In spite of recent tragedies and unrest in Europe, a beloved, centuries-old tradition continues this holiday season. From the United Kingdom to Eastern Europe and myriad countries in between, the annual outdoor Christmas markets are now in full swing.
Beginning in the early Middle Ages, the original markets were established to provide meat and other provisions for Christmas dinner. Some, such as Striezelmarkt in Dresden, Germany, lasted only one day. Others, including Christkindlmarkt in Vienna, Austria, stayed open through Advent. Today, they generally run from mid-November to Jan. 1.
Although dozens of cities host seasonal bazaars, several stand out for their old-world charm, delicious foods and exceptional handicrafts. You can banish the thought of buying tchotchkes mass-produced in faraway lands. The specialties offered at these markets are local and handcrafted.
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In Vienna, roughly 20 Advent fairs dot the cityscape. However, if you want to experience a market in all its glittering glory, head to the 19th-century Rathausplatz, or Town Hall Square. At Rathausplatz, twinkling lights, carolers, puppet shows and a young, blond woman playing Christkindl, the market’s Christ child, join 150 merchant stalls in celebrating the season. As of Nov. 19, as an act of European solidarity, the square’s towering Christmas tree now displays the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.
With Vienna’s ornate, neo-Gothic city hall, or Rathaus, looming behind them, shoppers stock up on wooden toys, glass ornaments, beeswax candles, candied fruits, roasted chestnuts and glasses or 750-mililiter bottles of weihnachtspunsch. Comprising red wine, brandy, rum, oranges, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, this heated punch is a warming, seasonal treat.
Prague, Czech Republic
The striking Czech Republic capital of Prague sponsors five Christmas markets. One of the largest takes place in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, World Heritage site of Old Town Square. Surrounded by Baroque and Gothic architecture, a medieval astronomical clock and the imposing, 14th-century Church of Our Lady before Tyn, this is an especially festive event. Solo musicians, folk bands and choirs perform daily. Horse-drawn carriage rides; a nativity scene; stabled sheep, donkeys and goats; and an enormous Christmas tree enhance the merry mood.
Similar to the other Prague markets, Old Town Square vendors showcase Bohemian crystal, garnet and amber jewelry; carved wooden toys; ornaments; marionettes; and sundry Czech goods. They also provide ample opportunities to nosh on grilled sausages, potato pancakes, deep-fried flatbread called langos and the sweet pastry known as trdelnìk. Coiled around a metal spit, rotated over an open fire until browned and then rolled in a mixture of sugar and nuts or cinnamon, trdelnìk is a must for hungry patrons.
While Dresden’s Striezelmarkt may be the country’s oldest, Germany boasts of an array of atmospheric marketplaces. This includes the seven Weihnachtsmarkte of Cologne.
The grandest happens in front of the 13th-century Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site, Cologne Cathedral. More than 160 wooden stalls filled with German lacework, blown glass, nutcrackers, leather goods, woodcrafts, roasted nuts, bratwurst, beer, mulled wine, gingerbread and fruitcake line the cathedral square.
Along with regional crafts and cuisine, the Cathedral Weihnachtsmarkt contains western Germany’s largest Christmas tree. Roughly 82 feet tall, this Nordmann fir shimmers with more than 50,000 LED lights. For a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling tree and city, climb the 553 steps of the cathedral’s south tower. The brave can take in these breathtaking sights from a 328-foot-high observation platform.
Stockholm, Sweden’s first holiday market occurred on Stortorget in the city’s Old Town, or Gamla Stan, more than 500 years ago. Located outside the Nobel Museum near the Royal Palace, today’s Christmas mart features authentic Swedish pottery; glassware; knitted accessories; mulled wine, or glögg; pepparkakor, or ginger cookies; saffron buns; elk meat; and reindeer sausage. Whatever you do, just don’t tell children where the sausage came from.
In addition to these locales, travelers will find charming, historic expos in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Budapest, Hungary; and Copenhagen, Denmark, among others. Some, such as the market in Frankfurt, Germany, date back hundreds of years. Others, such as in Manchester, England, have existed for merely a decade or two. All include the traditional foods and arts of their regions.
Main image: The Christmas market in Antwerp, Belgium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt