The best of Europe’s Christmas Markets
For Australians who experience a hot Christmas we have dreamt of a white Christmas and there’s no place better to do so than in Europe. Each year thousands of people visit the best Christmas markets of Europe and last year we were lucky enough to have visited them too. I doubt we can ever replicate that childlike feeling of exploring so many markets in a matter of weeks.
We started with Paris, and like they say Paris is always a good idea, but to return to Paris decorated for Christmas was even more special. All we needed was some snow falling softly and the picture would have been perfect. Despite being cold there was no snow, instead a warm and magical atmosphere along Paris’s famous Champs Elysees, where stall holders set up to sell their Christmas wares and people drink Vin chaud and eat roasted chestnuts.
From Paris we explored Brussels, Bruges and Ghent before making our way to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Luxembourg. It was in Cologne we experienced our first true Christmas markets. Not just one, but a total of five Christmas markets, the largest in downtown Cologne, with the city’s famous gothic cathedral as a backdrop. We were transported to each market on a little train. We had conjured up images of snowflakes, twinkling lights and nativity scenes. We saw little wooden chalets, locals selling festive foods and artisan goods, thousands of twinkling lights and some good old Christmas spirit, but the only snowflakes were hand painted onto shiny glass baubles.
It’s no surprise that we still enjoyed the experience and each Christmas market had something unique to offer, whether it be the food, the local craft or the amazing decorations.
The smell of roasted chestnuts, warm spicy gluhwein and gingerbread cookies teased our senses at the Frankfurt Christmas markets, Germany’s oldest markets. They were set in the old town square, full of festive lights, decorations, holiday cheer and a gorgeous carousel.
It may take less than four hours to get from Frankfurt to Basel, but for us it would take four days and the excitement built as we boarded our Avalon ship for amazing Christmas market cruise. For the next four days we were taken along the Rhine River visiting Christmas markets, sightseeing in the Black Forest and visiting the red sandstone castle in Heidelberg. The Heidelberg markets has a skating rink and with the backdrop of the castle makes this the place to go if you love a magical Christmas atmosphere. The quaint half timber houses of Strasbourg and Colmar are the perfect place to purchase Christmas decorations and regional produce and crafts.
Strasbourg Christmas markets have operating since 1570 and now have 300 chalets throughout the centre of town. During the advent period the town square is lively and joyful with giant red and white hearts, ginger bread men and bright coloured ornaments along the cobbled streets. You can feel the Christmas spirit and traditional charm during advent in Colmar too.
Many markets we visited boasted being either the oldest or biggest Christmas market in Europe. Others boasted to having the largest Christmas tree in Europe (or the country we were in), the world’s tallest Nutcracker or the tallest Christmas pyramid. Regardless of their claim to fame we found every one of them offered something really special and that it’s not the size that counts. Christmas markets are like a trip back in time, when carousels were a top attraction and kids played with wooden toys. The markets are usually in the main square of the towns creating bucket loads of charm and a fabulous atmosphere.
Onto the final stop on the joyous and memorable cruise and we leave the delightful ship in Basel.
Basel hosts the prettiest and largest Christmas markets in Switzerland, with over 180 stalls. Munsterplatz is delightfully lit up creating a magical setting with chestnut trees decorated with snow flake lights where we sipped more hot Gluhwein to fight off the winter chills. It is simply breathtaking and like a scene straight from a Christmas card. We stand by a huge Christmas tree which makes a great selfie backdrop. We join locals to listen to Christmas carols being sung outside the cathedral by two young carol singers wrapped in woollen hats and mittens. We enjoy the live music and also watch a children’s Christmas workshop with blacksmith’s etc. The nearby Barfusserplatz markets offer an abundance of traditional treats like waffles, ginger cookies, and sausages to enjoy. It wouldn’t be Switzerland without Raclette. The aroma of melting raclette cheese draws us for a hearty snack and our favourite, a potato version of mac n cheese. We gather with locals around the wine barrel tables being warmed as we sip Gluhwein from our shoe shaped cups.
From Basel we spent time at several of Switzerland’s Christmas markets with daytrips to Bern and Zurich. Zurich’s Christmas markets at the main train station are Europe’s biggest indoor market with more than 150 stalls but is worth checking out just for the massive Christmas tree. The gigantic tree is decorated with 10,000 sparkling Swarovski crystals. From Basel we had overnight stays in Lucerne which has an advent calendar building and Chur one of Switzerlands oldest towns. In Chur we took a walk up a steep hill at the edge of the city, along walking paths leading up through some vineyards for the most spectacular view. Our journey down the other side lead us direct to a quaint old charm Christmas market.
Next Salzburg, birthplace of the famous Christmas carol Silent Night and offers fairytale views of the fortress and a skating rink. Ljubljana had several Christmas markets and a beautiful nativity scene along the river with beautiful Christmas lights throughout the traffic free city.
We celebrated Christmas in Vienna. We were hoping we would wake on Christmas morning to tons of snow, but there was no snow, and we spent the day enjoying the Christmas markets, followed by a Christmas concert at Karlskirche.
From Vienna we went to Prague and again spent time in some wonderful Christmas markets, followed by New Year in Budapest where Vorosmarty Square is transformed into a festive wonderland, complete with the special charm of an ice rink, light show and concert at St Stephen’s.
Our final Christmas markets were in Belgrade and finally we had snow, which made it even more magical and added special charm.
People come from all over the world to shop for locally made gifts and beautifully decorated glass baubles, but the real essence of the Christmas market is waiting in line at the popular food stalls to sample traditional delicacies. The aromas of meat cooking on large circular grills suspended over coals by chains fills the air. Roasted chestnuts, bratwurst, and millions of ginger hearts, potato or apple pancakes, mettwurst sausage, Klobasa, hot chocolate, stollen, yule logs, honey cakes, Trdelnik and so many more local tasty morsels. Let your nose lead you around as you satisfy your appetite.
Walking around the markets surrounded by people stopping to take photos is simply breathtaking. It’s also cold, and although we wore our hats, gloves and a scarf we found when walking around til your nose is so cold it’s almost numb, the best remedy is to get some warm Gluhwein into your belly. This spicy warm, red wine is sold in cute little cups you can keep as souvenirs or return with your token for a refund.
Looking back through my photos I am reminded that this season is so special and we saw some of the best of Europe’s Christmas markets. By day they are spectacular but at night when the lights come on, you stand there in awe and feel giddy like a child, or is that the Gluhwein?
Would you enjoy six weeks travelling to the Christmas markets? What would be the food you would most enjoy?
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