As we move closer to December, I can feel my Christmas spirit beginning to grow.
It is that time of year when I begin to really think about gifts for the family – and perhaps what I want in return – and get excited when you see the year’s first Christmas lights or hear those classic old holiday songs in every store. Starbucks breaks out their holiday-themed cups, the weather turns a little colder, and sitting at home with a warm cup of hot chocolate feels like the best way to spend an evening.
Well, things are a little different this time around.
We are in China, where, in case you couldn’t guess, the world doesn’t go crazy for the Christmas season. In fact, Christmas Day isn’t even a work holiday and with temperatures still hovering around 90˚F, hot chocolate seems like a terrible idea. So this season, the build up for Christmas will be unique. I know I will be happy for the festivities when we return to the US to see our families.
I do get to hear “Jingle Bells” quite a bit, but unfortunately only from my washing machine, which for some unknown reason, plays “Jingle Bells” for about 10 seconds once the load of laundry is done. It is not awesome.
All of this has me thinking about one of my favorite things about living in London during this time of year: easy access to Europe’s best Christmas markets.
You may have been to markets in other places (shout out to the annual market in Union Square, NYC where we used to be regulars), but honestly, no one does them bigger or better than Europe. Hundreds of stalls selling crafts and Christmas decorations, free-flowing mulled wine, and plenty of tasty treats brings the holidays to life in a way nowhere else can. We’ve been to many Christmas markets over the years and here we are again, on the brink of another market season.
So, if you are looking for someplace to visit to experience the joy of the European Christmas market, then here are our picks for the perfect destinations.
The Best Christmas Markets in Europe
Is there a city more beautiful than Vienna? I know, most people get awestruck in Paris, but to me Vienna is perfect. It looks like a movie set that has been crafted by designers to looks ornate and pristine. And I think that the city truly shines in the winter time, when there is a dusting of snow and the massive Christmas market – or as they call it, Christkindlmarkt – takes over the Rathausplatz. The Rathaus (Town Hall) is elobartely covered in Christmas lights, and hundreds of stalls are set up. And since this is Vienna, you are never too far away from decadent pastries, washed down perfectly with Weihnachtspunsch, their version of a warm Christmas punch with fruit juice spiked with brandy or wine.
There may be bigger Christmas markets in Germany, but none of them are as old as Striezelmarkt, held each year since 1434. This market is know for its peculiar tradition of baking an oversized holiday fruitcake, (weighing a whopping 4 tons) and parading it through the streets of the city before entering the market, where it is served up to the market goers. I don’t like fruitcake (I know I’m not alone in this), but I love quirky traditions.
Dresden actually has eleven active Christmas markets, so once you get a taste of the oldest, you can spend time walking to the others to enjoy the fare.
Stuttgart’s Christmas Market dates back to the 17th century and is one of the busiest markets in all of Europe. There are almost 300 stalls in the center of the city, surrounded by the city’s gabled houses, castle, and Gothic cathedral. This time of year, the whole city smells of cinnamon and spice, with lots of sweet treats, like gingerbread, waffles, and fruitcake. But it is not just sweets – this is Germany after all – so bratwurst, spätzle, and sheep’s milk cheese are in abundance. It is best to wash it all down with glühwein, the hot, mulled red wine that is practically required drinking at any Christmas market.
The oldest French Christmas market is in Strasbourg, dating back to 1570. This city, right on the German border of France in Alsace, is packed with events, with over 500 festivities planned each year. You can find carollers wandering the streets and daily performances around the city. The Alsatians know how to eat well too, so you can drink Lait de Poule, eggnog spiked with brandy, while eating local escargot, foie gras, roasted chestnuts, or pretzels. If you crave something sweet, you won’t be disappointed with Kouglof, a sweet, buttery roll filled with raisins and nuts.
This small French city, located not too far away from Strasbourg along the French/German border, has its Christmas market (Marché de noël de Colmar) spread across five squares in the city center, each one uniquely decorated to varying themes. For those traveling with families, Colmar has a dedicated children’s market with a giant mailbox for Santa Claus. The historic city center is covered in lights, and the beautiful wooden and gabled buildings are decked out in full holiday decor. The food selection is a nice mix between French and German specialities, from pretzels to classic macarons and pastries.
Unlike the other cities on this list, Brussels is an relative newcomer to the Christmas market scene, hosting its first official festival in 2002. Their market, or Winter Plet (“Pleasures of Winter”), has over 200 stalls which highlight arts, crafts, and foods from around Europe (a nice shout-out to the EU which is headquartered there). But don’t worry, you can also find plenty of Belgian classics, like chocolate, waffles, mussels, and frites. More than just the market stalls, the Winter Plet is know for its elaborate lighting, especially the nightly light and sound performances at the Grand Palace. There is also a ferris wheel and skating rink, fully lit up at night of course.