Christmas in Vienna: Something for Everyone

AustriaHistory Lesson

Christmas break led us to Vienna, Austria. Why?

1) In the cold, dreary darkness of winter, it is one of Europe’s biggest travel destinations. [Translation: lots of indoor activities and gluhwein to warm the belly.]

2) We have a friend who lives there.

3) It’s a one-hour plane ride from Frankfurt.

With each trip we get a little better at traveling with our teens and this time around, a bigger apartment was key! More space for moody teens to have some quiet time at the end of a long day helps everyone relax.

We are a music family so no surprise Mozart and Beethoven (who are not from Vienna, although Mozart was a court composer there) lured us here. I did make the family watch the movie Amadeus, which was a good introduction. 

Discover Vienna by Foot: “Free” Walking Tour

We start every visit to a new city with a walking tour. It gives us the general layout of the city with a guide pointing out all the major attractions. Because of the tour, many times, we decide to come back to a place pointed out during the tour. The guide usually provides a nice mix of history, culture, and food/drink places to visit. The free tours are often the best deal in town: sign up, show up, and pay based on the quality of the tour. Word of caution, the guides can vary greatly in their level of expertise and ability to keep your attention. We have had outstanding guides in some places (like Iceland) and ones who seemed to just barely show up for their gig. 

Related: What to Know to Have the Best Walking Tour in Any City

Christmas in Vienna | Schönbrunn Palace

Schonbrunn Palace: Discover the Habsburg Dynasty

Our lovely former au pair is a guide at Schonbrunn Palace so we got the special tour through the palace (one of the palaces of the Habsburg family). This is one place not to miss which is filled with family drama, incest, suicide, murder, etc. It is a real-life Game of Thrones. You get to know the entire cast of characters because their dynasty is in every nook and cranny of Vienna. No need to read up before going, they got you covered. 

The palace has something for everyone—grounds for teens to wander away, cafes, the zoo, and the Apfelstrudel show, which I do recommend for those who love to bake.

The Christmas Market at Schonbrunn was small, but quaint; and in a more relaxed environment allowed us to really look at the handicrafts, enjoy some lunch, and parental gluhwein. I imagine in the nicer weather you could really spend a whole day here.

Christmas in Vienna | Christmas Markets

The Third Man Movie

A big surprise to us all, this famous movie was shot mostly in Vienna during the late 1940s. They show it at the Burg Kino in English with reasonably priced snacks for the kids and drinks for the parents. My kids loved the theater. Great for a rainy, cold, snowy or dreary day. Then afterwards, you’ll wander the streets of Vienna picking out the locations where it was shot. Pure fun. There is also a Third Man walking tour though we didn’t do that. Might make for an interesting post-movie adventure.

Christmas in Vienna | The Third Man

Launching WWI at the Military Museum

My 14-year old really enjoyed the Museum of Military History. You’ll get a nice recap of the Habsburgs, but this museum is very focused on World War I, including the car that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in that launched WWI. The museum took you through the military history of Vienna from about the 16th century up through World War II. The museum housed many different artifacts, some of which were quite interesting and unique.  For most folks, WW II is the biggest war of the 20th century and the most studied, but WW I was the biggest war for Austria, as it lost its empire.  As such, the Military History museum had a huge WW I exhibit, but the rest of the Austria’s military adventures received a less robust treatment.

Celebrating Music at the Heart of All Things Classical

With three musicians in the house, we decided a performance was a must, and I wanted to attend something they would recognize. Vienna has musical performances to suit all tastes. But a friend recommenced the Musikverein, which boasts the best acoustics in the world.

Teens get fidgety, and I needed a powerful punch — Beethoven never disappoints. After a very long Vivaldi, we got to the grand finale of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The venue was absolutely incredible, and it was worth the wait.

Christmas in Vienna | Opera

The final day we decided to tour the Vienna Opera House. Note they only have these at certain times on certain days. It’s important to get there 30 minutes before the tour starts to get in line to get the tickets. We got lucky on a day when they took us on stage to watch them preparing for that night’s opera. This is 45-minute tour that I thought was a pleasant surprise. Bonus Information: We learned you can get tickets the day of the performance for as little as 4 Euros for standing room, and some of the standing areas were pretty good.

Art Museums

There is no shortage of art museums for those who enjoy that. In cities like Madrid (the Prado) and Paris (the Louvre) it feels important to see important works of art. Audio tours are a huge plus as it forces kids to slow down a bit and hear about the important works in each room. The extra 5 Euros is worth it so they will understand what they’re looking at. We happened to be in Vienna during two huge exhibitions as different museums so we spent two mornings, out of the cold, looking at art. What I loved most about Vienna is kids under 18 are free! Which means I was happy to pay to go in to see the great masters and when my kids got tired, they stopped to rest a bit. When you’re not paying for teens to only partially pay attention it makes it feel more welcoming to families. So go and explore. When they get bored, send them to the gift shop or the cafe.

Besides the audio tours, many art museums have scavenger hunts through the museum to locate specific works. I also find my kids still like to make a game out of the museum. 

Where to Stay

AirBnB and HomeAway are fantastic options for traveling with teens. We have found over the past few vacations that it is critical for everyone to have space to separate in after a long day of walking/touring.  We stayed in a lovely historic apartment in Vienna’s 9th District which was far enough away from the hustle and bustle, but still very close to the city center. 

Teen Take

Best: The beautiful architecture that Vienna offers at every turn, as well as the pleasant atmosphere (which I’m sure is even more appealing in the Spring or Summer) were two of the general reasons I enjoyed Vienna. Vienna is rich with is history. I was unaware of the deep history of the Hapsburgs dating back several hundred years ago, and touring the city and gaining pieces of information about the Family and their history, was almost like a puzzle. One only learned a limited amount in each place, and had to piece it together to get the whole story. On top of the Hapsburgs was the musical history, with Beethoven and Mozart both living in Vienna, and I was sold.

Worst: Part of all our vacations is sampling and comparing food. Unfortunately, Vienna’s restaurants were not tourist friendly. We had to make a few reservations throughout the week, and more than once were barely able to be seated. This was rather inconvenient, as we had to plan our day around where we would be eating. Mom went cray-cray.

Unexpected: Vienna is renowned for it’s Sachertorte. Friends had recommended it, and I had received mixed reviews. While there, I tried it. And frankly, I don’t understand. It’s dry chocolate cake with some jam. I mean, it was good, but I’ve had better cakes. Clearly the Viennese have some attachment to it, but I was quite surprised at how not “heavenly” it was.

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