Christmas markets have been casting their festive spell over visitors for centuries with the enticing aromas of freshly baked sweets, the warm-spice scent of mulled wine, the twinkling of lights and a heaping dose of holiday cheer. While day-to-day life has clearly changed over the years, most markets have made a concerted effort to stay true to their roots and boast an elusive ambiance that offers families a momentary step back in time — when handmade crafts, treats made from scratch, unique gifts and traditional performances were the norm.
Families will be swept up by the charm of these delightful European winter destinations, many of which appear to be literally dusted by magic (as if by the Sugar Plum Fairy). Each offers its own take on tradition and unique elements, from local food specialties to petting zoos and ice rinks. Pick one that beckons your family, then bundle up and head out to make your own frosty market memories.
There are several Christmas markets in Vienna, but the showpiece is the one on Rathausplatz, the square in front of the town hall and opposite the Burgtheater. This Yuletide market dates back to the 18th century and draws hordes of visitors each year to enjoy its traditional ambiance. Savor roasted chestnuts, mulled wine and cream-filled pastries, a Vienna specialty. Bring the spirit of the Austrian holiday back home with locally crafted blown-glass and wooden holiday decorations. If your family is looking for a slightly slower pace, try the more intimate market in the courtyard of Schönbrunn Palace — which incidentally has a fantastic children’s museum offering kids a hands-on look at palace life.
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Dresden’s Striezelmarkt is known as Germany’s oldest Christmas market. Its name comes from stollen, the well-known Christmas bread, and a giant fruit-studded cake is paraded through the Baroque Old Town each year to kick off the festival in honor of this delicacy. Families will enjoy the festive ambiance of the Altmarkt Square, capped by the world’s largest “Christmas Pyramid” at 46 feet tall. Miniature versions of the pyramid are popular handicrafts, but you can also find beautiful gifts such as Dresden’s famous blue and white pottery. Don’t forget to try Pflaumentoffel — Dresden good luck charms, made of dried plums, that represent the little boys who once cleaned the chimneys.
Each year, Brussels City Centre is transformed into the Plaisirs d’Hiver (Pleasures of Winter) festival. Families will enjoy meandering through the hundreds of wooden chalet-style stalls and sampling everything from signature Belgian chocolate to local beers and even moules frites. One of the highlights of the Brussels market is the nightly sound-and-lights show on the Grand Place, which is studded with its magnificent Christmas tree. The market also features a sizable ice skating rink, a merry-go-round and an impressive Ferris wheel.
The Christmas market in Tivoli Gardens is truly a feast for the eyes. From the decorated wooden houses in the historic gardens (complete with Santa’s reindeer!) to the Chinese-themed area with a demon roller coaster, this Copenhagen market does not disappoint. There are more than 25 rides for families to enjoy, as well as live music and traditional Danish holiday treats like iced doughnuts with black currant jam. Don’t miss the thrice-nightly light shows and the Lucia procession, with a choir over 100 people strong.
The action at this Bavarian winter wonderland takes place in the city center on Marienplatz. Families will enjoy the massive tree and traditional shops as well as the “Heavenly Workshop” in the Town Hall, where kids can have fun with holiday arts and crafts and decorate traditional cookies. There’s even a Christmas tram that travels through the old city serving gingerbread and mulled wine. Nativity scene enthusiasts will want to check out the Kripperlmarkt, which features a huge selection of handcrafted manger figurines and accessories.
Strasbourg’s market tradition dates back to 1570, when it was called the “Christkindelsmärik” (market of the Infant Jesus). Soak up the warm Alsatian ambiance and browse 300-plus stalls in this romantic city, which bills itself as the “Capital of Christmas.” Sample traditional sweets such as bredele, Christmas biscuits in flavors like orange or cinnamon; and marvel at the Great Christmas Tree on Place Kléber, decorated in keeping with the traditions of Strasbourg trade guilds that date back to 1605. For families looking to kindle the altruistic spirit of the season, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market also features an innovative “Village of Sharing” run by humanitarian organizations that allows visitors to show their generosity to people in need.
Known as Vanocni trh in Czech, Christmas markets are a key part of enjoying the festive holiday magic in the Czech Republic, and the main ones in Prague can be found at the Old Town Square and nearby Wenceslas Square. Feast on fragrant barbecued sausages (klobása) and mouthwatering hot sugar-coated (trdelník) pastries that are prepared before your eyes. The animal stable (petting zoo) at Old Town Square will win the hearts of little visitors. Make sure to keep an eye out for St. Nick, who roams through town.
Krakow’s Christmas market takes place every year on the city’s huge central square, Rynek Glowny, in the middle of the Old Town historic district. Local artisans like blacksmiths and carvers demonstrate their arts as visitors stroll amid festive stalls of local handicrafts, such as Poland’s popular and colorful hand-painted glass baubles. Kids will delight in the many seasonal sweets, such as colorfully iced, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies, and the chance for a glimpse of St. Nick — or maybe even a picture with him. Parents, meanwhile, can enjoy the local grzaniec (hot mulled wine).
The Salzburg Christkindlmarkt claims to be one of the oldest Advent markets in the world, and its setting, at the foot of the Hohensalzburg Fortress and around the Cathedral of Salzburg, could not be more impressive. Families will enjoy the scores of market stalls, baked apples and cotton candy, and daily choral concerts (what else would you expect from Mozart’s city?) as well as evening open air sing-alongs. Keep your eyes peeled for the enchanting winged “Christkind” angels who roam through the market, but watch out for the “Krampus,” horned devil spirits who follow St. Nick and attempt to swat naughty children with birch switches.
Each Advent, Stuttgart is transformed into a glittering Christmas city. This beautiful market is spread across the Marktplatz, Schillerplatz and Schlossplatz, as well as Hirschstrasse and Kirchstrasse. There are hundreds of elaborately decorated stalls and frequent holiday music concerts and performances. Families will be delighted by the “Winterland” (Wintertraum) on the Palace Square (Schlossplatz), featuring a fairytale grotto, an old-fashioned carousel and a miniature railway that travels through a snowscape. After you’ve had your fill of roasted chestnuts, gingerbread, candied almonds, fried sausages and mulled wine, perhaps the kids (and adults!) will be eager to speed things up at the nearby Porsche and Mercedes Benz museums.
The Christmas market on Vorosmarty Square is not the only market in Budapest, but it is certainly the oldest and the most spectacular. Highlights include traditional folk art and handicrafts, Hungarian Christmas dishes like roasted goose thigh and sausages and local pastries such as the chimney-shaped kurtos kalacs, eaten while listening to Christmas concerts. On weekends, kids can enjoy a puppet theatre and music and dance performances, as well as arts and crafts workshops (making projects like ornaments, candles and fruit garlands) that are held in an adorable wooden train playhouse.
During winter, Amsterdam‘s Museumplein is transformed into a festive wonderland known as the Ice Village. Set against the spectacular backdrop of the Rijksmuseum, it features everything from traditional Dutch street food to hot drinks and handmade accessories and clothing. Go for a leisurely skate on the adjacent ice rink, then warm up in the onsite restaurant with cheese fondue, or take part in quirky traditions such as human bowling on the ice.
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