Strolling through European Christmas Markets (part 2)
Winter in Europe is a wonderful time to visit the most beautiful Christmas markets. If you are looking for Christmas presents and dream of the lovely smell of a Christmas tree or the lovely sound of Christmas carols, please dive into our selection of the best Christmas markets in Europe, the best destinations for perfect Christmas holidays. Our friends at The Gourmet Specialist list the 12 best across the continent, from London to Rome and beyond. This is the second part with the last 6 markets (here are the part 1):
Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt is one of Europe’s oldest markets; there are documents from the 15th century describing the fine crafts being sold by elderly women in front of the Salzburg cathedral (picture on top) during Advent season. It is also smaller and more intimate than the others listed here — just 85 stalls ranged under the floodlit baroque stage set that is downtown Salzburg, with its fountains snuggled under avant-garde glass casings for the winter, church bells echoing off the buildings and the medieval castle glowering down from the cliff above. It’s a perfect postcard backdrop for browsing stalls selling pewter crafts, furry slippers, and loden coats while keeping warm with lebkuchen (gingerbread), roasted chestnuts and almonds, sausages, and sweet mulled wine.
One of the world’s largest Advent calendars, just south of town at the Schloss Hellbrunn, a 17th-century pleasure-palace built for Salzburg’s archbishop-princes that just so happens to have 24 windows on its facade, perfect for an Advent calendar. Today there’s a crafts market and a living Nativity.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 26
Romans erect elaborate presepi (Nativity scenes) across the city, from life-size tableaux on the Spanish Steps and before St. Peter’s to countless crèches in church chapels, all populated by papier-mâché or terracotta figurines and most with a pizza parlor tucked between the shops of the Bethlehem backdrop. Market action centers in Rome on Piazza Navona, its Bernini fountains surrounded by stalls hawking toys, handmade presepio figures, carnival games of chance, ciambelle and 101 variations on peanut brittle.
“La Befana,” the Christmas witch, who traditionally brings Italian children presents on Epiphany in early January. These days, broomstick-mounted Befanas swaddled in black jostle for stall space with jolly red-and-white Babbo Natale dolls, and in many Italian households Santa now brings presents on Dec. 25 and La Befana brings more a couple weeks later.
Dates: Early Dec.–early Jan.
The France/Germany border has spent centuries dancing to either side of the Alsace region. It’s currently in the France column but its Teutonic traditions have blessed the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg with the oldest (441 years and counting) and best Christmas market in France, complete with caroling choirs, Nativity plays, an ice rink and mulled wine served in boot-shaped mugs. Christkindelsmärik wooden stalls stacked with delicate ornaments and Nativity figurines surround Notre-Dame Cathedral and line Place Broglie. Edible specialties include pretzels, roasted chestnuts, bredele cookies, and flammekeuche (a “flamed cake” thin pizza of bacon, onions, and crème fraîche).
Stuffed white storks, the city mascot and an Alsatian symbol of good luck, in the boutiques of “La Petite France,” a picturesque, canal-threaded corner of the historic center. These half-timbered houses, which once belonged to millers, tanners, and fishermen, are bathed in a warm yellow glow from garlands of Christmas lights, and the gingerbread bakery does a roaring seasonal trade.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 31
The massive, 318-year-old market, set amid the city’s gabled houses hung with fir branches and angels, sprawls across several historic center squares between the Gothic cathedral and ivy-clad castle. Vendors in some 270 stalls sell wooden toys, glass baubles, nutcrackers, and sheepskin clothing, along with sheep ham, sheep sausages, sheep’s-milk cheese, waffles, gingerbread, roasted almonds and hutzelbrot (fruitcake). In the evening, grab a warm Glühpunsch wine scented with cinnamon and vanilla and amble into the Old Castle’s Renaissance courtyard for the daily Christmas concert. For the kiddies, the Kinderland on Schlossplatz offers rides (carousel, Ferris wheel, mini steam railway) and some hands-on holiday experiences like making candles.
There are fantastic thematic markets in a pair of satellite towns, each just 15 minutes away on the S-Bahn light rail system. The Esslingen Medieval Christmas Market includes fire-eaters and live medieval music as a backdrop to costumed craftsmen creating leather apparel, calligraphy, silver jewelry, baked goods and hand-dyed clothing. The Ludwigsburg Baroque Christmas Market consists of tidy stalls overseen by massive sets of twinkling angel wings under the floodlit facades of the baroque main square.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 23
Vienna’s venerable Christkindlmarkt on Rathausplatz flings open its stall shutters in mid-November, and 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 are precious few tacky stands selling plastic toys, and Santa Claus, whom many locals view as the Hollywood harbinger of a commercialized Christmas, is strictly verboten. Instead, there’s the traditional Wiener Christkindl, the official Christ Child, invariably played (following an odd Teutonic custom) by a young woman with long blonde curls. 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.
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.
Dates: Mid-Nov.–Dec. 24
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. In keeping with that Belgian spirit of a United Europe, the 240 wooden chalets host artisans from around the world hawking a kaleidoscope of Christmas wares, handmade crafts and souvenirs. Not that Belgian traditions are left out; browse the many food stalls for pots of moules (mussels) and caricoles (peppery whelks or winkles), Belgian fries and fluffy Belgian waffles, seasonal croustillons (sugar doughnuts), and Belgium’s two most welcome additions to world cuisine: fine chocolates and powerful beer. The shopping ends at the Fishmarket, which is transformed annually into a long ice-skating rink. A spinning 14 sqm Ferris wheel glitters overhead.
The Île de la Réunion village. Each year, Brussels invites a different guest of honor to set up a market-within-the-market to share some of its own traditions. Past invitees have included Provence, Québec, Tallinn and Lapland.
Dates: Late Nov.–Jan. 1