With the Christmas season upon us, the cities of Europe are lit up with decorations. The scent of mulled wine is the in the air and the early nights and sudden chill make for warm and cozy indoors. Like much of the world, Christmas is an important tradition on the continent, but the traditions here go back thousands of years. But perhaps the best thing to look forward to are the fantastic Christmas markets, which you can expect to see popping up all over the place.
Some of these markets have been held every year since the Middle Ages and can attract upwards of 2 million visitors. They are primarily stocked with arts and crafts and stocking stuffers, as well as many stalls selling welcome warm cups of mulled wine and tasty snacks. Forget the tinned sounds of Bing Crosby and look forward to live carolling. So if you are traveling around these cities in the coming weeks, make sure to check out some of the best Christmas markets in the world.
1. Cologne Christmas Markets
Cologne is something of a hot spot for these icy festivities. There are four separate Christmas markets going on around the city, with over two million attendees a year. The biggest and most spectacular of these is the ‘Am Dom’ market, held in the square below the towering spires of the Cologne cathedral.
It is perhaps the most picturesque market in the world – set in the shadow of the great cathedral, around 160 stalls spread around an enormous Christmas tree. The stalls sell a wide range of seasonal trinkets, decorations and arts and crafts. Stalls selling sweets, mulled wine fill up the gaps and street performers entertain the crowds.
Just south of the great market is the smaller, friendly Alter Markt, held on the cobbled square in the centre of the old town. It is old fashioned and traditional, with child-friendly rides, a puppet theatre, Santa Clause himself and countless stalls selling gingerbread, hand-made wooden toys and more treats besides. The timber stands make the market seem like you’ve been teleported to the Middle Ages and it’s wonderful.
2. Vienna Christmas Market
Vienna’s iconic Christmas market is the ‘Christkindlmarkt’ on the enormous square in front of the massive Town Hall. It is Europe’s best known and most visited market, welcoming millions of visitors every year. The wooden huts maintain a sense of its age, and at over 700 years old, it is one of the oldest in Europe. It starts in mid-November, meaning you already have the chance to get some Christmas shopping done.
The highlight of the market is the park that surrounds it. The trees are decorated with festive lights and make for a magical promenade. Add some coziness to your home by picking up one of the beautifully scented beeswax candles from one of the stalls on the central row which sell a wide range of hand-made decorations and arts and crafts.
Take your kids to the Volkshalle, inside the Town Hall, where they can enjoy a daily workshop making presents and baking Christmas cookies. Throughout December the market is improved upon with the addition of choirs from around the world who sing in the Festival Hall during weekends.
3. Nuremberg Christmas Market
While it’s far from the biggest or the oldest Christmas market in Europe, the Nuremberg market is one of the best known and most loved. The setting is wonderful, with around 200 stalls nestled in the cobbled square under the Frauenkirche.
Held for the first time in 1628, the market has become the best place in the region to trade in handmade wood figurines. Every two years, a ‘Christ child’ is selected and, dressed in gold and white with a large golden crown atop their head, is responsible for opening the market and entertaining guests with Christmas cheer.
People come to this market for the food and delicious spiced mulled wine. For a local treat, try a Nürnberger Bratwurst, a delicious grilled spicy sausage. The Gingerbread is also fantastic and special, sweetened as it is with honey.
As night falls, the market is lit with hundreds of small soft lights and live music is played to serenade your ears.
Eccentric traditions aside, the market is best known for its food, which includes several stalls selling steaming Glühwein and grilled Nürnberger Bratwurst, delicious thin and spicy sausages.
Another favourite is the local Lebkuchen, or gingerbread, sticky and sweet with honey. In the evening, the market is softly lit with hundreds of tiny lights, and bands arrive to entertain the punters – you’ll hear anything from brass bands to live jazz.
4. Dresden Christmas Market
The first record of this market dates to 1434, making it easily the oldest in the country. It holds on to its history and tradition and locals are fond and proud of the Striezelmarkt, and with good reason.
The market is named for the local fruitcake, a delicacy named ‘Striezel’ or Stollen, it is sweet and baked like a loaf and coated with icing sugar. They are not only the best treat, but the centerpiece of the festival. On the second Sunday of December, a 3,000 kg cake tours around the city under the watchful eyes of the ‘Stollenmädchen’, or maiden of the cake. This harks back to the 16th century, when bakers would offer cakes to the local prince, who would cut then with a ceremonial knife and offer pieces to the poor.
The market is quaint and pretty. The 250 stalls sell traditional wares. Craftsmen from around the region flock to the market to sell their goods, making it one of the best markets for shopping.
5. Brussels Christmas Market
Smack in the center of the city, right on the Grand-Place, Brussels transforms itself into a winter wonderland. Lights pour from the heavens and little picturesque wooden huts pack into the square. Each stall represents a different European country (a reminder of Brussels’ status as capital of the Europe). The city is famous for its food and market stands up to that expectation.
Alongside the required mulled wine stalls, you can look forward to cascades of delicious Belgian chocolates, juicy French olives, steaming snails, and the seasonal treat ‘speculoos’, spiced gingerbread shaped like Santa Claus.
During December, the Fish Market is transformed into an ice rink. It is popular with locals and tourists alike, and the carols, jugglers and street performers complete the picture and make it a trip to remember.
Coming soon: more Christmas spirit around Europe!