Open air winter street markets are increasingly popular across the world to mark the season of Advent, and there’s nothing better to get you into an epic Christmas vibe. The first recorded Christmas market was in Vienna, the Krippenmarkt, in 1298.
People go to great lengths to get to them. The highest Christmas market in the world, at almost 7,000 feet, is Christkindli Market on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland, and to reach it you have to ride the world’s steepest Cogwheel Railway for 30 minutes. It’s a goosebumps experience.
The market opens early in the season and for only one weekend, this year Friday, November 15th, so do plan for next year.
Initially, the markets would only sell meat, but have evolved since gift giving on Christmas day took off sometime in the 16th century, and have since become a wonderful opportunity to find unique handcrafted gifts made using leather, cloth, wood, silver or glass from local artisans, as well as traditional seasonal goodies all accompanied by festive song and cheer. The latter two things are often directly related to how much glühwein or whatever the hot spiced wine is called wherever you find yourself (mulled wine in England, so you know).
These are some of our favorite markets, and a couple thrown in for fun.
November 15 – December 26
Vienna is the alpha dog of Christmas markets, and why settle for one Christmas market when you can have a whole bunch of them, all in Baroque settings? Krippenmarkt was first staged in front of the old City Hall, in Rathausplatz, and it’s still a good place to start.
There are more than 20 events across Vienna to choose from with hundreds of stalls and everything to equal magical, from Christmas decorations, traditional handicrafts, international choirs, carousels, glühwein, hot chestnuts, reindeer trains, children’s workshops and a huge ice rink where you can try curling if it grabs you. Maybe it will after a few glühweins!
The market in front of Schönbrunn Palace turns into a New Year market after Christmas, as do some others.
The Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace (Nov 22 – December 26) boasts well-designed handicrafts and culinary tasty bites.
The Advent Pleasure Market at The Opera House focuses on local regional delicacies including gingerbread, cheeses, meats, hot punch and wine. And it’s next to the Opera House. When in Vienna… Happy times ahead.
November 15 – January 7, 2020
The medieval city of Tallinn is one of the oldest, best-preserved cities in Northern Europe, located 50 miles south of Helsinki, Finland. There will most likely be snow. In fact, be very afraid if there isn’t.
This capital city has had various influences throughout its history from Russia, Denmark, Germany, as well as Estonia, making it a fascinating, very literally storied cultural hub. Grand Gothic architecture sits alongside old churches from the middle ages, and rows of wooden huts set in the town square set the scene for the market where carolers, poets and dancers perform, where (they claim) the world’s first ever Christmas tree was erected, in 1441.
Try the local Vana Tallinn rum-based liqueur flavored with citrus oil, vanilla, cinnamon and spices. It’s over 80 proof so it’s perfect to warm you up we think.
November 22 – December 30
Strasbourg has one of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets. Set in eastern France, close to the German border, the market has been happening since 1570. The city claims to be the capital of Christmas markets. (We couldn’t independently verify that claim and we stopped trying after half an hour, when we realized, who cares? Christmas markets don’t need a capital!)
Stalls can be found all over the place around different squares and into enchanting alleyways. The whole set-up is pretty fantastic with over 300 market chalets in the center and a 98-foot Christmas tree. Eat your heart out Rockefeller Center…
November 26 – December 22
Located in the medieval town of Erfut, the market is set in the cathedral square. There are traditional handmade crafts plus local specialties.
Try the Thuringia Raclette toasted cheese sandwiches. You’ll never eat an American cheese toasted sandwich ever again. You will, in fact, move to Erfut, and produce little Erfut babies.
November 26 – December 23
Another one of the oldest and most decorous European Christmas markets, dating back to 1458, and one of the largest in Germany. Try the Apfelwein (hot cider), and thank me later.
Until December 22
If you can’t make it to Europe, this is one of the largest Christmas markets in North America, and feels a bit like Europe. But it won’t be the same. You know that.
Now in its tenth year, a light tunnel leads you into the festivities. There is lots of music, carolers, fairground rides, and Santa will be there for you, or the kids. You can pretend it’s for the kids. We don’t judge here at WONDERLUST. It’s also in the distillery district, so there’ll be all kinds of extra unabashed celebrating to be had.
Dresden, Saxony, Germany
November 27 – December 24
Back to Europe! Back to Germany, which really does the Christmas market right, is really the universal postcard for it. Dresden has the largest Christmas market in eastern Germany, and the original Striezelmarkt is the oldest, now being in its 585th year (since 1434, to save you working it out). Named after German Christmas cake, Striezel, or Christstollen, which is a traditional highlight of the market. The wooden chalets hold Saxony folk art amongst a myriad of twinkly lights, there’s a Ferris wheel, puppet theaters, an enchanted forest, several markets including a medieval market at Dresden’s Royal Palace, and a romantic market close by. The Advent Market sells goods from the historic crafts including chocolatiers, engravers and sign writers.
Useful terms to know:
Christstollen is Christmas fruit bread
Bethmännchen is pastry with marzipan (warning for marzipan haters)
Bratwurst is German sausage (a whole other animal to an American hot dog)
And most importantly, Glühwein is mulled wine. Drink lots of it. Your life will be richer for it. WONDERLUST never lies to you.
Stay in the Baroque Hotel Kempinski with an ice rink in the courtyard.
Prague is 3 hours away, by the way.
Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany
November 29 – December 24
Nuremberg was once considered to be the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Christkindlesmarkt in this Bavarian city is one of the largest and best-known Christmas markets in the world, first believed to be held in 1628, it now welcomes more than two million visitors per year from around the world. Tens of thousands of spectators attend the official opening ceremony by the Christkind, who brings gifts to the children and is an ethereal blond elected to perform official duties, including reading the opening prologue. Requirements are that she must be a native, aged between 16 – 19, at least 5 ft 3”, and not be afraid of heights.
It all takes place in the Hauptplatz square.
November 29 – January 7, 2020
Krakow has more of a diverse Christmas market. Set in the city’s enormous square, it also offers antiques and weird artifacts among the usual Christmas fair of hand-painted baubles and beautiful carved wooden things.
Prague, Czech Republic
November 30 – January 6 (including Christmas day)
Prague is stunning anyway, with its Gothic and Renaissance splendors around every corner. Add to that two Christmas markets five minutes walk from each other. One is in Old Town Square and the other in the historic Wenceslas Square, named after the good old king, which, in more recent times, was the scene of declaration of the rejection of Soviet communism, (and subsequent uproarious celebration of the fall of it weeks later) in then Czechoslovakia, in late fall 1989.
If you like your sausages, look out for the Klobasa, the Czech sausage.
November 30 – January 7
The capital of Croatia is a big hit during the Advent season holding a plethora of unique events, music, excellent food, carousels, art, a beautiful ice park, stunningly lit walkways and several Christmas markets. Plus it’s great for shopping, generally, anyway. And food!
Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
Four miles south of the Arctic Circle is Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, home to around 63,000 people and… Santa himself!
There’s a giant Santa Claus village where you can visit Santa and his elves all year long, however, on December 23rd Santa leaves the Arctic Circle to deliver gifts to children all over the globe, and watching him depart is a must experience event!
Besides that, there are Finnish crafts, traditional cuisine, reindeer and husky dog sleigh rides, and trips to ‘the forest of the elves’, oh and the Aurora Borealis. Nothing really. Lapland is JUST A MAGICAL KINGDOM (and home to our Number One location and experience on the WONDERLUST 100).