One concept that was hard for me to grasp when I first started visiting Europe during the Christmas holiday season was just how many Christmas markets there really are. Sure, many of the big ones are well known to us all, but most cities and towns also have their own versions, usually small but no less fun. Over six years or so I’ve had the chance to visit many different areas of Europe around the holidays, from Paris to Northern Italy and everywhere in between and along the way I have discovered a tremendous diversity in markets, styles, foods and customs. Looking back today, I thought I’d share just some of the many Christmas market experiences I’ve enjoyed, cities and towns that take Christmas a little more seriously than some others.
Home to what is arguably the most famous Christmas market in the world, Nuremberg is also one of the busiest with more than 2 million people visiting every year. What makes this market so special is the keen attention to detail. Officials forbid any modern items to be sold – all crafts and even foods must be traditional. Thanks to those rules, the Nuremberg Christmas Market is the prototypical Christmas market against which all others are judged. Although it was packed with people when I visited, I still had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the famous Nuremberg sausage sandwiches along with a glass of glühwein to wash it down. One of the most popular desserts and gifts is the city’s Lebkuchen or gingerbread, available in all shapes and sizes. While not as intimate as some other Christmas markets, a visit to the massive one in Nuremberg should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
The very first Christmas market in Europe I ever visited, the Winter Wonders Festival in Brussels will always have a special place in my heart not only for that reason, but because it’s just so much fun. This large festival consumes much of the city center, tents and stalls flowing out into side streets and public spaces along the way. At the heart of the experience is the Grand Place, where a massive Christmas tree takes center place and for the last several years, a special light show is held every night. Strolling along the always-busy stalls of the festival, you’ll find everything here from traditional foods and drinks to more modern fare. It’s also just a lot of fun, with kids ice-skating and adults sitting close by, listening to local musicians liven up the evenings.
An important aspect of a special Christmas Market River Cruise I enjoyed was that it included a few cities I had already visited. I liked that because it gave me the opportunity to get to know them a little better, to go beyond the primary tourist sites and instead delve deeper into the local community. Of course in December that also means experiencing their Christmas markets, and in Heidelberg there are plenty of options. It’s hard to say where the main market is, instead there are several all located along the country’s longest pedestrian-only road, the Hauptstrasse. In these markets you’ll find almost any kind of classic German holiday dish, drink and craft. They’re busy, they’re fun and they’re festive and when you add in the incredible backdrop of churches, shops and ancient squares that only Heidelberg can provide, then you have something truly special.
This large city in the heart of Alsace was a great introduction not only to this fascinating region, but also to French Christmas market traditions. The Alsace region has a troubled history, ping-ponging between French and German possession over the years, you’ll find a strong influence from both cultures all around town. This unique background necessarily affects the food and in the markets I discovered everything from foie gras sandwiches to traditional beignets.There’s not just one Christmas market in Strasbourg though, there are many strewn all around, which makes an exploration of the downtown area fun and filled with yuletide surprises almost anywhere you go. Every region has their own culinary specialties and while Strasbourg has many, it’s well known for its collective love of pretzels. You’ll find them in every size and shape and even lunch versions, topped with far-too-generous amounts of cheese.
The Viennese embrace the Christmas season in a way few other cities manage. There are dozens of Christmas markets all over the city, and the major shopping districts are lit up at night in a dazzling array of special displays and lights. The major market in Vienna though is located at the massive Rathaus. This year the trees surrounding the market were festooned with hundreds of lighted displays, a real life advent calendar all leading to the market itself. One of the busiest in Europe, this market had a nice mix of food and gifts, with lots of delicious pastries made only around the Christmas holidays. While the gifts were ok, the food was the clear winner at this market and my personal favorites were the freshly made desserts, everything from fudges and brownies to special apple doughnuts.
Like most large cities, Budapest has several Christmas markets but the centrally located one in Vörösmarty Square is the largest and most well known. In comparison with other markets, I was most surprised to see such a wide variety of savory food options. Stalls offered everything from traditional goulash to sausages and even strange concoctions involving rooster parts. When it comes to dessert though there’s only one real option – the so-called chimney cake. Originally from Transylvania, the kürtöskalács – Hungarian specialty yeast cakes – are cooked on a spit over red hot coals and then doused in icing to give it a unique but delicious taste. Served up in still steaming towers of cakey brilliance, there’s nothing better on a cold December night.
Rothenberg ob der Tauber, Germany
Although I’d visited two years ago, it was in the spring and I was excited to revisit this medieval town in what must be its best season, Christmas. Known as the best-preserved medieval town in Germany, the half-timbered buildings and the small, centuries old streets in Rothenberg seem perfectly made for the holiday season. After just a few minutes I knew that my hunch was right, and Rothenburg was one of my favorite markets in 2016. There are several, small markets around town, with the main market held in the center square immediately in front of city hall. Even though it was freezing outside, I climbed to the top of town hall tower for what I already knew were incredible views. It was amazing to see how different the city looks in spring versus winter, no less beautiful, just different. Rothenburg is also home to one of the largest, and most famous, Christmas stores in Germany, so if shopping is your thing then you’re in luck. For my money though, spending some time walking around, eating at a few of the stalls and stopping to people watch is the best way to visit this always gorgeous town
Keep up with the latest travel news, stories and updates and sign up for our newsletter today!