From late November through December, Europe's beloved traditional Christmas markets, with their colorful booths and twinkling lights, pop up around the continent. This year I joined throngs of locals at six cheerfully tempting outposts in the Upper Rhine Valley, which includes parts of Germany, France, and Switzerland. Embracing winter's chill, snow, and dark evenings, we strolled and fortified ourselves with mulled wine and regional snacks. Here's a rundown of classic market experiences, along with shopping and eating tips for the places I visited—plus where to get warm if you're feeling the cold.
Some general notes on markets first: Visit several markets, and you'll see patterns. Towns may have one or multiple markets, and some markets have themed sections for Christmas ornaments (nostalgic or kitschy, depending on your taste), local or world crafts from candles to wooden items, food gifts, or children's activities such as carousels. Markets stay open into the evening, so don't miss a nighttime visit. It's the best time to appreciate the seasonal theme of bringing light into a dark world. Snacking is a prime activity, with friends huddling together over food and drink. Another pleasure of visiting markets, whether in smaller towns or big cities, is discovering what's unique in each—and choosing something to help you remember it.
Stately buildings and posh shops fill Baden-Baden, a fashionable spa town nestled near Germany's Black Forest. Many of the over 100 market stands near the elegant Casino are upscale, with high-priced artisanal foods and goods. A stage hosted festive live music, and children's artwork, which resembled stained-glass windows, decorated a walkway. I passed up chocolates shaped like hardware items but bought delicious Goufrais chocolates produced in the area. Other sweet choices were large, decorated Lebkuchen, the spiced Christmas baked treat similar to gingerbread.
What to Eat: Hot wursts (sausages) packed in thick rolls were juicy and delicious. Gluhwein, warm, spiced red wine, is the seasonal go-to brew.
Where to Get Warm: Tree-lined Lichtentaler Allee goes past Brenner's Park Hotel & Spa, perfect for an elegant meal. Or take a dip in Baden-Baden's famous hot baths, including the classic Friedrichsbad or modern Caracalla Thermae.
Although Freiburg, a historic city in the Black Forest, prides itself for promoting a sustainable lifestyle, its Christmas market is delightfully traditional and affordable. Booths are packed onto the Rathausplatz in the heart of the old town but also spill down neighboring streets. I admired wooden bowls, silver jewelry, and classic nutcrackers and incense burners shaped like little men. Colorful street decorations added cheer during nighttime strolling.
What to Eat: Some stalls sold baked treats, and I selected sweet, chewy Linzertorte bursting with raspberry. White Gluhwein, delicately flavored and less common than the red variety, warmed me up as the sun set.
Where to Get Warm: In daytime, visit Freiburg's towering Munster to see the cathedral's brilliant, jewel-toned stained glass. Or stop by the Alte Wache Haus der Badischen Wein, a shop and tasting room dedicated to fine wines of the Baden region.
The large French city of Strasbourg, in the heart of Alsace, backs up its claim to be the "capital of Christmas" with plenty of special holiday activities and exhibitions. The holiday market here dates back to 1570, and today 11 themed markets, many in the historic center, packed with more than 300 stalls. Alsatian specialties mix with more usual fare, and I enjoyed the large, varied market outside the magnificent red-sandstone cathedral. Storks, symbol of Alsace, decorated some booths, and surrounding shops and streets outdid each other with creative decorations, including chandeliers hanging in one street.
What to Eat: A fresh, hot, airy waffle topped with powdered sugar sustained me, although crepes were tempting too. Vin chaud, the French version of mulled wine, accompanied it.
The walkable old heart of this good-sized Alsatian town seemed almost too picturesque with its ancient half-timbered buildings. Colmar mounts five delightful Christmas markets here, from one for children near the romantic canals of Petite Venise (Little Venice) to an Alsatian crafts market inside the medieval Koifhus that offered artisan-made pottery, jewelry and other unique gifts.
What to Eat: A hefty bretzel, an Alsatian pretzel, provided fuel for shopping and sightseeing.
Where to Get Warm: A brisk, scenic walk took me across town to Colmar's Unterlinden Museum to admire the world-famous Issenheim Altarpiece, a 16th-century work by Matthias Grunewald.
One snowy morning I visited Obernai, the smallest town (population 13,000) on my itinerary but one with ample holiday appeal as well as charming old streets and buildings. In the market square, booths offered local food specialties such as jellies, honey, wine, foie gras, smoked fish, and more. Bredele, richly seasoned small Alsatian Christmas cookies in many forms, were abundant.
What to Eat: Roasted chestnuts smelled great, but a cafe provided refuge from the snow—plus perfectly rich, frothy hot chocolate.
Where to Get Warm: For indoor shopping, Dietrich offered local gifts from china to linens. I learned about Alsatian wine, including great Rieslings, at Domaine Blanck, the wine cave and tasting room of vintner Robert Blanck.
My final stop was Basel, a cosmopolitan Swiss city with a lovely setting on the Rhine. French and German influences add to the cultural mix, and the city's art museums, from the Kunstmuseum to the Fondation Beyeler, are outstanding. Basel embraces the holiday spirit in two excellent markets near each other in the scenic Altstadt (Old Town), on Munsterplatz by the Munster (Cathedral) and the larger Barfusserplatz market. Rooftop decorations rose from many of the almost 200 closely packed stands. International products such as textiles from Laos added interest, but I purchased a smooth cheeseboard of local wood.
What to Eat: Although sausages were fragrant and tempting, I picked a Berliner, a filled doughnut, opting for vanilla inside.
Where to Get Warm: For all things Christmas, stop by Johann Wanner, a shop overflowing with handblown or molded ornaments in every color and style.
5 Travel Tips for Visiting Christmas Markets
–Think about how to pack your purchases. Leave room in your bags and carry bubble wrap and other supplies.
–Ask vendors if products are indeed locally made if that's important to you.
–Some markets have floorplans and other details, online or in print, that can help you make the most of your time.
–Dress warmly and wear good walking shoes so you can enjoy being outside.
–Getting around Europe is easy by train. Purchase individual tickets or multi-country rail passes through Rail Europe.
Photo Credits: Courtesy Linda Cabasin