Holiday Shopping at Europe's Top Christmas Markets

Does the holiday season bring you shivers rather than joy? Have crowded shopping malls threatened your Christmas spirit? Don't give up hope! A compromise of productive Christmas shopping and good old-fashioned holiday cheer does still exist, and you can find it in one of many European Christmas markets. With their quaint wooden stalls, dazzling lights, and shelves of hand-crafted wares and homemade food, Christmas markets allow you to turn an annual chore into a fun, festive vacation. So grab a bratwurst, take a sip of mulled wine, and let these traditional Christmas markets revive your faith in Christmas magic.

Germany:

Dresden

Home to the oldest Christmas market in Germany, which is a country credited for leading the Christmas market tradition, Dresden provides one of the most authentic holiday market experiences in Europe. Its showcase, Striezelmarkt, is situated right next to the Kreuzkirche, the oldest church in Saxony. All the products at Striezelmarkt are locally crafted, and some of the best buys include ceramics from Saxony, hand-blown glass baubles, and "Blaudruck," which is a white and blue printed cloth made in Dresden.

Locals and visitors alike are especially fond of the market's "Striezel," or Stollen, which is a loaf-shaped Christmas fruitcake coated in sugar icing. Market-goers are so fond of the Stollen, in fact, that the Striezelmarkt only allows certain registered vendors to sell the cake annually. Also, each year on the second Sunday of December, Striezelmarkt celebrates its namesake with the Stollen Festival. Watch villagers re-enact a century-old tradition as they parade around the city with a 3,000 kg stollen, followed by the elected "Miss Cake."

Besides Striezelmarkt, some other Dresden markets worth visiting are Neumarkt, Haupstrasse, and the medieval market near the Royal Palace.

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Berlin

Berlin is Germany's capital and hosts around 60 Christmas markets throughout the holiday season. While its markets have the usual quaint, wooden cabins and yuletide treats, the city's modern, industrial edge is impossible to ignore. The city's most famous and well-attended market resides below the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, or the Memorial Church, which was bombed in World War II. Graffiti-covered walls loom over clusters of stands, and trams whiz by as Christmas shoppers browse goods ranging from traditional crafts to cutting-edge art and decoration by some of Europe's best new artists. Berlin markets are also known for carrying a wide variety of old and new jewellery.

Cologne

Cologne hosts seven Christmas markets and attracts over 2 million visitors a season. The city's most impressive display is at the Cologne Cathedral, where its twin gothic spires overlook a cluster of wooden stalls surrounding Rhineland's largest Christmas tree. The atmosphere is bustling with music and entertainment, and the 160 vendors sell all the traditional wares, from handmade Christmas decorations and ceramics to Glüwein, the mulled wine of Germany.

Among Cologne's other Christmas markets are the fairytale-themed market on the Rudolfplatz, the floating market on the MS Wappen von Mainz, the medieval Christmas market outside the Chocolate Museum, and the child-friendly Alter Markt.

Nuremberg

Though Nuremberg's market is neither the largest nor the oldest, most agree that it is one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. Every stall in Nuremberg's main square, Hauptmarkt, has a signature red and white-striped awning, and one can rest assured that each cabin will be designed uniquely and authentically, because each year every stand competes to win the prize of best design.

If the aesthetics aren't enough, the food is sure to win you over. Nuremberg is known for its spicy gingerbread, which scents the air, as well as its roasted bratwursts and Nuremberg Plum People, which are figurines carved from prunes. After you've filled your belly, shop for hand-dipped candles, music boxes, carved, wooden toys, and nutcrackers amid twinkling Christmas lights and live music. If you have children with you, stroll down to Kinderwihnacht in Hans-Sachs-Platz and find hands-on candle-making and cookie-baking stalls as well as a carousel and a steam train.

Estonia:

Tallinn

The Estonian capital's Christmas market has only been around since 1991, but one would never guess that it is relatively new in the Christmas market world. Situated in the cobbled Town Hall Square, where the first Christmas tree is said to have originated, the market's cozy, low-key atmosphere is bound to make you feel as if you have just entered a winter's fairytale. Because of its northern latitude, snow is almost guaranteed, and though the temperature may be low, there is plenty of mulled wine, warm food, live folk music, and candle-lit restaurants surrounding the square to warm your spirits. As far as shopping goes, some of Tallinn's specialties are wooden, star-shaped lamps, sweaters, socks, and bobble hats knitted from undyed wool, seagrass animals, and hand-crafted rugs and quilts. For children, Father Christmas and two of his elves visit every night, and there is an open-air ice-skating rink close by on Harju Street.

Austria:

Vienna

The 'Christkindlmarkt' in front of Vienna's Town Hall is the most popular of several Christmas markets in the "Heart of Europe." Deemed one of the oldest and best classic Christmas markets by the over 1 million visitors it gets each year, this market is sure to fill your shopping bags with traditional yuletide treasures, fill your belly with roasted chestnuts, and fill your heart with Christmas spirit. The market's atmosphere is enhanced with a large Christmas tree, eight nativity scenes, a children's cookie-baking workshop, and regular choir concerts starting on the first week of Advent.

Though the market is an attraction in itself, part of its appeal is the festive Rathauspark that surrounds it. Take a break from the bustling market to stroll through the park and admire trees, pavilions, and open spaces lit with twinkling lights shaped like hearts or gingerbread men and hung with snowflakes. While in the park, make sure to send a postcard from the "Post Office in the Clouds," and to visit Frosti, the talking, singing tree.

If you have time, some other Christmas markets in Vienna worth seeing are in Frevung, Spittelberg, and in front of the church of St. Charles Borromeo.

Denmark:

Copenhagen

The Tivoli Gardens theme park and market in the center of Copenhagen puts a Danish spin on the traditional German tradition. During the holiday season, the oldest theme park in Europe is transformed into a festival of lights, which spreads for miles over the park's willow trees and around the Tivoli Lake. The area is sprinkled with hundreds of Christmas trees, typical fairground rides, and chalet-style stands that sell hand-painted candles, porcelain and wooden dolls, silver jewellery, roasted almonds, apple doughnuts, and gløgg, the mulled wine of Denmark. Some of the market's best attractions include "Pixie Ville," which is a colony of 136 mechanical pixies, a 95-year-old working roller coaster, pony rides, and an ice skating rink on the lake.

Czech Republic:

Prague

Named for the same Good King Wenceslas as the famous Christmas carol, Wenceslas Square is, appropriately, the sight of the Czech Republic's most famous Christmas market. Prague's medieval astronomical clock and a gigantic Christmas tree preside over the 11th century marketplace as it is transformed into a bohemian winter wonderland. The market is relatively small, but it offers plenty of goods, food, and entertainment to keep even the most serious Christmas market-goers in good spirits. Sip on some hot punch or mead as you peruse jewellery made with bohemian crystal, wood-carved puppets, and Czech straw and maize decorations. The market is especially known for its staged nativity scene, which is an ancient Czech tradition. Watch the one in the market, or go to the nearby Charles Bridge Museum to see a whole collection as well as the largest straw nativity scene in the world. The market also has a petting zoo at its center for the kiddies, but make sure they wash their hands before trying the iced gingerbread!

Belgium:

Bruges

Thanks to Eurostar, in a hop, skip, and a jump you can be transported into one of Europe's best archetypal medieval cities, and if you go around Christmas time, the "Venice of the North" will seem even more like the setting for a fairy tale. Its two main markets, which are surrounded by gabled buildings and scenic canals, are in Market Square and Belfort. Both boast all the usual goods as well as regional favorites. Browse leather goods, handmade jewellery, and knitted scarves and hats, as well as lots of Belgium's famous chocolate, waffles, and beer. Try a chocolate Sinterklaas, or Santa Clause , and get your fingers sticky with a Belgian waffle drizzled in honey. When you are done sampling the local delicacies, wash them down with one or more of Belgium's renowned beers. For the kids, there is, of course, hot chocolate. As far as entertainment, Market Square hosts an ice rink and fairground rides, and in Stationsplein, you can visit the annual Ice Sculpture Festival from November 20 to January 10, which features over 650,000 tons of ice and 400 tons of snow molded into fantastical figures and shapes.

France:

Strasbourg

As host to the oldest and biggest Christmas market in France, Strasbourg has brought holiday cheer to its visitors since 1570. Though its heart is by the Cathedrale Notre-Dame and along Place Broglie, the market has since spread throughout the entire city. While authentic Christmas spirit is everywhere, if you thought this market would only offer traditional French marquetry, embroidered tablecloths, earthenware, and bridle cakes, you'd be wrong. While Strasbourg does offer traditional wares, each year the market celebrates a different country's yuletide traditions as well.

This year the theme is "Russian Village," and it is featured in place Gutenberg, which is named for the inventor of the printing press and former Strasbourg resident. Alongside local French crafts, plan on seeing a range of Russian-themed stalls, selling everything from painted eggs and Russian headwear to vodka and blini. When you are finished browsing the multicultural items on offer, head to the cathedral to watch one of over 50 scheduled holiday concerts or visit La Petite France on the riverfront and take a tour of the gingerbread bakery.

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