Lifestyle & Culture

New for 2017/2018: Dispatches contributors curate Europe’s 14 best Christmas Markets

(Editor’s note: For 2017/2018, we’re again crowdsourcing our Christmas Market tips, with recommendations from our expats who live in Europe or who have been long-term expats. If you have a favorite Christmas Market, email us at: terry@dispatcheseurope.com)

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

As we wrote last year … there are Christmas markets (almost every city and town has one), and then there are Christmas markets. Our experience is, the best – those with the best setting, ambiance and most tempting booths – are in Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France.

For 2017/18, we’re adding more contributors who can give you their first-hand impressions of markets 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.

Basel

(Terry Boyd)

I have always loved Basel, 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. (At right) 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 that made it here to the Netherlands from our home in Germany via the U.S.

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 23 November to 23 December 2017 in the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, right in the center of the city and at the heart of the Old Town. The markets open officially at 6:30 pm on 23 November, when Basel’s Governing President Elisabeth Ackermann switches on the Christmas lights at Münsterplatz.

Open daily from 11 am to 8:30 pm

Except:
23 December 2017, Münsterplatz: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
23 December 2017, Barfüsserplatz: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

• Brussels

(Terry Boyd)

unnamedLast year, we went to the Brussels Christmas market as a political statement after the attack on the Berlin Christmas Market.

No one was going to ruin Christmas in Europe for the Boyd family.

It was fabulous! 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 above.)

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:

    • Plaisirs d’Hiver runs from Friday, 24 November through 31 December.
    • Opening hours are noon through 22:00 every day
    • The Christmas market has more than 200 chalets
    • Fairground attractions (Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds, etc.)
    • A covered ice rink for skating (Place de la Monnaie, till Sunday 7 January)
    • A Christmas tree and sound and light show on the Grand Place

For 2017, there are several  new events:

• The Showcase music event on 19 December in the Grand Place, which started last year.

• A Museum of the Moon at the Brussels town hall. The installation features detailed 120dpi images of the lunar surface from NASA at an approximate scale of 1,500,000/1. Every inch of the sculpture represents 5km of the lunar surface. It is a fusion of lunar imagery, moonlight and original musical compositions, according to the website.

There are other special shows and events. Check out the website for details.

• Colmar

(Terry Boyd)

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 Alsatian wines from the wine road that goes north to Strasbourg are sublime and totally affordable, especially the Rieslings and Crémant D’Alsace.

The details:

The Colmar Christmas markets run from 24 November to 30 December 2017.

Hours are:

From Monday to Thursday: 10:00 am to 19:00
Friday and Saturday & Sunday: 10:00 am to 20:00
24.12: 10:00 am to 17:00
25.12: 2:00 pm to 19:00

• Deventer

(Willeke van Doorn)

Deventer is one of the Netherlands’ oldest cities. Each December the city turns back the clock a couple of centuries.

This is more than just a Christmas Market.

In addition to a traditional market, the city has been hosting the Dickens Festijn for a quarter of a century now. Over the years the festival that brings to life the characters from Charles Dickens’ beloved stories has grown into a Christmas favorite.

Each year more people visit the Dickens Festijn and the Christmas market in Deventer. Just last year, more than 125,000 people attended.

Over the course of a weekend, 950 local actors, singers and entertainers get dressed in 19th century British costumes to turn the old city center into Dickens’ world. Walk around the old town and take a step back in time together with Oliver Twist, Scrooge and Mr. Pickwick.

The details:

Dickens Festijn in Deventer takes place on 16 and 17 of December from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m.

Entry to the event is free, but because of the popularity of the festival, be prepared to wait in line for a bit. The crowd is smaller after 1 p.m. You can only enter the festival at the entrance in Keizerstraat (across from the city’s theatre).

There are dinner and hotel packages if you want to make it a weekend.

 Frankfurt

(Rick Scavetta)

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 (though rebuilt) 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 2017 Frankfurt Christmas Market run from 27 November through 22 December.

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

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

• Innsbruck

(Jason Chudy)

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 center
When: 15 November 2017- 6th January 2018 (This is one of the first to open.)
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

(Willeke van Doorn)

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 1 December through 1 January.

Hours have been extended for 2017/2018. The Christmas market is open Mondays through Wednesdays from 11.00 to midnight, Thursdays through Saturdays from 10.00 to 01:00 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.

• Munich

(Beth Hoke)

Munich’s Christkindlmarkt starts in front of the town’s world-famous Glockenspiel and spreads across 20,000 square meters of the pedestrian zone.

By the time we lived in Munich, I was old enough to drink the Glühwein with brandy added and I had developed a craving for Gebrannte Mandeln, almonds coated in crunchy, browned sugar. To this day, the smell of these Christmas market favorites takes me back in time.

If you’re really into German food and wine (and really, who wouldn’t be?) a culinary group offers a tasting tour of the market during which you can try Stollen, Rahmschmankerl, and other seasonal culinary favorites.

Be sure to visit the Sternenplatzl (Square of Stars) at Rindermarkt and the massive Christmas tree that stands in Marienplatz to see Christmas lights like you’ve never seen them before. Last year’s tree weighed 5.3 tons and was illuminated with 3,000 lights!

As with Nuremberg’s market, smaller auxiliary markets are held nearby, including the Medieval Christmas Market, where visitors can see minstrels, knights, and noblewomen celebrating the way they did in the Middle Ages when Munich’s first Christmas market was held.

At the Kripperlmarkt, tourists and locals can buy hand-carved wooden pieces for their crèche collection. A popular walking tour of the Christkindlmarkt and the Manger Market is led by guides who tell visitors about the history and culture of the markets. 

Opening hours:

Mon-Sat 10:00 to 21:00
Sun 10am to 20:00
Christmas Eve (Dec 24th) 10:00 to 14:00

• Nuremburg

(Beth Hoke)

Nuremberg is arguably the most famous Christmas Market in Europe and has a running rivalry with Munich as to which is the original.

More than two million visitors come to Nuremberg’s open-air market every year to drink the Glühwein, inhale the sweet scent of candied almonds, and eat Lebkuchen. Stalls are set up in the town square and staffed by vendors who hawk German goodies, hand-crafted Christmas ornaments, and last-minute gifts.

Nuremberg’s market has a separate area for children where they can take a spin on the merry-go-round or Ferris wheel and ride a kid-sized train. Booths where children can participate in hands-on activities such as writing a letter to Santa, making candles, and decorating cookies can all be found in the Children’s Christmas Market. 

Also adjoining the Christkindlesmarkt is the Market of the Sister Cities, where craftsmen sell international wares from all of Nuremberg’s sister cities. 

Tired of walking? Visitors can tour the market in a horse-drawn stagecoach, or board a tram/train at Hallplatz for a tour of the medieval buildings that surround the town square. 

Nuremburg’s Christmas Market is open from 1 December to Christmas Eve.

Opening Day Dec. 1st: 10:00 – 21:00

Opening Ceremony is Dec. 1  at 17:30 p.m.

Mondays – Thursdays: 10:00 – 21:00

Fridays & Saturdays: 10:00 – 21:00 p.m.

Sundays: 10:00 – 21:00

Christmas Eve: 10:00 – 14:00

• Salzburg

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

(Terry Boyd and Cheryl Boyd)

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 gives 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:

This year, the Salzburg markets run from Nov. 23 through Dec. 26, 2017.

Mon-Thu 10:00 – 20:30
Fri 10:00 – 20:00
Sat 9:00 – 21:00
Sun + holidays 9:00 to 20:30

Special opening hours
Dec 7, 2017 10:00 – 21:00
Dec 24, 2017 9:00 to 15:00
Dec 25+26, 2017 11:00 to 18:00

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

• Saarbrücken

(Terry Boyd)

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! (See the vid above for the entire story.)

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 27 November through 23 December 2017.

Hours are:

Monday to Sunday: Noon – 21:00 (on the 23rd and 30th of December 2017 until 20:00)

Longer opening hours:

Saturday, 02.12.2017 and Sunday, 03.12.2017 until 23:00

(Old Saarbrücken Christmas Market)

Saturday, 09.12.2017 until midnight

(Long shopping night, shop opening hours until midnight)

• Strasbourg

Full disclosure: Strasbourg bills itself as “The capital of Christmas,” with the oldest Christmas Market. (Take that, Nuremburg and Munich!)

The Strasbourg Christmas Market is so big – 300 vendor stalls in 12 locations around the city! – it’s a bit daunting.

But, Strasbourg has upped its game, and it has the advantage of being in a real city that’s already authentically gorgeous.

Also, 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.

As we said, 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 24 November to 30 December 2017

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

24 November (opening day), are open from 14:00 to 21:00

Open late on Fridays (until 21:00) and Saturdays (until 20:00)

25-30 December *: 11:00 – 20:00
Christmas Eve: 11:00 to 18:00

Closed Christmas Day

• Trier

(Terry Boyd)

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, which has 95 booths, 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 2017 Trier Christmas Market runs from 27 November through 22 December in the Medieval central market under the imposing scenery of the Cathedral of Trier.

Hours:

Monday through Thursday 10:30 – 20:30
Friday and Saturday 10:30 – 21:30
Sunday 11:00 – 20:30

• Vienna

(Ivana Avramovic)

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.”

The 154 stalls at Vienna’s Christmas Market offer 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.

Vienna has not one Christmas market, but at least five. And each has multiple events, so look at the various websites for granular detail.

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: 17th November – 26th December 2017
Opening hours: 
Sun – Thurs from 10:00 -21:30
Fri – Sat from 10:00 – 22:00
24th December from 10:00 – 18:00
25th + 26th December from 11:00 – 21:30

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: 24th November – 26th December 2017

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: 22nd November – 26th December 2017

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