Expat Essentials

New for 2019/20 (updated): Dispatches’ expat-curated list of Europe’s best Christmas Markets, Pt. 2

You’ve seen all the other Christmas Market lists and they’re all good. It’s just that ours is actually expat-curated … the markets we’ve and our contributors have checked out ourselves, or that come recommended by our expat network.

This is Part 2 of our 2019 list, and we’ve dropped some marginal markets (Hasselt) and added some standouts (Dordrecht) since 2016. As always, this will be updated as we get to more markets before the Christmas/New Year’s season ends.

(See Pt. 1 here.)

• Basel Weihnachtsmarkt

(Terry Boyd)

Basel is the ugly stepchild of Swiss cities, chock full of the industrial might that makes Switzerland crazy wealthy such as pharmaceutical plants and chemical refineries. But it’s redeemed by the fact 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 trash and trinkets. And this city on the Rhine gets seriously decked out for the holidays.

There are about 160 artisans selling out of small, rustic “wooden chalets,” according to the Basel Christmas Market website, so it’s large (but oddly smaller than previous years when it had about 180 vendors.) 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 that’s elaborately painted.

If I remember, the maid was probably 30 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 28 November to 23 December 2019 in the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, right in the center of the city and at the heart of the Old Town.

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.

• Colmar – La Magie de Noël

(Terry Boyd)

We’re not the only ones to put Colmar on our list … this was designated the Most Beautiful French Christmas Market (who knew there was such a list!) in 2017. That’s in part because Colmar already is charming and the Christmas market top-notch.

This Medieval trading town on the Alsatian Wine Road is 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,

Okay … Colmar doesn’t have just one market, it has six themed Christmas markets in six different squares, including one just for fabulous local Alsatian products such as wines, spirits and foie gras. Check out the website before you go to see details on each of the six markets.

Just added last year, Marché Gourmand is a Christmas market for gourmets, located in Place de la Cathédrale at the Collégiale Saint-Martin next to the cathedral. There are nine booths, each with its own chef/master restaurateurs who will concoct dishes from starters to dessert, oysters and Alsatian specialties. You’ll be able to eat on-site at a standing bar or take away.

You can have lunch, cocktail hour or dinner. Marché Gourmand will be open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Otherwise, 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.

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 ours loved it.

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 22 November to 29 December 2019.

Hours are:

From Monday to Thursday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Friday and Saturday & Sunday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
24.December: 10 am to 5 p.m.

Christmas Day: 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Dordrecht Kerstmarkt

(Willeke van Doorn)

The Christmas market in Dordrecht is one of the most popular markets in all of the Netherlands for several reasons.

First reason – it’s big. With at least 200 stalls, Dordrecht’s Christmas market is the biggest one in this tiny country. The markets in Maastricht and Valkenburg run all through December, but this one is different. The Christmas market in Dordrecht may be the biggest, but you also need to be quick because this is always a three-day event in mid-December.

For 2019, the Dordrecht event is Friday, 13 December thru Sunday, 15 December.

Second reason – Dordrecht itself is a must-see destination only 15 minutes from Rotterdam.

Grab a hot chocolate and a stack of poffertjes – tiny fluffy pancakes that are served with butter and loads of powdered sugar which are to die for – and enjoy the Netherlands’ biggest Christmas fair.

The details
The market is open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The opening hours for Sunday are from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Duisburg Christmas Market

(Terry Boyd)

We – wife/co-CEO Cheryl and I – just got back from Duisburg and we’re a bit conflicted. Is it worth a trip to this industrial city just a few miles from glittering Düsseldorf? Making our way from the Galeria Kaufhof parking garage (super convenient to the market), we were underwhelmed as we approached Königstrasse and the Christmas Market in the Altstadt.

You get spoiled by the more posh markets such as Salzburg, Aachen and Basel, with their Christmas Markets in the midst of their ancient architecture and trust us, Duisburg ain’t like that. This is modern city and not as spic-and-span as, say a Basel or a Den Haag.

But … when the sun went down at 4:40 p.m. on the Winter Solstice, Duisburg glittered. Duisburg claims to have the longest Christmas market in the region, which includes the giant Christmas Markets in Köln and Düsseldorf.

The entire length of Königstrasse, which is at least a mile long, is incorporated into the market, as well as the side streets. This is another Christmas Market that’s all about food. There was this one stall where a crew was roasting giant pieces of beautiful pork, then carving them into sandwiches for 5.50 euros. The line was too long for impatient Americans but that vision is seared into my memory and I will return.

There was another hut, the Lachs Piraten, where you could watch them grilling salmon on boards. We did get the battered fish and it was fantastic. All I could think was, “Wow, Anthony Bourdain would have loved this.”

There were lots of standalone pub huts/tents (including The Queens’s Pub) and places you could get more exotic drinks beyond glühwein including fancy, festive cocktails.

There were lots of rides and activities for kids, and an amazing variety of stuff for sale from that German Christmas Market staple jewelry to mechanical toys you can assemble.

Our recommendation – go!

The details:

Unlike the rest of the German markets, which seem to be on the same schedule, Duisberg is open through 30 December.

Hours are Sunday thru Thursday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday and Saturday, hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2019 – Closed

One of the cool things Duisberg does include a list of places to stay on their Christmas Market website.

Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt

(Beth Hoke)

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.

The festivities begin with Adven, four weeks before Christmas.

Consumerism may drive tourists to the markets, but make no mistake about it: the Germans (especially in Catholic-centric Bavaria) take the markets’ historic ties to religion seriously.

In Nuremberg, for example, the market opens with the welcoming words of a local boy or girl portraying the Christkind (Christ child):

You men and women, who once yourselves were children, 

Be them again today, happy as children be,

And now the Christkind to its market calls,

And all who come are truly welcome.  

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. 

The details:

All of the German markets are on the same schedule, open now through 24 December, 2019.

Hours are Monday to Sunday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Christmas Eve 2019 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Salzburg Christkindlmarkt

(Terry Boyd and Cheryl Boyd)

This is what all Christmas Markets should all be like … an authentic experience that has stayed with us for a decade.

We were walking through the alleys on the far edge of Salzburg 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 out my phone and called 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 glowing 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 classical music performed around the Old Town. Just as you’d expect in Mozart’s hometown.

Go. Just go ….

The details:

This year, the Salzburg markets run from 21 Nov. through 26 Dec. 2019.

Hours are:

Mon-Thu 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Fri 10 a.m. till 9 p.m.
Sat 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sun + holidays 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Special opening hours for 2019:

24 Dec. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
25 & 26 Dec. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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

• StrasbourgCapital de Noël

(Terry Boyd)

The uneventful reopening of the Strasbourg market after last year’s attack is yet another strong statement about Europe’s resilience. Politics aside, this is a special celebration, and one of the oldest Christmas Markets in Europe.

It’s such a definitive Christmas experience that for 2019, it’s been exported to the middle of Manhattan … 30 wood chalets full of French delicacies right in the middle of New York. C’est super choutte, ça.

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

Full disclosure: Over the years, we’ve even debated putting it on our list because unlike Aachen or even smaller German markets such as Trier and Saarbrüken, it’s miles and miles of the same stuff.

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

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 22 November to 30 December 2019.

(* From 26 December thru 30 December, only the stalls on Place de la Cathédrale, Place du Château, Place de la Grande Boucherie, Place du Marché-aux-poissons, rue du Palais Rohan and outside of the Palais Rohan will be open.)

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

Open late on Fridays until 9 p.m. and Saturdays until 10 p.m.

25-30 December *: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Christmas Eve: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Closed Christmas Day

Vienna

(Lauren Bordeaux)

Vienna is an incredibly beautiful city to begin with, so add twinkling Christmas lights and the alluring smells of baked goods and Gluhwein and the city turns into the most divine winter wonderland.

The largest and most popular Christmas market in Vienna is the Vienna Christmas Dream at Rathausplatz, in front of City Hall. The market of 152 stalls welcomes guests with a giant, sparkling arched gateway. I always start my market visits with a stop for a steaming cup of Gluhwein – maybe even with an extra shot of rum.

Pro tip: plan to keep this year’s Gluhwein mug, it’s shaped like a heart. Once I have my warm beverage there are many stalls to visit with handicrafts, christmas gifts, ornaments and lots of treats.

I love the giant pretzel stands!

Visitors can also choose to go ice skating at the Ice Dream rink. There is one large ice rink with several connecting paths to skate through. There is also a small rink for curling before 4 pm and free skating for beginners and children.

This market is a great one for kids – mine love it. There are plenty of rides to choose from including a large ferris wheel, carousel, reindeer train and the Rathaus Express train.

The details:
Given this is the most popular market in Vienna, there are an estimated 3 million visitors every year! It is a very busy market. I recommend visiting on an early weekday evening. That way you see the twinkling lights in all their glory but it’s not too busy.

The Christmas Market is open daily now thru 26 December.

Opening hours:
● Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
● Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
● 24 December from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
● 25 & 26 December from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Ice Skating: Open daily from till 24 December 2016, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Christmas Eve from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Curling: Open

Honorable mentions from our expats:

• Joe Goldstone in Frankfurt: Go to Regensburg which has TWO Christmas markets, one of which IS IN A CASTLE!!!

Grab food and Glühwein on Friedrich-Stoltze Platz. And there is a Nürnberger Lebkuchen shop on Liebfrauenstrasse which sells Gingerbread in cute cans. With Nuremberg on them.

• Mark Woijik: Rothenburg ob der Tauber – “I like this one because I know a little place that only locals go or I head over to the Medieval Crime Museum and I hang out while my group is doing touristy stuff.”

• Brendan Huges – Stockholm’s Christmas market is pretty small and in the center of Gamla Stan. “I certainly would recommend a visit if one plans on enjoying the other aspects as well! Besides, you can find moose and reindeer sausage there. Who wouldn’t like that?!?!”

Ones to skip:

• Valkenburg in the Netherlands. Christmas markets in a cave in the Gatlinburg of Europe. Too touristy.

• Hasselt in Belgium. Nice town, but the Christmas Market (which we’d heard was good) turned out to be a in a parking lot on the edge of town. To be fair, this is more of a winter carnival complete with an ice-skating rink, food and midway rides including the Wild Mouse. That’s right, Christmas … and the Wild Mouse, all at one big event. If you must, go for kids.

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