I recently returned from a Viking River Cruise along the Danube that stopped at five of the most famous Christmas markets in Europe. From the first Sunday in Advent through Christmas Eve, European markets sell locally made crafts, delicious Christmas sweets, ornaments, candles, ceramics, as well as food—lots of it.
The markets usually open in the late morning and continue until 8 or 9 at night, but they truly come alive after dark, when the lights come on and when you can feel the spirit of the season. Church and children's choirs often sing carols from performance stages. And since the sun sets around 4:30 pm, you don't have to stay out late to enjoy the markets. These aren't just for tourists—locals love them. You'll find mothers bringing their kids for a mid-afternoon snack, and everyone having some deliciously spicy, mulled Glühwein (each market also has its own branded cup, which you can buy for an extra euro or two, and there are nonalcoholic versions as well).
The markets are even more festive when blanketed by a light dusting of snow. If you go, you'll be tempted to buy something every time you turn a corner, especially if you're a fan of all things Christmas. (My advice: Bring an extra bag to carry home all your purchases.) Read on for shopping and eating highlights from all five markets.
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Europe’s largest Christmas market takes over the entire town center. Its hundreds of stalls can be overwhelming for newbies, but it’s much more manageable by day than by night, of course. The market is so big that it spills over into the surrounding pedestrian streets; there’s even an “international” section with wares from such exotic lands as the U.S. and Jamaica.
What to Eat: Lebkuchen (gingerbread); dark, rich fruitcakes; and Nuremberger bratwurst, delicious little sausages that are served in threes on a freshly baked roll.
Best Souvernirs: Nuremberg Rauschgoldengels (gold-foil angels with wax heads, which are very traditional-looking but shiny and beautiful), so-called “prune men” (made from actual dried fruit), and traditional Bavarian wooden ornaments and nutcrackers.
This beautifully preserved Medieval city is home to several Christmas markets. On the town’s main square, the sprawling market isn’t as big as Nuremberg’s, but it’s impressively large and has two carousels for the kids, as well as a number of decorated Christmas trees. Nearby, the more intimate Lucreziamarkt has more upscale hand-made goods, including ceramic salt cellars and blown-glass ornaments, and also fresh hams and smoked meats. There are two more markets in town, including a particularly beautiful one in the courtyard of the Thurn und Taxis Palace.
What to Eat: Christmas cookies and more gingerbread from Nuremberg.
Best Souvenirs: Endless varieties of votive candle holders; wooden toys and dolls; quality ceramics.
In the shadow of the city’s baroque cathedral, the Christmas market is not as large as some, but it’s still impressive and fun. Along with the typical roasted Mandeln (almonds) and Maroni (chestnuts), you’ll find delicious grilled sausages and Sengzelten (rye-based flatbreads that are baked right at the market and topped with sour cream & chives, ham, or cheese).
What to Eat: Heidelbeer (blueberry) Glühwein; Lebkuchen (gingerbread) from Café Simon.
Best Souvenirs: Beautiful Bohemian glass ornaments from the Czech Republic, and locally produced honey and beeswax candles.
While there are over 40 Christmas markets in Vienna, the market at the forecourt of the Schönbrunn Palace is one of the most beautiful. A towering Christmas tree overlooks the square, where stalls sell many unique and handmade items. The largest market is at the Rathausplatz, the plaza in front of Vienna’s city hall, where lanterns are hung in the trees to create a Christmas spirit. A small, elegant market is at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and almost everything there is made in Austria.
What to Eat: Mandeln (almonds), Maroni (chestnuts), and Punsch (rum-spiked, mulled, fruity punch).
Best Souvenirs: Hand-painted, pressed-tin ornaments.
Almost half the stalls at the Christmas market at St. Stephen’s Basilica sell food; nearby at Vörösmarty Square is the main Christmas market, and it’s one of the busiest and best in Central Europe. Restaurants surrounding the squares set up stands to sell food, and there seems to be as much eating as shopping. And never fear, even though the Hungarian currency is the forint, both euros and dollars are widely accepted.
What to Eat: Grilled Hungarian sausages, stuffed cabbage, and Kurtoskalacs (so-called “chimney bread” that is grilled over an open fire and then rolled in cinnamon sugar, chopped walnuts, ground almonds, or coconut).
Best Souvenirs: Carved wood and beautiful Hungarian ceramics.