Europes Best Christmas Markets – Pt 1

Berlin Christmas MarketForget listening to “The Best Of Bing Crosby” as it’s pumped through a sound system of your local shopping centre, Christmas markets in Europe know how to put on a proper Christmas market!

Running since the Middle Ages, the most famous Christmas Markets draw upwards of two million visitors during the month of December. The appeal of a real Christmas Market is simples;
provide stress-free shopping in a traditional, festive environment.

If you’ve never been to a Christmas Market, you can expect to see carol singers and stalls offering mugs of mulled wine to help you along your way. However, you should only expect to get sotcking fillers from the markets as they focus on local arts, crafts and hand-made Christmas decorations rather than the official Top Christmas Presents.

If you’re ready for a real festive indulgence then some of the best places to venture and immerse yourself in are;

Cologne Christmas Markets

Cologne has a total of four Christmas markets around the city, attracting upwards of two million visitors every December. The most spectacular and popular of these is the market ‘Am Dom’, set on the square in front of the towering twin spires of the cathedral, the most visited monument in Germany.

The backdrop is certainly impressive, and the 160 or so stalls that pack beneath the lofty Gothic structure make the most of their tourist-friendly position. Positioned around a vast Christmas tree, the stalls offer the usual range of Yuletide wares, including Christmas tree decorations, arts and crafts, hand-made candles and ceramics. Sweet stalls jostle for space with Glühwein traders, and street musicians and professional bands entertain the hordes.

Vienna Christmas Market

The ‘Christkindlmarkt’ on the square in front of the magnificent Town Hall is Vienna’s classic Christmas market. It is one of the best-known and most visited in Europe, attracting millions of visitors to its rows of wooden huts leading up to the Hall. It is certainly one of the oldest, dating back over seven hundred years, and starts early – from mid-November – which is handy for those wanting to avoid the pre-Christmas crowds.

The park surrounding the market is one of the highlights, its trees decorated with themed lights, shaped like hearts or gingerbread men. The market itself has a central row of stalls selling hand-crafted decorations and arty bits and pieces, as well as deliciously scented natural beeswax candles.

The Vokshalle, within the Town Hall, is home to a daily workshop for kids in Viennawhere parents can drop them off to make presents and bake Christmas cookies. An added attraction is that throughout December choirs from around the world perform in the Festival Hall at weekends.

Nuremberg Christmas Market

One of the best-known Christmas markets in Europe is the one held at Nuremberg, although it is neither the largest nor oldest. Nevertheless, the setting is beautiful, with almost two hundred stalls crammed into the cobbled square on the slope beneath the Frauenkirche.

The market dates back to 1628, and is known as a regional centre for trading handmade wood figurines. It has a rather odd tradition: every two years a new ‘Christ child’ is appointed, a young man or woman who opens the market and rushes around town spreading Christmas cheer, dressed in elaborate gold and white and sporting a large golden crown.

Eccentric traditions aside, the market is best known for its food, which includes several stalls selling steaming Glühwein and grilled Nürnberger Bratwurst, delicious thin and spicy sausages.

Another favourite is the local Lebkuchen, or gingerbread, sticky and sweet with honey. In the evening, the market is softly lit with hundreds of tiny lights, and bands arrive to entertain the punters – you’ll hear anything from brass bands to live jazz.

Dresden Christmas Market

The first mention of Dresden’s Christmas market was in 1434, making this the oldest in Germany. It is steeped in tradition and locals are understandably fond of their Striezelmarkt, named after the local ‘Striezel’ or Stollen, a sweet fruitcake baked in the shape of a loaf and dusted with icing sugar.

The highlight of the annual market is the Stollen Festival, held on the second Sunday in December. In the 16th century, the local Stollen bakers would present cakes to the local prince, carrying them ceremoniously through the town to the castle, where the prince would cut them with a five-foot knife and hand out pieces to the poor. Today, one giant 3,000 kg Stollen is paraded around Dresden as part of the festival, presided over by a glamorous ‘Stollenmädchen’ – a ‘Miss Cake’, if you like.

The market is pretty and old fashioned, with around 250 stalls selling strictly traditional wares. It has better shopping than elsewhere though, with regional craftsmen flocking to the area to peddle their wares. Some good buys include delicate, hand-blown glass baubles from the town of Lauscha; hand-thrown and -fired ceramics from Saxony painted in bright blue and white; and local ‘Blaudruck’ – white-and-blue printed cloth.

Brussels Christmas Market

In a city famous for its cuisine, it’s good to find that its Christmas market is a good choice for foodies. Here, the market takes over the Grand-Place, Brussels’ commercial hub, famous for the lavishly carved facades of its guildhouses. Strings of lights cascade down from the centre, over the little chalet-style wooden huts which cluster around the square, each representing a different European country (although most of what’s on offer is the usual array of Christmas decorations and arts and crafts).

There are some good food stalls, though – alongside mulled wine are stands dishing out plump French olives, mountains of Belgian chocolates, steaming plates of moules or steamed snails, jars of preserved fruits and ‘speculoos’, hard gingerbread shaped like Father Christmas.

The Fish Market is transformed into a temporary ice rink in December, making it a big attraction for locals. Carols are filtered through loudspeakers, and jugglers, street musicians and painters brave the cold to entertain the crowds. From December 23rd, many of the stalls switch hands, and the market becomes more of a gastronomic affair.

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