat from December 1 to 24!
Nikolaus and Krampus
Once the Advent wreaths are made and the calendars bought, it’s time to start thinking about Saint Nicholas and his evil companion Krampus who visit Austrian children on December 5 or 6.
Nikolaus, as the saint is called in Austria, visits on his own with his angels when children behave well during the year. The angels carry hemp bags filled with peanuts, walnuts, nectarines, and of course, chocolate Nikolaus figures. Really good children also get a small toy.
But beware if you don’t behave well or have spiteful parents! In this case, the devil incarnate, in the form of a Krampus, visit together with Nikolaus and his angels.
Krampus is a scary bugger. REALLY SCARY. He has horns and a whip. He wears a beast-like fur costume. He bangs cowbells and rattles chains. His eyes glow orange. In short: he makes kids behave well, even if it’s only for a day.
In Tulfes, Nikolaus and Krampus still make home visits. It turns into a pleasant evening spent with family or friends after the two “guests” leave.
Note: Krampus doesn’t only make his appearance with Nikolaus on December 5 or 6. Krampus runs or parades through the streets of towns and cities are a tradition before Christmas in Austria. Some costumes are hundreds of years old, and even boys dress up as devils.
Heilige Abend or Christmas Eve in Austria
Despite the wonderful traditions, the lead-up to Christmas in Austria is very busy. Children mostly have school until 23 December, and shops do business until 24 December. But then, from around 15:00 on 24 December, it’s as if an imaginary switch is turned off. Traffic comes to a halt and people retreat to their homes and their families.
In Austria, it’s the Christkind (Christ-child) who brings the presents. An angelic looking child, he/she enters unseen. In the Austrian families we know, this happens while they attend the Christmas Eve church service. Even when the family is home, the door to the living room or “stube” remains closed until a bell is rung to announce the Christkind has been.
Of course, to the delight of the children, the family finds neatly wrapped Christmas presents under the tree when entering the previously locked room. In religious Catholic families, the home is also blessed with burning incense and sprinklings of holy water on Heilige Abend.
What do Austrians eat on Christmas Eve? Would you believe me if I said sausages in many forms? Some prefer them in potato soup, others with potato salad or sauerkraut. In Vienna and other eastern provinces, Carp is a traditional Christmas Eve dish. Nearer to Switzerland in the west, cheese specialties like fondue and raclette are gaining popularity.
The Austrian Christmas tree
In traditional Austrian homes, you won’t see a Christmas tree until December 24 when kids help their parents or grandparents prepare the tree for the Christkind. I think we are frowned upon when our tree goes up about 2 weeks before Christmas, and especially when we start packing gifts under it.
Although the tree and accompanying decorations go up at the last minute, you’ll find a Christbaum for sale long before that. There are no fake Christmas trees in Austria, thank you. They special fir trees or Zirbenbäume are planted especially for Christmas.
We are fortunate to be surrounded by a number of Christmas tree plantations in Tulfes. After shopping around for a few years, we now have a fixed Christmas tree supplier. We travel about 2km down the road to the family Kössler of the Heissangererhof.
Farmer Markus patiently accompanies us while we discuss the size and shape of just about every tree. After wrapping it up nicely in a net, we are offered a schnapps to say thank you for the business. If we happen to shop on the same day as the annual farm Christmas market, a Glühwein is included in the price.
A huge tree, sometimes several stories high, forms the centrepiece of many a town and city square in Austria at Christmas time. Most are simply lit with white lights and maybe some red Christmas baubles. Generally, Christmas lights in Austria aren’t multi-coloured.
Austrian Christmas time treats
Besides the chocolate in all shapes and sizes, there are many unique Austrian Christmas treats.
M is a real little Austrian who loves the spicy Lebkuchen. The brown biscuit has a familiar ginger taste, but also contains other spices such as cinnamon that is typical to Christmas in Austria.
Austrian Christmas cookies or Kekse are generally bite-sized. Popular ones include Vanillekipferl (vanilla biscuits in half-moon shape dusted with icing sugar), Linzer Augen (two biscuits stuck together with jam and with openings in the top biscuit), and Windringerl (meringue rings). The Austrian or German version of baked Christmas fruitcake is called Adventstollen, Weihnactsstollen or Christstollen.
Christmas market favourites are Kiachl (a deep-fried sourdough bread with a hollow in the middle which is perfect to hold sauerkraut or cranberry jam) or Zillertaler krapfen (a deep-fried pastry with a special cheese filling from the Ziller Valley in Tyrol).
The closest thing to healthy you will get at an Austrian Christmas market is roasted chestnuts, fruit dipped in chocolate or sugar-coated roasted nuts.
Traditional Glühwein comes in a few adapted versions, such as the Feuerzangenbowle. The Glühwein boils in a pot over an open fire, with a rum-soaked sugarloaf positioned over it. When the sugarloaf is set on fire, the caramelised sugar drips into the Glühwein.
Epiphany or Heilige Drei Könige (Three Kings‘ Day)
Christmas in Austria finally comes to an end for us on the afternoon of January 6, when we start watching out for the Heilige Drei Könige walking from door to door in Tulfes. Also called Sternsinger, they are local kids dressed up as the Wise men.
The Heilige Drei Könige solve the mystery of the writing in chalk above most Austrian front doors. After their visit on January 6, they write the year, broken up into two parts with the letters C M B in the middle, on the door frame. C B M supposedly stand for “Christus mansionem benedicat” or “May Christ bless this house”. Another theory is that it’s the first letters of the three kings’ names – Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar.
The wise men who visit us in Tulfes say a special poem and swing an incense holder to bless our home. They also use the opportunity to raise money for charity.
After January 6, you may take your Christmas tree and other Christmas decorations down.
The weather in Austria at Christmas
A white Christmas in Austria isn’t guaranteed. We felt extremely lucky when it started to snow on Christmas Eve on our very first Christmas here in 2010. We woke up to a winter wonderland the next morning.
For the best chance to experience a traditional white Christmas, you should head for the mountainous provinces of Salzburg, Tyrol, and Vorarlberg. Even if there’s no snow in the valleys, you’re sure to catch some of the white stuff in the mountains.
The average daytime temperatures in Austria range between 0°C and 5°C. But would you believe me if I told you that we had a “braai” (a South African barbeque) at temperatures of over 10°C one Christmas?
You can expect the sun to rise between 07:00 and 08:00 and to set between 17:00 and 18:00 during Christmas in Austria.
Tips for spending the best-ever Christmas in Austria
- Do your shopping for Christmas Eve and Christmas day early. This is especially important if you plan to do your own cooking. Austrian shops are CLOSED on 25 December and only a very few open on 26 December. Most of them also close EARLY on 24 December.
- Pack one decent warm jacket or coat to wear over your other clothes for outdoor activities. I know, it’s not ideal to wear the same jacket in all your Christmas market or snow photos but would you rather be fashionable than warm?
- Try to visit at least one Christmas market or concert outside of the big cities. This is where you’ll get in touch with the locals to experience a traditional Christmas in Austria.
- Collect a Glühwein or Punsch mug at each Christmas market you go to. Just don’t return it to get your deposit (normally €2) after finishing your drink.
- Wear some thermal leggings and an extra pair of socks if you plan to spend long hours standing around in a Christmas market at night.
- Don’t expect the locals to put up a show just for you, especially in the small villages. Join in their festivities if you like but be respectful of their traditions. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can greet them with “Frohe Weihnachten” which means Merry Christmas.
- If you’re not cooking or staying in a hotel with its own restaurant where you are sure to get Christmas lunch, find out in advance which nearby restaurants will be open and book a table.
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