Visiting Europe’s Christmas markets is one of the most sacred and oldest traditions and the best to get you into the Christmas spirit. Through ancient medieval towns and exquisite traditional foods, some say it is the best way to understand Europe’s winter culture and its assets. You can sense a deep intertwining between the festivity and the native folklore from the North to the South of the continent. From dancing to deserts and diverse tales of Santa Claus, get yourself in the Christmas mood by visiting the most unexpected, truly authentic Christmas markets of the year.
As the most famous Christmas markets are staples, many more hidden, more traditional, and less touristic markets exist year after year, maybe only miles away from the more visited ones. I prefer to explore the less traveled roads, especially when it comes to customs made for the locals, and a way to come closer to the true experience of what the Christmas markets have best to offer- native values and true territorial heritage.
1. Bolzano Christmas Market, Italy
IC: Wikimedia Commons
The Christmas market in Bolzano is one of the biggest in Italy yet the most overlooked. While it remains Italy's Christmas capital, tourism allowed more heavily populated cities like Milan, Florence, and Rome to get more attraction over the years. In the biggest city in the Italian Alps, Bolzano sits between two of the highest mountain ranges, and it is the capital of South Tyrol.
There, thousands of artisans gather to bring their best woodwork. I have never found more incredible artifacts in any other Christmas market. Its warm atmosphere and display of Italian traditional Christmas iconography, mixed with essential food delicacies of the Alps, will leave you wanting to know more about the beautiful Northern parts of Italy and the people's connection to the great mountains. While you are there, try Zelten, the traditional fruit cake made of dry nuts and fruits.
An essential part of Italian cuisine heritage belongs to Bolzano, where the world-famous cured meat Speck is made, so needless to say, you must try it, along with Vin Brulee or mulled wine with apples and cinnamon sticks. Another reason Bolzano is famous is because of the ceramic figures of the brand Thun, which was created after being inspired by the Angel of Bozen (Bolzano). Since 1950, the Angel made by Thun has been a staple in all Italian households. There is a Thun stand among the 30 other stands dedicated to ceramics, glass, and porcelain Christmas decorations. In addition, there is a hotel that overlooks the Christmas markets, located in Piazza Walther, the Parkhotel Laurin, which is also worth a visit.
2. Dresden, Germany
Creating a list of Christmas market destinations without counting Germany would be wrong. Germany hosts some of the most important Christmas markets in the world. While popular destinations include its most prominent cities, Dresden is still considered the most magnificent Christmas spectacle in the world. However, aside from its beauty, the Dresden market is known to be one of the first Christmas markets ever to happen! Documents from 1434 show the first presence of the Striezelmarkt.
The narration speaks of a market dedicated to sweets and Christmas traditions, particularly the Striezel, the traditional dessert of the festivity in Dresden. Nowadays, it hosts over 240 stands and is located in Altmarkt, in the most ancient part of the city. There are many other locations where the fun continues- like Neumarkt, Winter lights market, and Frauenkirche, to name a few.
In Striezelmarkt, there are tons of great activities- but what distinguishes the Dresden markets are the live shows of Christmas crafts. Artisans bring beautiful ornaments and make them in front of the customers and can even personalize and embellish many different artifacts and specialize in pottery, glass, and lace. Additionally, the puppet shows and the Christmas pyramid are must-see attractions. The market opens each day at 10 am, closes at 9 pm, and will be held from the 23rd of November until Christmas eve.
3. Zurich Christmas Market, Switzerland
The first time I visited the Christmas market in Zurich, I was genuinely stunned by its grandiosity. While I had been to many Christmas markets in Switzerland, this was a perfectionist's dream. The biggest surprise was the Swarowski Christmas tree, located in the train station, or "HB." This tradition started more than twenty years ago and is the market's beacon of light and excellence. The tree is decorated with over 6000 Swarowski pieces, and the tree is over 50 ft tall.
It illuminates all the markets and is a must-see for anyone who loves Swaroskis and Christmas traditions. At 7 pm, the tree lighting starts ceremoniously after a 10-second countdown. Another curious detail about the Christmas markets is the drink of choice- in Zurich, they love to pair traditional swiss desserts and chocolates with a warm mojito- the typical Brazilian cocktail with a hot, spicy twist, along with traditional mulled wine. Traditional desserts include Öpfelchüechli, crispy apple fritters served with custard, and Kaiserschmarrn, a sort of pancake with powdered sugar on top, usually served with apple sauce or ice cream.
The Christmas markets open on November 25th and close on December 24th.
Adjacent to the Christmas market in the HB is the Luminarium, a spectacular outdoor Christmas lights festival in the Swiss National Museum courtyard. Starting November 10th, one can admire the traditional light installations for six weeks and enjoy food and drinks in the real Swiss Christmas spirit. While the entrance to the courtyard is free, there are ticketed light shows inside. It is a definite "cherry on top" moment for anyone visiting Zurich this time of year!
4. Colmar Christmas Market, France
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Just an hour away from Strasbourg, the city that hosts the oldest and most visited Christmas market in France, is Colmar, a much more intimate and enchanting atmosphere with twinkling lights and artisanal delights that one cannot resist. The town is built in cobblestone, and its Medieval charm bound by twinkling luminaries will make you feel like you are in Christmas paradise. Every building is decorated from top to bottom with lights and angels, which allowed the city to win an award from the Academy of Street Arts for its 1,1150 street lights.
The entire town is pedestrian, so roaming around becomes a pleasure for every Christmas flaneur. While most markets are concentrated in the city’s most important square, Colmar’s markets are small stalls distributed all over, making every street a new discovery. Through the Canals of the Lauch, small Gondolas driven by men wearing Santa Claus costumes will show you why the neighborhood is called Petite Venise, after the canal-filled city of Venice, Italy.
5. Wroclaw, Poland
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Destinations like Prague and Tallinn have been the most popular in Eastern Europe, but Wroclaw is the place to go for nostalgic charm. Its 1800s-reminiscent elegance makes you think you are living in a Jane Austen novel. This destination takes the cake in terms of romanticism and nostalgic golden-age folklore. The first thing one notices while arriving in Market square is the carriages.
Large, wooden carriages surround the stalls as the children sing Carols in folkloristic clothes, all in a gorgeous square where one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe becomes the perfect backdrop to this Christmas festive atmosphere. Gnomes, sleighs, and reindeer fill the square overlooking carousels and many other activities for children. One of the fascinating aspects of the market is the Fairy Tale forest, or “Bajkowy Lasek.” It is a show of different folkloristic fairytales created by animatronic characters. Each tale has a separate stage, and you must put a coin in for it to play.
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