12 Oct,2017 By Jagabond
As we creep into October, people are starting to plan Christmas weekends in Europe. For many locations you need to plan ahead, as Christmas markets are a big thing around these parts and hotels can fill up fast.
I consider myself somewhat of a Christmas market expert, having visited around 25 of them over the course of my three Decembers in Europe. I decided to put my knowledge to good use. In my workplace, people often plan four day trips around the holidays taking advantage of long weekends. I’ve outlined below three Christmas itineraries that fit nicely into this time-frame. I only highlight markets outside of Germany, as that country is already widely known for its holiday spirit.
1. The Brenner line trip
This is a railway system that was put in to connect Verona, Italy to Munich. I would skip the bland market in Verona and head straight for the Brenner line, stopping first in Bolzano. This city in Northern Italy near the Dolomites shares both Italian and Austrian cultures. The Bolzano market boasts stunning views of the alps in the distance, and has a variety of live Christmas music and theater. The booths offer unique woodwork from the region, and food representing the local mountain cuisine. I rank this market among the top three I have visited.
Next, hop back on the Brenner line and cross the border into Austria. Make your first stop Innsbruck, known for hosting the Winter Olympics many years back. There is a nice market in the old town, but for something special take the funicular to the Hungerburg market on the mountain-top. The views from here are amazing.
The Brenner line then takes you to Salzburg, the perfect place for ‘Sound of Music’ fans. The movie was filmed here, and if you have the time I highly recommend taking a half-day tour of the filming locations throughout Salzburg and the surrounding Austrian countryside. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of the movie, you will get to see some breathtaking landscapes.
There are many Christmas markets in Salzburg, including the main one that wraps around the cathedral. This market dates back to the 15th century. My favorite was the market at Hellbrunn Palace. You need to take a bus to get there, but the payoff is worth it. The palace grounds are the most beautiful setting, and it’s just outside the city enough to give off a secluded, romantic vibe.
The Brenner line has taken you this far, now it’s time to shift gears. Take the two-hour train to Vienna and experience, in my opinion, the best city in the world for Christmas. Holiday tunes blended with classical music provide the perfect backdrop for an evening sipping on hot wine. There are so many markets to choose from in Vienna, but the one at Schonbrunn Palace is a must-see. It’s a great market for daytime, as you can walk the gardens and up the hill for a great shot of the city.
2. Alsace, France
I unofficially nicknamed this region ‘Grance’, as it’s one part France, one part Germany. Over centuries of wars ownership of Alsace has shuttled between the two countries, thus it shares characteristics of both. The best way to get here is flying into the airport in Basel, Switzerland. The airport sits on the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France, and has pedestrian exits to each.
Rent a car on the French end of the airport and head to Colmar. I’ve remarked before that the ‘C’ in Colmar is for Christmas. This quaint, comfy city morphs into Santa’s village in December. There are three main markets in town all within walking distance of each other. If you have time during the day, check out the museum honoring Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty.
Next head to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. The Christmas markets here all seem to coalesce into one giant market spread throughout the city. Fans of Germanic markets will love it here, as it hits you over the head with Christmas spirit. The market surrounding the majestic cathedral is the oldest in France.
Good thing you have that rental car, because there are several gorgeous small towns scattered throughout Alsace. The dates of their Christmas markets are far fewer than those in big cities, so be sure to check online for updated information. I can personally recommend visiting Ribeauville and Riquewihr, and the town of Eguishem is often listed as one of the prettiest places in France.
3. The Baltics
Unlike the first two options, this trip will have Christmas markets most different from the traditional Germanic ones. Start in Riga, Latvia, the city where the Christmas tree originated. The market here has a woodland theme, with a wood-chopping block station and baskets for sale. They also have holiday donkey rides for the children.
Lux Express is a great bus service in the Baltics that services all the major cities. The buses are equipped with TV screens at each seat, WiFi connections, and bathrooms, which makes for a more comfortable ride. Take the bus to Tallinn, Estonia for a dose of Christmas during medieval times. Enjoy dinner at Olde Hansa, a restaurant straight from a Tolkien novel.
You have two choices for the final leg of the trip. Hop the ferry from Tallinn for a short excursion to Helsinki, Finland and witness a more Scandinavian-flavored Christmas market. Alternatively, add a day onto your Riga trip and visit the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, Lithuania, as there is a direct bus connection. The Hill of Crosses is a stunning symbol of resistance against communism, and walking among 100,000 crosses on a snowy December day adds a surreal touch to your Christmas.
“Christmas at my house is always at least six or seven times more pleasant than anywhere else. We start drinking early. And while everyone else is seeing only one Santa Claus, we’ll be seeing six or seven.” – WC Fields