Christmas markets signal the beginning of Advent with wooden chalets clustered together to sell local handicrafts, mulled wine, and holiday cheer. Dating back centuries, the tradition comes from winter markets of the Late Middle Ages across the German-speaking part of Europe and other parts of the former Holy Roman Empire, including what’s eastern France and Switzerland today. Winter markets took place throughout several days, instead of a week, letting residents stock up on baskets, wood carvings, seasonal food, and other supplies for the looming cold months. Dresden’s market may be the oldest in Germany, with the first event approved by Frederick II, Elector of Saxony, in 1434. Eventually, these seasonal markets turned their focus on Christmas celebrations, as known today. Here are some of the best Christmas markets in Europe for a holiday treat.
Strasbourg: French classic
The largest and oldest in France, the Strasbourg Christmas Market dates back to the 16th century. Hundreds of market stands spread across the Grande Île–an island in the historic centre of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Try delicacies from this part of northeast France, like crepes, spices to bake gingerbread, and Alsacian white wines. Next to the towering Christmas tree in Place Kleber, the “Sharing Village” supports local non-profits and charities and an ice skating rink offers a view of the main cathedral by night on Place du Château. In the Quartier Gare train station district, “Off” de Noël highlights Strasbourg’s local designers and fair trade artisans, surrounded by the city’s best neighbourhood for street art. [Explore the French capital with kids.]
Zagreb: Rising star
The Croatian capital takes Advent seriously, earning accolades for the best Christmas market in Europe the past three years in a row. The fountain in Ban Josip Jelačić Square transforms into a light display and lanterns cast a warm glow across the avenue of trees and old music pavilion in Zrinjevac Park. Wash down the baked štrukle–a warm pastry dish of soft cheese–with mulled wine before burning off the calories by skating around King Tomislav Square. The six-piece Ad Gloriam brass band plays concerts from some of the most picturesque balconies in the city, setting the tone for the festivities in the streets below.
Amsterdam: Christmas on the canals
Overflowing with 26 Christmas markets around the city, Amsterdam sets up an ice rink in front of the Rijksmuseum, surrounded by a village of wooden chalets serving olibollen (Dutch doughnuts) and mulled wine on the Museumplein. Trees fill the traditional flower market, a Ferris wheel gives the best view from RAI Amsterdam, and local artists and designers show off their work at the Funky Xmas market in the city’s former gasworks at Westergasfabriek. The Dutch capital kicks off the season with the annual Turn on the Lights celebration in mid-November when over 400.000 LED lights and fireworks showcase the 19th-century Bijenkorf department store building and the 65-foot-tall tree in front of the Royal Palace on Dam Square. The real magic brings artists from around the world to decorate the canals with installations during the Amsterdam Light Festival, the perfect time for a cruise. [Find the best bars in Amsterdam.}
Nuremberg: The Og
In Southern Germany, Nuremberg Christmas Market builds upon more than 400 years of tradition and surrounds the gothic, 14th-century Church of Our Lady soaring over the main square. Kids will love the magical Children’s Christmas Market, complete with a nostalgic, two-tiered carousel with reindeer, a Ferris wheel, and a steam railway. Nuremberg sausages come three in a roll, then top it off with the famous Lebkuchen gingerbread, baked for more than 600 years in the city and offered in every shape and size.
Credit: Christine Blau for National Geographic, 15 November 2018.