As a native Californian, Christmas is pretty different from many parts of the world.
Mostly, the idea of a “white Christmas” doesn’t exist. Instead, the sun is brilliantly shining and you can often wear a teeshirt.
While I still carol about roasting chestnuts over an open fire while dreaming of a white Christmas, it doesn’t happen in most of California.
We try though.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions while living in San Diego was ice skating at the Hotel Del Coronado, a historic hotel (by American standards) on the beach in Coronado. Most years it’s a warm 70 degrees… at sunset, and therefore between each skating session, they have to mop up the inevitable ice-which-turned-into-puddle. As I mentioned, the intention for a white Christmas is there.
Therefore, I have a desire to experience how colder climates enjoy Christmas.
This year I was toying with the idea of spending December in Europe to enjoy a Christmas unlike any other I’d had… cold, blizzard-y, snow-y, and decorated to the nine’s.
Side note: Last year, I spent Christmas in Medellin, Colombia… that country knows how to decorate for and celebrate Christmas, although it wasn’t exactly the cold weather for it - I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt that day.
After all, for the three times that I’ve been to Europe - spending a total of one year traveling around - I still hadn’t been during the holidays!
To me, there’s nothing more festive than a charming, historic European town strung with lights, open-air stalls selling handicrafts, and drinking mulled wine all while bundled in layers of warm clothing - channeling Ralphie from A Christmas Story, of course!
So I began doing the research, where would I go, what cities have the best Christmas Markets, and why. What would my route look like? ...because, you know, I was going to visit a handful of the best Christmas markets.
My plans have since changed, and I’m saving my European Christmas holiday for another time. But I still wanted to share with you the research, because it’s absolutely fun, fascinating, and most importantly, festive! So grab a hot toddy or peppermint hot chocolate, cozy up and get inspired!
First, a brief history of the Christmas market.
Traditionally held in the town square, Christmas markets have food, drinks, and seasonal items from open-air stalls accompanied by traditional singing and dancing.
Today, many markets have hundreds of stalls to purchase festive goods and treats, live music and other performances, all surrounded by marvelous decorations to delight in the season!
Christmas markets are street markets which originated in Germany, to coincide with the four weeks of Advent around Christmas.
The history of Christmas actually goes back to the Late Middle-Ages in the German-speaking areas of Europe which include now Germany, Austria, and parts of Switzerland and France.
So everyone who celebrates Christmas can thank Germany!
Even specifically the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in the home is even thanks to Germany.
While the origins of the Christmas tree is debated, we know it is linked to the Protestant religion, whereas early Christmas decorations for Catholics were the nativity scene.
Moreover, German preacher Martin Luther was likely the first to put a tree in his home. As the tale goes, one night before Christmas he was walking home through the forest and saw the light of a star shining down through a tree. It reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come down to Earth. A clear link as to why we include a star at the very top of the tree!
Early Christmas tree decorations were fruits and nuts, candles, gold foils, and sweets. Candles were to symbolize stars, and today many Christmas trees are still decorated with candles. Another clear link to the current strings lights most of us now decorate the Christmas tree with!
Fun fact: Both Tallin, Estonia and Riga, Latvia claim to have had the first Christmas tree in the late 1400’s. The tree would have been in the town square for all to see and enjoy.
When researching and thinking about where I might go for Christmas in Europe, many, many cities presented themselves as good options. However, I chose the following as top contenders for their storied Christmas traditions.
Dresden is home to Germany’s original Christmas market, Striezelmarkt! Founded as a one-day market in 1434, Striezelmarkt is Germany’s oldest continually running Christmas Market - currently in its 584th year (2018)!
Dresden is described as Germany’s Christmas Capital. From the minute you step out of the train station you will be amazed by twinkling lights and festive decor through winding streets all over town.
Like most cities, Dresden hosts several Christmas Markets around town, including;
Striezelmarkt - if you like Christmas, Germany’s oldest Christmas market is unbeatable. Period.
Mittelalter-Weihnacht - the merry medieval market, located in the Dresden Residenzschloss, or Royal Palace. Here there is hardly any electric light, no plastic, and jugglers and minstrels will take you on a journey through time. It’s 40 stalls feature crafts straight out of the middle ages!
Hüttenzauber - the magical alpine themed Christmas market with it après-ski charm attracts the after-work crowd up for drinks and partying.
Weihnachtsmarkt at the Frauenkirche - this quieter, romantic Christmas market is a great alternative to the bustling Striezelmarkt and extravagant Mittelalter-Weihnacht. While smaller and more traditional than some others features more than 40 stalls in which to delight in seasonal goods and treats. Plus photo opportunities are plentiful here with carolers, 27 foot (8 meters) Erzgebirge pyramid, and nightly Santa visits.
Neumarkt - the advent calendar market located in front of the famous Frauenkirche Lutheran Church features the historic craftsmanship of guilds including bag makers, chocolatiers, watchmakers, sign writers, engravers, and more. The stalls at Neumarkt create a high degree of authenticity, originality, and artistry.
At the Dresden Christmas markets, look for: Herrnhut Stars, Erzgebirge carved figures including nutcrackers, Lausitzer Blaudruck cloth, and Vogtland lace.
Eat & Drink: The Original Dresdner Christstollen - a traditional fruitcake, Dresdner Rahmklecks - freshly baked bread stuffed with cheese, and feuerzangenbowle - an alcoholic drink where rum-soak sugarloaf is set on fire and drips into mulled wine.
The Christmas market tradition in Vienna started in 1298 when Albrecht I granted Vienna's citizens the privilege of holding a December Market or "Krippenmarkt". Now there are over 20 official Christmas markets in Vienna.
Although none of the markets have been continually operating since that early date, Vienna has centuries of Christmas market tradition.
The Vienna Christmas Dream World on Rathausplatz is the main and most popular Christmas market in Vienna. In addition to 150+ market stalls, the Vienna Christkindlmarkt located in front of the City Hall also includes a Ferris wheel, carousel, reindeer train, and ice skating rink.
Dates: 16th November to 26th December 2018
Christmas Village Belvedere Palace - this Viennese Christmas market is set against the glorious baroque backdrop of the world-famous Belvedere Palace, 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.
Dates: 23rd November - 26th December 2018
Christmas and New Year's Market at Schönbrunn Palace - this market extends into the new year giving you ample time to get in the Christmas spirit. With approximately 60 exhibitors…
When: 24th November - 26th December 2018
New Year's market: 27th December 2018 - 6th January 2019
Winter at MQ - the MuseumsQuartier (MQ) in Vienna is one of the largest districts for contemporary art and culture in the world. For "Winter at MQ", its courtyard turns into an atmospheric winter location, with live music, DJ sets, and a unique design market.
Dates: 9th November – 23rd December 2018
Christmas Market at Spittelberg - the Spittelberg is a revitalized heritage district from the Biedermeier period with narrow side streets.
Dates: 15th November – 23rd December 2018
In Vienna’s Christmas markets, look for: snow globes which where invented by Austrian Erwin Perzy (his family still has a stall at the Vienna Christmas market!), wooden toys and nutcrackers, nativity scene, glass baubles and ornaments.
Eat & Drink: Carp cooked in beer, kletzenbrot - Austrian fruit cake, maroni - salted roasted chestnuts, Buchteln - jam filled sweet buns, Knödel - sweet or savory potato dumplings, pumpkin soup, käsespätzle - Austria’s version of Mac & Cheese, Vanillekipferl - crescent-shaped vanilla biscuits, and of course, Glühwein.
Strasbourg hosts the oldest Christmas market in France, first held in 1570! Making it one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe.
In the Alsace region of France, which borders Germany & Switzerland, has alternated between French and German control for hundreds of years - meaning it has very traditional Christmas market roots (remember Christmas markets began in Germany).
I have such a deep love for France as I studied French for 8 years, and studied abroad in Paris in college. I particularly love the countryside of France with it’s rolling, green hills such as Bordeaux and Nîmes - so any excuse to visit more quaint, country villages is good for me!
At the Strasbourg Christmas market, or marche de Noel, there are 300 stalls in wooden chalets are spread across eleven themed villages across the city center offers a range of handicrafts, decorations, and seasonal treats. And make sure to check out Alternative Christmas, the village where people exchange, re-use or re-imagine objects instead of buying new - love that!
Dates: 23 November – 30 December 2018
Look for: the Great Christmas Tree erected in the heart of Place Kléber, the Nativity Scene Tour, Secret Christmas, and the Guest Country - this year is Finland.
Food & Drink: bredele - cakes cut into a variety of shapes, mannele - brioche doughmen, Coq au Riesling - similar to coq au vin but with Reisling (white wine from the region), bretzels - similar to German pretzels but with brioche dough, and lastly, none other than mulled white wine!
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague was one of my favorite cities in Europe when I spent 6 months studying in Paris in 2012. The red roofs and dramatic architecture are stunning.
And if you’re familiar with my travel style you know that I adore going back to a city two, three, even four or more times so you can dig deeper into its culture and offerings than the surface level “tourist” activities. Needless to say, I want to go back. In addition to being a city worth a return visit, the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe.
Dates: 1 December 2018 – 6 January 2019
In Prague’s Christmas markets, look for: wood-carved toys, blacksmith goods, and beer (just to mix up all the mulled wine!)
Eat & Drink: trdelnik - a kind of split cake rolled around a stick and grilled with cinnamon, sugar and walnut mix, medovina - honey wine, Svařák - mulled wine.
Copenhagen is such a unique, whimsical city. Never short on magic or “hygge” year round, Copenhagen is an obvious Christmas destination.
In keeping with other cities, Copenhagen hosts several Christmas markets throughout the city, including;
Tivoli Garden - Tivoli is the real-life inspiration for Disneyland. Which is pretty cool considering Disneyland is a destination at Christmas-time. At Tivoli Gardens, nearly four miles of lights are artfully hung in patterns dictated by Tiffany's head designer.
Dates: 17 November – 31 December 2018
Nyhavn Harbor - the iconic waterfront transforms into the perfect Christmas setting with it’s decorated charming cobbled streets.
Dates: 9 November - 23 December 2018
Christiania - this free town hosts a bazaar-style Christmas market.
Dates: 8 - 20 December 2018
Look for: something out of a Hans Christen Andersen fairytale.
Eat & Drink: risalamande - a traditional Christmas rice pudding accompanied with chopped almonds and cherry sauce, smørrebrød - bite-sized open-faced sandwiches so you can try all the toppings, flæskesteg -melt in your mouth pork, rødkål - red cabbage that is a very popular side dish, and last but not least, gløgg - the Danish version of mulled wine.