Strasbourg, done up for the holidays (Photo: Thinkstock)
I’ve always loved traveling to Europe in November and December. While the days are shorter and the weather leaves a lot to be desired, the flights are cheaper, the crowds clear out, and there are incredible Christmas markets everywhere. Nobody does the holidays like Europe: the decorations are more sophisticated, the snow globes are snowier, and even the mulled wine tastes better. Plus, strolling around a market is a great way to soak in the local culture.
One of my favorite memories was going to Saint-German-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris, in early December to see the city’s famous royal castles. I stumbled upon a charming marché de Noël in the town, where I bought Christmas wooden ornaments for all my friends back home and wandered around sampling crepes and gingerbread. It was so lovely that I almost skipped seeing the historic sites.
Here are some of Europe’s stand-out markets, from the oldest to the gayest (yes, there’s a gay Christmas market!):
Vienna: the Oldest Christmas Market
Bright lights, big market in Vienna (Photo: Thinkstock)
This is where it all began. The Vienna “December market” dates to 1294. As it was when Albert I of Habsburg ruled the nation, going to a “Christkindlmarkt” is a social outing for the Viennese, who congregate for roast chestnuts and marzipan washed down with punsch and glühwein (mulled wine). Like many European cities, there are markets across the city, but the main one is on Rathausplatz. And the shopping can’t be beat: wooden toys, glass ornaments, and nary a Santa figurine to be seen.
Strasbourg: the Best Christmas Market
Santa and steamy drinks at the Strasbourg market (Photo: francois schnell/Flickr)
Recently voted the top Christmas market in Europe by the readers of the website European Best Destinations, Strasbourg is also one of the best known. The “Christkindelsmärik” (market of the Infant Jesus) first took place in 1570.
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These days, this Alsatian market on the border of France and Germany has an ice-skating rink and choirs serenading shoppers with caroles. Not to be missed: flammekeuche, a “pizza” with bacon, onions, and crème fraîche.
Nuremberg: the Most Famous Christmas Market
Dusk falls on the Nuremberg market (Photo: Thinkstock)
Germany is beloved for its quintessential markets selling wooden nutcrackers, hand-crafted ornaments, and bratwurst. The one not to miss is the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which attracts over two million people between Nov. 28 and Dec. 24 to its striped stalls. The things to buy here include plum people, miniature dolls made from prunes, and “rauschgoldengel,” gold-foil angels. There’s also a dedicated children’s market, with a merry-go-round and Santa, of course.
Copenhagen: the Brightest Christmas Market
Tivoli during December (Photo: Comrade Foot/Flickr)
Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens is a spectacle throughout the year, but at Christmastime it really glows, thanks to over 120,000 lights strung across the urban amusement park. This is one of Europe’s newer markets, having only been around since 1994. But it has quickly made its mark, attracting over one million travelers every year (a fifth of the population of Copenhagen itself). The market mixes influences from Scandinavia and Russia.
Cologne: the Gayest Christmas Market
Cologne’s colorful LGBT Christmas market (Photo: Helmut Löwe/cologne.de)
There are Christmas markets all across Cologne, but without a doubt the loudest and proudest is the city’s gay and lesbian Christmas market. This year the theme is pink and purple and stands will be hawking “pottery, XXL, and Christmas dog accessories.” Expect lots of personality.
Sligo, Ireland: the Kookiest Christmas Market
Shopping in the arrivals hall (Photo: Yvonne Gordon)
One of the most unusual settings is in an airport beside a surfing beach in the West of Ireland. Sligo Airport is only used for small planes, so Hangar 1 has been converted into the Strandhill People’s Market, selling hot food, local produce, and crafts. In the tiny terminal building, the arrivals hall has been transformed into Santa’s Grotto, where you can buy gifts at the car hire desk and have a drink in the airport bar.
Additional reporting by Yvonne Gordon.
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