The sweet scent of aromatic mulled wine, the sound of local folk music and, if you’re lucky, a carpet of romantic snow: Europe’s best Christmas markets encapsulate the magic of the festive season and bring friends and families together.
Image via The Blueberry Trails
During the festive period, Prague’s Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square–of Good King Wenceslas fame–are decorated with twinkling fairy lights and, occasionally, a coating of shiny white snow. The Czech capital’s medieval centre conjures ideas of fairytale princesses and heroic kings at the worst of times, but the magical daydreams are most prevalent when the historical squares are filled with thousands of well-wishers browsing for local delicacies at traditional red-roofed stalls.
As a city famed for its tremendous beer, it’s no wonder that Prague’s Christmas markets focus on unusual drinks and seasonal cuisine, rather than gifts, toys and wares. World-renowned beers such as Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and Budvar are available by the keg load, while mulled wine (svařák) and grog with honey liquor (medovina) warm hands, mouths and spirits. The traditional Czech Christmas dish is fried carp with potato salad, so don’t be surprised to find huge watery tubs of carp in the streets in the week leading up to Christmas day (Vánoce).
Image via Visit Denmark
Sub-zero temperatures, delightful illuminations and ubiquitous Yuletide grub lend Copenhagen a tremendous festive atmosphere. Danes love to spend the season in Tivoli Gardens, where electric light shows and explosive firework displays form kaleidoscopic reflections in the glassy lake.
Red robed and rotund as ever, Father Christmas can be found in a 19th-century pantomime theatre, while Danish customs such as advent wreaths, calendar candles and Christmas pixie (Nisse) themed treats are sold from booths. Nearby Hans Christian Anderson Market really gets into the Danish spirit, with each stall named after one of the famous storyteller’s fairytales.
Image via The Metropolist
Germany is home to the quintessential Christmas market: mulled wine (glüwein), giant Bratwurst sausages, cinnamon cakes (stollen) and wooden handicrafts. And Hamburg’s grandiose City Hall is home to exactly this kind of jolly festive fun.
However, venture out of the main Rathausmarkt and you’ll find a diverse range of smaller specialist emporiums. Over three million people visit Hamburg’s Christmas markets each year. Some like to experience the magic of an inner city forest at Winterwald, others prefer to indulge in luxury snacks along Hamburg’s premier boulevard (Jungfernstieg), while others still venture into the erotic stalls of the Reeperbahn’s X-rated Santa Pauli Christmas market.
Image via Holiday Guru
Named Europe’s best Christmas market twice in the last five years alone, Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik is also the oldest on the continent. Artisan chefs, toymakers, and of course mulled wine (vin chaud) vendors have been gathering on the charming streets of the Alsatian capital since 1570. The grand fir tree is also a classic tradition—although it may not have been 100-ft tall back in the 16th century.
Ice rinks, advent concerts, living nativity scenes and folk music are some of the attractions to be found dotted around the city’s 11 themed "villages". The bredele market (Place d’Austerlitz) is dedicated to this special Alsatian Christmas cookie, which comes in a variety of sweet and festive flavours such as cinnamon, aniseed, orange and marzipan.
But perhaps the most enticing area is the small Alsace producers market (marché des ireductibles petits producteurs d’Alsace) near the city’s oldest neighbourhood (la Petite France), which is famed for its quaint gingerbread-style mansions. Here you can find local delicacies such as plum jam, Munster cheese and braised snails.
Image via Budapest Christmas
They take their handcrafts very seriously in Budapest. Around 80 artisans set up fairytale huts on Saint Stephen’s Square and 150 build cottage-esque stalls on Vörösmarty Square to sell their unique textiles, leather goods, woodwork, folk art, pottery and jewellery. There is even a professional jury, comprising a variety of organisations, which vets the stall owners to guarantee that everything on sale is handmade to traditional standards.
Food-wise, visitors to the Hungarian capital can expect handmade chocolates, honey cakes, cinnamon pastry chimney cakes (kurtoskalacs) and doughy Hungarian pizza (toki pompos), which is traditionally served with bacon, onion and cream.
No visit to the "Spa Capital of the World" would be complete without a dip in one of the city’s many natural thermal baths. It’s not specifically Christmassy, but bathing in a 40-degree pool of healing water at the bottom of a Hungarian mountain while snow evaporates on your face is a magical experience. That first mug of mulled wine (forralt bor) immediately after leaving the spa could even become your highlight of the festive period.