Sleigh season is around the corner, the Christmas ads are on TV and Jack Frost is on the way…’tis the season to wrap up warmly and discover Europe’s best Christmas markets!
The perfect Christmas market involves a good glug of mulled wine, a tall tree with sparkling lights and stalls packed with calorie-laden fruit cakes, gingerbread and rustic handmade Christmas decorations. If you’ve never been to one, these traditional markets date back to the Late Middle Ages (they originated in Germany) and they’ve been lighting up winter nights in market towns around Europe since then.
Some of the oldest main squares in northern Europe still hold a big Christmas market year after year. The season starts now, towards the end of November but you don’t even have to travel to Switzerland, Germany or Austria because one of the UK’s largest markets takes place much closer to home – in Leeds.
In fact Christmas markets were very popular in Britain until Oliver Cromwell put a dampner on things, wiping out the tradition almost overnight. Luckily they were revived post-Cromwell and now some of the best are held in the UK’s prettiest cities such as Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh. Because the custom has been kept alive by French, Austrian and Italian traders in particular, the treats sold in the stalls often have a colourful continental flavour.
Here’s our round-up of five of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
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.
Dresden may not be the first city that springs to mind when you start compiling a top five Christmas markets, but the first record of its market dates back to 1434, making it the oldest in Germany’s record books. The city has a special charm in winter, when its legendary Striezelmarkt kicks off and the city’s rooftops iced in snow add a magical, festive feel to the celebrations. The best place to stay and enjoy the city’s Baroque splendour is at the Hapimag residence in Dresden http://www.hapimag.co.uk/en/dresden.htm run by the leading Swiss timeshare specialists.
You can’t visit Dresden in December without sampling Striezel – or “Stollen”, the traditional holiday season fruitcake baked in the form of a loaf and dusted with icing sugar (and now sold in British and American 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.
Cosmopolitan, international and easy to get to, Brussels is a quick Eurostar trip from London. The Grand Place or Grote Markt in Brussels becomes centre stage for its Christmas market at this time of year and it’s a particularly good one if you’re looking to take home some festive food gifts. Along with the mulled wine you’ll find beautifully wrapped clusters of Belgian chocolates, hot plates of moules and Belgian speculoos – Santa Claus-shaped gingerbread biscuits. In winter, the Fish Market transforms into the city’s Christmas ice rink full of skaters, jugglers, street musicians and painters.
Held in the Tivoli Gardens, the site of Copenhagen’s Christmas market becomes a sparkling silvery winter wonderland decked out with hundreds of Christmas trees and half a million lights around this time of year. The main lake does double duty as the city’s winter skating rink in the colder months 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 – perhaps not for every day drinking but perfect for de-thawing the tips of your fingers in sub-zero temperatures. Best enjoyed with one too many hot apple dumplings while you stroll around the various stalls, stop for a quick pic with Father Christmas and mingle with the nisser, Denmark’s fun-seeking Christmas elves.