Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Christmas is coming up, and what better way to infuse a little tradition and magic into your holiday than by attending a delightful Christmas market. So pack your best scarves and gloves and hop on a plane to these festive celebrations.
Stockholm, Sweden – Stortorget julmarknad
Situated in the heart of Stockholm’s Old Town, Stortorget julmarknad – the traditional Christmas market at the city’s main square – could hardly wish for a better location. Dating back to 1837, it’s Sweden’s oldest Christmas market, and the 40 little red stalls blend perfectly into the historical setting.
Warm yourself with a sweet cup of glögg (mulled red wine with an aromatic mix of spices) while browsing for homemade knitwear and other local handicrafts. Make sure to sample the traditional Swedish Christmas treats such as pepparkakor (gingersnaps), saffransbullar (saffron buns) – and even specialties such as elk meat, and smoked sausages and reindeer.
Helsinki, Finland – Helsinki Christmas Market
Ask any Finn and they’ll proudly claim that Santa Claus – the one and only – comes from Finland. Visit the Helsinki Christmas Market on Senate Square, and you’ll get to meet him in person. In fact, he makes the effort to turn up on a daily basis, so make sure to polish off that wishlist. Once you’ve placed your orders, get yourself a nice glass of glögi, warming mulled wine, and feel the Christmas spirit rise. If this doesn’t do it, the brass bands, twinkling Christmas lights and a ride on the antique Dutch carousel certainly will.
Peruse the 133 stalls and find local handicrafts, traditional ornaments and regional produce, including reindeer meat – a Finnish specialty. This year, several top notch restaurants are joining the market, including the acclaimed GRÖN.
Sibiu, Romania – Piața Mare
Nestled between three beautiful mountain ranges, in the awe-inspiring Grand Square (Piața Mare) of the city’s Old Town, Sibiu’s Christmas market oozes romance. Stroll along the 70 huts and shop for pottery, furs and wooden children’s toys, and head to the skating rink or the children’s fair park for a festive interlude.
Sibiu’s a sight to behold and well worth a visit at any time, but its prime location in Transylvania’s highlands is a particular advantage at this time of the year – as chances for a white Christmas are quite good. Add a dash of snow to this setting, perhaps a gospel concert or a magical light show, and there’s not a dry eye.
In traditional fashion, cravings can be cured with mulled wine, gingerbread and roasted chestnuts. However, leave some space for the Romanian-Hungarian specialties such as cozonac (sweet bread) and Kürtőskalács (cone-shaped spit cakes), the latter thanks to the Hungarian minority living in the region. It’s a merry Christmas indeed!
Strasbourg, France – Christkindelsmärik
One of the great classics among Europe’s Christmas market, Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik – also known as Marché de l’Enfant Jésus – is one of the oldest in Europe. Dating back to 1570, the locals had time to practise their game, and it shows. 300 wooden chalets are spread across 11 themed villages across the city centre – the main market is on Place de la Cathédral and offers a range of handcrafts, decorations and seasonal treats.
Christmas must-eats include vin chaud (yes, it’s mulled wine) and bredele biscuits, a local specialty that comes in a range of flavours, such as hazelnut, orange, cinnamon or praline. Other culinary marvels are choucroute (pickled cabbages) and baeckeoffe stew. Bon appétit!
Toronto, ON, Canada – Toronto Christmas Market
Europe rocks Christmas markets, but then again … you can only drink so much mulled wine. To stir up traditions a bit head to Toronto’s groovy Distillery District for a nice Canadian spin on your Christmas rituals. The cobblestoned streets and industrial brick facades make for a charming historical setting, while twinkling lights, wooden stalls and a life-sized gingerbread house infuse just the right holiday spirit.
Get here early before the crowds start to roll in and head straight to the food stands. You’ll find anything from German bratwursts to Belgian waffles, but the real feast is the poutine, one of Canada’s finest guilty pleasures, mixing French fries with gravy and soft cheese curds. Now, before you also get caught up in all the maple syrup treats, head to the Ferris wheel, or the carousel if you dare, while waiting for hunger to return.
Move on to the market stalls and you’ll find a range of eclectic gifts, such as Canadian beeswax candles, wooden toys and … well, bacon socks (don’t ask). When you’ve collected most of your Christmas gifts, make sure you take advantage of the free samples of wine, spirits and beer. This is the Distillery District after all.
Dresden, Germany – Dresdner Striezelmarkt
The oldest in Germany, Dresden’s Christmas market has been going strong for almost 600 years. Craftsmen from the region flock to its 250 stalls, offering anything from wooden ornaments and nutcrackers to traditional candle pyramids. Striezelmarkt boasts the world’s largest Christmas arch, and has a kid’s adventure world with a puppet theatre, merry-go-round and children’s railway.
The name of the market refers to Strüzel or Stroczel, a fruity cake that’s sold at the market and now referred to as Stollen. Other sweet and savoury treats include the notorious Glühwein (mulled wine) and Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen (gingerbread filled with jam and covered in chocolate). Try the Dresden Rahmklecks (freshly baked bread stuffed with cheese) and grub up a host of German specialties like bratwurst (sausage) and pretzels (a baked snack). Guten Appetit!
Copenhagen, Denmark – Tivoli Gardens
Taking the Danish concept of ‘hygge’ to supreme levels, Copenhagen’s traditional Christmas market is held in the world’s second oldest amusement park, the Tivoli Gardens. It’s lined by Christmas trees, illuminated by thousands of lights, and the aromatic scent of roasted almonds is around just about every corner. Completed by the frozen lake turned ice-skating rink, you have yourself a true fairy tale.
Browse the little stalls selling handmade arts and crafts, glõgg (mulled wine) in hand, and get yourself a handful of æbleskiver (pancake puffs) with jam and sugar to complete the adventure. Leave room for Tivoli’s roast pork sandwich with red cabbage, before you round up with a ride in The Star Flyer, an 80m tall swing-ride that offers panoramic views of Copenhagen.
Moscow, Russia – The Red Square
On a backdrop of the majestic St. Basil’s Basilica, and surrounded by Kremlin’s imposing walls, Moscow’s Red Square Christmas fair boasts impressive surroundings. Still, the market only counts around 20 stands selling Christmas decorations and local souvenirs, like hand-crafted matryoshka dolls and other Khokhloma-painted toys. The market is centred around one of Moscow’s largest ice-skating rinks, and you’ll also find a small funfair for the family’s youngest members.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the food stalls for traditional Russian dishes such as baked potatoes with mushrooms and pickles, or pancakes with caviar. Round up with the inescapable Christmas set: mulled wine and Russian gingerbread. Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, and in keeping with the Russian Orthodox Christmas tradition, the market runs until late January, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy it.
Chicago, IL, US – Christkindlmarket
Inspired by Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, Chicago’s gone all in on replicating an original German Christmas market, complete with all the seasonal trappings. It’s placed in Daley Plaza downtown Chicago and is the largest German Christmas market in the United States. Hundreds of candy-striped stalls offer classic German merchandise like nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest, but you’ll also find Ecuadorian ponchos and a range of handmade gifts.
The stars of the show, however, are the food vendors. Tuck into Bavarian winter staples like bratwurst sausages, sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), goulash soups and schnitzels. Round up with baked apples, gourmet pretzels – and of course the hot spiced Glühwein, this time served in a matchless mug shaped like a boot, for those who just can’t get enough of those Christmas trinkets.
Salzburg, Austria – Christkindlmarkt
Loomed over by an imposing church, against a backdrop of a medieval hilltop castle, Salzburg’s Christmas market is as romantic as it gets. Its 95 stalls are divided into six different sections selling everything from flowers and textiles to crafts, toys and glittery ornaments.
Follow your nose and you’re pulled right to the food section by the aroma of the gebrannten Mandeln (roasted almonds), the signature scent of the Christkindlmarkt. You won’t get away till you tried the Glühwein (yes, still mulled wine), again – agreeing well with the roasted chestnuts, Bratapfel (freshly baked apples) and gingerbread hearts. It’s a slippery slope, but it’s only Christmas once after all.
Prague, Czech Republic – Old Town Square
When it comes to Christmas markets, Prague’s got game! The city’s brim full of both markets and Christmas spirit, but the pick of the bunch lies in the heart of the Old Town. Here, rows of cute wooden huts, centred around a massive Christmas tree, sell souvenirs – mostly the usual suspects: jewellery, candles, crystals, glass-work and wood-carved toys. The food stalls offer traditional Czech food like barbecued pork and blood sausage, and a range of local Christmas treats. Quench your thirst with a swig of medovina – a refreshing honey wine known as mead in English.
Brussels, Belgium – Plaisirs d’Hiver
With around 240 wooden chalets, Brussels’ Plaisirs d’Hiver Christmas market – which roughly translates to Winter Wonders – will keep you going for hours, and stretches all the way from Grand Place to Place St. Catherine. Handmade candles, children’s toys, leather goods and Christmas trinkets abound, but the real attraction is the traditional Belgian food: Belgian waffles and chocolate, mussels, artisanal sausages, cheeses, breads … not to forget Belgian frites!
Wash it down with a strong quality beer, and of course make sure to try the local version of hot mulled wine – the Vin Chaud. A feast like this might call for a nap, but with an ice-skating rink, a Ferris wheel, steampunk merry-go-rounds (yes!) and giant slides, it’ll just have to wait.
Manchester, England – Albert Square
While the Christmas market tradition is born and bred in continental Europe, the Brits have been upping their game, and the Manchester market around Albert Square is an experience not to miss. With 300 stalls divided into sections – a world market, French market, German market and a family-friendly section with an ice-rink in Cathedral Gardens – you’ll be well entertained for an entire day.
Again, you can get anything from handcrafts to delicacies from all over Europe, but the food stalls is where business is going down. Offering a wide international selection, you can grub up anything from Bavarian Strudels (pastry with fruit filling) or French crêpes to German Flammkuchen (a sort of pizzas with cheese and meat) or grilled cheese sandwiches, Manchester style. Enjoy!
Riga, Latvia – The Old Town
The Latvian capital’s main Christmas market is a page out of a children’s fairy tale. Located in the Cathedral Square at the heart of Riga’s historical centre, an art nouveau pearl that doubles as a Unesco World Heritage Site, this market is crammed with local handcrafts – candlesticks in Latvian wood, wax candles and hand-knitted winter gear to mention a few.
Get all warm and fuzzy on mulled wine, while nibbling roasted almonds or enjoying some glazed gingerbread. Make sure to try the local smoked meats, and take home a glass of the famous Latvian honey.
Nuremberg, Germany – Christkindlesmarkt
Nuremberg’s Christmas market dates all the way back to the 17th century, and with its 180 red-and-white-striped stalls, centred around the central square in the city’s old town, it’s one of the biggest in Germany. In Nuremberg they’ve spiced things up a bit and offer blueberry mulled wine, Heidelbeer Glühwein, alongside a host of traditional delicacies like the Nürnberger Lebkuchen (chocolate-covered gingerbread) and the legendary Nuremberg grilled sausages – small sausages served several at a time and based on a trademarked recipe from 1497. Guten Appetit!
Madrid, Spain – Mercado de Navidad
Come join Madrid’s most traditional Christmas market, dating back to 1860, at the city’s main square, La Plaza Mayor. Famous for its Belén (Bethlehem) nativity figurines, its 140 stands are lined with an odd mix of figures of the nativity story and curious prank gifts to be used at The Day of the Holy Innocents on December 28th, where Madrileños play tricks on each other – an equivalent to April Fool’s Day.
Naples, Italy – San Gregorio Armeno street
Something out of the ordinary, Naples’ charming San Gregorio Armeno street really comes alive around Christmas, its many shops selling nativity figurines of all possible and impossible sorts. Customizing your own nativity scene (a presepe) is a local tradition, and literally anything goes: Jesus and Madonna figurines hang out with tiny pizza-makers, exotic animals and a host of famous caricatures.
Once you’ve built your own little bizarre Christmas display, tuck into a range of traditional Neapolitan Christmas treats like rococo biscuits, susamielli cookies and deep fried struffoli balls. Buon appetito.
- Try a different take on Christmas this year with these 12 alternative festive destinations
- Wonderfully weird Christmas traditions you’ve never heard of