Sparkling trees and wafts of spicy gingerbread bring festive cheer to Vienna's Christmas markets during Advent. The City Hall casts a golden glow over Rathausplatz, framed by log huts selling nativity figurines, candles and candied sweets. Kids love the pony rides and merry-go-rounds. Pick up gifts like handmade chocolate and sheepskins in the cobbled lanes of the Biedermeier quarter, Spittelberg. Santa stages an appearance each Sunday. Schönbrunn Palace pleases the Christmas crowds with roasted chestnuts and mulled wine.
From January to March, locals glide on the 5,400-square-metre outdoor ice rink in the shadow of the neo-Gothic City Hall at Vienna Ice Dream. Beginners and children slip their skates on for a free twirl or tumble at the laidback afternoon sessions. In the evening DJs pick up the pace with salsa and disco beats. Six curling lanes and open-air snack bars add to the fun.
The city where Strauss taught the world to waltz leaps to life during Vienna's lavish ball season in January and February. Brush up on your footwork, choose a ballgown or tuxedo, and book tickets at the same time as reserving your Vienna hotel to attend one of Vienna's 300 glittering balls. One of the grandest occasions is the Opera Ball in the gilded Hofburg Palace, where carnation petals rain down during The Blue Danunbe. Classical music lovers choose the Philharmonic Ball at the Musikverein.
No winter break in Vienna is complete without spending a lazy afternoon of coffee and cake in an opulent coffee house. For old-world grandeur, live piano music and rich chocolate Sachertorte, take a seat in the chandelier-lit Café Sacher or in the marble splendour of Café Central. Escape the cold over espresso, apple strudel and the daily newspapers at intimate Café Bräunerhof. Wood-panelled Café Hawelka is another master in Austrian gemütlichkeit (cosiness) -- don't leave without trying the jam-filled Buchteln dumplings.
The Viennese beat the winter cold with spas. Take the thermal waters at the Oberlaa Spa, where jetted tubs, 32°C pools and herbal saunas relax chilled limbs. Sacher Spa pampers the body with almost edible chocolate massages and cocoa steam baths. A snippet of Morocco in Vienna, Aux Gazelles Hammam, lures spa-goers to its steamy chambers for invigorating scrubs, oily massages and aromatic mint tea.
Vienna has its own 400m ski slope and lift at Hohe Wand-Wiese in the Wienerwald woods on the city's outskirts. Floodlights allow skiers to slalom by night. When the snow settles, cross-country skiers skate along prepared trails on the banks of the Danube and families grab their sleds to toboggan the Prater's slopes.
Vienna rings in the New Year in true celebratory spirit with fireworks in front of City Hall, where the mile-long New Year's Eve trail kicks off. The route takes in open-air concerts, DJ stands, and kiosks that fuel the party with drinks and snacks. Vienna's socialites waltz into the New Year at the Hofburg Palace's Imperial Ball. Book tickets a year ahead to see the Philharmonic perform at the New Year's Day concert in the Musikverein's shimmering Golden Hall.