Austria’s winter wonderland is Christmas all wrapped up – keep reading to find out more about our magical trip to Salzburg
There’s nothing that signals the start of the festive season quite like a Christmas market. It’s the arrival of those quaint little stalls displaying pretty, handcrafted gifts, trinkets and festive supplies that truly triggers the Christmas spirit in us, and it’s got nothing (and everything) to do with warm goblets of mulled wine and sizzling bratwurst sausages. And one of the oldest and best has to be Salzburg at Christmas.
Historically, the Christmas market has signalled the start of advent (1st December) or the countdown to Christmas. But in recent years, these traditions, especially in the UK, have been clouded by young revellers looking to sample warming food and wine all decked out in their winter best. And as cities cash in on the trade these markets bring, you can expect to see them up and raring to go as early as mid-November.
Nowadays you can visit a Christmas market pretty much anywhere in the world, but you’ll rarely find one as authentic and pleasing as those in Germany or Austria, and in particular Salzburg. And this is one winter wonderland that you really don’t want to miss out on during the festive season.
It’s no surprise considering the earliest recorded markets of this nature were in Munich as far back as the 14th century and it is believed to have been Vienna’s Dezembermarkt (December Market) that gave the Germans the idea in the first place.
So, with the modest Austrian city of Salzburg nestled in the middle, it’s easy to see why they have such an interesting Christmas heritage.
A city of culture
Salzburg’s setting has to be seen to be believed, a rather breathtaking and picturesque city sunken between high reaching hills with a backdrop of mountains, the River Salzach running through it and pretty alpine villages surrounding it. The city centre is made up of a series of squares interlinked by a network of ‘gasse’ or small streets and is known as the old city.
For such a small municipal, about half the size of Manchester, you wonder how it manages to fit it all in. There’s its religious history, having been under Catholic rule until the turn of the 19th century. There are more than 27 churches and a huge baroque-style working cathedral in the centre.
Its musical culture – what with being the birthplace of Mozart – it hosts an annual summer music festival and various concerts throughout the year – including a special Christmas concert at the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which overlooks the city from the top of one of those hills. There are the associations with everyone’s favourite film-musical too – The Sound of Music. Set in Austria, there were many of the now famous scenes filmed in Salzburg and fans will no doubt recognise the references throughout the city.
It ticks all the boxes if you’re looking for some retail therapy too. Any shopaholic simply has to walk down the beautifully lit Getreidegasse (Salzburg’s version of a high street knocks Oxford Street out the park) and you’ll gleam with delight at the plethora of shops from high street favourites like Zara to designer powerhouse Louis Vuitton and a number of boutique gems too.
And with several universities, it also manages to appeal to students with plenty of cosmopolitan cafes and eateries and its very own love lock bridge.
A Christmas cracker
But during advent is where it really shines. At night time, the city lights up and the attractions begin. The main Christkindlmarkt is actually Austria’s oldest and dates back to the 15th century.
It’s erected in the cathedral square and is spread over two distinct areas. It opens daily until Christmas with traditional music and live performances, plenty of glühwein served in all manor of flavours (the spiced apple wine is a must-try) and speciality foods like ‘Bosna’, a Salzburg curried hot dog, are handed out in droves. Horse and carriage rides trot by and busy stalls sell an array of Christmas decorations and gifts. Christmas bliss!
As the hours tick by the locals certainly get louder drawn to the magical atmosphere of the Christkindlmarkt, but it never manages to lose that sense of calmness and ease you feel throughout the city day and night.
There are many more smaller markets across the city to explore too including Mirabell Platz in front of Mirabell Palace, Stern in the Sternbrau brewery’s courtyard, and the Hohensalzburg Fortress accessed by a rather fun mountainside train (funicular) all with the same warming and welcoming atmosphere. It’s also worth taking a short bus ride to visit the torch lit market at Hellbrunn Palace where you can go on a reindeer sleigh ride and view the windows of the palace making a giant advent calendar.
If you love tradition, you’ll love Salzburg. It is up there with the likes of the North Pole as one of the most Christmassy places in the world for sure and visit during advent (late November to Christmas Eve) and you are transported into a magical world of festivities.
And it’s these customs and traditions that make it a truly wonderful place to see especially at this time of year.
One of the most fascinating is the Krampus and Perchten run which is unique to Austria and involves getting dressed up in outlandish costumes and masks to roam the streets at night in a chase of good (Perchten) against evil (Krampus).
Silent Night, Holy Night
And in 2018, if possible, it’s set to be an even more magical time of year. Because it will celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the Silent Night Christmas carol. You are probably already humming it but Silent Night, the tune that is synonymous with Christmas, those soft chords and charming words we’ve sang as children and adults, was first sung in the pretty alpine village of Oberndorf, 30 minutes north of Salzburg city, on 24th December 1818.
You can easily get up to Oberndorf by taking a train from the main Salzburg station and here you can enjoy the Oberndorf Christmas Market in the Silent Night Square in front of St Nicholas’s church where it all began. Every Saturday and Sunday at 3pm the local choir and Turmblasen (traditional hornblowers) will perform a set including, of course, Silent Night.
The Salzburg Museum just off the main square is also running a fabulous exhibition about Silent Night’s 200th anniversary.
There are few places left on earth that do Christmas like Salzburgerland, you’ll go feeling festive but come back with a warm glow and 100% ready for Christmas. It’s a little magical dot – charming, beautiful and oozing character from every corner.
Get the most out of Salzburg
Where to eat: Gasthof Goldgasse (Goldgasse 10, 5020) in the Old City is located close to the Christkindlmarkt. Serving up tasty authentic Austrian food in a cosy and relaxed environment.
Where to stay: Hotel Stein (Giselakai 3-5, 5020) This contemporary arty hotel has Italian-inspired décor and a luxurious yet friendly vibe. It is perfectly located to explore the Christkindlmarkt – just across the bridge on the other side of the river. A double room is priced from from €290 based on two sharing B&B. Part of Amadeus Hotels.
Useful info: Invest in a 24, 48 or 72-hour Salzburg card to get free entry to many of the city’s attractions and free public transport.
Salzburg City’s 2-night Christmas Market package, valid November 22 to December 26, is priced from €185 per person midweek and from €235 per person weekends (Fri/Sat) for two sharing B&B in a central 4* hotel. The price includes a horse-drawn carriage ride, a mug of glühwein and a Christkindlpass for complimentary culinary delights and a few surprises.
To book visit: www.salzburg.info – price is subject to availability and includes taxes and service charges. Single supplements apply, additional nights are available and a fee of €18 per booking applies.
Fly direct to Salzburg from London (Stansted or Gatwick).
Visit the Austrian National Tourist Office for more information about Austria.