Strolling through European Christmas Markets (part 1)
We can’t think of anything more quintessentially Christmassy than a stroll through a European holiday market. Christmas markets provide a lovely mix of local artisan wares, seasonal trinkets and tasty local treats. Thanks to the city’s stunning old-world charm, the market will again immerse people in the magic that only European Christmas markets can offer. With small villages of wooden kiosks and scintillating lights, get ready to be enchanted. Our friends at The Gourmet Specialist list the 12 best across the continent, from London to Rome and beyond. This is the first part with the first 6 markets:
Copenhagen celebrates Jul (as in “yuletide”) with a Christmas crafts market and surfeit of light-bedecked Christmas trees in the city’s famed historic amusement park, Tivoli Gardens. Nearly four miles of lights are artfully hung in patterns dictated by Tiffany’s head designer, while 1.800 more strands are draped on the lakeside willows. Join the Danes in warding off the cold with æbleskiver (iced doughnuts with black currant jam) and gløgg, 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; try to visit it between 5pm and 6pm weekdays to catch the town crier.
Look For: Pixie-like nisser, tiny household elves that infest Denmark around Christmas clad in clogs, red shirts, and pointed red caps. More fickle than their cousin Santa, they might bring presents if you leave them bowls of porridge in the attic; if you forget, they’ll visit all kinds of mischief instead.
Dates: Mid-Nov.-late Dec.; closed Dec. 24-25
Nothing says Christmas like a four-ton fruitcake. At least, that’s the fervent opinion of the citizens of Dresden, who parade their supersize stollen through the city in early December. Accompanied by the Stollenmädchen, or “Fruitcake Maiden,” the Saxon fruit loaf wends its way through the medieval streets before making its triumphal entry into the Striezelmarkt, where, surrounded by 230 glittering crafts stalls and a “Christmas pyramid,” the stollen is chopped into pieces that are inflicted upon the market-goers. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt (picture above) and its odd traditions date back to 1434, making it Germany’s oldest continuously running Christmas market.
Look For: The best crafts Germany has to offer. Top artisans from across Saxony arrive bearing all sorts of regional specialties: wooden crafts from the Ore Mountains, blown glass from Lauscha, Blaudruck indigo prints from the Lusatia region, incense burners shaped like nutcrackers, and, of course, Dresden’s own famed blue-and-white ceramics.
Dates: End of Nov.–Dec. 24
London’s Christmas shopping season opens in November, when Regent Street ceremoniously switches on its Christmas lights for a pedestrian parade. London typically spreads out its Christmas cheer, from the official Norwegian fir on Trafalgar Square to the ice skating rink at Somerset House. Trees bedecked with fairy lights herald Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland (mid-Nov. – early Jan.), which includes London’s largest outdoor skating rink, a toboggan slide, a Ferris wheel, carolers, and a traditional German Christmas market. More small markets spring up at the Natural History Museum, which installs a temporary ice rink (early Nov. -mid-Jan.); and the Greenwich Market (most of Dec.), also with a nearby ice rink. Christmas concerts abound, but it’s hard to resist the carol sing-along at the Royal Albert Hall (most of Dec.).
Look For: The Tower of London’s Medieval Christmas (end of Dec.), a fanciful “historical” reimagining set in the 1284 court of Edward I, and the Great Christmas Pudding Race of costumed contestants treading an obstacle course around Covent Garden while balancing fruitcakes on spoons.
Crafts stalls surround a glittering 100-foot Christmas tree on the Marienplatz, which is filled with Müncheners munching on sausages and reiber-datschi (potato pancakes), gulping glühwein, and crunching lebkuchen (gingerbread). Munich trains its next generation of marketers at the “Heavenly Workshop” in the Town Hall’s pub, where kids dress up as angels to practice arts, crafts, and the baking of traditional cookies. Every evening at 5:30, from the Friday before Advent to the night before Christmas, a brass band and Alpine choir peal out carols from the balcony of the neo-Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall).
Look For: Small themed markets sprinkled around the city, including the famed Kripperlmarkt (Crib Market) on Rindermarkt, with Bavarian and Tyrolean Nativity figures, and a Medieval Market on Wittelsbacher Platz. Also keep your eyes peeled for the Christmas tram that trundles through the old city serving spiced wine and gingerbread.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 24
On the Friday before Advent, the golden Christmas Angel appears on the high gallery of the medieval Frauenkirche to recite the opening prologue for one of the biggest and most famous Christmas markets of them all. Two million shoppers descend upon the 180 candy cane-striped stalls that fill the main square with crafts, ornaments and toys. The air is perfumed with gingerbread, glühwein, and smoke swirling from bratwurst grills. Market officials enforce traditions with typical Teutonic efficiency: no plastic wreaths, recorded Christmas Muzak or gaudy carousels allowed.
Look For: “Nuremberg Plum People,” tiny puppets made of prune limbs, fig torsos, and walnut heads with painted-on faces. Stall owners compete to win the coveted “Gold Plum Person” prize for their displays.
Dates: Late Nov.–Dec. 24
Prague, the Czech Republic
The two best Vanocni trh (Christmas markets) are on the long slope of 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). Christmas Eve dinner consists of wine sausages and carp — you’ll see barrels of the fish everywhere. Slip a carp scale into your wallet to ensure an adequate cash flow for the upcoming year.
Look For: St. Nicholas and his cohorts. 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.
Dates: Early Dec.–early Jan.