1 Nov,2018 By Jagabond
Christmas was a dying holiday for me when I moved to Europe back in 2013. Americans prioritize family this time of year, and due to geography and marital issues my Christmas spirit was flickering. I found European Christmas markets, however, and my mood changed.
Here was a holiday option that worked well for families, friends, lovers or even solo travelers. After visiting more than fifty in my recent lifetime, I’ve contemplated what makes them so special. Is it the medieval backdrop that most European cities and towns provide? Maybe it’s sipping hot wine while the cup keeps your hands warm on a frigid evening. Whatever the reasons, Christmas markets injected a festive vibe into me which I hadn’t felt in many years.
What makes a great Christmas market? Many Europeans argue that all markets are similar, and to an extent this is true. Often you see the same style of ornaments pop up across several different markets, and food options don’t vary much. Like in real estate, I think location is the most important factor. Also, incorporating something unique to the region helps differentiate from other markets. Finally, having activities for a wide range of age groups helps the market’s appeal. Based on these and other factors, I’ve identified ten markets that stand out above the rest.
In the world of European Christmas markets Bolzano is the best of the bunch. Acting as the doorway to the Dolomites, the gods blessed this city with heavenly mountain views that would make photography enthusiasts drool. Enjoy hot wine with brandy while feasting on chocolate covered fruit and roasted chestnuts. Experience the unique Tyrol region that combines elements from both Italy and neighboring Austria.
The market at Hellbrunn Palace has an exclusive feel, like a country club without the snobbery. After a short bus ride from downtown you arrive like guests to a fancy ball. With the heated cafe and wine lounge you can take breaks from the cold and literally spend hours here. The market booths extend to eternity, and the gardens in the back are perfect for a quiet romantic stroll.
This market targets adults, trading in carousels for gourmet gastronomy stands and cocktail bars. It sits in the Gendarmenmarkt, a square guarded by a statue of Friedrich Schiller, famous for such quotes as ‘honesty prospers in every condition of life’ and ‘the key to education is the experience of beauty’. Setting the ambiance further were horn bands, Christmas theatre, freshly baked bread and meat cooking on a charcoal grill.
Amusement parks and Christmas go together in a strange way. The roller coaster clacks and people scream while you peruse the ornaments at the many booths below. Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest amusement park in the world, and one of the most popular in Europe. Musical fountains and light shows sprinkle some Disney magic dust on the already festive occasion.
Does the ‘C’ in Colmar stand for Christmas? Maybe so, as the city morphs into something resembling Santa’s village for the month of December. While sampling the French wine varieties you can make new friends at the goat petting area. The market booths line the canals of Colmar, and the German influence in the region results in numerous opportunities for fresh pretzels.
There might not be a classier and more romantic European city than Vienna, which makes for a storybook Christmas setting particularly at Schonbrunn Palace. This Baroque beauty served as a summer resort for Austrian monarchs, and was later converted into a museum. The market itself has some very unique items, including handmade wooden puppets, products made from buffalo horn, and snoglobes highlighting Vienna’s famous Ferris wheel.
This Baltic state is also the birthplace of the Christmas tree way back in the year 1510. I was struck by the many novel things I saw compared to other markets – homemade baskets, a hand carved wooden carousel, beeswax candles and even a cat adoption center. There was a centralized kettle of hot wine staffed by men dressed in medieval garb, an area for pony rides, and a guy selling saws for tree cutting. Truly a unique market.
No list is complete without mentioning the markets in Bavaria. Munich has many options, most famously the market at Marienplatz, home to a hundred foot tall Christmas tree. In the spirit of doing something different I recommend the pink market in the LGBT district. Find yourself entertained by a holiday drag show, and comb through the large assortment of racy ornaments.
Yes, there is life north of Paris. The Christmas market in Arras receives more attention every year, and for good reason. It rests on top of a red carpet in the main city square surrounded by beautiful Baroque buildings. For not being that large, it really does have it all. Kids enjoy the ice skating rink and sled track, while adults indulge on champagne and gourmet French cuisine.
One of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe, dating back to the 16th century, is still one of the best. There are two unique aspects to this market. First, there is a great international section with booths from all across Europe. Second, the selection of toys here is unparalleled. Whether it be toy trucks or handmade dolls, kids will find something to beg their parents for.
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” – Dr. Seuss
“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” – Norman Vincent Peale
“Peace on earth will come to stay, When we live Christmas every day.” – Helen Steiner Rice
“Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart… filled it, too, with a melody that would last forever. Even though you grew up and found you could never quite bring back the magic feeling of this night, the melody would stay in your heart always – a song for all the years.” – Bess Streeter
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” – Charles Dickens