Snow is falling, the city is lit up with lights, you can smell the mulled wine. It’s that time of the year – when thousands of tourists and day visitors flock the city centre of Vienna on their quest for visiting as many Christmas markets as they can. The quiet time of the year? Not when it comes to tour operators and bus companies – the sky is the limit, at least when it comes to the number of people they can bring into the city.
I made the mistake of heading to the city centre on the second Saturday of Advent. In Austria, the four weekends leading up to Christmas are not only called “Advent weekends” but also “shopping weekends”, as these are the major revenue drivers of the retail year. This year, the second Advent weekend was a long weekend, as December 8th was a public holiday. While shops in Austria are generally shut on public holidays, this day is an exception – to keep the Christmas shopping spirit up. And all those who did not end up in the shops on the 8th, were as silly as me to choose that Saturday to head into Vienna’s busiest area. Just to clarify something here: I had already finished all my Christmas shopping, I had a different reason to bring me to this part of Vienna. Unless it is an emergency, I would never choose such a day to do my Christmas shopping.
The wind blew the snow sideways, I successfully made my way through the narrow streets behind Graben and Kaerntnerstrasse, the two major shopping areas. I was feeling pumped, I was smarter than all of them. Someone like me knows how to avoid the crowds. But then I took a wrong turn and ended up on the Christmas market right in front of St. Stephen’s cathedral. A sea of knitted beanies and smartphones (either on selfie sticks or without one, if your arm is long enough). I could not choose where to go anymore, I literally had to go with the flow which went in two opposite directions. The crowds did not scare the wannabe-influenzas to pose with duck faces in front of the market stands which you could not even see because of all the people.
Most locals try to avoid the inner city around Christmas time, especially on the weekends. It is almost impossible to get a table at a restaurant or a café and many also do not take reservations at the moment. Waiting times vary, but are mostly around one hour during for the most popular places at Christmas time. I guess this may be the reason why everyone then heads to the markets? But I do not think this is a pleasant experience either.
My worst nightmare would be a trip with a guided bus tour where I then have to follow a guide and their decorated umbrella/selfie stick/sign/or whatever they use and be told where to eat or shop. I did guided tours in countries where it is simply safer to do so or when I saw an interesting activity such as a walk with a special theme. But after the tour is over, I want to do what I want to do. I do not want to be told to go visit somebody’s friend and then be guilt-tripped into buying overpriced souvenirs I did not even want to buy in the first place. And in most cities in Europe, it is a more pleasant experience to explore on your own, wander the streets and maybe get lost a bit. But maybe this is a mindset thing. Maybe it is me?
When I looked at all the tourists “flowing” along the market with me, I could not help but think that this must be an awful experience. Is it really worth travelling to another country to experience this? Do they not see that many of the stands at the Christmas markets offer “Austrian” souvenirs which were made in China or elsewhere? They must see it, right?
But to be honest, I do not think so. Or, maybe they did not care. While I was “flowing” along, I looked at the shopping bags with the questionable souvenirs, the mulled wine mugs, the duck faces posing while simultaneously checking for the next “most Instagrammable spot” or the most recent thing they saw on TikTok. Maybe this is travelling post-Covid and I have simply not adapted to it? Or maybe I am too old – I am an Elder Millennial after all. But, frankly, age cannot be the issue – I saw many people my age, or boomers and older (do we have a name for them actually?) who also seemed to be happy to “enjoy” the crowds.
Call me a Grinch or an anti-social person, I was more than relieved when I finally managed to get out of that market area. I made it out of the city centre without any further market complications. I do like Christmas, especially the time leading up to it, and I also used to visit the markets. But this has become a bit too much. I am glad that I have finished my Christmas shopping early this year and that I will not have to go back to the madness. Instead, I will turn on some music, make myself a nice cup of hot chocolate and try to really get into Christmas mood.