By Jennifer Leavy
It’s the most magical time of the year, so why not spend it in three magical cities? Defined by their ornate churches, fairy tale-like castles, and charming Christmas markets, these three emblematic cities of Eastern Europe—Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg—are some of the best places to spend Christmas and New Year’s. Each of these cities has many special traditions for celebrating Christmas and ringing in the New Year. Here’s how you can have a happy holidays (and a new, unique cultural experience) in Eastern Europe.
If you find yourself in the Hungarian capital during December, you should put aside some time in your itinerary to stroll through some of Budapest’s world-famous Christmas markets. Some traditional gifts you can find at the markets include embroidered linens, wooden dolls, and bags of paprika, the national spice. You can also sample traditional Hungarian dishes that are commonly served for Christmas dinners, like goulash with stuffed cabbage, or a fish soup. You can also sample mulled wine or “szaloncukor”, a candy that decorates Christmas trees.
Celebrating the holidays with Hungarian food is especially important if you’re in Budapest on New Year’s Eve. In Hungary, eating a pork dish on December 31st brings good luck, whereas lentil or bean soup symbolizes wealth in the upcoming year.
If you haven’t had your fill of Christmas markets in Budapest, you can visit the one held in the square in front of City Hall in the historic center. The markets in Vienna are famous for traditional sachertorte and “gluhwein”, the Germanic version of mulled wine.
Another popular Christmas tradition in Austria is the advent wreath. Woven from twigs from evergreen trees, and decorated with candles or red ribbons, advent wreaths help families mark the countdown to Christmas. They are made on the Sunday four weeks before Christmas Eve, with a candle being lit for each Sunday until the big day. If you’re in Vienna in Christmas, you may have a chance to find or make your own.
For New Year’s Eve, make your resolutions over champagne and warm, delicious schnitzels as you hop between street parties and open-air concerts in the city center. There are also two huge firework displays you can catch, one near the Imperial Palace and one in front of the Ferris Wheel.
Like Vienna, Salzburg offers more opportunities for buying gifts, making wreaths, and drinking hot wine at Christmas markets, except this time, you can get into the Christmas spirit surrounded by the Swiss Alps, and all the familiar sights from the beloved film The Sound of Music. If you’re in Salzburg in December, this will be a good chance to warm up your vocal chords and sing some traditional Christmas carols. If you’d rather not, then you can attend a traditional Advent concert. Fun fact, Salzburg isn’t just the birthplace of Mozart but also the classic yuletide carol “Silent Night”.
If you visit Salzburg in the tail end of December, you’re still in luck. From December 28th to the 31st, Salzburg enjoys four days of good food and music, from street parties in the historic center to traditional food stalls in the Residenzplatz. On New Year’s Eve, cannons will fire from the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the bells in Salzburg Cathedral will ring, and fireworks will explode over the fairy tale-like town, culminating in an unforgettable and mesmerizing start to a new year.