Friday, November 20, 2015

The 2015 Vienna Christmas Markets are Open and Are Bigger Than Ever

Vienna’s most popular Christmas market, the City Hall’s “Christ Child Market,” which also includes the “the Magic of Advent," opened on Friday, November 13. It was the first of about 22 such markets to open in Vienna to provide Viennese and visitors with the chance to buy delicate Christmas decorations, elegant crafted goods, cheap Chinese-made trinkets, tons of tasty food, and different kinds of hot wine served in cups especially made for the markets. For more information on this market, go to
View of the entry to the 2015
Wiener Christkindlmarkt and Advent Sauber

For many, the main attraction of the markets is punsch, the hot wine that comes in many different varieties. A quick survey showed the following types of punsch were being offered for sale at different booths: Christkindlmarkt, hinbeer, erdbeer, heidelbeer, kirsch, orange, beeren, tequila, zwergerl, kokos, Jack Daniel’s, bärentöeten, Mozart, amaretto, schoko-rum, apfel-zwetschen, vanielle-kirsch, and energy. (Other varieties are available at other Christmas markets.) For revelers who do not like punsch, glühwein is also available. At the Rathaus, the price is €4 per ¼ liter, served in a specially made mug. For each mug, a returnable deposit of €3 is required.
A punsch stand at the Wiener Christkindlmarkt

Of course, punsch tastes best in cold weather when it warms the hands and gullet, helping to fend off frostbite. Sadly for the vendors, so far November weather has been unseasonably warm. At present, the chances of getting frostbite in Vienna are slim. Such weather dampens the need for the warming effects of punsch and brings to mind objections to opening the Christmas market SIX WEEKS before the actual holiday.
A stand at the Wiener Christkindlmarkt selling Christmas tree ornaments

A Wiener Christkindlmarkt stand selling baked goods

Food at the Wiener Christkindlmarkt

Trinkets sold at a Wiener Christkindlmarkt stand: the Viennese love their dogs

Preparing the Christmas Market at the Rathaus

Of course, it is not surprising to see the Wiener Christkindlmarkt opening so early, and the packed Rathaus square on Saturday night (November 14th) showed why. (The crowds came even though the opening ceremonies were canceled due to the terrorist attacks in Paris.) This market is popular, attracting tourists from near and far. Also important, it is a big enterprise employing many people, and the market for Christmas markets is increasingly competitive, with new and expanding Christmas markets popping up around Vienna and in other Austrian cities and in the rest of Europe. The Vienna Chamber of Commerce estimates that the Rathaus market will have 3 million visitors in 2015 with each Viennese spending 22 euros and each tourist spending 36 euros. 
Preparing lights for the Advent Sauber
at the Rathaus Park

I had never realized the scale of the work needed to create Christmas market until this year when I was in Vienna at the beginning of November. On November 1, work had already begun on the Rathaus market with an impressive number of trucks bearing tradesmen and -women parked in front of recently  installed temporary structures (booths, stands, huts, stalls?) from which goods are sold. Not only did the electrical system for this village need to be wired, but the huts had to be stocked and a massive array of lights and decorations installed.

One Sunday as I passed by the Rathaus on a Strassenbahn, I was astounded to see work being done by an army of electricians: usually unions in Austria make sure their members do not have to work on Sunday. The cost for overtime work must have been substantial.

The Setting of the Rathaus Christmas Market

For those who have not been in Vienna, you should know that its city hall, the Rathaus, is a massive gothic building constructed on Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse. The Ringstrasse is a boulevard that was created when Emperor Franz Joseph was persuaded in the 1850s to allow the wall protecting the central city to be demolished. The new street opened 150 years ago.

As part of the grand plan to replace the wall, many important public buildings were built along the Ring. The Rathaus and its park, which takes up four large blocks, is located between the University and Parliament buildings. It lies across the street from the Burgtheater. 

View of the Wiener Christkindlmarkt facing the Burg Theater

In front of the massive Rathaus building is a paved public square and a large park. The 150 or so huts/booths/stands/stalls making up the market are located in the paved part of the square. The park is the setting for the "Magic of Advent" with decorations and children’s attractions. At night, the market and the Magic of Advent are a cornucopia of lights and sounds.  
Decorated tree for the Magic of Advent
 at the Rathauspark

The History of the Christmas Markets

This year, the Magic of Advent is celebrating its 30th year of operation at the Rathaus The Wiener Christkindlmarkt has been there about ten years longer. Of course, the history of Vienna’s Christmas markets goes back to a much earlier time.

The first records of a Christmas market mentioned “huts” in front of Saint Stephen's Cathedral in 1626 that were set up on December 16 and 17, then were taken down on 9 January. At these booths, bakers, gingerbread vendors and confectioners sold their goods. This market was shut down in 1761.

The Christmas market restarted in 1764 when the Saint Nicholas and Christmas Market operated at the Freyung (1st District). It stayed there until 1842, when it moved to Am Hof, a large open area just a couple of blocks from Freyung.  According to a history of Vienna’s Christmas Market, “Every year on 5 December, 132 "crèche market stands" were put up and remained there until New Year's day.” In 1903, the stands at the market were illuminated by electricity for the first time. The Christmas market had a home at Am Hof until World War I.

The Christmas market was closed down during World War I and for some years after its end. It restarted in 1923, when it was held at Freyung, then in front of St. Stephens from 1924 to 1928. After that, it moved to Neubaugürtel before returning to Am Hof from 1938 to 1942. In 1943 the market was once again held at Stephansplatz.
Christmas Market at Am Hof, probably around 1940 from

In 1944 and 1945, Vienna did not have a Christmas market. From 1946 through 1948, the Christmas market was open at the square in front of the Messepalast (trade fair palace) located at the end of Mariahilferstrasse. The Christmas market moved back to Neubaugürtel in 1949 where it stayed until 1957. Then from 1958 to 1974, the Christmas market had a home in front of the Messepalast (which is now the site for art museums).
Christmas Card showing an early Christmas Market at Am Hof
In 1975 the market needed a new location because the underground car park in front of the Messepalast was being built. As a temporary solution, it was held at Rathausplatz in front of the city hall.  (For a history of the Vienna Christmas Markets, go to this link: )

The entry to the Wiener Christkindmarkt

Since then the Rathaus plaza and park have been the permanent home of the Wiener Christkindlmarkt. The Magic of Advent was added in 1985. 

Sign showing the locations of Vienna "Magic of Advent" decorations and activities

My personal experience with Christmas markets started in December 1967 when I was a student in Vienna. One day when headed to the Volkstheater, I accidentally stumbled on a row of huts located at the end of Marihilferstrassse along an ally in front of the Messepalast. The huts were lit for Christmas and were selling a variety of goods as well as food and drink. The main thing I remember from that market is that I learned that beer companies were permitted during the holiday season to make and sell a Christmas brew with a higher percent of alcohol than normally allowed.

I was not again in Vienna during December until 2000, when came for a short vacation. I quickly discovered the magic of the Wiener Christkindlmarkt at the Rathausplatz with its bright lights, festive spirit, and hot wine.  By that time, a few other Christmas markets had begun operation, including a smaller, more intimate and manageable market at Freyung . It was (and still is) called the Old Vienna Christ Child Market (Altwiener Christkindlmarkt). Its lighting is more subdued and the crowds less intrusive than the bigger markets.

Since 2000, I have been in Vienna eight times during December to visit the Christmas markets and take advantage of other events the city has to offer. Each time I have returned, I have found new Christmas markets or expansions of the older markets. 

Vienna had only the original market at the Rathaus until 1986 when the Old Vienna Christ Child Market at Freyung opened. No only long after that, new Christmas markets were held at Schönbrunn and Karlplatz.
Schönbrunn Christmas Market, 2013

More recent are the markets at the Old General Hospital (now called Unicampus at Alserstrasse), Belvedere Castle, Spittelberg, and Maria Theresia Platz. In the past few years, markets have been added along St. Stephens Church and near the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater. The newest Christmas market is the k.u.k. Weihnachtsmarkt am Michaelerplatz. I do not remember it being around in 2013, the last time I was in Vienna in December.
Christmas Market at Michaelerplatz
at the entry to the Burg

The Christmas markets have different names and characteristics. Two are called Christ Child Markets and others are named Christmas Villages, Christmas Markets, and Winter Markets. Different markets feature different products for sale. For example, the markets at Freyung, Am Hof, Schönbrunn, Michaelerplatz, and Karlplatz have a higher percentage of booths selling arts and crafts rather than manufactured goods. Also, each market has its own program of concerts, entertainment, activities for children, and events. To find out more about the different markets and their attractions, click on the links below:

Christ Child Markets

Wiener Christkindlmarkt and the Magic of Advent) at

Altwiener Christkindlmarkt (at Freyung)

Christmas Villages

Weihnachtsdörfer , located at

Maria-Theresien Platz

Unicampus/Altes AKH 
(The ground of the old General Hospital) 

Belvedere Castle

Christmas Markets

Weihnachtsmarkt am Hof  

Weinachtsmarkt am Stephensplatz 

Kultur- und Weinachtsmarkt Schloss Schönbrunn

k.u.k. Weihnachtsmarkt am Michaelerplatz
Christmas Market alongside St. Stephens Church

Other Markets

Winter Market: Wintermarkt am Riesenradplatz (Nov 21)  nov 21

Art and Crafts Advent: Kunst & Handwerk (Art Advent) am Karlsplatz (Nov 20)

For a list of my top ten favorite Christmas markets (based on visits in 2013), see this blog entry:

By the way, these larger Christmas markets are not the only places to get a fix of hot wine, fresh food, crafts, and trinkets. Other smaller markets are scattered around the city including on Mariahilferstrasse (by the Mariahilferstrasse Church), at Floridsdorf train station, and by the Staatsoper on Mahlerstrasse.  You can even find a small market on the roof of the fancy Ritz-Carlton Hotel, located on the Stuben Ring. (See   )
Advertisement for a Advent Market
on December 6 in the 18th District

Also, on weekends you in late November and in December, Christmas markets are held at locations in many different neighborhoods, often to raise funds for charities and non-profit organizations. If you are in Vienna, keep an eye out for announcements of these local markets.  

Christmas Season is Here

The arrival of the Christmas markets in Vienna provides a good opportunity for locals and visitors to enjoy some of their favorite places in the city in the glow of mostly tasteful and colorful decorations. They provide a good excuse to be outside in colder weather, joining others in a festive atmosphere. For those who care about the traditional elements of Christmas, decorated Christmas trees can be found, as can nativity scenes and other representations of the religious side of the holiday. For those who do not care so much about those things, lots of different types of punsch can be sampled before Christmas Day.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sir, Your Goose is Cooked: Eating Gansl in Vienna

It has been a few decades since I was in Vienna during November and I had forgotten – if I ever knew – that November is the month here for eating geese. In Austria, the word for goose is Gans or Gansl or Ganserl, and at the beginning of the month, I began to notice that the menus of many restaurants featured soups and main meals made of these creatures.
Sign advertising Gansl Week at Restaurant Leupold, Schottengasse 7
I was curious why November is the month for eating goose meat. I knew that duck (Ente) is served in various forms throughout the year, but had rarely seen Gans on Viennese menus when I was in Vienna in March or April or December, the months I usually visit the city. 

A little research shows that cooking geese in November is a long tradition not only in Austria, but other European countries with large Catholic populations. In its purist form, the tradition calls for meals from geese to be served on November 11, the celebration day for St. Martin (Namenstag des Heiligen Martin) who was born in 316 and was a Roman soldier before becoming a priest and bishop of the Catholic church (see 

Apparently, he is associated with geese by a legend that when he trying to avoid being ordained as a bishop, he had hidden in a goose pen, where he was betrayed by the cackling of the geese. The association of geese with St. Martin explains why often a November menu offers “Martinigansl.”
Daily menu at a restaurant on Waehringerstrasse:
Creme of goose soup plus 1/4 of a goose with red cabbage
and a potato dumplisg, 13.80 Euro
Not only is the consumption of geese a matter of celebrating the name day of a saint, the time also coincides with the waning days of the harvest season when geese have had months to fatten and farm work is coming to an end. 

According to a newspaper story in the Kurier (November 8, 2015), the religious and secular traditions of eating geese in November was first mentioned in texts written in 1171. It was noted that the work year for farm workers (who labored for land owners) ended on November 11 and they each received a goose as part of the payment for their work.

Over time, serving geese at meals was not limited to November 11, but also a week or two before or after that date. Each restaurant decides the period of time it will feature Gansl or Martinigansl; generally it can be found in different restaurants throughout most the month.

Wikipedia has a good history of St. Martin’s day: see to this article, in Austria St. Martin’s day is celebrated

…as a harvest festival. Events include art exhibitions, wine tastings, and live music. “Martinigansl” (roasted goose) is the traditional dish of the season…The nights before and on the night of Nov. 11, children walk in processions carrying lanterns, which they made in school, and sing Martin songs.

The celebration is, apparently, a popular one. According to the Kurier newspaper (November 8, 2015), Austrians consume about 500,000 geese each year, with 90 percent served in the weeks around November 11th. In 2014, Austrians ate 2,377 tons of dead geese. Of the geese consumed in Austria, only 17 percent are produced in the country. The other percentage is imported from countries that have less stringent regulation of how geese are raised.

Goose leg with cabbage and dumpling

In 2015, several newspapers recommended the best place to eat Gansl in and aroud vienna. The recommendations from the newspaper Kurier are here:

Among its recommendations is the restaurant in the elegant hotel, Park Hyatt, located at Am Hof 2 ( According to the article, the four-course Martinsgans meal was available evenings from November 6 to 15. It cost 72 Euros without drinks. A cooked goose (Ganserl), sufficient to serve four people, can be ordered and picked up at the hotel from November 1 to December 26.  The cost, without side dishes, is 195 Euro.

The on-line magazine Goodnight has another set of recommendations at this link: Included on this list is my favorite restaurant from my time in Vienna during the 1971-72 academic year, Heidenkummer Gasthaus, located at Breitenfelder Gasse 18 in the 8th District ( According to this article:

Gasthaus Heidenkummer lies in the middle of the eighth district and offers good, traditional food. Here you can get a Martinigansl until November 22 for a reasonable 16 Euros. In addition, in the afternoons you can get a two course meal for about 6.50 Euro. The Gasthaus is decorated in traditional dark wood and is very comfortable.

Inside Heidenkummer, photo from its website

A third set of recommendations can be found at the website: This site also mentions an eight district restaurant that I have long liked, Café-Restaurant Hummel ( at Josefstädter Straße 66. The article says  that "from November 7th to the 15th, one can enjoy Martini-Gansl at the Hummel, with traditional side dishes of dumpling (Knödel) und red cabbage. The pleasure of the meal will be enhanced with glazed chestnut and a cranberry pear."

(Even if you do not read German, take a look at the three links recommending places to get Gansl to see pictures of the eating establishments.)

It appears that if you are a fan of goose meat, the time to travel to Vienna is November 11th or thereabouts, as soon as you finish harvesting your crops.