It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the evenings darker, and the locals are starting to light things up to have some glimmer of hope carry them through these Northern winters. Advent is here, which means all across Europe, Christmas markets have been set up, lights strung, and the Christmas season has officially begin. Not to mention the motivational Krampus parade that hits Alpine cities this coming weekend.
Unlike in the United States, where we have a creeping Advent, one that seems to start the Christmas carols a day earlier each year, Europe has a pretty well set tradition. The fourth Sunday before Christmas heralds the new season, no matter what all the card and toy companies and Starbucks would have us believe. But what do these European socialists know about holidays anyway? Don’t they know the true Christmas spirit is making a quick buck?
a quick buck in Nuremberg
To answer that, yes they do. But they also know the value of keeping something special. This means you can up the price and do less work, because a rare thing is a wanted thing. And there’s nothing rarer than the Christmas souvenir, which unless you’re in Rothenburg, Germany at the year round Christmas shop—which is altogether a creepy place in July—then you have to wait until December to get your favorite candle powered silver spinny-thing or the right Christkindlsmarkt 2016 glass for your homemade mulled wine.
The best Christmas markets are in the Austrian and German sphere of influence. As you go West they get less magical and cozy and more Trump tower—which I suppose is a kind of magical place unto itself. The most common term for the Christmas Market is “Weihnmarkt” or “Advent Market”, though all the different towns tend to have different names for them, and it’s a great place to bring the kids to look at all the beautiful Christmassy goings on while you get good and sloshed on some steaming hot red wine.
The following is a list of what I’ve found to be the top 5 Christmas markets. So if you're planning a trip to Europe in December, make sure to add one of these on your list of destinations.
1. Prague, Czech Republic
one market to rule them all
Prague is consistently rated as having the number one Christmas market. Despite it being in the Czech Republic, the region has had a deluge of Germanic influences, being a part and partner of German territories for over a thousand years. Though the old town square is indeed dressed up in lights, a giant, orchestra blaring Christmas tree, and wood stalls everywhere, it’s not just the market itself that wins people over. Indeed, the whole city turns into a Christmas market, as stalls, trees, and lights are put up in just about every square in the city, making it quite possible to traverse the entirety of the urban area with a fresh cup of svařak–the local word for hot wine, pronounced svajak–in hand at all times. It also brings in a lot of green and other colors, which is a much-needed thing, with all the trees barren and the sky always grey and overcast.
does it need an explanation why this is the best?
2. Nuremberg, Germany
Nuremberg (see also our day tour of the town here) has one of the largest Christkindlmarkts in the Continent. It’s got the special name because a local dressed up as baby Jesus comes out to start it up, and nearly at all times there’s a brass band playing Christmas carols on the packed square. The square has a giant monumental fountain from the 13th century on it, and it looks like a Gothic spire went missing from a local church, perhaps even from the grand Frauenkirche that overlooks the site. Walking around the Frauenkirche, there is a children’s market, complete with rides and more hot wine, and the market extends all the way up Marientorgraben to the train station, packed at all times with revelers and shoppers.
the market at the Frauenkirche
Our drink of choice here was the hot spiced apple cider, which for Americans, isn’t the dull powdered stuff you get at Safeway, but rather from actual fermented apples - a proper cider. I’m not even sure why Americans think apples come from paper packets of powder.
angels watching over the wine
Think to reserve a hotel nearly six months out, or book a place in a nearby village. If you want to make a proper tour of Christmas markets and still be situated in a good-sized, not huge town, and still be in Bavaria and Franconia though, Nuremberg is a pretty good starting point, being pretty central to the region. It’s a direct train ride from all the airport cities – Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin – and a direct, 3-hour bus ride from Prague.
Drive to them all using Discover!
3. Rothenberg, Germany
Rothenberg at any time of year is a trip back in time, and during Christmas, it’s almost like a trip into Santa’s workshop. The place is well-known for being the center of sales and possibly production of souvenir Christmas ornaments, clocks, and spinning things year-round, with a shop right on the main square devoted to it all. During the Christmas season, the town gets decked out with boughs of holly, branches hanging down every window where there were once poinsettias, each house framed with large light bulbs wrapped in pine needles. If only there were some snow in the season any more, and this would be the perfect snow-time getaway.
the most fairy tale city of Germany
Rothenberg certainly doesn’t have the biggest Christmas market in Germany, especially since there is hardly much room in the tight, pedestrian streets of the old town – the main square even is one of the smallest in Europe. But it’s certainly one of the more romantic ones, especially with its giant, sagging Christmas tree standing before the town hall which seems to fill up half the square, while stalls of souvenirs and sausages cram the tiny alleys that spider-web out from the center.
The central square Christmas tree
Characteristic of its time-away-from-time atmosphere, nothing is modern in Rothenberg except for the rare taxi trolling through the crowds, bringing some lazy tourist to their hotel or picking another up. Don’t expect to pay for things with your credit card – except maybe your hotel room – and especially don’t expect anything to be on the Internet. Despite there being probably hundreds of hotels in the town, there are less than ten listed on Booking.com, and those are often booked up to a year in advance. But don’t worry, you can always just stay in a nearby village, which may even offer something much more romantic and much cheaper, and since the sun goes down at 4, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas lights in Rothenberg and make it back to your hotel.
The Advent market museum and shop, open year round
The drink of choice here is the Feuerzangenbowle. Yes, that's actually how it's spelled and no, I don't know how to pronounce it. It’s a hot mulled wine, mixed red and white, that is simply insanely delicious. Perhaps the best hot wine I’ve had in all my Christmas marketeering days–and I drink a lot! Meanwhile, the snack of choice is the Schneeball, which is a kind of cookie wrapped around itself until it comes to the size of a fist. I’m not overly impressed by the taste and it’s a real mess to eat, but you’ve got to try one when you’re in their hometown.
4. Bamberg, Germany
looking down a stall filled alley in Bamberg
One of the best surprises of my travels has been the town of Bamberg. You don’t normally read about Bamberg on the main trails, usually the cities mentioned in the parts of Franconia are Rothenberg and Nuremberg. It’s a mistake though to miss out on the Bamberg Christmas market. Bamberg itself is a beautiful medieval town hugging closely the banks of the Regnitz River, pedestrian only bridges – from stone to steel – making an intricate lacework over the rushing waters. The Christmas market there is huge – almost the size of the one in Nuremberg – but the market also winds down the side streets, making it feel as warm and cozy as that of Rothenberg. It’s the best of both worlds really, and since it’s not on the primary tourist track the prices of souvenirs are quite competitive.
Bamberg is the Venice of Franconia
Given that this was the last town we visited on our last-year Christmas market tour, I can’t remember what I drank, but I do remember detoxing at some café near a donut shop. I was thinking fondly of donuts, since they’re hard to come by, they taste better than Schneeballen, and my stomach was still sick off eating too many of those doughy things. And then there was more wine, or punch, or something and oh, a guy dressed as Grandfather Frost!
the main Bamberg market
5. London, England
This one depends on what your taste is. If you want the more traditional flavor, you're better off with Germany, but if you want something more modern, complete with rollercoasters and haunted houses, then you should get on over to Hyde Park in London. I wrote more about our experience there last year, but it was definitely a thrilling place. It just seemed less "Christmas" and more "winter carnival" though, whereas the German style markets really make you feel the spirit of the season and the meaning of the carols.
the very Christmassy Hangover
Have you been to a Christmas market in Europe? What's your favorite?
Also, if you're in Europe for December 10th, don't forget the Krampus.
And if you enjoyed all this, make sure to pick up my Facetious Guide to Prague!