It is one thing to learn about Christmas traditions around the world and another entirely to experience them for yourself.
So when I arrived in Salzburg I wanted to experience typical Austrian Christmas traditions. I was visiting on a press trip around the Alps and expected cosy Austrian Christmas markets. But I chance upon the Krampuslauf and that’s some scary stuff!
Who knew it wasn’t just all serene and sugar-coated but actually devilish and loud as well? I didn’t!
**** This post isn’t sponsored nor commissioned but contains affiliate links. If you book anything from them, this doesn’t cost you anything but might give me a little commission to help keep this free blog full of more travel tips and me fuelled with chocolate to keep writing. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. ****
Ok, let’s ease into this and start with the typical, cosy and romantic Christmas traditions in Austria.
Christmas Markets in Austria
A major Christmas tradition for Austrians is visiting a Christmas Market. (Same for me, I love visiting my local central German Christmas Markets whenever I’m home in December.)
The obvious place to first check out for the ultimate Christmas feel in Salzburg is the Christkindlmarkt, near the cathedral and the old residency.
In the late 16th century, the archbishop decided it was time to move on from the Middle Ages and into baroque times, so he had the houses removed for the square, called Residenzplatz.
Nowadays, it’s a popular meeting spot, even more so for one of the several Christmas markets in town.
What makes these Salzburg Christmas markets unique is that all the 97 stalls offer local hand-made products, from handcrafted carved items over to delicious sweets and delicate Christmas decoration.
This isn’t your standard place for Christmas souvenirs either. They have a lot of upscale products that aren’t exclusively Christmas but now all in one handy spot for a limited time.
Here’s another fun fact: the giant Christmas tree in the middle is real and donated by a different major around the region each year.
Besides the famous Christkindlmarkt, there is also the Hellbrunner Christkindlmarkt. Starting this year, there is a small entrance fee of 3€ to be able to walk around the many cute stalls and 13,000 red baubles hanging from the 250 Christmas trees.
If you didn’t know, Hellbrunn is a palace and featured in Sound of Music (so it’s a definite must-see).
A good idea is to check out the tiny Christmas market up on the fortress on the weekend. Pro tip: Time your visit so that you get to experience the sun set over the town.
Another thing you cannot ignore during an Austrian Christmas is the food (and drink). It’s what makes the Austrian Christmas traditions even more special, if you ask me.
The go-to drink is Glühwein (mulled wine), which can even be had without alcohol (Kinderpunsch). For a drink that will make you see stars, try the Jagertee (which is basically rum diluted with a little black tea).
A very weird combination and maybe not for everyone, but worth a try are Bosna and Haunsberger.
The first one is a sausage spiced with chili powder and mustard in a hot dog bun filled with onions rings. The latter, is a pork burger filled with mustard, chili powder and sauerkraut. Try it if you dare!
For the sweet palates, dig into the many treats, such as chocolate covered pretzels (or meringue pretzels), cream filled rolls, Christmas cookies and chocolate bars.
A classic to have at any time of the year – and which I obviously could not leave untouched – were the Mozartkugeln (chocolate balls filled with marzipan).
There are several types that copycatted the originals, of which the title is claimed by the Fürst company, which makes each choc ball by hand. You gotta try them!
As much as I love strolling over the Christmas markets with a hot beverage in one hand and hearty food-to-go in the other, I couldn’t leave town without dining out. So we hit one of the most expensive places – cause we’re fancy like that on a press trip.
It was called the St. Peter Stiftskeller and is part of an actual monastry. I had some seriously amazing Maronisuppe (maroon soup), glazed turkey and Salzburger Nockerl (egg white and sugar mixed into edible sin).
More Austrian Christmas food staples to try are:
- Gebackener Karpfen (fried carp)
- Weihnachtsgans (roast goose)
- Kaaspressknödel (cheese dumplings)
If you’ve never heard of the song Silent Night before, you really need to catch up on that. It has been translated into over 300 languages and originated in Oberndorf, outside of Salzburg.
The priest Joseph Mohr wrote up a poem that he had his friend and organ player Franz Xaver Gruber compose a melody to.
In the year of 1818 it was performed for the first time in the church St. Nikola as Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! and the rest is history. Today, the cburch is no more but there is a chapel in its stead that still celebrates Christmas with this classical piece.
In fact, it has become such an essential part of the Austrian heritage that it is frowned upon by traditionalists to listen to the song before Christmas Eve. Only then it is supposed to be performed. The 24th is also the day when kids receive their presents – like those in Germany.
Unlike many other countries, the gifts as well as the tree that is set up in the living room, is brought by the Christkind. It is either depicted as baby Jesus or a blonde female angel with golden wings. What’s more, kids get gifts on the 6th December as well. That is, only if they have been nice.
You can catch Nikolaus distributing treats and apples on the Residenzplatz on the 6th. This is a typical Austrian Christmas tradition. Nikolaus is similar to Santa Claus and actually the historical inspiration behind the fabled figure.
However, if you can’t wait to check out Santa, be warned he has a very grim fellow with him. If you happened to be around December 5, you will see.
I am talking about the Krampus, the devilish right hand of Nikolaus. He will beat naughty kids with his fur wip and chase after women. Literally. It’s a spectacle not just in salzburg but all over Austria and not everyone enjoy this.
You can hear the Krampus coming as he has giant bells attached to his belt. If you want to see many Krampusse from a safe distance, check out the Krampuslauf/Perchtenlauf (Krampus run).
Experiencing a Krampus in Salzburg surely is a unique experience. You can see all dates for Salzburg Perchtenläufe. In 2019, it runs from 30 November to 5 December.
In case you want to go all out on the Christmas mood and learn AND see how Austrian Christmas traditions developed over time, there is no better way than to check out the Christmas Museum next to the Christkindlmarkt.
It might only have two rooms but they are stacked with Christmas trinkets and antiquities.
I didn’t even know that Christmas calendars originated from a teacher at an orphanage. He wanted to stop the kids from annoying him with questions on when Christmas Eve was there.
So he put 24 candles on a wheel and lit one per day, which is also how the Advent calendar with the four candles came to be.
Also, I had no idea that War Christmas was en vogue in 1914. They literally sold tree hangers in the form of pistols and submarines! As if it wasn’t terrible enough weapons were out there, they came into the living rooms as well.
Moral support? I don’t know. In any case, it is definitely an interesting visit. There are Krampus dolls, a traditional Christmas room (that was trendy for a while as well), lots of toys and decorative Christmas items.
Another fact: Did you know that people have little mangers and nativity scenes in their homes? In the Middle Ages these used to be huge and put by churches to show the illiterate people the Christmas story.
When the era of Enlightenment came around and forbade such displays of religion, people created their own tiny sets. This has been an Austrian Christmas traditions ever since.
So should you check out Austrian Christmas Traditions in Salzburg?
Absolutely! Salzburg isn’t a Christmas hotspot for nothing. In case you visit during the week, it won’t be crowded. I had no problem roaming the quaint streets and little arcades decked in Christmas lights during my visit.
If you like something really traditional, local and somewhat conservative, get a ticket to the Adventsingen as soon as possible. I would say 2-3 days is ideal to discover Salzburg during Christmas and learn about Austrian Christmas traditions.
More from the Austria blog
More Christmas travel inspo
- Where to see London’s Christmas light installations
- Where to attend a Xmas market in a German castle
- A German city with Christmas markets on vinyards and cathedral towers
- Where in Germany to see 17 Christmas markets in one city
- Ferris wheel and city walls – Jena’s Christmas market
- One of the most charming Xmas markets in Germany? Weimar