VIENNA - Arriving in Austria's capital at Christmas is like stepping into the pages of a fairytale.
The city glitters from mid-November right up until January 1 with streets in the historic Old Town — where Mozart once lived — decorated with huge chandeliers, red globes, stars and comets that all light up when the sun sets.
During the Christmas season churches, like historic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, host Advent concerts — the one I attend in the great church features music written by Mozart and Strauss — and the park (Rathausplatz) in front of the city’s landmark City Hall is transformed into a magical market with booths selling everything from festive candy to holiday handicrafts.
Thousands of locals and tourists descend on Rathausplatz each evening during the Christmas season to gobble up food (the sausage stands do the biggest business) and celebrate the season with drinks, dance and song.
Other Christmas Markets in Vienna that come highly recommended are:
• The Christmas village on Maria-Theresien-Platz: This market is much smaller than the City Hall extravaganza but no less exciting. It’s held in the shadow of what I consider the greatest collection of museums in the world and its 60 or so stands are always busy.
Above: Vienna's City Hall is lit up like a Christmas tree during the festive season.
• The Advent Market at Belvedere Palace: This castle just a short tram ride from Vienna’s famed Opera House is my favourite palace in Vienna and the historic treasures one finds here are equal to anything in national museums.
• The romantic Christmas village in the Old AKH: This is favoured by locals and is a popular meeting point during the run-up to Christmas with the younger crowd.
• The Old Viennese Christmas Market on Freyung: It’s held in the city centre and is committed to upholding the traditions of Christmas. An Advent market has been held on this site every year since 1772 and the traditional glass decorations sold here can’t be equalled.
The granddaddy of all Viennese Christmas Markets, though, is the Ehrenhof, held annually in front of the romantic Schönbrunn Palace just outside Vienna.
Here, Viennese culture and Christmas traditions intersect and the imperial setting adds just the right touch of magic to the moment.
As we exit the train station near the palace, our guide encourages me to “pick up the pace” so we don’t miss the chance to make cookies at the Christmas workshop — a highlight of the Ehrenhof, where children learn to make traditional festive fare.
A few minutes later, I’m being outfitted with an apron and chef’s hat and a bunch of kids are looking up at me wondering what’s “Father Time” doing in this youthful group?
My gingerbread man, though, is applauded by kids and parents alike, and when I show the audience how to dress the cookie up as a Canadian snowman, they shower me with more applause.
As night falls on the Palace grounds, twinkling lights suddenly appear and singers fill the air with Christmas carols. The thousands gathered hold hands, sip wine, hug in the chilled air and enjoy the moment.
For the first time in years, I feel like I’m experiencing Christmas as it should be.
The best Christmas gift you can give yourself this year is a chance to experience the Christmas Markets of Berlin and Vienna.
Air Canada and Austrian Airlines all offer flights to Vienna from Toronto. / You would be well advised to book a hotel early if you intend to visit Vienna during this Christmas Market season because they fill up fast. / For information on Vienna’s Christmas Markets, go to www.wien.info/en