When I first moved to Europe, one of the things I was looking forward to the most was… Christmas markets.
I love Christmas. I love Christmas trees and decorations and even Christmas songs. I thought I would love Christmas markets for all of that shopping on offer. I mean, stalls and stalls of baubles and Nutcracker dolls! It just sounded like heaven.
Over the years, I’ve visited a lot of Christmas markets. I started with Aachen and Cologne back in 2011 and now at last count I’ve clocked up 22 Christmas markets in nine different countries (it sure helps when you do a couple of Decembers of Rhine and Danube cruises). Just last weekend we headed back to one of my favourite ones for the day: Cologne. So I’ve got a little bit of form behind me when I give you this little nugget of advice.
Christmas markets aren’t really about Christmas.
Well, they are, I suppose, in that there’s all the aforementioned baubles and Nutcracker dolls everywhere you look, plus a few carollers and the odd Santa hat. But if you really want to enjoy Europe’s Christmas markets, leave all the Christmas stuff behind.
Why? Well, for starters, history’s not behind you. The earliest Christmas markets had nothing to do with Christmas at all. (Actually, when I was doing some research on this, I realised that the Nazis have a lot to do with the modern German Christmas market tradition.) In the early days, when nobody had central heating in their homes in the colder months, people would try and get as warm as they could and that usually meant getting really close to other people. Think about it. You’re a lot warmer as part of a crowd of people in North Face jackets than you are when you’re a solitary figure on the market square. Add some hot alcoholic beverages into the mix and your cheeks will be burning.
Remember, I’m saying this to you as a person who gets cold ALL OF THE TIME. I have worked on this shortcoming over the years, gradually investing in all manner of terrific winter coats, multiple sets of thermals, woolly hats with pom poms and even a pair of gloves that I bought out of spite. Yes, truly. I needed a new pair of gloves and found a fancy schmancy gloves shop in Vienna, possibly the most stuck-up city in all of Europe. I walked in and the Prue and Trude shop assistants were so rude, so judgemental of me being there and clearly not being able to afford anything inside, that I went through and bought a pair, just to show them.
If you have no idea who Prue and Trude actually are, let me present them to you here (their first appearance on Kath and Kim).
Anyway, I’m getting distracted, but my point is that even I, the human icicle herself, find myself nice and toasty at Christmas markets. And it doesn’t even really matter which Christmas market, either. As long as it’s basically anywhere in Germany, or to be more correct, anywhere in the former Holy Roman Empire or just a little beyond its borders, you’ve got yourself a winning ticket.
That’s the reason why parts of France like Alsace have great Christmas markets, as well as cities like Vienna and Prague; they share similar cultural traditions based on their former membership of Charlemagne’s little club. So you can’t really go wrong with any of these. (Don’t discount the smaller places, either; I found the Christmas markets in Speyer and Passau lovely and cosy.)
Thinking of visiting a city like Bruges, Florence or Amsterdam purely for their Christmas markets? They’re all great cities, but they don’t have a long history of Christmas markets. Their Christmas market history stretches back ten years, twenty years max, and you can tell by their focus on the selling of trinkets rather than the eating/drinking and associated merriment. I went to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland last year in London and although it was a bit of fun, it was nothing like the Christmas markets I’ve become familiar with. It was just a bit too clean, too organised and too commercialised (Cadbury hot chocolate, anyone?). It wasn’t seventeenth century German. It was twenty first century British.
Back in the Holy Roman Empire, if you’re trying to find the oldest market, or the most traditional, I would also say don’t bother. It seems every second German town claims to have the oldest Christmas market in the world, usually by way of waving around a sheet of paper which says something about market rights or local craftspeople selling goods to the public. It’s all very wishy washy, particularly when these markets were operating year-round, with just a bit more of an emphasis on Christmassy stuff come December.
So where does that leave us? Well, you can still choose to visit one of the most popular Christmas markets (please don’t choose Colmar though. It’s pure mayhem) and go gung ho on decorations galore. Be my guest. But you really don’t need to, particularly if you’re planning on visiting a few as part of a kind of Christmas market roadtrip. You’ll realise that after a couple, all the decorations kind of start to look the same. Of course there are regional souvenirs like Nuremberg’s Zwetschgenmännle, but how many ‘prune men’ do you actually need? No, what really makes these Christmas markets special is their social side. And that means joining the locals for a drink, a bite and a chat. They’ll even keep you warm without you or them even trying.
Eat some bratwurst and lebkuchen in Nuremberg. Try some flammkuchen, kouglof and vin blanc chaud in Strasbourg and Colmar (if you still insist on braving the crowds). Have a gigantic lángos in Budapest, following it up with a kürtőskalács (chimney cake). Down some punsch in Salzburg (particularly at Sporer, the most wonderful place in the whole city). Track down some oscypek smoked cheese in Krakow. Munch on some reibekuchen (fried potato fritters) in Cologne. And drink glühwein anywhere and everywhere.
Go midweek if you can (it’s a lot calmer if you avoid weekends) and aim for late afternoon to early evening. I find that you want it to be crowded but not too crowded; if there’s room to swing a cat then there’s no gemütlichkeit (that lovely German word which sort of means cosiness and togetherness). And remember, it’s all about the gemütlichkeit. You also do want it to be dark, or getting close to it. The markets are even more beautiful when the fairy lights all twinkle, making everything look a bit like a fairytale, as clichéd as that sounds.
Researching Christmas markets is hard. Everything online seems to be written by the cities themselves, keen for the tourist dollar (or euro). But it doesn’t have to be difficult! Just find a map of the old Holy Roman Empire, pick a city in there that you’re keen on visiting anyway, develop a taste for glühwein, stock up on your winter woollies and go. You’ll danke me later.
Love these tips, Caitlyn! I wish I’d been a fly on the wally during your Vienna glove purchase.
I’m sure the whole exchange would have been entertaining!
I’ve been to a fair few of these, and still my favourite was the one in Tallinn…
And, no, winter wonderland does not consist of being a German market, I agree 100% there. Altho many of my friends don’t frustratingly…… Bath Christmas market is alright, but crazy busy!
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