The car drove underneath the triumphant arches, signaling the entrance to the palace grounds. It drove alongside the massive palace, glowing with a golden light. The chill in the air was palpable, but so was the excitement; it was so thick I could feel it when I stepped out of the car, careful not to trip over my floor-length gown or drop my phone through my satin-gloved hands.
I stepped onto a red carpet, laid over the cobblestone wet with winter. Next to the doors, projected against the palace a light danced: “Hofburg Silvester Ball.” I took a deep breath in attempt to drown the thousands of worries going through my head (Would I find anyone that speaks English? Would I be the only person my age? Would I spend the night awkwardly alone?) and reminded myself that I was at an actual ball at an actual palace.
If this wasn’t a grand way to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna, I don’t know what is.
The New Years Eve Ball at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna
Viennese Ball Culture
For American girls who grew up watching the Disney-ified versions of fairytales like Cinderella, the idea of going to a ball at a palace is about as realistic as kissing a frog with hopes it’ll turn into a prince. But for the Viennese, balls are a way of life. Every woman owns a ball gown and every man has a tux because they attend real, actual balls all the time.
Vienna holds nearly 200 balls every year, most at the palaces or, the most prestigious, at the opera house. Some are for charity while others for celebration. The New Years Eve Ball at the Hofburg Palace (formally called the Hofburg Silvester Ball) marks the beginning of ball season in Vienna, which lasts until late spring.
Formal Ball Attire
Balls in Vienna may be celebrations, but they are no lighthearted matter. They are notorious for lasting all night (many go from 9 pm to 4 am the next morning!) and have strict dress codes.
The Silvester Ball’s dress code requires women to wear floor-length gowns with corresponding gloves (of the appropriate length) and men must be in tuxes with bow ties. (Men were in white and black bow ties and some even wore white gloves.) The only exception is national dress, like ethnic costumes and military dress uniforms.
It’s also highly recommended to know the Viennese waltz — and dance lessons are available the day before if needed.
From Cocktail Hour to Countdown
Despite the stuffiness of the requirements, the ball is a lot of fun. The evening started with a Champagne cocktail hour, where guests mingled while listening to a piano and violin duo in the lobby. Champagne flowed freely — but it was the only time drinks were free (afterward they were 18.50€ a glass!).
As people eagerly awaited entrance into the ballroom, I nervously wandered around. Several people couldn’t believe I was there alone, causing me to uncharacteristically wonder the same thing. I spotted two young gentlemen, gulped a bit of Champagne, and took a chance asking if they spoke English. Luckily, the two Swedes were well versed in English and the three of us spent the rest of the night goofing off together.
Dancing & Drinks
Once cocktail hour ended, it was time for the Opening of the Grand Staircase. Dancers from the Vienna State Opera Ballet did a performance. Finally we entered the main ballroom, where the young debutantes (dressed in white) performed as an introduction into society. Then ballet dancers, followed by opera singers, took to the stage to perform. Afterward the ball officially begun.
An orchestra played waltz music in the main ballroom while other rooms played different types of music, from classical to jazz. One room even had a DJ playing popular songs. There was lots of waltzing (it was mesmerizing to watch!) but in other rooms the dancing corresponded with the music.
Bars throughout the palace served Champagne, cocktails and Austrian beers and a café area served sausages and Guglhupf pastries. Most of the bars were cash only, which I didn’t know. Bring plenty of cash with you (the drinks are not cheap!).
The Clock Strikes Midnight
Throughout the night, as I wandered from room to room admiring the attire of people from around the world and the atmosphere, I couldn’t believe I was there. And when the clock struck midnight, it felt surreal — especially when I texted friends back home “Happy new year!” even though it was 4 pm!
The countdown to midnight was a huge celebration and (thankfully) they counted down in English!
The night relaxed as it got later. Bow ties untied. Gloves were removed. My hair was a hot mess and my feet were sore, but I didn’t care. My new Swedish friends and I met a group of friends from London and Boston and together we bonded over our shared language while toasting to 2015.
Cheers to 2015!
New Year’s Eve is a night meant purely for celebration. It’s full of anticipation, when watching the clock all evening is expected instead of shunned. Often the night is a sigh of relief — ahh, the year is over! — combined with the excitement of what is to come — a new year beginning! — and somehow within the celebration and excitement, I hardly took any pictures. Instead I took in every moment, cheered at the peak of midnight and toasted to the amazing year to come.
I left the palace knowing that 2015 would be an incredible year. After all, when you start the year in a Disney fairytale* come true, the rest of the year is bound to follow suit.
*To the disappointment of my friends and family, I did not actually meet a prince. So technically I failed the Disney part of the fairytale. :)
What to Know About the Hofburg Silvester Ball
Tickets range from 165€-470€, available online. Get tickets early; cancellation is free until August. I paid extra to have a seat in the main hall (385€). But I got stuck on a table of older German-speakers who weren’t happy I was on their table and my new Swedish friends didn’t have seats, so I didn’t spend much time sitting down (talk about aching feet!). Had I stayed alone though, I would have welcomed the seat.
There is also a gala dinner ticket (four courses and wine, 480-720€). The admission ticket without a seat is 165€. Tickets with Vienna Opera or Spanish riding school tickets are also available, as are waltz lessons. All tickets are explained here.
The dress code isn’t as strict as when I went but they will refuse entry to anyone not in formal wear. Most bars don’t take credit cards and drinks are expensive — plan accordingly. There was a transfer service at the end of the night, but my driver expected payment (50€) even though it wasn’t mentioned anywhere (I still don’t know if he was trying to screw me over). Waltz lessons would have been helpful, but I didn’t dance and no one shunned me for it. Oh, and don’t worry: the countdown to midnight is in English!