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Is there any more romantic notion than Christmas in Europe?
Each year we dream of sipping a steaming cup of mulled wine amid a flurry of joyful Christmas market shoppers. We dream of timber-frame stalls dressed in whimsical string lights, set in a public square framed by a cathedral steeple. The smell of roast chestnuts and spicy-sweet Lebkuchen wafts through market stalls.
But don't take it from us. We asked four travel writers to describe the magic of a European Christmas market.
Now...what did you say your Christmas plans were?
Fluffy white flakes billow against the night sky as I soak up Vienna's festive atmosphere, wandering round rows of colourful stalls, festooned with twinkly lights.
The tradition of Christmas markets here goes back to the 13th century, and when darkness falls, Austria’s capital is transformed into a Hansel and Gretel version of Yuletide.
Like the Three Wise Men, visitors travel from afar to enjoy the bustling festivities this idyllic city has to offer, but that’s not surprising, considering there is more going on here than you can shake a sleigh load of baubles at.
Flickr/Oscar Hanzely (CCbyND2.0)
Vienna has ten or so Christmas markets to choose from. The biggest is Christkindlmarkt on Rathausplatz, while arguably the most atmospheric snakes through the streets in front of Schönbrunn Palace. I visit both, entranced by the array of goods on sale, from wooden toys, old-fashioned beeswax candles, carved angels, ceramics and music boxes, to figurines carefully hand-crafted and painstakingly hand-enameled.
I refuel with local gingerbread or melted cheese on rye bread - a traditional favourite - as I quaff a piping hot mug of aromatic mulled wine. It's just the ticket to defrost frozen fingers!
Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market
My year abroad in Berlin marked the first time I wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas with my family back in Canada. As a way to stave off the homesickness, I spent a good deal of time in the city's Christmas markets.
I’m not a person who gets excited by Christmas carols and elaborate holiday decorations, but spending just an hour inside a German Christmas market is enough to convert the bitterest of Scrooges – although the glühwein (yummy mulled wine) certainly helps.
Gendarmenmarkt’s location between the iconic Französischer Dom and Deutscher Dom makes it one of the most beautiful markets in Berlin. Combine that architecture with festive lights and traditional wooden booths filled with everything from edible treats to handmade ornaments, and you’ve got the dreamiest market in town.
Flickr/Sergey Galyonkin (CCbySA2.0)
I loved the clamor inside those markets, and Gendarmenmarkt’s atmosphere was my favourite. Sometimes the stage would feature ballerinas or gospel choirs—other times, classical music. I was always happy as a lark to wrap cold hands around a hot mug of glühwein while sampling bits of food from the stalls. The smell of cinnamon wafting over the tents constantly drew me to the pfannkuchen, crepes topped with Nutella, chocolate, and more. Truthfully, I did not miss home in the slightest.
Hit the Christmas markets of Austria, Germany and Switzerland on one itinerary: trafalgar.com/christmas-markets-of-austria-germany-and-switzerland
My first stop in search of the perfect stocking stuffer is Munich, regional capital of atmospheric Bavaria, where there are several Christmas markets to choose from.
Christkindlmarkt, the largest, is held in the Marienplatz, in the heart of town and dates back to the 14th century.
The market oozes fairy tale charm. I drift around stalls piled high with an array of gifts - no mass-produced baubles here, this is craftwork of real quality.
Besides the chance to pick up unusual presents, I am cheered by a variety of Yuletide entertainment, from marching bands to advent concerts and lantern processions. To add to the atmosphere, a choir of carollers sing their hearts out.
Flickr/Srudeep Reddy (CCby2.0)
Many temptations are on offer to titillate the taste buds. After all, everyone says food tastes better outdoors and certainly never more so than on a crisp, chill winter evening. I warm my hands round a bag of roast chestnuts straight from the brazier while wandering round laden stalls selling strudel, baked apples, tongue-tingling Lebkuchen (spicy biscuits), marzipan, cleverly created gingerbread houses and edible Santas.
Winter Wonderland Christmas Market
Hyde Park, London, UK
They say eggnog is the ultimate Christmas drink. I have to disagree as I sit sipping my spiked hot chocolate in the chilly London air at one of the city's best and brightest Christmas markets. This cocoa-sprinkled boozy delight is making me feel all toasty and festive as I warm my toes by one of the many outdoor fires.
The merry music of arcade games and piped Christmas tunes mingle as throngs of visitors make their way through the walkways laced with food stands, carnival style rides, games and towering multi-level stalls, their flags waving prominently.
Winter Wonderland Christmas Market in Hyde Park attracts locals and tourists alike. Couples walk hand-in-hand, families gather to meet Santa and even the odd end-of-year office party can be spotted among the crowds riding roller coasters.
Flickr/Chris Parker (CCby2.0)
This London market is currently in its 10th year of operation and as there is no admittance fee it welcomes thousands of visitors over the course of the six weeks in which it runs. Featuring a large open air ice rink, games, shows and activities, and traditional market stalls brimming with chutneys, baked goods, and artisan handmade products, Christmas in the capital begins right here.
Hit the Christmas markets of London and Paris on one itinerary: trafalgar.com/delights-of-london-and-paris
Champs-Elysées Christmas Market
© Paris Tourist Office - Photographer : Amélie Dupont
Paris is illuminated year-round—it is, after all, the City of Light—but I think the best time to see it aglow is at Christmas. Lights and decorations are strung like tinsel over trees and boulevards, and there are more Christmas markets than days in an Advent calendar, the biggest one being on the Champs-Elysées.
I visit the market on a cold, drizzly evening, entering at about the halfway point of the Christmas village, which is set up between the Place de la Concorde and the roundabout at the top of the Avenue.
Thousands of fairy lights are draped over white-roofed wood chalets that run the length of the village. The scene sparkles, making the luxury boutiques and restaurants of the Champs-Elysées fade into the background.
© Paris Tourist Office - Photographer : Amélie Dupont
I buy a cup of vin chaud—hot spiced wine—and am grateful for the steaming cup’s warmth. Walking towards la Concorde and its 70-meter-high Ferris wheel, Christmas carols playing overhead, I pass all kinds of items for sale. Artisans from around France are here selling art, jewellery, hats, scarves and gloves. Others specialize in holiday crafts, like ornaments, wreaths, and candles. And of course, there’s food: sausages, cheeses, foie gras, plus all manner of sweet things, like cookies, candies and traditional pain d’epices (gingerbread).
I smell crêpes bretonnes at least once in every cluster of chalets, along with the sweet smokiness of roasted chestnuts. After a few hours, my fingers numb, I take refuge in one of the tented restaurants to eat, drink and people-watch on one of the most famous streets in the world.
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