Europe has arguably the best and most famous Christmas markets that has been around since the middle ages. There is something magical about them doing your Christmas shopping in a stress free environment with a few cups of mulled wine to keep the cold at bay. Bossops lists the 10 best Christmas markets.
1. Cologne Christmas Markets
There are six Christmas markets in Cologne. The largest is in the Neumarkt and there is another at Rudolfplatz which are both close to the main shopping area. There are two smaller markets at Heumarkt in the Altstadt (Old Town) and a mediaeval one near the Lindt chocolate museum which is only open 1st – 23rd December. There is also a floating one on a large boat on the Rhine.
The most impressive and popular of these is the market ‘Am Dom’ on the square in front of the massive twin spires of the cathedral, the most frequented monument in Germany. The cathedral is Germany’s largest building and is the second tallest Gothic structure in the world with the largest façade and the largest free-swinging bell – the St. Petersglocke. The remains of the Magi are claimed to be inside and the stained glass windows are stunning.
The back drop is definitely extraordinary, and the 160 or so stalls that pack below the lofty Gothic construction make the most of their tourist-friendly position. Placed around a vast Christmas tree, the stalls offer the usual range of Yuletide merchandise, including Christmas tree decorations, arts and crafts, hand-made candles and ceramics. Sweet stalls jostle for space with Glühwein traders, and street musicians and professional bands entertain the hordes.
A little to the south, on the cobbled square of the Alter Markt in the heart of the old town, is the city’s most pleasurable market, with an old fashioned, child-friendly appeal. There is a traditional merry-go-round, a puppet theatre, a Santa’s Grotto and lots of stalls stocking hand-made wooden toys, gingerbread, boiled sweets and cotton candy. The stands are half-timbered, giving the whole market a old fashioned feel.
The ‘Christkindlmarkt’ on the square in front of the magnificent Town Hall is Vienna’s most well known Christmas market. It is one of the most frequented in Europe; attracting millions of visitors to its rows of wooden huts leading up to the Hall and at night is all lit up with twinkling fairy lights. It is certainly one of the oldest, dating back over seven hundred years, and starts early – from mid-November.
The park around the market attributes all kinds of decoration to boost your visit: huge trees with red-lit hearts or other colourful decorations, stands of all types, little stands with traditional characters from favourite German-language fairytales; The market itself has a central row of stalls selling hand-crafted decorations and arty bits and pieces, as well as deliciously scented natural beeswax candles.
The Vokshalle, within the Town Hall, is home to a daily work shop for kids in Vienna where parents can drop them off to make presents and bake Christmas cookies. An added attraction is that throughout December choirs from around the world perform in the Festival Hall at weekends.
3. Nuremberg Christmas Market
The world-famous Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg has a special charm at any time of the day, but it is most romantic in the evenings. During the week you will find more room for a relaxing look around than during the crowded weekends with almost two hundred stalls crammed into the stoned square on the slope beneath the Frauenkirche.
The market dates back to 1628, and is known as a regional centre for trading handmade wood figurines. It has a rather unusual tradition where every two years a new ‘Christ child’ is appointed being a young man or woman who opens the market and rushes around town spreading Christmas cheer, dressed in elaborate gold and white and wearing a large golden crown.
The market is best known for its food, which features 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 mention of Dresden’s Christmas market was in 1434, making this the oldest in Germany. It is steeped in tradition and locals are naturally fond of their Striezelmarkt, named after the local ‘Striezel’ or Stollen, a sweet fruitcake baked in the form of a loaf and dusted with icing sugar.
The highlight of the annual market is the Stollen Festival, held on the second Sunday in December. In the 16th century, the local Stollen bakers would present cakes to the local prince, carrying them ceremoniously through the town to the castle, where the prince would cut them with a five-foot knife and hand out pieces to the poor.
Today, one giant 3,000 kg Stollen is paraded around Dresden as part of the festival, presided over by a gorgeous ‘Stollenmädchen’ – a ‘Miss Cake’, if you like.
The market is pretty and old fashioned, with around 250 stalls selling strictly traditional wares. It has better shopping than elsewhere though, with regional craftsmen flocking to the area to peddle their wares. Some good buys include delicate, hand-blown glass baubles from the town of Lauscha; hand-thrown and -fired ceramics from Saxony painted in bright blue and white; and local ‘Blaudruck’ – white-and-blue printed cloth.
5. Brussels Christmas Market
Established in 2000 and located along a 2km long illuminated walk route through the city centre, Brussels has a modern Christmas market with a strong green policy. In a city famous for its cuisine this is a good choice for foodies.
The market takes over the Grand-Place, Brussels’ commercial hub, renowned for the lavishly carved facades of its guild houses. Strings of lights stream down from the centre, over the little chalet-style wooden huts which cluster around the square, each representing a different European country
Alongside mulled wine are stands dishing out plump French olives, mountains of Belgian chocolates, steaming plates of moules or steamed snails, jars of preserved fruits and ‘speculoos’, hard gingerbread shaped like Father Christmas.
The Fish Market is transformed into a temporary ice rink in December, making it a big attraction for locals. Carols are filtered through loudspeakers, and jugglers, street musicians and painters brave the cold to entertain the crowds. From December 23rd, many of the stalls switch hands, and the market becomes more of a gastronomic affair.
6. Munich Christmas Market
Munich’s Christmas Market dating back to the 14th century is held on the Marienplatz in the center of the city. The Munich Christmas Market offers traditional Bavarian and unique Christmas gifts, including wood carvings from Oberammergau, gingerbread (Lebkuchen) from Nuremberg and notably some exquisite glassware from the Bavarian Forest.
Crib figurines, bee wax candles, chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds are just some of the many thousands of other traditional Christmas gift ideas on display.
Each day, from the balcony of Munich’s town hall, music lovers will be able to enjoy the festive season celebration with a special alpine Christmas Market concert.
In the Town Hall‘s ”Heavenly Workshop”, children between the ages of 6 and 12 can have fun with arts and crafts or baking Christmas cookies. Gossamer wings and shimmering gowns lie ready in magnificent surroundings, waiting to transform young visitors into angels. Under the guidance of professional artists and instructors from the city‘s Children‘s Museum, girls and boys can have a good time. And it‘s free!
The equally popular Kripperlmarkt, one of the largest in Germany to specialise in cribs and other nativity accessories, is a short walk away on nearby Rindermarkt. The historical event has been part of Munich‘s traditional Christmas Markets since the middle of the 18th century.
The Kripperlmarkt has all you need to create an genuine manger. Each chosen and carefully packed item, being a reminder of childhood, when the manger under the Christmas tree symbolized a world of mystery and wonder.
Christmas mangers, cribs and nativity scenes have long been a tradition in Munich. As early as 1597, the Jesuits set up a manger in St Michael’s church. In 1757, the first original Kripperlmarkt Christmas market took place: it lasted from the 1st day of Advent to Epiphany.
More than a Christmas Market and totally different is the Tollwood Christmas Market, Munich´s fantastic ethnic festival. On the Theresienwiese you will find a spectacle of tents offering an exciting mix of international musicians and drama groups, performances, live music, art and culture as well as popular Christmas Market ideas with handicrafts and cuisine from all over the world.
In all there are a further 20 Christmas Markets located throughout the city of Munich, including a Medieval Christmas Market with gospel singing at the Wittelsbacher Platz, a gay pink Christmas Market (Stephansplatz) and if you have forgotten anything before leaving for home there is even a Christmas Market with ice skating facilities at Munich’s international airport.
7. Prague Christmas Markets
Christmas markets are a essential ingredient of the Czech festive magic. The Prague Christmas markets luminates the city centre at this time of year, bringing tourists and locals together to enjoy the holiday spirit, in a true ‘winter wonderland’ setting.
The Prague Christmas markets run daily, including on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The main markets are held at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, with smaller ones at Republic Square and Havel’s market. All are within a few minutes’ walk of each other.
The Prague Christmas markets consist of brightly decorated wooden huts selling traditional Czech products from handicrafts and hot food (sausages, corn on the cob, pastries and local specialties), to cool Czech beers and warm drinks. Outdoor Christmas shopping is so much nicer with a cup of hot wine (svařené víno or svařák) in your hand!
Visitors can see traditional foods being made, and find a variety of Christmas stocking fillers, such as Bohemian Crystal, wooden toys, scented candles, hand-made jewellery, ceramic mugs, hats, scarves, traditional puppets and Christmas tree ornaments.
However, Christmas markets are not just about shopping. At the animals stable in the Old Town Square children can stroke sheep, goats and a donkey. And a large Bethlehem scene depicts Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the Three Kings in a wooden stable.
Most impressive of all is the Christmas tree, shipped from the Krkonose Mountains in the North of the Czech Republic. The tree is erected in the Old Town Square and draped in a blaze of lights, which are turned on around 5pm every night. Set against a dark gothic sky line, this is a spectacular sight.
A programme of events runs daily on a stage erected in the Old Town Square, with Czech and International choirs and dance groups to entertain visitors.
The choirs and dance groups include school children from all over the Czech Republic.
8. Tallinn Christmas Market
Estonia’s medieval capital is naturally joyful, particularly under the blanket of snow that falls on the city each December. Temperatures dip quite significantly this time of year but the city’s celebratory atmosphere does well to dispel the cold.
Tallinn’s Christmas market only became a yearly tradition in 2001 and it has already proven itself as amongst the most well-loved and happily-visited Christmas markets in Europe. What it lacks in tradition it makes up for in atmosphere and ambiance, dispelling December’s darkness with colourful lights, music and activity.
The last week of November, Tallinn’s Town Hall Square becomes cluttered with more than 50 merchant stalls where visitors and locals can admire and purchase products by artisans from all over Estonia. Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, these vendors sell a variety of original products including felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, little sea-grass animals (so Estonian), home made candles, wreaths and other decorations. Holiday shows are common on the cobbled square and traditional Estonian holiday food is also served: pork, sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries. Other traditional treats include gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies, nuts and sweets. Hot mulled wine poured from large wooden barrels keeps the crowds warm. Father Christmas makes his rounds, posing with children and chilling’ in the designated Santa Claus Cabin where you can mail postcards from Santa’s own post office.
9. Berlin Christmas Market
With over 50 Christmas Markets and advent bazaars every year, Berlin features noticeably on Germany’s calendar of Yuletide activities. A popular market is situated next to Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church among the bustle of shoppers on the high street in between the Kurfüstendamm and Tauenzien.
WeihnachtsZauber situated on the Gendarmenmarkt. This is probably one of the most popular markets in Berlin.
Enticed by the seasonal aroma of mulled wine and baked cinnamon stars, visitors are drawn to more than 100 handicraft stalls, refreshment stands and amusements at the market. Here, they are sure to find the right Christmas gifts amongst the yuletide decorations, ornaments, toys and pretty accessories on sale.
Performing on stage at the Weltbrunnen fountain every weekend during advent will be trumpet ensembles, children’s choirs, jazz and Dixie players. In this western part of the city centre, the air around the memorial church will be filled with the sounds and smells of Berlin’s Christmas market.
10. Copenhagen Christmas Market
Europe’s oldest amusement park, the Tivoli Gardens, hosts Copenhagen’s yearly Christmas market. The setting is out of Hans Christian Andersen, with hundreds of Christmas trees and over half a million lights illuminating the stalls and park.
The main lake is converted into an outdoor ice skating rink, where visitors can hire skates. There are around 60 colourfully-painted stalls, selling locally produced arts, crafts and decorations, such as Copenhagen porcelain or wooden dolls.
There are plenty of food stalls – the main draw here is glögg, Danish mulled wine mixed with liquor and spices. Hot apple dumplings make for a warming mid-shopping snack. Other attractions include pony rides, a Father Christmas who does the rounds and poses for photos in the ‘leprechaun tent’ – filled, rather bizarrely, with actors dressed as red-clad leprechauns.