With a distinct chill and the crunch of fresh snow beneath your feet, the scent of mulled wine and delicious spices are rich in the air, you are surrounded by bright colours, handmade crafts and carols being sung in the near distance, you can only be at one of the many traditional Christmas markets which take place across Europe in the run up during the Holiday Season.
A Christkindlmarket, Marché de Noël or Weihnachtsmarkt is a traditional European street market held during the four weeks of Advent. A tradition dating back to the late middle ages with the first being the Vienna ‘December Market’ which started in 1294, these markets carry centuries of tradition and are a wonderful way to experience the culture and people of Europe in a real winter wonderland.
Dress warmly and wander through the stalls, mostly housed in individual small wooden huts bedecked with sparkling lights and handmade decorations. You will find Glühwein – a delicious spiced mulled wine or Eierpunsch a sweet eggnog as well as traditional Christmas gingerbread cookies like Lebkuchen, or the rich Stollen which is a candied bread filled with marzipan, as well as Christmas gifts, toys, ornaments and decorations. Spend time to see the nativity scene and of course a massive Christmas tree which will always take pride of place!
The experience will be different to what you may expect, with an emphasis on handmade crafts, filling food you can eat as you stroll and carols, not played over speakers but sung live by a choir! Forget the commercialised Christmas you may be used to at home and get ready to experience something truly special.
Finding the best Christmas markets
The traditional Christmas markets were established in Germany and Austria as well as Eastern regions of France and Switzerland, however now you will find amazing markets in the town squares of many European cities from the UK to Sweden, but where to start? Here is a small selection of some of the finest Christmas markets in Europe.
1. Berlin, Germany
Berlin is a true delight during the four weeks of Advent as there are over 60 Christmas markets across the city for you to enjoy. The largest is the market at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche where over two million people visit the square surrounding the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church to visit the 150+ stalls selling everything from handmade Christmas decorations to a variety of delicious food including bratwurst sausages grilled on an open hearth, hot cocoa and punch.
The range of Christmas markets within the city allows you to experience entertainment at the Gendarmenmarkt where performers and choirs entertain the crowds or the beautiful surroundings of the Charlottenburg Palace. You are best to take a few days to enjoy the varied markets and all they have to offer.
Photo Credit: © visitBerlin, Photo: Wolfgang Scholvien
2. Vienna, Austria
Vienna is a most beautiful and musical city, once home to Beethoven and Mozart, it now hosts some of the most delightful Christmas markets. The main market has a backdrop of the city hall and not only includes some of the best arts and crafts but also hosts workshops where you become involved yourself and discover how to make traditional Christmas cookies or candles.
There is also the smaller Christmas Village in the beautiful grounds of the Baroque Belvedere Palace, here you can enjoy a selection of local delicacies like Schinkenfleckerln – ham noodles, Kasnocken – cheese dumplings or Vienna sausages.
Photo Credit: © Austrian National Tourist Office / Bartl
3. Montreux, Switzerland
There are popular Christmas markets in almost every town and city in Switzerland, one of the most popular is the market in Montreux. The town, known for its international Jazz festival in the summer, is nestled on Lake Geneva with magnificent views of snow-capped Alps in the distance, here you will truly find the spirit of Christmas.
A unique delight is the medieval Château de Chillon, an island castle on the lake, where you can discover beautiful Christmas experiences within the castle walls. Or for something different, you can see the special guest, Father Christmas fly over the market at sunset, no matter what your age it is enough to make you believe!
Photo credit: © Montreux Noël 2016
4. Budapest, Hungary
The Budapest Christmas Fair on Vörösmarty Square is the oldest and most spectacular of all the Christmas markets in the city. With traditional Hungarian food including Kurtoskalacs, delicious cinnamon pastries, mulled wine, grilled vegetables and street food like Langos, dodolle (potato dumplings) on offer and live music and folk dancing to entertain you. All products sold in the Christmas market are guaranteed as traditionally handmade by a professional jury.
As night falls make your way to the Cafe Gerbeaud (renowned as one of the finest and most traditional coffee house in Europe), where, on the façade, there is a beautiful son et luminaire with colourful imagery and laser light.
5. Brussels, Belgium
Winding from Grand Place to Place Ste-Catherine there is over a mile of stalls and attractions which make up this charming and engaging Christmas market. With over 200 stalls selling handmade goods, art and crafts and delicious and moreish food and drink
As well as the wonderful stalls you can enjoy the views from the Ferris wheel above Marché aux Poissons where you can also try your hand at ice skating on the large rink set up for the market.
Photo credit: visitbrussels.be
Tips for travelling at Christmas
Travelling at any time of the year is not without its stresses, travelling at Christmas time can be even more stressful, however, there are some simple tips which can allow you to make the best of your vacation time with the minimum fuss.
- Don’t ‘go it alone’
With the internet everyone can be a travel agent, however, Christmas time is a good time to turn to the help of a professional. Leave the pressure of booking your own flights and hotels to someone who will ensure you get the best. Local knowledge is everything, particularly when visiting the Christmas markets, a good agent will use their experience to help you plan an itinerary which will allow you to see the best of the markets without missing any of the highlights.
- Don’t just stop at one…
Each Christmas market has a different character for you to enjoy so if you are travelling a long distance, why not take the chance to see more than one. The joy of Europe is you can travel easily between the countries, there are no major borders or passport controls to delay you as you travel by road, train or even river cruise.
Make sure you have a spare suitcase, you will need it! You will discover items you will not see anywhere else (do buy them when you see them!) it is a perfect excuse to get unique presents for friends and family (and of course, a few for yourself!)
- Take time to watch the world go by…
You will find the markets can be large and take their toll on your feet! It is a perfect excuse to find somewhere warm to sit beside a roaring log fire with a hot chocolate or some Gluhwein and watch the world go by! Take you time, pace yourself and above all, enjoy!