Although there’s no bad time of year to experience the Imperial City’s delights, Vienna becomes truly magical in the winter, especially during the holiday season. With festive Christmas markets to keep you cozy and countless light displays to illuminate the city, Vienna shines the brightest on the shortest days of the year.
Whether you’ve heard stories of the gorgeous cakes and the gilded palaces or you’ve listened to tales of the grand boulevards and the glorious performances, the rumors about Vienna are true. As a former imperial capital, this city is always dressed to impress with magnificent architecture, vibrant music venues, dynamic historical sites and a thriving culinary scene.
Bundle up, get in the holiday spirit and get a glimpse of a few of my favorite finds in Vienna. From savory Wiener schnitzel to sweet Sachertorte, this tour of the Imperial City is sure to hit the spot.
Get your culture fix
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and I always look forward to stopping by blueorange, a buzzing bagel shop in Vienna’s hip Fourth District. Warm, welcoming and easy on the wallet, this inviting café offers an extensive menu of breakfast plates and sandwiches, most featuring bagels and all with clearly marked allergens.
While the bagel sandwiches here are tasty and filling, I prefer fueling up with one of blueorange’s signature breakfasts, like the Vegan Power plate. The gluten-free bagels take a few extra minutes to prepare, but a hearty morning meal like this is well worth the wait. Loaded with a selection of raw veggies, hummus, avocado spread and fresh fruit that you can assemble any way you like, this breakfast plate makes for a nutritious start to the day.
From blueorange, Vienna’s Maria-Theresien-Platz is only a few blocks away and the perfect place to warm up while delving into the city’s incredible history and culture. It’s tough to choose between the Vienna Natural History Museum and the Vienna Art History Museum, the two iconic museums that anchor this bustling plaza. Since either one could easily fill a day, I recommend concentrating on the one that most piques your interest.
Naturally, you won’t want to miss the Christmas markets, and one of the city’s most festive traditional markets takes place right outside on Maria-Theresien-Platz. After browsing the handmade ornaments, enjoying the holiday cheer and sipping a mug of mulled wine at the Christmas Village, stroll over to the MuseumsQuartier (MQ). Although it’s only a block or two away, the MQ feels like an entirely different world.
Home to dozens of cultural institutions, the MQ is a sprawling complex with surprises around every corner. To see some of Austria’s biggest names in modern art, browse the Leopold Museum’s galleries, and if you’re feeling edgy, make mumok your destination to see some of Austria’s most progressive artwork. If architecture, dance or kids’ activities are more your speed, you’ll find museums featuring each of them here, too.
Just don’t miss Winter in MQ, the holiday market that takes place in the expansive outdoor courtyard. As the polar opposite of the city’s more traditional Christmas markets, Winter in MQ has a decidedly contemporary vibe, with fun punch recipes, colorful LED displays, DJ sessions and gifts that showcase Vienna’s design mastery.
Indulge in the classics
If you’ve worked up an appetite while enjoying the holiday festivities, don’t worry. While finding gluten-free snacks at the holiday markets isn’t always easy, Allergiker Café is just a short walk or tram ride away from the city center. Initially designed as a university project, Allergiker Café was the first of its kind in Vienna—and years after it first opened its doors, I think it’s still the best.
Inspired by her celiac mother, Margarete Rothaug-Pasteiner, co-owner Franka Rothaug developed a café centered on the concept that everyone should be able to find something tasty to eat, no matter their dietary restrictions. After determining that Vienna indeed had strong demand for an allergy-friendly café, the mother-daughter team brought the idea to life, opening the space together in the city’s Fourth District.
Today, Allergiker Café makes good on its motto “Sweets for all” with a mouthwatering range of gluten-free, soy-free, lactose-free and nut-free confections. Of course, you can’t visit without trying the Sachertorte, a gluten-free version of Vienna’s most famous treat, made with sustainable dark chocolate. If you aren’t a chocolate fan, I recommend the Birgit, a Linzer torte filled with bright berries, or the Sissy, a rich cheesecake. No matter what you choose, you can’t go wrong, as everything at Allergiker Café is gluten free.
Get cozy at a bistro designed just for you
After sampling a sweet treat here and a mug of mulled wine there throughout the day, you might be tempted to skip dinner. Since you won’t want to miss your chance to dine at Gasthaus Zum Wohl, however, be sure to save room for one of Vienna’s most unforgettable meals.
Although Zum Wohl is the city’s only completely gluten-free full-service bistro, this cozy spot appears more like a welcoming neighborhood pub than an allergy-friendly dining destination. After taking a quick glance at the menu, you’ll realize that everything here is deliciously safe for gluten-free diners. So where should you start?
Be sure to try the gluten-free bread, which Zum Wohl makes in house. If you’re hungry for a taste of classic Viennese cuisine, dig into the Baked Bat, a wonderfully crispy, deep-fried pork schnitzel that’s served with savory potatoes and sweet berries. For something a bit less meaty, try the Spinach Dumplings, hearty green pockets accompanied by rich pesto and zesty tomato sauce.
If you’re looking for something even lighter, take your pick from seasonal salads, house-made soups and tons of tasty vegan dishes. With his nutrition coach background, owner Peter Jancek always ensures that Zum Wohl offers a variety of organic juice and coffee as well as homemade lemonade in addition to the bistro’s full range of wines and spirits.
A royally sweet visit to Vienna’s old town
After sleeping off all the fun from the previous day, you’ll be due for another delicious breakfast. Squeeze into Simply Raw Bakery, a tiny café with a big sweet tooth. While this charming spot is hidden away on a quiet side street just blocks from well-known eateries like Café Central and Café Mozart, Simply Raw serves up gluten-free goodness without cross-contamination concerns.
After finding that a raw, plant-based and grain-free diet best helped her husband recover from ongoing health struggles, owner Gabriele Danek was inspired to share their discovery with others. Years later, Simply Raw continues to embrace pure, unprocessed ingredients in both sweet and savory dishes.
Start your day with the protein-packed Grawnola, enjoy a slice or two of the banana bread, or upgrade to the Banana Time, which includes two slices of banana bread with house-made hazelnut spread. Or, if you’re ready to skip right to dessert, treat yourself to a slice of one of the bakery’s nut-based raw cakes, which pair perfectly with espresso.
After fueling up with Simply Raw’s signature picks, saunter over to Hofburg Palace, the center of imperial history in Vienna. Once a royal residence, this palace is packed with fascinating sights that could easily fill an entire week. While you won’t be able to see everything here, I suggest taking in royal highlights like the Sisi Museum, the Spanish Riding School’s famous Lipizzaner horses and the stunning Royal Chapel.
Be sure to save energy for the nearby Belvedere Palace, a must-see site that once welcomed royal visitors and now houses one of Austria’s best art collections. While you won’t be able to see Belvedere Palace’s garden in its full glory during the winter months, the palace’s baroque-inspired Christmas Village is the ideal spot to warm up with a hot drink while perusing royal-themed holiday gifts.
Enjoy classic Viennese treats
Of course, no visit to Vienna is complete without sampling the city’s most famous dish. While Zum Wohl makes an excellent gluten-free Wiener schnitzel, I also enjoyed Gasthaus Nestroy’s gluten-free take on this classic. Although Nestroy isn’t a completely gluten-free establishment, the restaurant fries gluten-free items separately and serves its schnitzel with traditional accompaniments like warm potato salad and tart cranberry sauce.
After a hearty meal, make your way back to the city’s grand boulevard to fit in one last Viennese classic. Catch a show at the Vienna State Opera, where it’s well worth spending a few euro for last-minute standing-room-only tickets, even if you only want to see the opera house’s absolutely stunning interior.
If you’d prefer to take in a musical performance, make it the Musikverein. This gorgeous building is mere minutes from the opera house and hosts the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony, as well as visiting symphony orchestras and classical performers. It’s also my favorite spot to see a holiday performance and the perfect place to cap off your winter escape to Vienna.
Whether you’re in the midst of planning a holiday getaway to this winter wonderland or you’re already dreaming up destinations for next year’s family trip, the Imperial City is sure to delight. With festivities around every corner, history and culture at every turn, and delicious gluten-free fare all across the city, Vienna might just be the perfect holiday destination.
Travel Editor Anna Sonnenberg is a food and travel writer who has journeyed around the world gluten free since being diagnosed with celiac in 2012.