When I thought of Christmas markets in Europe, I had always pictured something similar to a crafts fare. After market hopping for a few weeks, I’ve realized that the crafts goods are usually more along the lines of holiday decorations than Christmas presents, though it can vary dramatically from market to market. Traveling with a limited amount of luggage space, I wasn’t able to take much of the decor with me but I’ll treasure the memories of these markets forever.
Although I had never been to a European holiday market prior to this year, I have now been to more than a dozen over the course of my trip and I’ve compiled a list of helpful advice for other first time market visitors!
Christmas markets, also known as Christkindlmarkt (‘Christ Child Market’) and Weihnachstmarkt, originated in German speaking Europe in the late Middle Ages and have since spread across the world. These markets usually span the four weeks of Advent prior to Christmas and are a beloved celebration of the holiday season.
Most holiday markets are centered around a big Christmas tree in front of a Church or other major city square but I found some scattered through city streets as well. The city will usually post a holiday market guide on their website with dates and locations for different markets that are taking place.
Christmas markets are a popular escape from a dreary winter season and crowds can be a challenge, especially these days. I took to going to each market at least twice- once in the day time when it was less crowded and once at night when it was in full swing. This let me really take my time looking through each of the stalls, but I was still able to enjoy the more energetic (and more alcoholic) night time experience with all of the pretty lights.
While there are plenty of drink options, Gluhwein, or mulled wine, is a holiday classic at these markets and an absolute must try. Adding an extra shot of amaretto to the drink is special treat. For those who aren’t a fan of gluhwein, there are always more classic cocktails and brews on offer as well as alcohol free punch for the little ones who still want that holiday experience.
Most Christmas markets use a deposit system on their beautiful reusable mugs. For instance, if a drink costs 5 euros and the deposit is 5 euros, you pay 10 euros up front and get your 5 euro deposit back when you return your mug. Of course, you may choose to keep your mug, in which case you have a 5 euro Christmas market souvenir! In German speaking countries, this deposit is called a ‘pfand’, and the amount is usually noted on the drinks menu.
These Christmas markets are often cash only, so make sure to have some on hand. If you run short on cash, dont worry- there are ATMs scattered around the area! Other market sellers will have hand held card readers, but they too seem to prefer cash if possible.
Although it is possible to get a meal’s worth of food at a Christmas market, the food trends more towards lighter snacks such as cookies or sausages rather than a sit down meal. There is typically no sitting room at the stall, but there are standing tables scattered around for guests to enjoy a quick bite, as well as a large section of seating dedicated to eating. As it gets colder, small fires can be lit for warmth. Sometimes there are stalls that are decorated and furnished as though they are tiny cabins with comfortable chairs and blankets to sit around and enjoy the holiday atmosphere.
After weeks of travel and scores of Christmas Markets, I would have thought that I’d be tired of them, but this turned out not to be the case. Each market had its own individual quirks that made the experience special. From drinks with friends around a fire in Zurich, to spontaneous dance parties in Brugge and incredible carousels in Brussels, all that happened is that I fell in love with them again and again.