In North America, the time approaching Christmas is usually fraught with Christmas gift lists and the mad scramble to buy, buy, buy. Often this time is stressful and many complain it takes the joy and meaning from the season. If this is the scenario that will greet you as the next holiday season nears, then perhaps you should consider a different – and more satisfying – experience that awaits you at a European “Christmas Market”.
Traditional style Christmas markets spring up from the time of Advent in Tallinn (Estonia), in Italy, in England, and across the Atlantic in cities such as Kitchener in Ontario and Chicago in the U.S. But Christmas Markets always invoke a scene in the mind’s eye of a square in Germany, Austria, or perhaps France. There is good reason for this. The original Christmas market started out as one of a number of seasonal markets in Western Europe in the Late Middle Ages, and gradually evolved into the ones we know today. Vienna for example had a December market since 1284. There are many cities and towns that claim to have the oldest continuing market but Dresden is often singled out as having the best claim : its dedicated Christmas market started in 1434. But again, there are cities such as Vienna that had markets much earlier than that so these markets have been around a long, long time. They are different than the local North American craft fairs that appear prior to Christmas as these have long standing traditions, look and feel.
If you want a truly magical experience that will put the joy back into the Christmas season so commercialized these days, you will want to visit Europe and as many Christmas markets as you can. Why so many? Because they are all different. It was by custom only the local craftsmen and trades people could market their wares in the town square and this has led to distinct offerings from town to town. You will never be bored. There are too many things to see and do… and the atmosphere is well, Christmas-y!
But coming from North America, how do you know where in Europe to go and how do you get to all the better fairs? It is a logistical and multiple choice nightmare as all the bigger towns and cities host these markets in countries from Russia to England, usually from the start of Advent to just before Christmas Eve (but some lasting to Jan 1). Your best option is to reserve your spot on a river cruise specifically identified as a Christmas Markets cruise. No worries about accommodation, getting from town to town, transporting luggage every day, determining where to go next, and so on. You just relax, leave it to the river cruise line, and visit a new one ( or two!) market towns every day enjoying the atmosphere and having the best Christmas shopping fun – ever!
Of course, you don’t have to shop to enjoy the markets. Stroll the “streets” between the wooden stalls and revel in the colourful sights and delicious smells. Take in the atmosphere of all the festivities. In some towns there are concerts from classical to jazz, there are live nativities, dance performances – even ferris wheels to get a bird’s eye view of it all! The shops and the streets are decorated with lights and garlands, there’s stall after stall of hand crafts and local delicacies, vendors selling roasted chestnuts, and a local alcoholic hot drink, gluhwien ( mulled wine sometimes laced with brandy). Sit back and people-watch from a sidewalk café (yes, you are outside!), snug in a sheepskin or woolen blanket sipping your gluhwein or coffee and nibbling on Christmas stollen.. Each market may have a different mug in which you are served your gluhwein: folks collect these distinctive mugs as they travel from market to market. They make great souvenirs of a time spent in the old world charm of a European Christmas Market! What a grand way to treat yourself for the holidays.
Here’s a few markets and what to look for:
Strasbourg, France: Look way, way up at the huge Christmas fir tree in Place Kleber, a custom of this market for near four centuries and purchase the bredele, an edible biscuit sold as a Christmas tree ornament. This city may boast up to a dozen different markets so there’s something for everyone.
Cologne, Germany: This city has over a half dozen different markets selling everything from hand-made lace to stollen cakes. Check out the store fronts too for magical displays of animated toy bears and fantasy scenes to delight children and the child in you.
Heidelberg, Germany: Did you know this town boasts Europe’s longest pedestrian street? Now imagine that decorated and dotted with wooden huts in the squares with vendors selling mulled wine, roasted almonds, gingerbread and traditional hand crafted ornaments ! An enjoyable feature of the festivities is the ice skating in Karlsplatz just below the Castle where skaters skim the ice to the sounds of Christmas music. Again there are multiple markets scattered across the town.
Freiburg,Germany: Here you will probably find wooden toys made in the Black Forest region amongst other regional crafts.
Koblenz, Germany: Savour the baked goods, and take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Music concerts are a big attraction.
Rüdesheim am Rhine: Rüdesheim coffee should be the first purchase on your list! It’s made of coffee (of course) laced with Asbach Uralt brandy ( a local product), and topped with whipped cream. You can buy both the brandy and the unique Rüdesheim coffee sets too ! Look for the nativity scene in the town square, reportedly the largest in Europe.
Prague, Czech Republic: This is your stop for woven straw Christmas ornaments, Bohemian crystal and carved wooden toys.
Vienna, Austria: marvel at the decorations lighting the squares, streets and buildings. In the markets, you may find hand-crafted Christmas ornaments and local delicacies.
Don’t try to book a Christmas markets river cruise by yourself. Ask for guidance from a river cruise professional. Markets have a short life and many open late November and close at varying times both pre and post Christmas. How disappointing to book the cruise that sails before the markets open and just experience the stalls, huts and decorations in the construction phase – or contrary to that, travel after the majority of markets have closed ! Also BOOK EARLY, as early as late spring because these theme cruises are so popular they sell out fast.