‘Tis officially the season of Christmas in many parts of the world, and if you’re one of those people who love to revel in the holiday, like some of our friends in the leisure class, you should definitely make your way to Western Europe, and experience the best of the continent’s Christmas markets.
Featuring sparkling white lights, traditional holiday decorations, towering Christmas trees, nativity scenes, handcrafts, fresh-baked pastries sold only at Christmastime, mulled wine, local beers, outdoor concerts, performances in churches and palaces, and — if you’re lucky — sweetly falling snow, these centuries-old markets begin in late November, and usually last until New Year’s Eve.
Each country has a slightly different set of traditions, and even within cities, some markets will be more to your taste than others. Based on conversations with our well-to-do, culturally curious and/or sentimental friends; our own adventures; and a scan of multiple travel websites, here are our selected recommendations for those in pursuit of a luxurious and charming experience. Our wealthy friends tell us that the best plan is to combine a visit to one of these markets with a stop in the modern world to finish off your shopping list. Some towns on our list have their own luxury stores; if not, there’s regular air and train service to London, Paris and Milan.
—Munich has 20 different Christmas markets; Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz is the oldest and largest. You can stay at the historic Bayerischer Hof hotel, opened in 1841, and enjoy the best Bavarian holiday traditions in style: Gluhwein (mulled wine), grilled sausages, gingerbread, and stollen. The hotel has a great spa where you can work off all of those beers you consume. Other upscale choices in Germany include Dusseldorf and Stuttgart (you can tour the Porsche and Mercedes museums while you’re there).
–Known as the Golden City of One Hundred Spires, Prague’s connection to Christmas is undeniable: Good King Wenceslaus, he of the famous carol, is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Prague has two main Christmas markets: Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, which are only a 5-minute walk apart. Old Town Square has the largest Christmas tree, and schoolchildren from all over the country travel there to sing carols in traditional dress. Trdelnik is the hot sugar-coated pastry of choice, and you’ll also find hams roasting on a spit, klobasa (barbequed sausages), warm honey wine and a nice variety of Czech beers. Staying in the city center is the best way to experience the markets: either the Four Seasons Prague or the Dancing House Hotel would be great choices. While you’re in town, take in a marionette theater performance.
—Vienna’s history of Christmas markets is long-standing: in 1298, Albrecht 1 granted the Viennese the privilege of holding a December Market. Today, the city on the banks of the Danube has over 20 Christmas markets. Our friends steered us to four that are stand-outs: the Belvedere Palace Christmas Village (with hot chestnuts and hot punch stands); the Schonbrunn Palace Market (known for its freshly-baked Vanillekipferl crescent-shaped cookies); the City Hall Market; and the Spittelberg Market, which is located in a revitalized historic district. If you have children with you, be sure to visit the Rathauspark for carousel rides. There are many other pleasures in Vienna, including the Lipizzaner Stallions, the Cathedral of St. Stephen’s, and wonderful cafes and bars (the coffee and the pastries alone are worth the trip). December is opera, ballet, and classical music season, so the Vienna Philharmonic and many other performances are available in the places where Mozart and Beethoven once played. There are several lovely hotels, including two “grand dames:” the Hotel Bristol next to the State Opera, and the 5-star Hotel Imperial. However, the best choice if you want true luxury is the relatively new Golden Quarter Park Hyatt hotel, which is perfectly located for exploring Vienna on foot (we should also note that the hotel restaurant has four gorgeous dandelion chandeliers! So we’re definitely staying there).
—Salzburg is one of our all-time favorite European cities, and December is a wonderful time to visit. The birthplace of Mozart always has outstanding concerts – many in historic venues – and the city’s Christmas Market in Cathedral Square, first held in 1491, features chocolate pralines in the composer’s honor. The writer of the carol Silent Night is also a son of Salzburg, so Christmas and music have very deep roots here. In addition to visiting the market stalls to eat baked apples and cotton candy, you can take sleigh rides pulled by reindeer and listen to the Turmblasen brass concerts held every Saturday evening. This market also features more whimsy and holiday mischief than most: the “Christkind” and accompanying angels (children dressed in white and gold robes with feathered wings) walk quietly through the stalls on Saturday afternoons. But the evil Krampusses are also lurking about, with birch branches, bells, and beastly masks. If you’re being naughty, expect to be reprimanded by one of them. While you’re in town, you have to take a Sound of Music tour – it’s so much more fun than it sounds, trust us. The hotel Goldener Hirsch or the Hotel Bristolare lovely places to make your home base if you want to stay in town; east of town, the Hotel Schloss Fuschl is a great choice.
–It may surprise you that Italy is an option for Christmas markets, but there are several choices. For example, Bologna celebrates the season with the Fiera di Natale Market near the San Pietro Cathedral in the heart of the city. The smaller Antica Piera di Santa Lucia has been held in the cloister of the Santa Maria dei Servi church since 1796 (these are two of the oldest markets in Italy). As you would expect, the food is excellent – the don’t-miss offerings include chocolate-dipped citrus peels and torrone (nougat, almonds and honey). If you go, stay at the 5-star Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni. Other choices for lovely Christmas markets in Italy include Verona, Bolzano, Merano and Trentino.
—Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, is the birthplace of French Christmas markets: its Christkindelsmarik dates back to 1570, making it the oldest one in France. Our wealthy friends say that if you visit only one Christmas market in Europe, make it this one. The Place Kleber is the site of an enormous Christmas tree; the main market is next to the red sandstone Gothic Cathedral (the first stone for this structure was laid in 1015). Every year, a different European country is a featured guest at the market – this year it’s Portugal. Bredelebiscuits are the local sweet specialty. While you’re in the region, you can visit museums, a 14th-century wine cellar, the historic leather-tanning district, and sample the wonderful wine and food on offer. The city is headquarters for both the European Council and the European Parliament. If you stay overnight, friends suggest the Hotel Regent Petite France, the Cour du Corbeau, or the Sofitel Strasbourg Grande Ile – or try the Hotel Le Colombier, a boutique hotel in nearby Colmar. You can easily make it a day trip: you’re only 45 minutes away from Paris by TGV train (there is frequent service daily, to and from the Gare de l’est station in Paris).
–The town of St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland is alight with 700 stars strung over the city’s old town. Its Christmas market reportedly features the country’s tallest Christmas tree, erected in the Abbey district and decorated with 18,000 lights. With 70 stands, in addition to buying gifts you can feast on raclette, mulled wine and beer, and biberli cookies (gingerbread filled with almond paste). The “Chlausritt” parade features Santa and his helpers on horseback. Don’t miss the 8th-century cathedral and baroque monastic library, which holds manuscripts dating back to Roman times. And while you’re in the neighborhood, swing through Zurich, which is less than an hour away by train. It’s magical at Christmas, and you’ll find every designer store you could want within easy walking distance (Banhofstrasse is the main shopping street). We love the Savoy Hotel, Zurich’s oldest, situated on Paradeplatz; the hotel is under the gracious stewardship of Christina Horger and her wonderful staff (ask for a room with a balcony).
–The Christmas markets in Stockholm offer the opportunity to buy Swedish handcrafts like glass, pottery and jewelry while sampling glogg (mulled wine), smoked sausages, saffronsbullar (saffron buns), reindeer and elk meat (don’t tell the kids!) and gingerbread. The oldest and largest is the Old Town market in Stortorget Square (on Gamla Stan), in the medieval center of the city just south of the Royal Palace. Afterward, attend one of the concerts celebrating the feast day of Lucia, held every December 13th. Lucia comes to light the darkness, and the day is marked with concerts by singers wearing head-dresses lighted with candles. You can also go ice skating in Kungstradgarden and see the Living Christmas Calendar, a multi-story home with a new door or window opening every day. Recommended hotels include the Grand Hotel, the Lydmar, and the Nobis.
—Budapest’s Christmas markets focus on the traditional: in Vorosmarty Square, you’ll find Hungarian folk art (including garden gnomes) for sale in the stalls. The air is perfumed with honey cookies, mulled wine, chocolate, and fresh-baked cinnamon pastries. Save room for the toki pompos (bacon and cheese pizzas). Once you’ve had your fill of the markets, there’s a wonderful city waiting for you. The Pest side of the city will remind you of Paris; cross the bridge to see the Buda Castle. See the Nutcracker performed by the National Ballet at the State Opera House, warm up in one of the thermal bathing houses, and end the day hanging out at your hotel. The boutique Aria Hotel, near St. Stephen’s Basilica, features a heated roof terrace bar with gorgeous views. The Four Seasons Gresham Palace is also terrific.
—New York City. OK, this last one is a bit of a cheat! But if all else fails and you don’t have time to make the trip to Western Europe, the Bryant Park Winter Village is the next best thing: outdoor ice skating, charming holiday shops filled with great gifts, hot chocolate and great food options, all in the center of Manhattan. The Bryant Park Grill is still one of the most romantic restaurants in midtown. Especially when it’s snowing.
Check out our Magic and Memories Pinterest board for more ideas on how to create a luxurious holiday experience every year!