ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take in the colours, aroma and treats of the merriest Christmas markets in Europe
Christmas is easily the most eagerly anticipated season for millions around the world. Come December and you cannot escape the refrain of Christmas carols, the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts on the streets and the wintry air scented with the spicy aroma of cinnamon and warm mulled wine. Dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees shimmer like towers of light, angels and elves grace rooftops and shop windows, streams of light rain down old timbered homes, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Christmas markets.
Every town interprets the traditional Advent Calendar, with surprises and treats unveiled each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with three-dimensional designs. Local craftsmen set up stalls around medieval Town Halls selling knitted woollen clothes, nutcrackers, stars, bells, candles, toys, besides objects made of wood, glass, stone and ceramic. The festive season is at its glorious best all across Europe and here’s a guide to the very best.
When it comes to Christmas markets, Germany truly takes the stollen (cake). With a tradition dating back to 1393, every city has multiple markets, each with a particular theme and special local treats. In the Harz region at Wernigerode a quaint medieval town of half-timbered houses near Hannover, the Mayor cuts a giant stollen to declare the market open. Known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling), a special Christmas train chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is named after hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as Dresden Christstollen (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market around the Old City Hall of Cologne ladles out traditional gluhwein (mulled wine) and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near the Cathedral with hundreds of stage performances throughout the festival. Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt is lined with Bavarian stalls that dish out Nuremberger sausages, lebkuchen and zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped plum treats!
The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a medieval market, a fairytale forest and the largest freestanding Advent calendar in the world. Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt and Christkindlmarkt. With the stunning Gendarmenmarkt Square and WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus witnesses Christmas-themed parades and circus performers every Saturday. Hundreds of decorated stalls at Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt compete to win the award for the ‘most beautiful stall’.
At Basel, the Christmas market is split into two sections – Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. But if you can’t get there, central Zurich is a good place to catch the Yuletide spirit. The Hauptbahnhof or Main Train Station hosts the Christkindlimarkt with a 49 ft tall Christmas tree sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lined with stalls, it is one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe.
Wienachtsdorf, Zurich’s oldest and largest Christmas market is held in front of the Opera House in the picturesque Old Town. The whole season is packed with events – Advent concerts, Lichterschwimmen or candle-floating event and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display hosted by Zurich hoteliers. Don’t forget to grab Swiss delights like raclette and fondue.
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is the oldest market in the Hungarian capital and takes place at Vörösmarty Square. The city center wears a festive air with light shows, folk dancing, live music and over a hundred stalls selling Christmas gifts, traditional Hungarian food and freshly grilled flódni, the Hungarian chimney cake. The exterior of the famous Gerbeaud Coffee House is converted into a giant advent calendar, with a new window display opening every day.
The Advent Feast, the open-air festive-season market, takes place in Szent István Square at St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s largest church dedicated to Stephen, the country’s first king. Lined with vendors and an ice skating rink for children, it has folk dance shows on weekends. Try lencseleves or lentil soup, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.
Serbia is Orthodox Christian and Christmas is aligned to the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one, so festivities are centered around 7 January rather than 25 December. However, celebrations are in full swing for a month. Belgrade’s main square, Trg Republike, is transformed into the Open Heart Street with colourful wooden huts selling Christmas delicacies and drinks. The two-week long New Year fair features an indoor amusement park, a skating rink, concerts and shows, a beer festival and souvenir stalls.
At the annual Santa Race thousands dress up as Deda Mraz (literally ‘Grandpa Frost’ as Santa is known as Serbia) or Mrs Claus, and run through the capital for charity. As per Serbian tradition, badnjak or an oak branch is symbolically burned in homes on Christmas Eve and a public lighting is held at St Sava Temple. The centrepiece of the feast is pecenica (roast pork), typical winter treats like sarma, mince and rice wrapped and slow cooked in cabbage leaves besides cesnica, a bread with a coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the portion with the coin will receive good fortune in the year ahead.
During Christmas, the old Polish capital of Krakow (Cracow) in the south comes alive and the tantalizing smoky aroma of grilled meat and cheese hangs heavy in the winter air. The city’s main Christmas market is held in Rynek Glowny, the huge main square in the middle of the Old Town. With a stunning backdrop of the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, rows of wooden stalls sell hand-painted Christmas baubles, spiced nuts, boiled candies and Christmas goodies.
Taste traditional Polish dishes on a Krakow Christmas Market Food Tour – Polish dumplings, special sausages, oscypek (smoked cheese) served with cranberry jelly and smalec, a traditional spicy spread made of lard and served over hot slices of bread. Don’t miss the procession of the Krakow Christmas Crib Contest.
In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, all the Yuletide action revolves around the Tivoli Gardens, which is bedecked with more than 500,000 fairy lights. Three different light shows are held in the park, a traditional Pixie Band plays festive songs at various points and firework displays dazzle the skies on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Don’t miss Danish treats like aebleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar or honninghjerter, dense honey cake often filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze.
In a recent poll, Tallinn the beautiful Estonian capital was chosen as the #1 European Christmas Destination 2019. Beautiful location by the Baltic Sea, a well-preserved walled, cobblestoned Old Town and a rich Christmas tradition give medieval Tallinn an unbeatable appeal. The Town Hall Square Christmas tree, which has been set up since 1441 and was one of the first to be displayed in Europe. There’s also a winter grotto, performances by choirs, poets and dance troupes. rows of huts, where you can pick up traditional handmade gifts and try out Estonian cuisine like black pudding and sour cabbage.
The Strasbourg Christkindelsmärik is the oldest Christmas market in France, dating back to 1570. Set up in the heart of the UNESCO world heritage site Grande Île, the market radiates from the city centre around Cathedral square and Place Broglie. At Place Kleber, you’ll find the Grand Sapin (Great Christmas Tree) lit up with 7km of lights. Earlier, people used to put presents for the poor under the tree. Today, it hosts the ‘Village of Sharing’ where charity stalls sell souvenirs and food for a cause.
There are numerous markets all over Strasbourg’s beautiful squares reachable through quaint narrow alleyways. For Alsatian tastes and flavours visit the stalls by local growers at Place des Meuniers while Place du Marché-aux-poissons, around the Palais Rohan has a Christmas treats market with beer, wine, vin chaud (mulled wine) and local eats like bretzel (French version of the German pretzel) and choucroute or grated cabbage pickled in wine, accompanied by sausages and slow-cooked pork.
Having been voted the best Christmas Market in Europe three years in a row means that Zagreb can no longer compete but that takes away little of its charm. In the Croatian capital, all the action takes place around Jelačić Square, which dons the air of a carnival. An ice park at King Tomislav Square, live Nativity scene at Zagreb Cathedral, ice sculpture carvings, pop-up bars, street food stands, outdoor music stages; there’s even an area dedicated to fuliranje (fooling around) at Strossmayer where revelers can dance in the street and eat and drink to their heart’s content. Try local fare like orahnjača (walnut roll) and kiflice (vanilla half moon biscuits). Ride the Jolly Christmas Tram through the city center accompanied by Santa and his elves.
The first Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) was held in 1298 and today the Austrian capital has over 20 events to choose from – from the Museums Quarter to Belvedere Palace, an Art & Craft market at Karlsplatz in front of the Karlskirche or even a Vegan Advent Market! For the perfect introduction, head straight to the Viennese Christmas Market at Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.
Nearly 150 stalls dish out sausages, kiachl (doughnuts from Tyrol served with cranberry jam), Schilcher glühwein (mulled wine from Styria) and Raclette Brot (bread with warm Alps cheese). The highlight is the huge ice skating rink, reindeer rides for kids and a classic nativity scene. Vienna is good to visit all year round but in Christmas it becomes a winter wonderland with video projections on facades of historic buildings.
Prague, Czech Republic
The two main Christmas markets in Prague are held at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, literally a five minute walk from each other! Catch the day’s festivities at Wenceslas with some Czech beers like Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and Staropramen in the afternoon, then hang around the Old Town Square for the main tree to be lit up. For a truly local experience head to Peace Square in Vinohrady! Wooden huts dish out Christmas treats like svarák (Czech mulled wine), vanočka (braided cake), klobása (Czech sausage) and trdelník, barbecued pork pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.
Brussels’s Winter Wonders is more a party than a Christmas Market, with over 200 wooden chalets serving glühwein, Belgian beers and waffles. The event is spread out across multiple locations – the Bourse (stock exchange), Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte Catherine, Marche aux Poissons and Grand-Place with a light and sound show projected onto it. Other attractions include a covered ice rink, a huge Christmas tree and a giant Ferris wheel.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 December, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.