Lifestyle & Culture

New for 2016: Dispatches’ (updated) list of Europe’s best Christmas Markets

(Editor’s note: Our first Christmas Market post that was really test content on LinkedIn turned out to be a hit even though we didn’t even exist in any meaningful way. This year, we’re crowdsourcing our tips, asking for recommendations from our sources who live in Europe, or who have been long-term expats. So this post will be updated as we get primary-source info on some of the big markets including Nürnbergthe oldest and largest of them all.)

Even if you’re a Scrooge, there’s one experience you simply must savor once in your life if you live in Europe …  the Christmas Market.

gluhweinFor 2016, we added contributors who can give us their first-hand impressions of markets we didn’t cover last year including Ivana Avramovic in Austria and Willeke van Doorn in the Netherlands.

As we wrote last year … there are Christmas markets (almost every city and town has one), and then there are Christmas markets. The best, with the best ambiance and most tempting booths, tend to be in Germany, Austria and France. Though that said, a lot of the small city markets in Germany are just okay, with booth after booth of the same unremarkable tchotchkes.

We’re going to help you avoid the “meh” markets and concentrate on the fab. Because if going to a great Christmas Market doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, get someone to check your pulse.

One of the greatest nights of my family’s first stint in Europe was spent freezing in Trier’s altstadt with our friends and all our kids sampling the sugary nuts and roast boar. The sauteed mushrooms and wurst. The caramel corn. Then we washed it all down with Glühwein, the traditional mulled wine of Christmas.

Under the spell of the magical scene – the lights and the music of the season – we spent a boat load of money on ornaments and gifts. It was worth every euro. What’s not to like? We were in an ancient German city for Christmas!

A magical night … and at Christmas, we still carefully unwrap the ornaments we collected – at least one from every Christmas Market – and relive those days.

christmas-market-basel1

BASEL

• Basel

(Terry Boyd contributing)

I have always loved Basel, which is sort of the ugly stepchild of Swiss cities. It has everything that’s great about Switzerland (except mountains), but without the overbearing perfection, insane prices and haughtiness of Zurich and Geneva. It’s a very artsy city, and an American expat couple we met told us Basel has more cellists than in any other city in the world.

So, it figures the Basel Christmas market is large, attractive, well organized and curated, with artisans selling expensive crafts instead of miles of cheap wooden toys. And this city on the Rhine gets seriously decked out for the holidays.

There are about 180 artisans selling out of small, rustic “wooden chalets,” according to the Basel Christmas Market website, so it’s large.

We spent a lot of money there back in the day, and we still have two souvenirs … an elaborate icon and a molded lead Swiss maid. If I remember, the maid was probably 3o Swiss francs, and the icon at least 50 Swiss francs. I’m sure we bought a bunch of overpriced ornaments, but those are the two keepsakes we keep in our case of sentimental treasures.

The market is in the Münsterplatz in the middle of the incredible altstadt. So, even if you don’t buy anything, it’s a visual treat at Christmas to see the 400-year-old Rathaus and all the activity in the center square of the city.

The details:

The Basel Christmas Market runs from 24 November to 23 December 2016 in the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, right in the centre of the city and at the heart of the Old Town. The markets open officially at 6.30 pm on 24 November 2016, when Basel’s Governing President, Dr Guy Morin, switches on the Christmas lights at Münsterplatz.

Open daily from 11 am to 8.30 pm

Except:
23 December 2016, Münsterplatz: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
23 December 2016, Barfüsserplatz: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

 

• Brussels

(Terry Boyd contributing)

unnamedWe just got back from the Brussels Christmas market, and it’s incredible. Blocks and blocks and blocks of every sort of activity from vendor stalls to lighted see-saws and a Ferris wheel to fabulous food and drink.

Brussels’s mega-market is different from many of the others in that it focuses on local vendors. We bought Belgian-style jerky from a farmer, for example. And lots of craftspeople have booths with high-end products such as leather goods and textiles including silk. The music was great, and we drank the best Glühwein we ever sampled.

Technically, the Brussels event, which covers an astounding number of blocks in the Old City, is Winter Wonders (Plaisirs d’Hiver). (Check out the map on the website here before you go.) 

It bills itself as one of the biggest Christmas markets and winter festivities in the world, and it is. It covers the Grand-Place, the area around the Bourse (the Place de la Monnaie), the Place Sainte-Catherine and the Marché aux Poissons. We guestimated there were not thousands, but tens of thousands of people the night we went.

It’s an unforgettable moment when you get off the subway at Place Sainte-Catherine and find yourself in the middle of this winter wonderland of lights and happy people. (See the photo at right.)

Now, a word about the crowds: There was one point in the Place Sainte-Catherine near the Ferris wheel when we were literally swept along by the crowds on a packed Saturday night. But, everyone seemed to have the Christmas spirit. One rather inebriated chap bumped into me, then turned around, took me by the shoulder, looked deep into my eyes and uttered a heart-felt “pardon, mon ami.” True story.

The details:

• Colmar

(Terry Boyd contributing)

Colmar is a small, charming Medieval trading town on the Alsatian Wine Road between Strasbourg and Mulhouse in eastern France along the German border. Easy to get to from so many cities in German, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Colmar doesn’t have just one market. It has five themed Christmas markets in five different squares, including one just for fabulous local Alsatian products such as wines, spirits and foie gras. There are about 180 vendor stalls in all.

Decked out in lights and decorations, with incredible architecture, including authentic half-timbered buildings, along its wonky street, you’d swear you were back in the 17th Century. Well, you would if there weren’t masses of people in contemporary clothes, and all the high-end restaurants. But if you want a memorable first Christmas Market experience, this is the place. Also, Colmar has one of the most elaborate Christmas merry-go-rounds in Europe AND an ice skating rink. So this is a kid’s winter paradise.

And a tip: Book a room at one of the great hotels, and try the grand, but expensive, restaurants.

The details:

The Colmar Christmas markets run from 25 November to 30 December 2016. Hours are:

  • from Monday to Thursday:
    10:00 to 19:00
  • Friday and Saturday & Sunday:
    10:00 to 20:00
  • 24.12:
    10:00 to 17:00
  • 25.12:
    14:00 to 20:00

 

Frankfurt

(Rick Scavetta contributing)

This is a big one, located in Römerberg and St Paul’s Square just off the Main River that runs through Frankfurt. In fact, the Frankfurt tourism website claims it’s one of the largest in Germany, and one of the oldest, dating back about 600 years.

The location is amid some of the few authentic old buildings in this global financial center that survived the World War II bombing, and the atmosphere is genuinely festive.

“It’s not everyone’s favorite but mine is in the Römerplatz in Frankfurt,” said Rick Scavetta, who lived for years in Germany and speaks fluent German. “They have the old buildings all lit up and the carousel in the middle. Think how long that was an American hub, 50 years for more. Plus for the business expats, Frankfurt is a hub and might be the only (Christmas Market) they have a chance to see.”

Walk over the Eisener Steg bridge, and soak in the impressive might of Frankfurt’s central business district, known as “Mainhattan.” It’s Mainhattan because of its New York-like cluster of skyscrapers, a mighty skyline few other cities have. And there’s lots more to do in Frankfurt if you get bored with the market.

A lot of the hotels in Frankfurt offer special Christmas Market packages that include the room as well as goodies at the market. Or you can book one through the tourism bureau starting at 61 euros per person, double room.

The details:

The 2016 Frankfurt Christmas Market run from 23 November through 22 December.

Location
Römerberg, St Paul’s Square, Mainkai (Main Quay) and Friedrich-Stoltze-Square

Hours
Monday – Saturday 10:00 to 21:00
Sunday 11:00 – 21:00

 

• Innsbruck

christmas-market-innsbruck-old-town-innsbrucktourismus-christof-lackner-jpg-3576285

INNSBRUCK

(Jason Chudy contributing)

Austria might – when it’s all said and done – win just on incredible alpine settings. And Innsbruck might be the most dramatic of them all. Journalist Jason Chudy, who used to live in Italy, said while Italy has some nice markets, Innsbruck wins hands down.

“What impressed me about the Innsbruck Christmas Market was its location and atmosphere. The town is nestled along the Inn River in between ranges of the Alps and had plenty of snow when we went, adding to that holiday feel,” Jason said. “The edge was taken off the cold by plenty of Glühwein. The market’s in the historic part of town, adding to that old-world ambiance.”

There are actually multiple Christmas Markets in Innsbruck, and the terrific Austrian tourism website is well organized and detailed.

Here are the details for the main Old Town Christmas Market:

Where: In front of the Golden Roof, in Innsbruck’s historic city centre
When: 15th November 2016- 6th January 2017
Opening hours: Open daily from 11 am till 9 pm, trading until 8 pm

There’s also the Christmas Market Maria-Theresien Straße in the shopping district and a Family Christmas Market.

 

• Maastricht

49618_fullimage_magischmaastrichtvrijthof-c-vvvmaastrichtmarketingfocuss22_560x350

MAASTRICHT

(Willeke van Doorn contributing)

Maastricht is a lovely city all year around, but the holidays are without a doubt the best time to visit this city in the south of the Netherlands.

Thousands of flickering lights light up the entire town. A giant ice skate ring lures tourists and locals to the city’s central plaza. The plaza, called the Vrijthof, is the bustling center of Maastricht’s Christmas activities. A giant Christmas tree and an even higher Ferris wheel surround the 900 square meter ice skating rink and the Christmas Market in the center of the Vrijthof.

When your carriage on the Ferris wheel reaches its highest point at 45 meters you will enjoy a magical view of the city and the stalls of the Christmas Markets below.

Once you have grown tired of ice skating and strolling around the Christmas stalls, it is time to explore the rest of the city. After sunset, follow the festive lights to the hidden gems and secret alleyways of Maastricht. You can download the Magical Lights Route on the city tourism board’s website or just follow the lights and see where they will take you ….

The Details:

The Maastricht Christmas Market website is the best we’ve seen. The markets run from 2 December through 1 January.

The Christmas market is open Mondays through Wednesdays from 11.00 to 20.00, Thursdays through Saturdays from 10.00 to 22.00 and Sundays from 12.00 to 18.00.

The ice skating rink is open daily from 10.00 to 22.00, except on 24 December and 25 December, on which it is open from 10.00 to 18.00.

 

• Salzburg

(Terry Boyd and Cheryl Boyd contributing)

image_manager__bild_slimbox_innenhof_-_st-_peter_stiftskeller

THE ENTRANCE TO THE ST. PETER STIFTSKELLER RESTAURANT. NOW, IMAGINE LIVE CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THAT’S CHRISTMAS IN SALZBURG.

A few years ago, we were in Salzburg just at Christmas. We were walking in the alleys on the far edge of the city at the St. Peter’s Abbey (one of the locations where “The Sound of Music” was shot) when we walked into the alcove leading to the St. Peter Stiftskeller Restaurant. We were literally overwhelmed by the beauty of where we were at Christmas. So I pulled my cellphone out of my pocket and literally called (this was before texting) my friend back in Kentucky and said, “Oh, my God. You’ll never guess where I am. This is unbelievable.”

The decorations included swags of evergreen boughs with gold and red ribbon. Everything in this City of Mozart from the coffee cafes to the Christmas Market is so tastefully done, the best Old World charm. The ancient buildings, the authentic 18th Century music, the Christmas decorations and the soft lights.

Here’s the unvarnished truth. After a while, there’s a certain sameness to Christmas Markets. But Salzburg give you both a great Christmas Market and a spectacular setting in an authentic Old Town on the edge of the Alps.

Market offerings included more artisan goods than tchotchkes including hand-blown glass and crystal items. The Salzburg Market also is different in that there is live music performed around the Old Town.

Go. Just go ….

The details:

The Salzburg markets run from Nov. 17 through Dec. 26, 2016

You can get more details here on the official tourism website.

 

• Strasbourg

Full disclosure: Strasbourg may bill itself as “The capital of Christmas,” with the oldest Christmas Market, but this was our least favorite market. The Strasbourg Christmas Market is so big – 300 vendor stalls in 12 locations around the city! – it’s fatiguing to try to see everything. And there’s a lot of repetition, and not that much great stuff. But, Strasbourg has a great website, so you can sort of center in on what you’re after, because all the markets are arranged by category – treats, local craft products, etc.

Also, at 300,000 people, Strasbourg is a seriously large, busy city, not a hamlet like Colmar or Trier. So take that into consideration and scout out parking areas ahead of time. Again, the website has lots of info. Strasbourg also is one of the culinary centers of France along with Lyon, Paris and Bordeaux, with three Michelin-starred restaurants! So you might want to plan your visit around a destination restaurant.

The Details:

The Strasbourg markets run this year from 25 November to 31 December 2016

Opening hours and dates. (You can get more info here on the Strasbourg tourism website.)

  • 27 November, from 2:00 to 9:00.
  • 28 November to 23 December, Sundays to Thursdays from 10:00 to 8:00, Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 to 9:00.
  • 24 December, from 10:00 to 6:00.
  • 25 December, from 2:00 to 6:00 (Some stalls may be closed on Christmas Day).
  • 26 to 30 December, from 10:00 to 7:00.
  • 31 December, from 10:00 to 6:00.

• Saarbrücken

Another favorite of ours, Saarbrücken’s Christmas Market is tiny compared to the others listed here, with 80 vendor huts on the main square, St. Johanner Markt. But it’s in a swank, wealthy little German town just north of the French border. How swank? Saarbrücken has a huge Prada store! This is also an arts town, with its own opera company, so the music is excellent.

One of the most memorable moments for our kids was when Father Christmas and his reindeer-drawn sleigh flew over the market (on a high wire), telling the Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer story. Seriously. If you’re four years old, this is high (no pun intended) drama!

The booths aren’t bad, either, with lots of traditional food and some collectibles. And you’ll have to get your Saarbrücken ornament to complete your collection. But get there early and take advantage of some of the best upscale shopping in Germany!

There are also package hotel/Christmas Market deals available.

Dates for the Saarbrucken Christmas market are 24 November through 23 December 2015

Hours are:

Daily 11:00 am to 9:00 pm
29 Nov. & 30 Nov. 11:00 am to 11:00 pm
13th Dec 11:00 am to midnight

TRIER

TRIER

• Trier

(Terry Boyd contributing)

This is the real deal, about as authentic a German Christmas market experience as there is. Trier is an ancient Roman city on the Moselle River in west-central Germany, a 45-minute drive from the military communities around Kaiserslautern. Its Christmas Market takes up the entire alt platz, which is huge, spilling over into the area around the Porta Nigra, one of the best preserved Roman city gates in the world.

Going to the Trier Christmas Market is about more than festivities. Trier is one of the most remarkable small cities in Europe, with original Roman, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and the most atmospheric old town in southwestern Germany. You won’t just be pigging out on the fabulous traditional foods including sauteed mushrooms. You’ll be submersing yourself and your family in the essence of 2,000 years of culture.

This Christmas Market has excellent ornaments and a lot of handcrafted clothing including alpaca sweaters. None of it is made in Germany, but the quality is still high.

The details:

(Editor’s note: Last year, the Trier website was in German and we had to translate everything. This year, it’s updated with an English option and lots more useful info for each day of the markets.)

The 2016 Trier Christmas Market runs from 21 November through 22 December in the Medieval central market under the imposing scenery of the Cathedral of Trier.

From the website: 

In the 95 festively decorated wooden booths you will find Christmas articles such as Christmas decorations, wooden toys, candles, hand-blown or engraved glassware, gift articles, ceramics and much more.

Rathaus and Christmas market in Vienna

• Vienna

(Ivana Avramovic contributing)

Vienna’s main Christmas Market vies with Innsbruck and Salzburg as the most stunning setting in Europe, in front of the central market Rathausplatz. “It looks like a fairy tale,” Ivana says. “The  backdrop is the Gothic city hall, which you can imagine as a castle, and all the trees are lit. It’s cold, but you have the warmth from the booths of the vendors. It does look magical.”

Vienna’s Christmas Market offers more food variety including crepes, desserts, chestnuts, spice wine stands and spaetzle. There are also a variety of traditional decorations, clever toys, crochet angels, candles, handmade knitted scarves and gloves. There are even felt hats.

Another charming Viennese Christmas Market is at the very heart of the city of Vienna – Stephansplatz. Christmas stands are located around the cathedral. The groovy ones are at the Museum Quarter, with music tents and DJs for a younger audience, Ivana says, which makes the Vienna Christmas Market a LOT more hip than the rest.

“There’s lots of stuff to buy, but a lot of similar things in the sense you’re going to see candles and candle holders,” Ivana said. Lately, decorative baking kits selling for 10 euros have become popular.

Vienna has not one Christmas market, but at least five:

From the website:

Viennese Christmas Market

The Viennese Christmas Market in front of the City Hall is an unforgettable highlight for those eager to get into the spirit of the season. The unique backdrop gives this market a charm of its own, and the delicious aromas are sure to lull all visitors into the seasonal joy. Inside the City Hall on the ground floor there is an area dedicated to children, where they can learn how to make Christmas cookies or candles. You can also listen to international choirs singing carols with free entrance on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Where: On the square in front of the City Hall
When: 12th November – 24th December 2016
Opening hours: Daily 10:00 – 20:00, 24th December 10:00 to 19:00

Christmas Village Belvedere Palace

Explore baroque lifestyle and traditional handicrafts. The popular Christmas Village Belvedere Palace is set against the glorious baroque backdrop of the world-famous residence, one of Vienna‘s most beautiful and significant sights. More than 40 festively decorated market stalls offer traditional handcrafted goods, elaborate Christmas decorations and special culinary delights.

Where: Belvedere Palace, Prinz Eugen-Straße
When: 18th November – 23rd December 2016
Opening hours: Monday – Sunday, holidays: 10am – 9pm

Christmas Village Maria-Theresien Platz

Experience impressive Viennese buildings and traditional customs at the Christmas Village Maria-Theresien Platz this winter, located between the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Art. There is no escaping the Christmas atmosphere with festively decorated market stalls and a vast array of culinary delights

Where: Maria-Theresien Platz
When: 16th November – 26th December 2016
Opening hours: Sunday – Thursday 11am – 9pm; Friday & Saturday 11am -10pm; 24th December 11am – 4pm; 25th – 26th December 11am – 7.30pm.

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