Austrian treats: Christmas in Salzburg, Graz and Innsbruck

written by Benedict Smith
updated 10/31/2022
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There are few better ways to spend winter holidays than experiencing the Christmas vibes of Salzburg, Graz or Innsbruck.

Home to buzzy Christmas markets, cosy restaurants and rich culture, each one of these enchanting Austrian cities promises its own magical festive experience.

Salzburg for snow-capped scenes

Salzburg is one of those rare places that is blessed with a natural festive feel, and Rough Guides editors agree, it's one of the best places to visit in winter.

Snow-capped alpine mountains form the backdrop to a city filled with twinkling lights, cobble-stoned alleys, cosy drinking dens, and handsome Baroque chapels.

Yet when Christmas does arrive, it promises an experience like no other. The stars of the show are undoubtedly the city’s Christmas markets.

Here, you will find everything from freshly baked apples and hot-roasted chestnuts, to gingerbread delights and handmade decorations.

New, prolonged running dates – from mid November until 1 January 2023 – make Salzburg’s markets one of the few that will still be open after Christmas.

These charming markets are a staple of Austrian festivities and offer a packed programme of choir singing, nativity shows and traditional musical performances.

The largest is the Christkindlmarkt am Domplatz, which is held in the square around Salzburg Cathedral and is guaranteed to put you in the festive spirit.

Salzburg's stunning Christkindlmarkt © Tourismus Salzburg/G Breitegger

Away from the markets is a city packed with rich cultural treats, not least due to being the birthplace of a renowned 18th-century composer.

You’ll spot lots of nods to Mozart dotted around the place. While his family’s home – and the place he spent most of his youth – is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.

One of the most visited museums in Austria, Mozart's Geburtshaus houses a collection of original letters and memorabilia documenting the legendary composer’s time in Salzburg – enough to give visitors a real sense of what life was like in the 1700s.

Offering another intriguing peek into the city’s history is Hohensalzburg Fortress, an unmissable landmark that towers over Salzburg.

Constructed in 1077, it served as a fortress, military base, and royal accommodation, before being abandoned as an outpost in 1861. Today, it provides a family-friendly day out, with tours available for those visiting with kids aged five and above.

On these adventure-packed tours, you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about the fascinating history not only of the fortress, but of Salzburg itself, while exploring everywhere from the secret bunker to the old dungeon tower.

Salzburg by night © Tourismus Salzburg/G Breitegger

Much of the city’s beauty – and the reason Christmas in Salzburg is so magical – stems from its historic centre (or Altstadt). It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 and 2022 will see various activities and events to mark the 25th anniversary.

Salzburg’s centre is recognised as one of the most well-preserved city centres north of the Alps, and is brimming with charming little nooks and crannies as a result.

At the centre of it all is the Getreidegasse, a bustling street characterised by distinct doorways, elaborate guild signs, and the famous “through houses” – buildings where both the front and the back lead out onto different streets, connected by an arcaded passageway.

While it’s enough to simply stroll down the Getreidegasse and soak all this in, it is also a popular place for shopping thanks to an impressive array of boutique stores and international fashion chains. The assortment of folkwear, jewellery, perfume and handmade toys is ideal for picking up last-minute Christmas presents.

Salzburg dazzles in winter © Tourismus Salzburg/R Zauner

Just outside Salzburg, in a town called Oberndorf, is a truly authentic seasonal treat. Known as The Silent Night Memorial Chapel, it is the site on which the delightful Christmas carol was first sung in 1818 – and it’s available to visit as a museum recounting the history behind the song.

It’s the perfect place to get all the family into the spirit of Christmas, while little ones can send their Christmas wishes to Santa Claus at the Silent Night Post Office.

Find out more about the magic of visiting Salzburg at Christmas.

Graz for gleaming lights and ice sculptures

Few countries put on a better Christmas display than Austria

and the city of Graz is testament to that fact.

Between November and December, its veritable array of Christmas markets, enchanting lights, and nativity scenes – not to mention a giant ice sculpture – produce an inimitable festive setting.

Christmas decorations in Graz © Graz Tourismus/Harry Schiffer

The best place to start is the city’s historic centre. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, it’s a hodgepodge of architectural styles that play host to everything from an opera house and theatres, to galleries and a museum of contemporary art.

At the heart of it all is Hauptplatz, the site on which Graz’s largest Christmas market takes place. Each year a delightful selection of stalls fill up the square and offer everything from handicrafts to Feuerzangenbowle, a local festive drink consisting of wine and rum.

A gigantic Christmas tree just outside the City Hall adds to the festivities, while an old fashioned merry-go-round makes it the perfect place for families of all ages.

Not far away in the Franciscan Quarter is the city’s oldest Christmas market, which takes place around one of Graz’s most prominent landmarks, the Franciscan Church.

Here, visitors can find Styrian handicrafts, Glühwein by the cupful, and farm-produced specialties, as well as a cheerful nativity scene outside the church.

A cosy Christmas market in Graz © Graz Tourismus/Harry Schiffer

If you’d like to take a break from the markets without losing any of that festive cheer, then head over to the Ice Nativity in the Landhaushof Courtyard.

Launched in 1996, the Ice Nativity is a mesmerising exhibition of lights and life-sized ice sculptures that bring to life the classic nativity scene. Made from around 35 tons of crystal-clear ice, it has become a must-see attraction in Graz’s Advent celebrations.

The ice nativity scene in Landhaushof 2018 © Graz Tourismus/Harry Schiffer

This year, Graz’s Office for Christmas Carols will open for the 31st time. This unique service was established in 1991 to provide support to people who were keen to sing and in search of Christmas carols, poems and stories.

The Office for Christmas Carols operates throughout the festive season, helping people find texts and tunes, and acting as a popular meeting point for those who wish to raise their voices in song.

The office is only a few steps from the Main Square and it’s well worth popping in to browse their impressive directory and learn more. As well as being a festive haven, Graz is also widely considered the foodie capital of Austria – and it’s got the credentials to prove it.

In 2008, it became the Capital of Culinary Delights thanks to traditional delicacies that range from Styrian pumpkin seed oil and Käferbohnen beans, to Grazer Krauthäuptel lettuce and award-winning wines.

All this can be found across the city’s impressive assortment of cafes and restaurants, whether in a sweeping city square or an atmospheric alley in the old town.

Find out more about what Christmas in Graz has to offer.

To find more inspiration for your Christmas trips check our guide about 20 best Christmas destinations worldwide

Innsbruck for markets and old-world charm

Christmas in Innsbruck is not only a treat for the family – it’s a celebration for the senses. The capital city of Tirol offers a seemingly endless array of things to see, smell, touch, and eat, from the sweet scent of hot doughnuts to the soothing sound of carol singing.

From 18 November to 29 January 2023, visitors will be spellbound by luminated mythical beings, interactive light installations and light shows projected onto the historical walls of Innsbruck’s Imperial Gardens.

This is Lumagica, Innsbruck’s magical light park, and as well as projections and installations, visitors can follow an enchanting one-kilometre trail adorned with over 300 light sculptures.

Innsbruck's enchanting Lumagica © Innsbruck Tourismus/Danijel Jovanovic

Each year, Innsbruck hosts an enchanting collection of Christmas markets – seven in total – that transform the city into a magical, family-friendly wonderland.

The most impressive of these takes place in the Old Town, where a giant Christmas tree stands over lots of little stalls selling everything from ornaments and handicrafts to mulled wine and local delicacies.

The Christmas market in Market Square, where a carousel and petting zoo are the main attractions, is another great place to wander around and soak in the festive vibes – particularly for those with little ones.

And, while the kids are entertained, parents can browse the delightful range of gifts and souvenirs on offer – or simply admire the dramatic snow-capped mountain backdrop.

Innsbruck's Christmas market © Innsbruck Tourismus/Christof Lackner

Once you’ve filled up on traditional Austrian Kiachln (fried dough pastry) and picked up some last-minute Christmas gifts, it’s time to head to the Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen. The funicular railway connects the city centre with Hungerburg, offering panoramic mountain views along the way.

The 20-minute ride up can be completed in one go or with stops along the way, where you and the family will have the chance to take in the stunning Tyrolean scenery.

Back in Innsbruck, there are plenty of sights to keep everyone occupied, including the Goldenes Dachl (or Golden Roof), a dazzling roof canopy made up of 2,738 gilded copper tiles and one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

There’s also bags of culture, including the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum, where you will find one of the finest collections of cultural artefacts from the Tyrolean area. Unlock more history and culture at Renaissance masterpiece, Ambras Castle, which sits high in the hills above the city.

You can also visit the equally fascinating Hofburg Imperial Palace, which has housed some of the most powerful figures in Austrian history. Towering high above the city on Bergisel Hill, the Olympic Ski Jump is truly a wonder to behold. For a view from the top, an inclined elevator is waiting to whisk you 250 metres above the city, in a two-minute ride.

A dazzling experience awaits at Swarovski Crystal Worlds, home to the world-famous crystal. Among its exhibits you’ll find a Crystal Cloud, crafted from 800,000 floating crystals, and a new chamber of wonders, featuring real falling snow.

The picturesque district of Mariahilf © Innsbruck Tourismus/Markus Mair

The Innsbruck Card is your key to enjoying all the city has to offer for less, granting you free entry to the city’s museums, attractions such as Lumagica, and some lift and cable car rides too.

Discover what other delights await when you visit Innsbruck at Christmas.

Whether you choose Salzburg, Graz or Innsbruck, an Austrian winter holiday promises to be a snow-capped adventure that will warm your soul.

This article is brought to you in partnership with the Austria National Tourist Office.

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written by Benedict Smith
updated 10/31/2022
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