One of the best aspects of visiting Europe during the holiday season is the many festive Christmas markets that offer the chance to drink mulled wine, indulge in hearty traditional foods and shop for local crafts and souvenirs. Here are five great markets held every Christmas season in Europe.
Elegant and child friendly Vienna
I am very fond of Vienna. During advent, the city comes alive with the spirit of Christmas. On pedestrian Graben street, Christmas trees from Wienerwald are for sale. Huge bells of warm lights are suspended from above. With the elegant baroque edifices and magnificent gilded statues, the effect is stunning. It might as well be 1856. Or even 1781. That’s when Wolfgang Amadeus walked along this street to his home at No. 17, passing the markets on his way. Tonight, I have a key to No. 17; it houses my favourite guesthouse, Pension Nossek. I enjoy opening the huge wooden doors with my own key.
In front of City Hall, you can buy Christmas decorations, candles, toys and handicrafts in wooden huts, as well as sausages, glühwein and Christmas punch in a variety of flavours. There’s a bit of a chill in the air, so I have a few, to keep warm, you understand. Also, I’ve decided to forfeit the two Euro deposit and start collecting the blue, customised Christkindlmarkt mugs.
There’s an abundance of colour; bright and strong. It’s not only the Weinachtspunsch talking. Johann Strauss looks pensive on his pedestal. Is he thinking of the Christmas markets of his day; about how little things have changed, perhaps? Vienna’s Christmas markets have existed for hundreds of years. Even Tram D may have rattled by in his time, run on steam then. Inside City Hall is the Christkindls Werkstatt for children. About 80,000 children stop by these workshops during the advent period. Today, several primary school classes are queuing outside; rosy young cheeks are flushed with anticipation.
Inside, happy three- and four-year olds dressed in aprons and bakers’ hats are covered in flour. They are playing with rolling pins. Others make animal pictures and wooden frames, key rings, leather bracelets, candles, ceramic cups – all sorts of wonderful, handmade Christmas presents.
Cheap and cheerful Bratislava
Even though it’s a dark, cold, foggy mid-December afternoon, Bratislava is showing its Christmas spirit. Although I passed a large Ikea, I do feel I’m in Eastern Europe; it still exists. Nice to know not everything is the same everywhere – yet. Bratislava’s Christmas market is on Hlavne Namestie, the main square in its pretty Old Town. All sorts of items are on offer: hats, scarves, handbags, toys, lollipops, porcelain, oils and spices. Some lovely ceramic cups are 170 koruna, a bottle of Medovina the same. If price is an issue, Bratislava is a good bet.
There’s a great emphasis on food and drink in Bratislava. The beer/wine/grog tents remind me of Oktoberfest in Bavaria; everyone is in a good mood. I go for lokse, potato pancakes, filled with poppy-seed and sweet honey-wine. Yum!
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Prague has three major Christmas markets, all in the centre of town. I like the one in the Old Town Square, mostly because of its backdrop, the 600-year old Gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn. The two asymmetrical spires of Tyn look mysterious, lit up against the night sky. I feel transported back in time – to a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. Apart from the freezing cold, and not being properly dressed for it, what strikes me most is the petting zoo. A few sheep, goats, a donkey and, oddly, a lama, are ensconced in a small enclosure. Happy children reach over to stroke them. I don’t know how pleased the animals are, though. They look a bit forlorn. Apart from the usual assortment of Christmas ornaments and gift items, beautiful Bohemian crystal shines in every stall. Roast chestnuts, corn on the cob and another glass of warm wine, well, it’s simply necessary on this freezing December evening.
In contrast to the centuries-old Christmas markets of Central Europe, the Jouluturg on Tallinn’s Raekoja plats is a teenager. The first one was arranged in 1991, after Estonia gained its independence. During the Soviet era, Santa Claus was banned; it’s a new market in a medieval city. Raekoja plats is super-romantic, surrounded by hanseatic buildings, even including a pharmacy from 1422, still in operation.
Main items on the market are Estonian arts and crafts, gorgeous woollen sweaters and felt hats and, of course, mulled wine. Up a street is cobblestoned Rataskaevu, the spookiest street in town, 700 years old. If you look up at No 16, notice the bricked up window with painted curtains. In the 15th century, this was an inn. Rumour has it the devil got married and had a reception here. There’s something delightfully pagan about Tallinn. Out in the street, is the Cats’ Well. To appease a demon they were convinced lived at the bottom of the well, the citizens of medieval Tallinn threw in cats. I’m glad to say, today’s citizens care greatly for cats, even strays.
Behind it all, Toompea, an 11th century stronghold, looks spooky against the night sky. Just around the corner from Raekoja, right behind the cart selling delicious warm almonds is the fabulous restaurant, Old Hansa. The medieval music will draw you in.
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Forget Santa Claus. In Italy, la befana rules. On the Piazza Navona Christmas market, witches are everywhere: laughing witches laughing wicked, insane laughs while sitting on swings/brooms falling off their rocking chairs. Unprepared for this witch fest, my five-year-old is a little frightened. Whenever someone claps their hands – the witch sellers do all the time – that shrill lunatic laugh pierces the bone marrow. We escape to the wonderful old merry-go-round. I like the Befana legend: On their way to Bethlehem, the three wise men stop by her house, the cleanest in the village, and ask for shelter for the night. Then they ask her to join them in their search for a special baby. Befana declines, she is too busy with her chores. After they leave, she thinks for a bit while cleaning. She decides to go along after all, finishes her work and follows the men. But she’s too late. She never finds the baby. Every 6 January – Epiphany – she flies about on her broom, still searching. On that day, the children leave something to eat and a glass of wine for her (I bet Santa is jealous). In every house she looks, she leaves a present for the children. After all, anyone of them might be baby Jesus.
All of a sudden, she doesn’t seem so scary any more, my little one decides. Perhaps la befana will come to our house this year? Well, we don’t live in Italy, but one can always hope, I reply vaguely. With St. Nicholas’ evening in the Netherlands (5 December), Christmas Eve in Norway, Christmas Day in the UK and Epiphany in Italy, the enterprising, global child could make every day a gift day.
Read more about Christmas around the world:
- 7 Great German Christmas Markets that Aren’t in Germany
- 6 Great Cities to Soak in that Christmas Atmosphere
- 5 Christmas Traditions Around the World