The Best Christmas Markets in Europe
You haven’t experienced Christmas lights until you’ve seen nearly four miles of them artfully hung in patterns dictated by Tiffany’s head designer in Copenhagen’s famed historic amusement park, Tivoli Gardens—and that’s not counting the 1,800 strands dramatically draped on the lakeside willows. Copenhagen celebrates Jul (as in "yuletide") in high style, with its famed Christmas market the centerpiece. Stalls stocked with fine handmade crafts, including traditional figurines of clog-clad elves in pointy red caps, compete for space with vendors selling iced doughnuts slathered with black currant jam and hefty cups of gløgg, a steaming hot mulled red wine laden with raisins, almonds, cinnamon sticks, and cloves—all of which, for good measure, are steeped in aquavit or schnapps.
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Christmas in Europe is a time for elaborate pastries straight out of a medieval cookbook, for lyrical midnight masses in Gothic churches, and for the upholding of quirky local traditions—in many countries, Christmas just isn’t complete without mischievous pixies (Copenhagen), kindly witches (Rome), treacherous demons (Salzburg), or an 8,000-pound fruitcake (Dresden). However else Europeans celebrate the Yuletide season, Christmas still centers around an Advent market that, in most cases, has filled the square before the cathedral each December for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Many markets start on the Friday before Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas Eve; most end on December 24, especially in Germanic countries, where Christmas Eve is set aside for trimming the tree at home. Others keep celebrating until Epiphany on January 6.
Brussels' Christmas market has been around only since 2002, but it pulls off its Plaisirs d'Hiver/Winter Pret ("Pleasures of Winter") festival with elegant style. The theatrics include a nightly sound-and-light show on the Grand Place and a market surrounding the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and along Place Sainte Catherine. In keeping with that Belgian spirit of a United Europe, the 200+ wooden chalets host artisans from around the world hawking a kaleidoscope of Christmas wares, handmade crafts, and souvenirs. Not that Belgian traditions are left out; browse the many food stalls for pots of moules (mussels) and caricoles (peppery whelks or winkles), Belgian fries and fluffy Belgian waffles, seasonal croustillons (sugar doughnuts), and Belgium's two most welcome additions to world cuisine: fine chocolates and powerful beer. At one end of the shopping, near the fish market, you'll find a spinning, glittering 160-foot Ferris wheel, and, at the Place de la Monnaie, a nearly 8,000-square-foot ice skating rink.
Look For: The Winter Wonders guest of honor. Each year, Brussels invites a different guest to set up a market-within-the-market to share some of its own traditions. Past invitees have included Provence, Québec, Tallinn, and Lapland.
Dates: Late Nov.–early Jan.
For More Info: plaisirsdhiver.be
Copenhagen celebrates Jul (as in "yuletide") with a Christmas crafts market and surfeit of light-bedecked Christmas trees in the city's famed historic amusement park, Tivoli Gardens. Nearly four miles of lights are artfully hung in patterns dictated by Tiffany's head designer, while hundres of strands are draped on the lakeside willows. Join the Danes in warding off the cold with æbleskiver (iced doughnuts with black currant jam) and glogg, a steaming hot mulled red wine laden with raisins, almonds, cinnamon sticks, and cloves—all of which are steeped in aquavit or schnapps. There's also a crafts market installed along a canal in the historic Nyhavn district; try to visit it between 5 and 6pm weekdays to catch the town crier.
Look For: Pixie-like nisser, tiny household elves that infest Denmark around Christmas clad in clogs, red shirts, and pointed red caps. More fickle than their cousin Santa, they might bring presents if you leave them bowls of porridge in the attic; if you forget, they'll visit all kinds of mischief instead.
Dates: Mid-Nov.–late Dec.; closed early Jan.
For More Info: visitcopenhagen.com
London's Christmas shopping season opens in November, when Regent Street ceremoniously switches on its Christmas lights for a pedestrian parade. London typically spreads out its Christmas cheer, from the official Norwegian spruce on Trafalgar Square to the ice skating rink at Somerset House. Trees bedecked with fairy lights herald Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland (mid-Nov. - early Jan.), which includes London's largest outdoor skating rink, a toboggan slide, a Ferris wheel, carolers, and a traditional German Christmas market. More small markets spring up at the Natural History Museum, which installs a temporary ice rink (early Nov. -mid-Jan.); and the Greenwich Market (most of Dec.). Christmas concerts abound, but it's hard to resist the carol sing-along at the Royal Albert Hall (from mid Dec.).
Look For: The Great Christmas Pudding Race (early Dec.), where costumed contestants tread an obstacle course around Covent Garden while balancing fruitcakes on spoons.
For More Info: visitlondon.com
Nothing says Christmas like a four-ton fruitcake. At least, that's the fervent opinion of the citizens of Dresden, who parade their supersize stollen through the city in early December. Accompanied by the Stollenmädchen, or "Fruitcake Maiden," the Saxon fruit loaf wends its way through the medieval streets before making its triumphal entry into the Striezelmarkt, where, surrounded by 230 glittering crafts stalls and a 46-foot "Christmas pyramid," the stollen is chopped into pieces that are inflicted upon the market-goers. Dresden's Striezelmarkt and its odd traditions date back to 1434, making it Germany's oldest continuously running Christmas market.
Look For: The best crafts Germany has to offer. Top artisans from across Saxony arrive bearing all sorts of regional specialties: wooden crafts from the Ore Mountains, blown glass from Lauscha, Blaudruck indigo prints from the Lusatia region, incense burners shaped like nutcrackers, and, of course, Dresden's own famed blue-and-white ceramics.
Dates: End of Nov.–Dec. 24
For More Info: dresden.de
Crafts stalls surround a glittering 85-foot Christmas tree on the Marienplatz, which is filled with Muncheners munching on sausages and reiber-datschi (potato pancakes), gulping glühwein, and crunching Lebkuchen (gingerbread). Munich trains its next generation of marketers at the "Heavenly Workshop" in the Town Hall's pub, where kids dress up as angels to practice arts, crafts, and the baking of traditional cookies. Every evening at 5:30, from the Friday before Advent to the night before Christmas, string and wind players along with singers and choirs peal out carols from the balcony of the neo-Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall).
Look For: Small themed markets sprinkled around the city, including the famed Kripperlmarkt (Crib Market) on Rindermarkt, with Bavarian and Tyrolean Nativity figures, and a Medieval Market on Wittelsbacher Platz. Also keep your eyes peeled for the Christmas tram that trundles through the old city serving spiced wine and gingerbread.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 24
For More Info: muenchen.de
On the Friday before Advent, the golden Christmas Angel appears on the high gallery of the medieval Frauenkirche to recite the opening prologue for one of the biggest and most famous Christmas markets of them all. Some two million shoppers descend upon the 180+ candy cane-striped stalls that fill the main square with crafts, ornaments, and toys. The air is perfumed with gingerbread, glühwein, and smoke swirling from bratwurst grills. Market officials enforce traditions with typical Teutonic efficiency: no plastic wreaths, recorded Christmas Muzak, or gaudy carousels allowed.
Look For: "Nuremberg Plum People," tiny puppets made of prune limbs, fig torsos, and walnut heads with painted-on faces. Stall owners compete to win the coveted "Gold Plum Person" prize for their displays.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 24
For More Info: christkindlesmarkt.de
Prague, Czech Republic
The two best Vanocni trh (Christmas markets) are on the long slope of Wenceslas Square and in the medieval movie set of the Old Town Square formed around a giant Christmas tree, manger scene, and small petting zoo. The markets' brightly decorated stalls sell wooden toys, Bohemian crystal, handmade jewelry, classic Czech marionettes, and plenty of potential for tooth decay: honeyed gingerbread, vánocvka (a braided pastry studded with raisins), and vosí hnízda' ("wasps nests," nutty cookies heavy with rum). Wash it all down with mead and svarene vino (a sweet mulled wine). Christmas Eve dinner consists of wine sausages and carp—you'll see barrels of the fish everywhere. Slip a carp scale into your wallet to ensure an adequate cash flow for the upcoming year.
Look For: St. Nicholas and his cohorts. The original St. Nick—the one with a bishop's miter and staff—is hugely popular in Prague, so a highlight of Christmas season is Mikulas, or St. Nicholas Day. This kindly saint takes his own day (Dec. 5) to roam town accompanied by an angel and a demon. The trio wades through the crowds of kids in the Old Town Square, tallying the naughty and nice.
Dates: Early Dec.–early Jan.
Romans erect elaborate presepi (Nativity scenes) across the city, from life-size tableaux on the Spanish Steps and before St. Peter's to countless crèches in church chapels, all populated by papier-mâché or terracotta figurines and most with a pizza parlor tucked between the shops of the Bethlehem backdrop. Market action centers in Rome on Piazza Navona, its Bernini fountains surrounded by stalls hawking toys, handmade presepio figures, carnival games of chance, ciambelle (dinner plate-size doughnuts), and 101 variations on peanut brittle.
Look For: "La Befana," the Christmas witch, who traditionally brings Italian children presents on Epiphany in early January. These days, broomstick-mounted Befanas swaddled in black jostle for stall space with jolly red-and-white Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) dolls, and in many Italian households Santa now brings presents on Dec. 25 and La Befana brings more a couple weeks later.
Dates: Early Dec.–early Jan.
For More Info: romaturismo.it
Salzburg's Christkindlmarkt is one of Europe's oldest markets; there are documents from the 15th century describing the fine crafts being sold by elderly women in front of the Salzburg cathedral during Advent season. It is also smaller and more intimate than the others listed here—with under 100 stalls ranged under the floodlit baroque stage set that is downtown Salzburg, with its fountains snuggled under avant-garde glass casings for the winter, church bells echoing off the buildings, and the medieval castle glowering down from the cliff above. It's a perfect postcard backdrop for browsing stalls selling pewter crafts, furry slippers, and loden coats while keeping warm with Lebkuchen (gingerbread), roasted chestnuts and almonds, sausages, and sweet mulled wine.
Look For: One of the world's largest Advent calendars, just south of town at the Schloss Hellbrunn, a 17th-century pleasure-palace built for Salzburg's archbishop-princes that just so happens to have 24 windows on its facade—perfect for an Advent calendar. Today there's a crafts market and a living Nativity.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 26
For More Info: christkindlmarkt.co.at
The France/Germany border has spent centuries dancing to either side of the Alsace region. It's currently in the France column, but its Teutonic traditions have blessed the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg with the oldest (445 years and counting) and best Christmas market in France, complete with caroling choirs, Nativity plays, an ice rink, and mulled wine served in boot-shaped mugs. Christkindelsmärik wooden stalls stacked with delicate ornaments and Nativity figurines surround Notre-Dame Cathedral and line Place Broglie. Edible specialties include pretzels, roasted chestnuts, bredele cookies, and Flammekeuche (a "flamed cake" thin pizza of bacon, onions, and crème fraîche).
Look For: Stuffed white storks—the city mascot and an Alsatian symbol of good luck—in the boutiques of La Petite France, a picturesque, canal-threaded corner of the historic center. The neighborhood's half-timbered houses—which once belonged to millers, tanners, and fishermen—are bathed in a warm yellow glow from garlands of Christmas lights, and the gingerbread bakery does a roaring seasonal trade.
Dates: Late Nov.–late Dec.
For More Info: noel.strasbourg.eu
The massive market, dating back to the 17th century, is set amid the city's gabled houses hung with fir branches and angels, and sprawls across several historic center squares between the Gothic cathedral and ivy-clad castle. Vendors in 280+ stalls sell wooden toys, glass baubles, nutcrackers, and sheepskin clothing, along with sheep ham, sheep sausages, sheep's-milk cheese, waffles, gingerbread, roasted almonds, and Hutzelbrot (fruitcake). In the evening, grab a warm Glühpunsch wine scented with cinnamon and vanilla and amble into the Old Castle's Renaissance courtyard for the daily Christmas concert. For the kiddies, the Kinderland on Schlossplatz offers rides (carousel, Ferris wheel, mini steam railway) and some hands-on holiday experiences like making candles.
Look For: There are fantastic thematic markets in a pair of satellite towns, each just 15 minutes away on the S-Bahn light rail system. The Esslingen Medieval Christmas Market includes fire-eaters and live medieval music as a backdrop to costumed craftsmen creating leather apparel, calligraphy, silver jewelry, baked goods, and hand-dyed clothing. The Ludwigsburg Baroque Christmas Market consists of tidy stalls overseen by massive sets of twinkling angel wings under the floodlit facades of the baroque main square.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 23
For More Info: stuttgarter-weihnachtsmarkt.de
Vienna's venerable Christkindlmarkt on Rathausplatz flings open its stall shutters in mid-November, and some three million visitors flock here each year for beeswax candles, wooden toys, and glass ornaments. Shoppers snack on cream-filled pastries, candied fruit, roasted chestnuts, and Weihnachtspunsch (a spiced "Christmas punch" of wine, brandy, or schnapps sweetened with warm fruit juices). This market puts a premium on tradition: there are precious few tacky stands selling plastic toys, and Santa Claus, whom many locals view as the Hollywood harbinger of a commercialized Christmas, is strictly verboten. Instead, there's the traditional Wiener Christkindl, the official Christ Child—invariably played (following an odd Teutonic custom) by a young woman with long blonde curls. There's another market of luxe Christmas wares in the baroque forecourt of the suburban Schðnbrunn Palace, and a more intimate and sophisticated market lining the narrow cobblestone streets of Vienna's Spittelberg district.
Look For: More than three-dozen Advent season concerts. The city of Haydn and Strauss invites choirs from around the world to perform Christmas music in the Rathaus every weekend (Friday to Sunday) from late November to Dec. 24 as part of the Internationales Adventsingen festival.
Dates: Mid-Nov.–Dec. 24
For More Info: christkindlmarkt.at