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Getting into the Festive Spirit with European Christmas Markets


For centuries, Christmas markets have brought cheer to weary villagers and added a touch of light and color to the long winter nights. The precursor to Christmas markets is thought to be Vienna’s Dezembermarkt (December Market), dating back to around 1296. Shopkeepers were given the right to hold a market for a day or two in early winter so that townspeople could stock up on supplies to last through the cold months. Over time, local families started setting up stalls to sell baskets, toys, and woodcarvings alongside others selling almonds, roasted chestnuts, and gingerbread. These were often bought as gifts to give away at Christmas. Gradually, markets all over Germany and other nearby countries were set up at the beginning of Advent as Christkindlmarkts (Christmas Markets), and became a popular way to celebrate the upcoming holiday. Today they are in many parts of Europe and provide locals and visitors alike with festive cheer. The list of markets is long, and I don't think you can go wrong with your choice. But I have compiled a list of some that stand out among the best (there are certainly others as well). Here, in no particular order are eight markets to consider visiting on a winter trip next year.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA

Each year Vienna and various local associations host more than a dozen Christmas markets with Christmas trees, mulled wine, traditional food, and arts and crafts stalls. In addition, some of them boast live bands and gospel choirs, ice curling rinks, and even fire dances and an Alpine log cabin. The most famous being the one in Rathausplatz, located across from the town hall. Though the market itself delights with its mix of traditional Christmas sights and smells, the surrounds are also worth a visit. The park areas either side of the market feature displays for children, a nativity scene trail, illuminated ice skating trail, lit-up trees and more.

ZAGREB, CROATIA

The Croatian capital takes Advent seriously, earning accolades for the best Christmas market in Europe the past three years in a row, according to National Geographic. The fountain in Ban Josip Jelačić Square transforms into a light display, and lanterns cast a warm glow across the avenue of trees and old music pavilion in Zrinjevac Park. Wash down the baked štrukle–a warm pastry dish of soft cheese–with mulled wine before burning off the calories by skating around King Tomislav Square.

STRASBOURG, FRANCE

The Strasbourg Christmas Market dates back to the 16th century-- the largest and oldest in all of France. Hundreds of market stands spread across the Grande Île, an island in the historic center of the city (and a Unesco World Heritage site). More than 300 stalls, miles of fairy lights, the majestic Great Christmas Tree, dazzling shows and concerts, and an unforgettable Christmas celebration await you. There's even a Christmas Market food tour to make sure you don't miss a morsel!

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK

Copenhagen is a genuine Christmas city, where it is impossible not to get in the spirit for the Christmas holiday season. There are more than a handful of holiday markets, from an unconventional Yuletide fair reminiscent of an Oriental bazaar to the Kronburg Rensaissance Castle Market. The Tivoli Gardens are also a traveler's highlight (and locals, too) at any time of the year, but they have a special display for the holidays. The historic gardens will be full of decorated wooden houses, snow-covered trees, Santa’s reindeer, Christmas lights, and the true Nordic Christmas atmosphere.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

While Prague is a fantastic year-round destination, the Czech capital really comes alive around the holidays.The Old Town Square Christmas market is the prettiest and busiest one in the city. Little stalls nestle around the Jan Hus stalls and flank centuries-old Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. The Christmas markets consist of brightly decorated wooden huts stocked with local handicrafts and traditional Christmas treats.There is also an animal stable, where children can pet sheep, goats, and other local beasts. The second largest market in Prague is held in the lower part of Wenceslas Square. Warm up with a glass of mulled wine (svařák in Czech), and sample some traditional Christmas specialties such as braided cake (vánočka). Most of the goods in this market are handmade, so this is a great opportunity to pick up some stocking fillers. You will find wooden toys, gifts made of glass and iron, and steel presents sold by artisan blacksmiths.

DRESDEN, GERMANY

Dresden has the largest number of Christmas markets in the eastern part of the country, and lays its claim to the title of the oldest seasonal event in Germany. It is certainly one of the most traditional, with many of the customs surrounding the main city market stemming from local industries like mining, woodworking and pottery. Eleven distinct Christmas markets lie right at your feet: From the very traditional to the merry medieval to the après-ski charm of the Hüttenzauber – you’ll find it all.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

Don't miss the festive markets in the city center, a popular highlight of Edinburgh's Christmas. Enjoy delicious food and drink and traditional crafts at the Scottish Market on George Street, pick up unique gifts and goods at the European Market in the Mound Precinct, or choose presents for the wee ones in the Children's Market, part of Santa Land in Princes Street Gardens. They also have a variety of rides and attractions to enjoy, and nearby St. Andrew's Square contains the UK's only elliptical outdoor ice rink. But in true Edinburgh fashion, there's more: Silent Light brings together the spectacular Street of Light from Edinburgh’s Christmas 2015 and 2016 and silent disco headphones to give you the ultimate street party: singing and dancing under a spectacular array of 60,000 lights synchronized to music heard only through the headphones. There are up to five Silent Light shows a day, each 20 minutes long. Get your Christmas groove on and choose from three tracks, one for each show: "Santa’s Sparkles", specially picked for families, "Christmas Crackers", with all your favorite festive tunes, and "Disco Delights" for the party-loving crowd.

TALLINN, ESTONIA

Definitely off the beaten path of Christmas Markets, the small country of Estonia's capital city on the Baltic Sea, Tallinn holds a true gem. Tallinn's Old Town's Market has recently been voted one of Europe's best. In winter, there aren’t many tourists in Tallinn, this market caters to locals who buy their gifts here and gather to share a meal with friends and family. Unlike many European markets further south, Christmas markets the northern markets tend to be facets of local culture that prioritize the traditional spirit, but that's not to say that tourists can't expect a real treat. Expect to receive a very warm welcome! Once you have shopped and eaten all you can, there's more winter fun to be had nearby. Cross-country skiing is the national sport in Estonia, and sled rides with huskies, ice skating on frozen lakes and ponds, and other festivities are all highly recommended. For those wishing to experience a true Estonian winter experience, head to one of the many spas located near Tallinn. Take some time to get warmed up in the sauna then dip yourself in an ice hole. Then rinse and repeat. To make the most of the trip, hop over to nearby Finland to get a first class seat for the Northern Lights.

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