There’s nothing like a traditional Christmas market to get you in a festive mood: the chilly air, the crunchy snow underfoot, the wafting smell of gingerbread, the warming sensation of a spicy mulled wine, the carol singing.
The great joy of a pre-Christmas river cruise on the Rhine or Danube is that you get to see a whole string of these enchanting markets – one a day if you want to. Apart from the fact that you can go home laden with hand-made, unusual gifts, it’s a wonderful way to appreciate different cultures; Christmas in Budapest, for example, is quite different from Christmas in Nuremberg.
Christmas markets originated in the late Middle Ages in various towns of German-speaking Europe, with some Advent gatherings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries; Dresden and Vienna claim to be two of the oldest. They’ve been a constant in every town square ever since, and have grown in popularity worldwide, travelling as far as France, Switzerland, Hungary, the Netherlands and across the sea to the UK and the USA. Some attract visitors in the millions, while others are more modest affairs.
But it’s the originals that are the best; those that have steadfastly refused to give into commercialism and artifice and still embrace the real spirit of Christmas.
- To find the best Christmas Market deals this winter, read our exclusive guide
Setting: In the heart of the old town on Barfuesserplatz, surrounded by wonderfully elegant old houses, so there’s a real historic feel to Switzerland’s biggest market. Basel’s shops take part in a competition every Christmas for the most beautiful festive façade, so a walk around the alleys leading off the market is truly magical.
Size: More than 150 stands.
What to buy: Because Basel sits on the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland, there are influences here from all three. Look out for felt and wool hats, glass glitter balls, fossils (strangely), Christmas tree ornaments, pewter items, wooden figures, folk art from the Erzgebirge in Germany, pottery, spices, wooden toys, children’s clothes and scented woods.
Don’t Miss: As a side-trip from the market, check out the many churches in the Old Town, many of which hold wonderful Christmas concerts. For slightly different gifts, pay a call at the Johann Wanner Christmas House, which sells ornaments and lavish decorations to such prestigious customers as the royal family of Monaco and the White House.
Setting: Around Broglie Place and Cathedral Square in the heart of the city and spilling over into the surrounding streets and plazas. Strasbourg actually has several markets, all of which collectively claim to be the oldest, having been here for more than 430 Christmases!
Size: Well over 150 stalls in several different areas.
What to buy: Being France, food is a theme here, in addition to the usual pretty decorations and wood carvings. For wine and special Advent cakes, stroll over to the Bredle Market on Place d’Austerlitz. There’s also a special produce market at Place du Meuniers, great for foodie gifts and Alsace specialities, such as the spicy Strasbourg sausages, traditional biscuits and gingerbread.
Don’t miss: Wander around La Petite France, a fairytale neighbourhood of timbered buildings with special Christmas shops and an enticing gingerbread bakery. Also, of course, pause to look at the magnificent cathedral and its astronomical clock, with the market in the foreground, exquisitely lit up. Strasbourg is great if you have children in tow; there’s an ice rink and a special children’s market.
Setting: One of the biggest markets in Europe, Heidelberg’s Christmas offering extends over five squares in the centre of the city: Kornmarkt, Marktplatz, Universitätsplatz, Anatomiegarten and Bismarckplatz. With the massive castle in the background and, with luck, a dusting of snow, it’s a sight not to be missed.
Size: Several hundred stalls
What to buy: Painted wooden nutcracker men; beeswax candles, handblown glass baubles, tiny sets of wooden angels that form an angel orchestra. Gluhwein and Bratwurst; for extra pep, ask for a Currywurst!
Don’t miss: The Karlsplatz market has a Christmas ice rink this year, encircled by trees glittering with starry lights. Throw in Christmas music and mulled wine and you’re in the middle of a fairytale. Heidelberg also has a special ‘Art Advent Calendar’ this year, in the castle. The windows will serve as a giant advent calendar, with the works of prominent artists appearing in each, specially lit so that they appear to be part of the façade.
Setting: Koblenz’s old town is surrounded on three sides by the Rhine and Mosel and the Christmas market is in the heart of the Old Town, close to the main shopping street. In the distance, snow-covered vineyards flank the steep slopes either side of the rivers.
Size: There are over 130 wooden stalls
What to buy: Knitwear, wooden angels, bells, jewellery, regional produce like wine, honey and mustard, sugared almonds, crystals, nougat, packaged herbs, hams and cheeses and finally, motifs of the little boy featured in the ‘Schängel’ fountain, an emblem of the city.
Don’t miss: Horse-drawn carriage rides through the old quarter, as well as classical, jazz and gospel concerts. Like Heidelberg, Koblenz will have its own giant-sized advent calendar, with a different image in each of 24 windows in the roof of the town hall.
Setting: Of Cologne’s seven markets, those at the Cathedral, on the Alter Markt, on the Neumarkt and on the Rudolfplatz are the best, attracting some two million visitors every Advent. Although you may want to check out the Medieval market at the Chocolate Museum, too, for its decadent nibbles!
Size: The Cathedral market alone has 160 wooden pavilions, and the biggest Christmas tree in Rhineland, at over 80 feet tall. The whole setting is draped by a huge ‘tent’ of sparkling lights.
What to buy: Knitwear, wooden toys, nutcracker men, Stollen cakes, paintings, strings of ornamental lights, glassware, silver jewellery, handmade dolls. At the Alter Markt by the Town Hall, look out for toys, a Santa Grotto and a puppet theatre. The Rudolfsplatz market, meanwhile, has a fairytale theme so is perfect for children.
Don’t miss: The market by the Cathedral has a stage where there are concerts throughout Advent – anything from Swing to classic Christmas songs, choral music or opera. Whatever the programme, there’s a special Christmas orchestra very day at 7.30pm (8pm Sundays).
Setting: The Austrian capital is absolutely magical in the Advent season, with some 21 Christmas markets spread around the city. There’s often snow on the ground, while white lanterns are strung through all the trees. The city’s beautiful Baroque buildings and palaces form the perfect backdrop for the markets and all sorts of associated events take place, from funfairs to pony rides and an ice palace in the hip Museums Quartier.
The Christkindlmarkt in front of the Rathaus (City Hall) is the largest market, while there’s another one on Freyung, one of the big shopping streets, and further displays on Spittelberg, Am Hof and in front of the Karlskirche. There are traditional wooden market stalls in the grounds of Schoenbrunn Palace and Belvedere Palace, too.
Size: There are around 150 stalls at the Christkindlmarkt and 60 at each of the smaller markets.
What to buy: Wooden toys; beautiful, hand-crafted Christmas tree decorations and wooden cribs; decorated candles; ceramics, knitwear, rugs and silver jewellery in Spittelberg; all manner of traditional Christmas cakes and biscuits; gluhwein (spiced, mulled wine).
Don’t miss: Inside the Rathaus, there are children’s workshops where kids can make their own decorations and gifts out of clay, paper, glass and glitter, or learn to bake kipferl, Viennese vanilla-flavoured biscuits. And you must try the Viennese hot chocolate, with lost of whipped cream – perfect on a cold winter’s day! For a more contemporary take on Christmas, check out the DJs, the curling contests and Christmas-themed cocktails at the Ice Palace in the Museums Quartier.
Setting: The market spills between Hlavné námestie Square and the Františkánske Námestie square, in the centre of the old city, surrounded by fine Baroque buildings, Bratislava’s chunky castle looming on the hill in the distance. The stalls are all decorated with red-and-white striped roofs.
Size: The two squares accommodate more than 100 stalls between them.
What to buy: Slovak Christmas has some similarities to those of Germany and Austria but you’ll notice differences in the cuisine on offer. Look out for sauerkraut soup, fish and meat skewers barbecued in the open air, lokše (a kind of baked potato pancake with goose or sauerkraut), pork burgers, honey cakes and hot toddy, punch or Christmas mead. Souvenirs include items made from wood, glass, leather, wicker, dried corn leaves or beeswax,
Don’t miss: As Christmas draws closer, you’ll see Slovak families coming to the market to buy their Christmas trees and more interestingly, live carp, chosen from huge vats. These are kept alive in the home and cooked on December 24, the main Christmas celebration.
Setting: Linz has two Christmas markets, one in the baroque main square and one in the Volksgarten park, specially for children. The markets are connected by one long shopping street, the Landstrasse, dazzlingly illuminated for Advent. The roofs of the stalls, too, are brightly lit, each one decked out with fairy lights arranged in a pyramid shape. In the Volksgarten, the trees are covered in ‘nets’ of lights, creating an enchanted woodland.
Size: More than 100 stalls, but the market gets bigger with special themes, like a medieval market, a creative market, a Finnish market and even a special cookie market.
What to buy: The usual mulled wine, gingerbread, arts and crafts are on offer but in the Finnish Market, you’ll find salmon goods and Glögi (Finland’s take on mulled wine) as well as quality Finnish knitwear and wooden items, and reindeer skin souvenirs. Elsewhere, the local speciality is Linzertorte, a filled and latticed fruit cake, made from locals claim to be the world’s oldest cake recipe.
Don’t miss: An illuminated angel on the Nibelungen Bridge sucks water through a straw from the Danube, which then spreads through the city as a whirl of lights, all the way to the Landstrasse. Also look out for the cribs; Linz brands itself ‘city of cribs’ and they’re in all the shop windows. You can even book guided crib tours of the finest displays.
Setting: In the square in front of the magnificent St Stephen’s Cathedral, surrounded by exquisite Baroque buildings.
Size: Around 70 stalls make up the Christmas Market.
What to buy: Lebkuchen biscuits; gingerbread; Bratwurst, gluhwein, arts and crafts, handmade decorations. Passau is a particularly artistic community and you may pick up a local bargain. Check out Hoellgasse, the ‘artists’ lane’, close to the market for some of the best local galleries.
Don’t miss: The cribs and mangers all over the city, including one with living characters. Passau also embraces its art heritage during Advent and a different artist decorates a window in the old town every day to create a huge advent calendar. You can get around, including from the landing stages on the river, on the Christmas Market Express, a mini sightseeing train.
Setting: The stalls, festooned in red and white striped fabric, are packed into Nuremberg’s main market square, surrounded by gabled buildings and overlooked by the Church of our Lady. These are not the original buildings; sadly, Nuremberg’s old centre was badly damaged during World War 2, and even though the Christmas market had been held here since 1628, there were a few years with no stalls. Now, the market is back to its former glory as one of the most famous in Germany, specialising in toys, including “plum men” made from nuts and dried prunes.
Size: 180 wooden stalls, with more at the Children’s Market on Hans Sachs Platz, as well as some beautiful cribs.
What to buy: Nuremberg spicy gingerbread, Nurnberger sausage, sauerkraut, fruit loaves, bakery goods and sweets, typical Christmas tree angels, cribs, Christmas tree ornaments and candles, toys as well as arts and crafts. Local specials include “Nuremberg Plum People”, miniature figures made from prunes. Also check out the mulled wine and local sausages.
Don’t miss: Everything about this market has to be authentic and plastic fir trees and muzak are completely banned! There’s a prize annually, of gold, silver and bronze “Plum People” for the most beautiful stalls.
If you’re in town on December 9, look out for the annual Lantern Procession, when 1,500 children parade through the town bearing lanterns and singing Christmas songs.
To get you in the mood, check out the market webcam!
Setting: Around the Neupfarrkirche on Neupfarrplatz, where there’s been a Christmas market for some 400 years.
Size: About 70 wooden stalls, clustered around the church and the synagogue next to it.
What to buy: Lots of wooden figures, cribs, angels and handmade decorations feature at this market, as well as candles, gloves and hats, bags, glassware and, of course, food. One stall is offering a half-metre long Bratwurst, while another temptingly promises sweet dumplings, strudels, hot toddies and different flavoured gluhweins with apples and blackberries.
Don’t miss: A big programme of entertainment around the market, from local choirs to a barrel organ to brass bands, pop and rock ensembles. The church is also open every evening for organ music and viewing of the crib. For children, there’s a traditional wooden carousel.
Watch the Regensburg market getting underway below
Setting: Budapest by night is glorious enough at any time of year, so imagine the bridges and buildings lit up for Christmas. The market itself is in Vörösmarty Square in the city centre on the Pest side of the Danube, close to the Gerbeaud Confectionary building which is transformed into a giant advent calendar in December. Be there at 5pm every day as a new window is opened.
Size: More than 100 stalls, all of them made of wood, their produce approved for authenticity by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists.
What to buy: Local produce to eat on the spot includes fresh bread lángos baked in the traditional Töki clay oven, kürtőskalács (a cone-shaped sweet yeast cake), rétes (strudel), pecsenye (roast meats), and forralt bor (mulled wine). If you buy mulled wine, be sure to get a special Christmas Fair mug, as the design changes every year and these become collectors’ items. Christmas gifts include Hungarian glassware, which is superb quality, glass decorations, gift-wrapped paprika items and local handicrafts.
Don’t miss: As well as bands and carol singers, there are energetic displays of Hungarian folk dancing most days.
- To find the best Christmas Market deals this winter, read our exclusive guide
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