Forget the harried crowds and joyless chore of holiday shopping at the mall. Instead, revel in all that makes the festive season magical at one of northwestern Europe’s Christmas markets. With winter’s smaller crowds, lower prices, and merry mood, December can be the best time to travel to Europe, and it’s easy to visit the best Christmas market destinations by rail. Just be sure to bring an extra suitcase – you’ll need it for all the treasures you’ll find.
They say the Germans invented Christmas: The Christmas tree, Kris Kringle, Silent Night, the Advent calendar, Christmas gifts and even the Christmas card all hail from the snowy forests of northwestern Europe. So, too, the Christmas market, which is the best possible way to spend a wintry evening.
For centuries, the open-air markets known as Weihnactsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt have popped up in communities all over Germany during the four weeks of Advent that lead up to Christmas Day. They’re usually held in the main town square, where vendors set up stalls to sell handicrafts, ornaments, food and the fragrant hot spiced wine known as glühwein. There’s often live entertainment and sometimes a nativity scene, a visit from the Three Wise Men or the arrival of the ‘Christkind’, played by an angelic-looking local child.
The earliest winter markets date back to the 12th Century – with some of the oldest in Munich, Frankfurt and Dresden – and weren’t specifically religious. Rather, they were an opportunity for townspeople to stock up on food and other household goods before the worst of winter arrived. Gradually, they became opportunities for artists and artisans to sell their wares. Then, in the early 1500s, around the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther established December 24 as the country’s official gift-giving day, and the markets became a place to shop for presents.
Germany is still home to some of the world’s biggest and best Christmas markets. The ones in Nuremberg and Dresden draw about two million visitors a year; the ones in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Dortmund attract about three million; and the most visited market, which is in Cologne, features hundreds of stalls and is visited by four million people a year. Indeed, the whole city of Cologne becomes a sparkling seasonal spectacle
But the tradition has spread beyond Germany’s borders, right across Europe, and a rail pass is a great way to visit the markets.
The one in Strasbourg in eastern France, for instance, dates back to 1570, has 10 locations, 300 stalls and a towering Great Christmas Tree. Vienna’s market is even older, dating back to 1298, and is one of the most traditionally festive in Europe with a huge skating rink, reindeer rides and a traditional (and very boozy) hot rum punsch.
In Budapest, Vörösmarty Square is transformed into a magical winter wonderland, where the façade of the famous Gerbeaud Coffee House is transformed into a giant Advent calendar with a window display opening every day before Christmas Eve. Prague, in the Czech Republic, has two markets just a short stroll from each other, one on Old Town Square and the other in Wenceslas Square, featuring wooden huts selling local crafts and foodstuffs. In Poland, Krakow’s market is the place to go for hand-painted ornaments and quirky antiques.
In Scandinavia, Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens burst with light shows and fireworks displays. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, Sweden, Skansen’s Christmas Market is as traditional as can be, with dancing around the Christmas tree and a small zoo where you can hang out with real live reindeer.
Today, Europe’s Christmas markets are more popular than ever. Whatever faith you follow – even if it’s no faith at all – the markets evoke an old-fashioned sense of community, with great food and unique one-of-a-kind gifts. Most of all, they are festively social, with people of all ages and walks of life gathering happily together.
It may be chilly outside, but here at Europe’s Christmas markets, the joyful goodwill will keep you warm all over.