With a nip in the air at night, and time to turn the heating on, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Christmas markets really capture the spirit of the season – best enjoyed with a good glug of gluhwein – and have been lighting up winter nights since the Middle Ages.
Some of Europe’s oldest main and market squares still host the markets, which usually begin around the third week of November. Stalls are filled with cinnamon biscuits and marzipan cakes, the warm mulled wine flows freely and handcrafted tree ornaments and all sorts of Christmassy trinkets are on sale – perfect stocking fillers. If you’re in Austria, Swizerland or Germany before Christmas, their markets are well worth visiting – but you don’t have to travel abroad, as one of the UK’s largest markets takes place in Leeds.
Christmas markets in Britain were very popular until Oliver Cromwell put a dampner on Christmas celebrations, so the tradition faded almost overnight. The UK’s markets are wonderful, set against the historic backdrops of cities like Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh, and because the custom has been kept alive and well by French, Austrian and Italian traders, the treats sold in the stalls often have a colourful continental flavour.
Cologne doesn’t just have one Christmas market, it has four! They’re all spread around the city and attract up to two million visitors in December. The city’s spectacular old cathedral is one of the most visited monuments in the country and its most famous market is the Am Dom, a bustling, candlelit market with over 150 stalls, all set against the backdrop of the cathedral’s spires and lit up by a towering, glowing centrepiece – the town’s Christmas tree.
There’s a smaller market on the cobbled square of the Alter Markt close by, with a merry-go-round, puppet theatre, Santa’s Grotto and stalls packed with gingerbread, sweets and handcrafted toys – this is the place to come to if you’ve brought the children or grandchildren with you.
Vienna in the snow is a wonder to behold and there’s nowhere more Christmassy than at the Christkindlmarkt by the Town Hall. It starts early, in mid-November, and always draws the crowds.
During the Advent season, Vienna is ablaze with activity, including nativity displays, seasonal plays and concerts. You’ll find the stalls at the Christkindlmarkt lined with candied fruits, candyfloss and roast chestnuts and some simple, rustic style gifts like beeswax candles.
The first record of Dresden’s Christmas market dates back to 1434, making it the oldest one in the record books in Germany.
This is where you have to come to buy Striezel – otherwise known as Stollen which is a traditional holiday season fruitcake, baked in the form of a loaf and dusted with icing sugar (now sold in UK supermarkets at Christmas!) Dresden’s residents take their Stollen very seriously and celebrate with a Stollen Festival, held on the second Sunday in December. In the 16th century, the Stollen bakers would present their handmade cakes to the local prince, who would cut them into slices with a five-foot knife and distribute them to the poor. The tradition has changed somewhat today – this year, as in the past, a 3,000 kilogram cake will be paraded around Dresden accompanied by the town’s own “Miss Stollenmadchen”, the Stollen beauty queen.
The market is pretty and old fashioned, with around 250 stalls where you can browse traditional German Christmas wares, including colourful hand-blown glass baubles from the town of Lauscha and hand-fired blue and white ceramics from Saxony.
The much-photographed Grand Place or Grote Markt in Brussels becomes centre stage for its Christmas market at this time of year and it’s a good one for food gifts. Along with the mulled wine you’ll find beautifully wrapped clusters of the chocolates Belgium is famous for, hot plates of moules and Belgian speculoos which are a type of biscuit gingerbread shaped like Santa Claus.
Another attraction is The Fish Market. This transforms into the city’s Christmas ice rink; the skaters are surrounded by jugglers, street musicians and painters all sharing the festivities.
Another picturesque setting, this time it’s Copenhagen. This Christmas market will delight lovers of glittering lights and outdoor skating. Held in the Tivoli Gardens, the place becomes a sparkling silvery winter wonderland decked out with hundreds of Christmas trees and half a million lights. The main lake doubles as the city’s winter skating rink and there are about sixty colourfully-painted stalls, all selling locally-made porcelain, wooden dolls and typical arts and crafts.
Copenhagen’s version of mulled wine is glögg, a potent winter warming wine made with exotic spices – perfect for de-thawing the tips of fingers in those sub-zero temperatures. It’s perfect with a few hot apple dumplings while you wander through the various stalls, stop for a quick pic withFather Christmas and mingle with the nisser, Denmark’s Christmas elves.