23 Nov,2017 By jagabond
An American was living alone in Europe, crying in his beer, and looking ahead to another lonely Christmas. As his head dipped from the alcohol, he muttered under his breath, ‘maybe I’d be better off without Christmas.’ He quickly scribbled his plans on a cocktail napkin – proudly display a nativity scene using Star Wars figures, purchase stock in a coal company, replace meatless Monday with ‘reindeer steak‘ Monday, etc. A mystery man named Donovan, straight from a Dickens novel, just then entered the pub and offered to show the American the true spirit of Christmas. He took him on a tour of European Christmas markets, and the smell of hot wine, gingerbread, and smoked meat eradicated his Grinch-like tendencies. After this, the American embraced the magic of Christmas, donated half his income to establish a school for shopping mall Santas, and declared himself ‘the richest man in town.’
The previous story was a lie…all of it. But the truth is I did nearly lose my Christmas spirit. Realizing this back in 2014-15, I decided to do something about it. I was living in Belgium at the time, and postulated that exposure to Christmas markets may rekindle my soul with holiday magic…did I just say that? My plan brought me to 12 markets over the holiday, and though I didn’t quite have a ‘wonderful life’ moment, I did fall in love with European Christmas markets. I also took notes documenting the best – and worst – of Christmas in Europe. Here I present ‘the 12 markets of Christmas’, ranked in order of quality.
1. Berlin, Germany (Gendarmenmarkt)
Can there be an ‘adult’ Christmas market? If so, I’ve found it. I don’t mean adult as in candy-cane colored stripper poles, but more the absence of things like Ferris wheels, carousels and other ‘kid’ things that can sometimes make a market seem a bit trashy in a county fair kind of way. Instead of all that, this market had gourmet restaurants, cocktail bars, live music and theatre, and an overall vibe that made me come back two days in a row…the first time any market has done that!
So why the best? First of all, the physical ambiance was beautiful, as it was set in the Gendarmenmarkt, a square surrounded by three grand buildings – the Berlin concert hall, the French cathedral, and the German cathedral. In the centre was a statue of Friedrich Schiller, a famous 18th century poet/playwright/philosopher responsible for such wisdom as ‘honesty prospers in every condition of life’ and ‘the key to education is the experience of beauty’. Like many areas of Berlin, the square was greatly damaged by bombing during World War II, but over the years has been completely restored.
Walking into the market I immediately noted the smells of freshly baked bread from a wood-burning stove and meat cooking over a charcoal grill. I really liked how there was a warm place to duck into when the windchill picked up. Many of these markets are nice, but you can’t stay as long as you’d like because it’s so cold outside…therefore you tend to rush through things. Here, there was a large, heated indoor area with more booths, a very cool hand-carved wood ornament area, and a wine bar. There were many nice restaurants sprinkled about, and overall I experienced a touch of class here that I haven’t seen at any other market.
Like I said, I came here not only on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day as well. My Christmas dinner was this great red lentil soup from one of the booths, though it was weird how they required a 5 euro deposit to ensure you brought the bowl back. I was able to catch a 4-piece horn band playing both holiday and non-holiday music, as well as a strange play that had something to do with Santa….it was only strange because I don’t speak a word of German.
This market was well-placed, comprehensive, and oozing with Christmas spirit. Not only that, but it was a really awesome place to just hang out, enjoy a glass of wine, and watch the world go by. There was so much to this market that it wins the imaginary trophy for best Christmas market I visited.
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
Ah yes, amusement parks…
I had the luck of growing up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which has a great park called Kennywood that for many years competed for the title of roller coaster capital of the U.S. Every year our school picnics were held here…I remember the fun times, but also my failed attempts to meet girls. I have other fond memories throughout my life….the Loch Ness Monster ride at Busch Gardens, riding the Magnum at Cedar Point, and my friend Mike filming me freaking out while on a coaster at Magic Mountain. Maybe I’m biased towards amusement parks, and maybe that’s why the Tivoli Christmas market in Copenhagen scored so high on my list.
Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world, and one of the most popular parks in Europe. It has quite the history, even surviving an attack by Nazis during WWII where many of the buildings were burned to the ground. I always like it when a city stages their Christmas market in their nicest location…and this definitely was the case here. The buildings were beautiful, the light displays were incredible, and the park had a vibe that made it good for both children and adults. I really loved the fountain/light show, and it felt awesome to be combing through the Christmas market booths while hearing the clacking of the coaster and the screams as it went through its many loops. The content of the market was pretty standard – homemade ornaments, hats/gloves/scarves, etc. – but the atmosphere was the real seller here, and the booths were nicely spread out so it forced you to walk through the entire park. I also liked the mix of amusement park food with the traditional Christmas market cuisine, making for a lot more food options.
Did I go on any rides here? Sadly, no…it was just too cold, and imagining how the air felt at the top of the coaster’s big hill made me shiver. For amusement park lovers, I’m sure this place is a lot of fun in the summer months. In winter, it’s simply the site of one of the finest Christmas markets I’ve seen.
3. Arras, France
Arras was a pleasant surprise. Only a 30 minute train ride from Lille, I made the day trip here to check out the market. I had a hard time finding it at first. There was another weekend market going on at the same time, and I started to think that was the Christmas market. However, after seeing various tables selling raw fish, reams of cloth, and even underwear….I realized this was probably just a routine non-holiday market. After following the crowd down some narrow streets, I finally saw the main centre that was hosting the Christmas market.
I instantly loved how the entire market was covered in a red carpet, and it was surrounded by rows of towering, beautiful buildings. For not being a very large market, they really did have it all here. For the kids and younger adults….they had a Ferris wheel, an ice-skating rink, a sled track and a carousel. Most markets have only one, maybe two of these. For the older folk, they had cocktail/wine bars and a vast array of gourmet food items. There was a booth called ‘rice cube’ that made stuff that looked like sushi, a booth marketing a ‘decorative spoon’ that put syrup on dessert plates, and a guy who did creative carvings of fruits and vegetables. They also had one of the only Canadian food displays I saw, which mostly sold maple syrup. This Canadian display was from a company in Quebec, who also had a booth at the Lille market. I didn’t like how some Canadian dude working there yelled at me to not take pictures, but that happened a few times during my Christmas market tour so I learned to get a thick skin.
There were many food options here…sandwiches, soup, pear/apple cider…and there were separate booths for chunks of nougat and various types of cheese. For icing on the ‘Christmas cake’, I saw an awesome dog here that looked like a furry black Chow Chow. The ‘force’ of Christmas was strong in this market, and they made the most efficient use of their space by having the perfect blend of everything.
4. Colmar, France
In Colmar, the entire centre of the city is converted into a Christmas paradise. Even though they claim to have multiple, distinct outdoor markets, they blended together so seamlessly that I judged the city as one market. I was in Colmar for more than just the markets, but there was no way to avoid them walking through the downtown area….this city takes Christmas very, very seriously!
With so many booths scattered throughout the relatively small downtown area, the air smelled constantly of cinnamon from all the hot wine being cooked up. The first area I strolled into was overlooked by a cathedral, and had a good mix of both German and local French products…a result of the Alsace region being so close to the German border. There were pretzel stands everywhere, and during my tour of markets it was easy to live off these as a good vegetarian option. I had my first cup of hot wine served by a woman in local Alsatian garb….so refreshing on a cold day.
Walking down to the other market location I found a multitude of local wine booths, and ended up buying a great bottle of white. For animal lovers they even had a stable onsite for goat petting! The final area I went to was in a cool location, right next to a canal. This area had booths both indoors and outdoors, and had an array of local Alsatian food. I saw a booth here that had something that looked like Origami, but was called ‘Kirigami’…after a quick glance at Wikipedia it turns out that Kirigami involves cutting and folding of paper, whereas Origami just involves folding…always nice to learn something new!
These markets appeared to be mostly for older adults, as I met a lot of retired people from all over the world. There was a section of town with a market solely for children, but I didn’t go there as I thought it may look creepy for an adult to be wandering around there alone snapping photographs. Colmar is definitely a unique Christmas destination, and their markets last from Thanksgiving till well after Christmas, so the spirit here lasts for a long time.
5. Riga, Latvia
The market in Riga hasn’t been around that long, as Latvia only gained independence from the former Soviet Union back in the early 90s. Maybe because of this, and due to the geographic distance from Western Europe, their market was very unique and less like a copy of Germanic markets. Riga is not without its Christmas history, however, as the first documented use of a Christmas tree was here in the year 1510.
I think setting is very important for Christmas markets, and the main Riga market was in the main square, overlooked by the St. Mary’s Dome Cathedral which dates back to the 13th century. This was the first thing seen as you walked through the arch leading into the market. This market really hit the local aspect of Riga, with their food, handcrafted baskets and homemade ornaments. I was struck by the many novel things I saw compared to other markets – the hand-carved wooden carousel, beeswax candles, and even a cat-adoption area next to the Christmas tree.
The market had a ‘renaissance fair’ feel to it, highlighted by the centralized kettle of hot wine staffed by men dressed in medieval garb. I was looking for a pair of gloves, but was confused by the preponderance of mittens…I was starting to think Latvians lacked fingers. They also had a mini-stage set up, and I caught a local show with women dressed as animals singing some song in Latvian…weird but cool. To top it off, they had holiday pony rides….and the ponies were wearing Santa hats! Overall this market had a very different feel, and I liked how they added a local flare to it. There was even a guy selling saws for cutting down trees…such uniqueness!
6. Paris, France
This market was huge as it extended down the main shopping street, Champs Elysees. This almost made the top 5 due to sheer magnitude of stuff, as everything you could ever want (and more) was here. The market was unbelievably crowded, and due to constant rain the umbrellas were out in full force…it made me wonder if anyone has ever sustained an eye injury from one of those umbrella spikes. I loved the gourmet food area that included Champagne, French wine, various cheeses, and oysters. So why didn’t this market make the top 5? Well, it was more ‘commercial’ than ‘Christmas’, and had a shopping mall feel to it…albeit a very nice shopping mall. My favorite part was the Santa trapped in the giant snow globe!
7. Lille, France
One of my favorite (and most underrated) cities also has a very popular Christmas market, helped by the Eurostar connection from London…thus I heard as much Queen’s English here as I did French. The Grand Place was the setting for a beautiful tree and Ferris wheel, and just nearby there were many market booths with great variety. There was even a guy hand-making wooden toys onsite….that’s something unique I didn’t see at any other market.
8. Tallinn, Estonia
This was a very nice market. It had the medieval feel, though not as much as its neighbor Riga. It was set in a very beautiful location which was great for pictures. When I was there the stage had a kids choir…it wasn’t the best singing, but as I was told ‘they’re just kids’. After the choir a Santa came out and started jabbering something, but I think he was drunk.
9. Strasbourg, France
This was a very sprawling market…it was everywhere throughout the city. Unfortunately this had the effect of dilution. There wasn’t one really good area in the entire city…just a lot of okay areas spread about. Spreading out the markets works in Colmar, since it’s a small city…but not in Strasbourg.
10. Berlin, Germany (Roten Rathaus)
This was okay…it had a really good view of the TV tower, and the ice rink was right around the Neptune fountain…so it definitely had some pretty sights. Maybe it suffered from the fact it was in Germany, and people expected more from it.
11. Brussels, Belgium
Why not in the Grand Place? Brussels has one of the nicest Grand Places in Europe, and all they had there was the tree. The tree was not a Christmas tree, it was a tree they got from Latvia, so all the ornaments hanging on it said ‘Riga’…really original, we get that you got the tree from Latvia, thanks for the reminder. I understand that some countries don’t want to offend other religions, but this market was more like a ‘party cause it’s December and there’s snow on the ground!’. No red and green, and not much of anything resembling holiday spirit. In their attempt to offend no one, they have turned this market into an utter bore. This is a December market, not a Christmas market.
12. Berlin, Germany (Potsdamer Platz)
Who puts a Christmas market next to a train station? Berlin does! This market was quite awful. They had a luge ride that was right next to a major road…I kept waiting to see kids flying into oncoming traffic. The booths were all on a busy shopping street, so you passed Starbucks and Burger King as you shopped the ornaments and local cuisine. This market had as much Christmas spirit as a lump of coal.
So…are all Christmas markets basically the same?
I’ve heard this remark the most, and I only agree partially. I admit many of the ornaments sold are similar, as are the food options, though different regions have significant variations of the hot wine (e.g. Copenhagen). So why go? I remember as a kid, walking through the shopping malls in December and hearing the Christmas music, and seeing the decorations…that always helped get me in the holiday mood. In Europe, that’s the feeling I get at Christmas markets. I also think it’s great how each city and most towns have one, and the entire community gets together, particularly on opening night.
As a memento from my tour, I collected an ornament from each market for my tree…shown below. Disregard the Batman onesie, that’s a story for another day. I’m happy to announce that ‘Jaga Bells’ will be returning for the next few years, so I might need a larger tree!
“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!” – Charles Dickens