If you’re ever feeling a little “Bah, humbug” about the holidays, a visit to a European Christmas market is an ideal way to delight in the magic of the season. With their twinkling light displays, traditional drinks, tasty local foods, and wooden huts filled with crafts, decorations, and toys, these fairy-tale end-of-year events take place in historic town squares throughout Europe and attract locals and visitors alike.
I almost always associate Christmas markets with Germany, where they are prevalent in big cities and smaller towns throughout the country. Germany’s oldest market, the Striezelmarkt in Dresden, dates back to the early 1400s. But you’ll find these colorful and convivial events from England to Hungary to France, typically from the end of November until Christmas Eve. Some even extend into the New Year.
I’ll never forget my first Christmas market. I was 18, visiting Europe for the first time to see my then-boyfriend, who was studying in Germany. He and some of his new friends took me to Neustadt an der Weinstrasse in mid-December to sample Glühwein (hot, mulled wine) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread), and shop for souvenirs such as woolen mittens and wooden tree ornaments. The smell of hot chestnuts and grilled sausages filled the air, and I tripped over old cobblestones in the town square. All day long, amid the crowds of other people strolling and sipping and shopping their little hearts out, I was unable to wipe a silly grin off my face.
Viewfinder Tip: Shopping European markets is an outdoor activity; wear layers and be prepared with a warm jacket, hat, scarf, and gloves, as well.
Memories of that day came flooding back to me recently when I introduced the concept of the Christmas market to my daughter on a trip through Prague, Czech Republic, and Vienna, Austria. Normally I’m pretty conscious of what I eat, but on our recent visit to the markets, I threw nutrition out the window, letting my daughter sample sweet treats such as marzipan, waffles, pastries, and copious amounts of hot chocolate. In fact, I recommend heading to a Christmas market on an empty stomach, since you’ll find so many marvelous and filling food items you’ll want to sample.
Here, in no particular order, are a few more suggestions for visiting the holiday markets in Europe.
Attend the markets at night. Sparking lights, whether they trim the stalls or are found in more ornate displays, create an especially storybook-like and romantic atmosphere to explore. I’d try to time a visit just as the sun sets and the lights begin to flicker on; for us in Vienna in late November, that was about 4 p.m., local time. Sure, other visitors are out in great force then, especially on the weekends, but I think the bustling crowds of happy folks are all part of the fun. (In case you’re wondering, weekday late mornings or early afternoons are quietest.)
Prague Christmas market
Sample the local drink. Depending on the country, you might be sipping spiced wine, sweet punch with berries (with a base of rum, brandy or wine), or honey wine. There’s no dearth of alcoholic drinks at Christmas markets, but no one goes to a market to get drunk; it’s all about trying to stay warm (okay, and maybe enjoying a little buzz) while you stroll the stalls. At some markets your hot drink will be served in a ceramic mug that you can either take home as a souvenir or return to get your deposit back. I love the eco-friendly nature of this tradition; it’s much better than paper cups that end up in overflowing garbage cans.
Bring plenty of cash. Generally, vendors accept only the local currency, so get your money exchanged before you visit a Christmas market. When I visited markets earlier this year, I didn’t see any credit cards in use anywhere.
Check entertainment schedules. Storytellers, international choirs singing Christmas carols, wind ensembles, jugglers, and buskers entertain visitors at Christmas markets throughout the season. One area of Vienna’s large market at the Rathausplatz, the square in front of the town hall, felt a bit like a theme park, with a train ride, carousel, and even a mini roller coaster for kids.
The bottom line: Every Christmas market is different, with magical surprises around every corner. I think that’s good news: all the more reason to plan more December trips to various countries in Europe!
How do you celebrate the holidays when you travel?