Ah winter in Vienna – the time between sparkling Christmas markets, celebrations at New Years and the glorious return of sunshine and springtime can be tough.
In fact, from living in Vienna since 2012, I can safely say that February might be the hardest month of the year to survive life in Vienna, BUT there are ways to get through it!
Beyond the tourist sightseeing activities, (wonderfully outlined by the guys at Practical Wanderlust here) there is a world of local things to do and places to eat in order to survive the grey days of winter.
So consider this your locals guide to surviving winter and enjoying the quieter months to explore the city all to yourself.
Coffee Shop Hop – Vienna style
Winter is when the coffee shop culture of Vienna really comes into its own. The cosy atmosphere, tasty sugary treats and of course, the endless list of coffee options really shines in the grey winter months.
Plus, its one of the best ways to pretend you’ve interacted with people outside of your house for the day – even when all you want to do is burrow under a blanket with a book!
The beauty of Vienna’s coffeehouse culture is that nobody will judge you for sitting at a table for hours, reading a book, writing in a journal, sipping on coffee, nibbling on cake and lapping up the atmospheric tinkle of cutlery and low murmur of conversation from Viennese locals.
My pick of traditional coffeehouses to hang out in include;
- Cafe Jelenik
- Cafe Dommayer
- Cafe Sperl
- Kaffee Alt Wien
For more hipster vibes these third-wave coffee shops are a good bet;
- GOTA Coffee if you can get a table, it is very crowded on weekends
- Balthasar coffee in the second district, also very popular and closed on Sundays
- J Hornig Kaffee now has two outlets so more chances to enjoy the chill atmosphere
- Coffee Pirates (limited opening hours on weekends)
- Cafe Little Britain is a favourite of my friend Holly and totally adorable
- Brass Monkey if only for the exquisite cupcakes, though seating is very limited so not ideal for hours of perching
- Kaffeemik is also tiny but superb coffee
Linger in Viennese Bookshops
Even if German isn’t your native language, there are still some fantastic options to explore bookshops throughout the city in winter. There is nothing better than entering a quiet, tucked away bookstore to escape the cold and getting lost in the adventures and mysteries of a new book.
Cafe Phil is always my ‘treat’ bookstore to stop into on chilly winter weekends – its nearly always busy, but with so many gorgeous books to choose from its easy to see why!
They have a mix of coffee table art books, English novels, essay collections and travel books, plus some incredible art, design and travel books. You could very easily get lost browsing in here for hours, and boost yourself with a coffee to get through!
Shakespeare & Co. is another favourite, nestled in a cobbled alleyway of the first district, home to a wide-ranging and eclectic collection of English books.
They often host book reading, poetry sessions and other small events, and every time I enter the store it feels like coming home, a return to bookstores of my university days where you could lose yourself in the shelves of novels.
Take a short course or cooking class
The new year is the ideal time to explore a new hobby or develop a new skill while you wait for the sun to return.
I always say that learning German is a ‘winter sport’ because it is so much easier to commit to classes and focus when there isn’t lovely weather, and summer parties and long warm days to distract you. So taking a short course or cooking class to develop a new skill is a great way to enjoy winter in Vienna!
I’ve taken a group lesson at Wrenkh and had a great time learning from the friendly and fun hosts, then enjoying a raucous meal afterwards as we got to enjoy the spoils of our hard work. It certainly motivates you to do a good job, knowing you’ll be serving up the results to friends afterwards!
If you’ve already nailed making a schnitzel, they also have vegan, Indian, Thai and other cuisine courses on offer. It’s definitely a fun way to fill an afternoon with friends and pick up some new kitchen moves.
Take a photography workshop
There are a number of fantastic photography workshops available in Vienna, you just need to find one that resonates with you. Vienna Shutterbugs offers regular workshops and photo walks, geared towards creative women, while this Photography meetup group is great for a variety of sessions on different topics.
Find a course or photographer that suits your style and budget, and pick up a handy new skill while you’re at it!
Skip town to surrounding destinations
Guys, if Vienna in winter is too grey and miserable for you, then you can straight up GTFO of town! There are so many destinations a cheap short train ride away that can help break up the monotony of a Viennese winter.
You can go big and head to nearby major cities like Budapest or Prague to soak up some different culture, currency and language amongst gorgeous architectural wonders.
Or you can go low key and pop across nearby borders to surrounding cities that may be small, but are equally stunning.
If its cold enough, a day trip to Neusiedlersee to skate or walk the paths surrounding the lake can be a delight. Towns like Sopron, Cesky Krumlov or Zjnomo are surprisingly close and easy to get to by train.
Classic destinations like Salzburg, Halstatt or Innsbruck are also a spectacular option. Sometimes you only have to go an hour outside of Vienna to find blue crisp winter skies!
You don’t even have to go as far as Salzburg if you’ve already been – Graz and Linz each have adorable old towns to meander through and are easily accessible by train, so you can hop across there on a day trip, just to check out the museums and cafe scene.
Stefan and I tend to check out the OEBB Sparschiene website here to see if there are any tempting destinations and just try our luck. We figure we don’t have a car, so never pay for petrol, parking, loan repayments or any other associated costs, so splurging on a train ticket is pretty fair once a month. Its better for the environment and feels more like an adventure!
Go museum & gallery hopping
You know all those fabulous, famous museums and galleries that Vienna is stuffed full of, and you know you *should* visit more often but never seem to find the time? Winter is that time!
You can stay warm and dry inside while soaking up all the culture and interesting exhibits in the quiet of winter, with much less crowds.
If you’ve ever tried to squeeze past exhibitions during the Night of the Museums in October, you know its a bit of a nightmare of humanity swelling around 3 or 4 major museums, but in winter, everywhere is a little bit quieter and you can really take your time to explore at your own pace.
This winter I have a couple of exhibitions on my list to make the most of and motivate me to get out of the house:
- Wes Anderson Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art
- Weltmuseum exhibit in the newly opened building
- Latest at Albertina
View this post on Instagram
In this room of our current exhibition ‚Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures ✨ Wes Anderson & Juman Malouf’ you will find many children’s portraits and this ‘cute’ armour. Margula-Architects @itai.margula contributed to the exhibition design and shared this photo with us. 😍 #kunsthistorischesmuseum #vienna #spitzmausmummyinacoffin
I can also recommend some long term favourites that are always worth returning to if you haven’t been;
- Haus der Musik museum is super interactive and fun, would easily knock out a day of exploration
- Military History Museum – doesn’t sound like a thrill a minute, but I love this museum for the breadth of history, including Austria’s naval conquering, and the different perspective on WWII artefacts.
- MUMOK. If you’re a modern art fiend, MUMOK has some reliably excellent exhibits.
- Leopold Museum. It doesn’t get more classic that Klimt and Schiele exhibits and they never fail to absorb me.
- Secession building and exhibitions are always worth poking your head in to see the latest
- Westlicht & Ostlight galleries. Trekking out to Ostlicht gallery is definitely worth it, but you should wear a jacket as it is very industrial and wide open spaces!
Be brave and try a Therme in Vienna
Ok I know plenty of immigrants, travellers and expats who freak out at the thought of going nude in a spa in Vienna. I get it, in western countries, the thought of nuding up public is weird and kind of shameful.
But here, it’s 100% normal, accepted and kind of liberating for how much nobody gives a shit at all about their bodies and being naked around others.
Honestly? You have to try it at least once, get over your body hangups (because trust me, nobody is looking at you!) and embrace the relaxing atmosphere of a therme in winter to really experience it at its best.
My favourite therme experiences have always been in winter – at Therme Wien in the depths of January, surrounded by snow in the outdoor heated plunge pools and saunas. With barely anyone around, it is completely silent, tranquil and there’s something blissful about sitting surrounded by freezing snow as you are warm and steamy in a warm pool.
Lying back in the quiet chillout areas after a luxurious 15 minutes in an aromatic steam room, staring at the roof, thinking lazy thoughts and indulging in the atmosphere forces you to relax and switch off your brain for half a day.
We’ve also tried Therme’s in Tirol multiple times on winter holidays, and I can guarantee you, its impossible to visit a therme without relaxing and unwinding. But you have to give yourself permission to do so.
Visit with a friend or partner who you are comfortable with and knows their way around a therme – where to hang your robe, where to walk to freeze then warm your toes, where to get snacks, which sauna room is great and which might be too intense (Finnish sauna rooms freak me out and are too hot!).
It can be a true cultural experience and once you try it, one you won’t regret!
Many hotels in Vienna also have day spa’s if you want a drop in experience with steam rooms, swimming pools and treatments. Santa gifted me a voucher for a day spa at the Park Hyatt Vienna this year so am very excited to give it a go and report back!
Games Night in a bar or at a friends place
I’m adding this begrudgingly because truth be told dear reader, I am not the biggest games fan. Stefan however, luuuurrrves playing board games, card games, long complicated games involving tokens and fake currency and historical indepth rules and narratives that I try to fake my way through and occassionally win.
But games nights with a bunch of friends can be a fun, cheap, cosy night in as long as it doesn’t get too crazy competitive.
In Vienna, the most famous board games bar is Brot & Spiele, where you can get your small group a table and play a wide selection of games available on the shelves and tables dotted throughout the bar. They have bingo nights on Thursdays and some very basic food options to get you through a longer evening of games fun.
Speil Bar is another fantastic games bar, with the added advantage of having a foosball table and dartboard in the bar to amp up the gaming elements. They have ‘Tex Mex inspired’ food available and a convenient spot in the 8th district.
Ice skating and outdoor activities
Sometimes, when the weather is just right, and the timing perfect, you can actually enjoy Vienna in winter outdoors. The best and (to me) most terrifying and exhilirating way to do this is to try…ice skating.
There are plenty of different outdoor ice skating rinks in Vienna, but the Rathaus Eislaufverein is far and away the most picturesque, fun and big enough to stay interesting (rather than just looping around the same circle over and over again.
View this post on Instagram
Vienna got proper snowy this weekend so we went to discover the best ice skating spots in town ⛸ Did ya know the Eislaufverein by Stadtpark is celebrating 100 years of skating fun? It’s only €8 entry and not as busy as you’d think 😊 Hope you can find some time to enjoy it this week!
They transform the entire courtyard and parklands surrounding the town hall into a magical skating paradise, decked out with fairy lights, decorations and magical music and ice skating paths, complete with little huts to get food, mulled wine and hot chocolate between skating sessions.
From January through to March there are restaurants setup in the heart of the skating area and plenty of viewing platforms for people who haven’t got their skates on to enjoy watching the crowds slip and slide around the ice skating area.
It can get insanely busy on weekends, so would recommend you try during the week if you can, even after work it can be magical, and definitely, one of my top tips for winter time activities in Vienna when its not raining.
Added bonus – ice skating keeps you fit when you can’t cycle/jog/walk as often as you would in warmer months!
Other ice skating spots to try:
- Eislaufverein is the easiest and centrally accessible one that locals use, by Stadtpark and the Hotel Continental. Stefan and I normally pop by here for a skate if we can’t be bothered with the faff and crowds and cost of Rathaus.
- Eisring Sud is out in the 10th district and a good option for families
- Engleman ice rink in the 17th district and hosts an ‘ice disco’ every Friday from 5:30pm until 9:30pm, which I imagine is exactly like a rollerskating rink disco when you’re 16 years old! Report back to me folks, please!
- **Alte Donau** On very rare, super cold winters (twice since 2012 so far) the Alte Donau freezes over enough to skate on. Though this is TERRIFYING for someone like me who has not grown up around ice, it is also really really cool when it happens and we’ve had some ridiculously beautiful times skating out on the donau. HOWEVER please excercise caution and be safe on the ice!
These are my go-to moves for shaking off the winter blues and surviving Vienna in winter – what do you prefer to do this time of year?
Let me know in the comments so we can all survive the grey days until Spring together!
Want to keep up with the latest tips to enjoy Vienna? Subscribe to join our community of 5,000+ people and receive our regular newsletter filled with recommendations and insider advice for slow travel & living abroad in Austria.