Europe’s Christmas Markets –

During our River Cruise down the Danube last November, we were fortunate to be there right at the start of the Christmas market season and got to visit these wonderful local events in Prague,Vienna and Budapest.  What a treat.

(Emer) I was not very familiar with the European Christmas markets prior to the river cruise and once I started talking about it, was surprised by the amount of people who were raving about them. I was so pleasantly surprised and thrilled that we got to also see these as our cruise was a wine cruise and not a Christmas Market cruise, I felt like we got the best of both worlds !!!

(CNTraveler)  Every year from early December through Christmas Eve, cities in Austria, Germany, and nearby countries (France, England, Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium), light up their ancient town squares for the holidays and set up festive stalls.

Many markets start on the Friday before Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas Eve; most end on December 24, especially in Germanic countries, where Christmas Eve is set aside for trimming the tree at home. Others keep celebrating until Epiphany on January 6.

To visit several of these holiday markets in one trip can be a bit of a logistical challenge, an alternative is to take trains or, to eliminate even more logistics, opt for a river cruise.   You check in and unpack once, you get to stay in one room with an ever-changing view, and you wake up in a different city and explore a different Christmas market every day.  It’s such an easy way to travel.

In addition to the tourists, locals stop by on their way home from work to sip glühwein (hot mulled wine), eat wurst (sausages) and lebkuchen (gingerbread), shop for gifts made by local artisans, and catch holiday concerts. These homespun Christmas markets look like something out of a centuries-old fairy tale and are a refreshing change from the commercialization of Christmas that we’re accustomed to in the United States.

Here are some of the top rated markets and their specialties:

Regensburg Germany:

Romantic Christmas Market with Traditional Handicrafts at the “Thurn und Taxis Castle”   The castle itself is larger than Buckingham Palace, and its magnificent park, imposing architecture and picturesque courtyard creates a unique romantic atmosphere. Every year thousands of tourists come here and allow themselves to be taken back into the times of knights, princesses and horses and carriages. Also the local people are fascinated by its charm and cannot elude this historic place. The picturesque scenery of the St. Emmeram Castle gives the “Romantic Christmas Market at the Thurn und Taxis Castle in Regensburg” a unique flair. The courtyard is gently lit by torches, lanterns and candles. At the centre of this magical make believe village is a mighty, beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis and her family like to mix with the guests at this event, which is held on their own doorstep. Who knows you might even find them standing next to you at some point during your visit!

Brussels Belgium:

Brussels’ Christmas market has been around only since 2002, but it pulls off its Plaisirs d’Hiver/Winter Pret (“Pleasures of Winter”) festival with elegant style. The theatrics include a nightly sound-and-light show on the Grand Place and a market surrounding the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and along Place Sainte Catherine. The 200+ wooden chalets host artisans from around the world hawking a kaleidoscope of Christmas wares, handmade crafts, and souvenirs.

The food stalls include pots of moules (mussels) and caricoles (peppery whelks or winkles), Belgian fries and fluffy Belgian waffles, seasonal croustillons (sugar doughnuts), fine chocolates and powerful beer.

Copenhagen Denmark:

Copenhagen celebrates Jul (as in “yuletide”) with a Christmas crafts market in the city’s famed historic amusement park, Tivoli Gardens. Nearly four miles of Tiffany lights are artfully hung in patterns, while hundreds of strands are draped on the lakeside willows. Join the Danes in warding off the cold with æbleskiver (iced doughnuts with black currant jam) and glogg, a steaming hot mulled red wine laden with raisins, almonds, cinnamon sticks, and cloves—all of which are steeped in aquavit or schnapps. There’s also a crafts market installed along a canal in the historic Nyhavn district;

Look For: Pixie-like nisser, (tiny household elves that infest Denmark around Christmas clad in clogs, red shirts, and pointed red caps). They might bring presents if you leave them bowls of porridge in the attic; if you forget, they’ll make all kinds of mischief instead.

Prague Czech Republic: 

The two best Christmas markets are on Wenceslas Square and in the medieval movie set of the Old Town Square formed around a giant Christmas tree, manger scene, and small petting zoo. The markets’ brightly decorated stalls sell wooden toys, Bohemian crystal, handmade jewelry, classic Czech marionettes, and plenty of potential for tooth decay: honeyed gingerbread, vánocvka (a braided pastry studded with raisins), and vosí hnízda’ (“wasps nests,” nutty cookies heavy with rum). Wash it all down with mead and svarene vino (a sweet mulled wine).

Look For:  The original St. Nick—the one with a bishop’s miter and staff—is hugely popular in Prague, so a highlight of Christmas season is Mikulas, or St. Nicholas Day. This kindly saint takes his own day (Dec. 5) to roam town accompanied by an angel and a demon. The trio wades through the crowds of kids in the Old Town Square, tallying the naughty and nice.

Vienna, Austria – 

Vienna’s Christkindlmarkt on Rathausplatz flings open its stall shutters in mid-November, and some three million visitors flock here each year for beeswax candles, wooden toys, and glass ornaments. Shoppers snack on cream-filled pastries, candied fruit, roasted chestnuts, and Weihnachtspunsch (a spiced “Christmas punch” of wine, brandy, or schnapps sweetened with warm fruit juices). This market puts a premium on tradition: there’s the traditional Wiener Christkindl, the official Christ Child— There’s another market of luxe Christmas wares in the baroque forecourt of the suburban Schðnbrunn Palace, and a more intimate and sophisticated market lining the narrow cobblestone streets of Vienna’s Spittelberg district.

Look For: More than three-dozen Advent season concerts. The city of Haydn and Strauss invites choirs from around the world to perform Christmas music in the Rathaus every weekend (Friday to Sunday) from late November to Dec. 24 as part of the Internationales Adventsingen festival.

Budapest Hungary

The most famous and popular Christmas market in Budapest is the fair located at Vörösmarty Tér (Vörösmarty square). This is located in the heart of Budapest, at the end stop of the yellow metro line sharing the name of the square, and in the end of the shopping street of Budapest, Váci Utca. Do not forget that all streets have two ends, and if you end up in the wrong end of the street you will find yourself walking inside the Grand Market Hall (not a bad place, but not the best if you would like to visit the Christmas market at the Vörösmarty square). If you live on the Buda side you can simply walk across the Chain Bridge, turn right and walk towards the white bridge (Elisabeth Bridge). As you reach the Vigadó tér, turn left and you will be at the Vörösmarty tér within seconds!

At this Christmas fair you will find traditional Hungarian hand crafts, lots of delicious food which tastes extremely well as you feel the smell get into your nose and your stomach orders you to sit down to grab a bite. And yes, there are lots of benches and tables at the Christmas market at Vörösmarty square, which is one of the qualities making this one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. If you want some simple food then you should try the traditional Chimney cake with the cinnamon taste, yammi!

The newest Christmas market in Budapest is located in front of the Saint Stephens Basilica. This was opened for the first time in 2011, and it has an amazing atmosphere, great lights and you can make nice pictures standing on the stairs of the basilica. You can buy mostly the same stuff as on the Vörösmarty Square, but here you can also go ice skating as you can find a small ice skating rink in the middle of the Christmas market. This market is also especially known for the beautiful lights that you can see as you visit the square in the evenings, as the entire area is illuminated with lights, making it feel just like in the middle of a magic moment from your favorite Disney film or something like that! Absolutely worth visiting, especially considering the fact that the market is only 600-700 metres away from the market at Vörösmarty square.

These markets are a unique European experience rich in culture, history and traditions.