by Leo Owen
Vienna's "December market" was a forerunner for the original Christmas market and dates back to 1294. Markets start appearing from November 13th-December 23rd across the city with thirteen main ones to choose from. The most popular markets are:
The "Christkindlmarkt" on the square in front of the City Hall (Rathausplatz) is truly magical with Vienna's largest advent wreath and a "Herzerlbaum" tree, famously adorned with 280 glowing hearts. Strolling away from the main body of stalls among the elaborately decorated trees in the park, families can enjoy arts and crafts sessions while trying to spot the “Vienna Christ Child”. Inside City Hall free Christmas concerts are performed at weekends and child-friendly workshops take place.
A former summer residence of Austrian Emperors, Schoenbrunn Palace is festively lit-up to provide an impressive setting for an idyllic Christmas village, specialising in handicrafts with festive concerts performed to melt the iciest of anti-Christmas hearts. Another equally spectacular market boasts Belvedere Palace as its baroque backdrop.
More low-key markets can also be found by Vienna's giant ferris wheel at Riesenradplatz, in Am Hof (one of Vienna's oldest squares), the narrow granite stone-paved Spittelberg streets, the less touristy Freyung, off the infamous Ringstrasse between the two main museums, out in the 22nd district in the Gardens of Hirschstetten and at Karlskirche, where glass-blowing demonstrations can be seen.
Bautzen (November 27th-December 20th) and Dresden (November 25th-December 24th) are two of Germany's oldest Christmas markets, impressively dating back to 1384 and 1434. Nuremberg's market is first mentioned back in 1628 and runs between November 28th-December 24th. Every two years in Nuremberg tradition has a young woman or man named “Christmas Child” to open the market wearing a glittery costume and golden crown.
Germany's capital city, Berlin, embraces this Germanic Christmas tradition too with approximately 60 markets across the city. Its most famous are held at Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Charlottenburg Castle and WeihnachtsZauber on Gendarmenmarkt.
Cologne is one of the most popular German Christmas destinations (23rd November-23rd December) with seven markets dotted across the city in convenient walking distances. Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom is perhaps the most strikingly located market sitting below Cologne's 750 year-old gothic cathedral, the third tallest in the world.
Whichever city you decide to visit, you can confidently say you're in the European home of the Christmas market. While browsing the stalls, sampling certain local specialities is a must. Glühwein is a fantastic winter warmer and in Germany comes in different forms, including white Glühwein and Amaretto, Rum or Schnapps infused beverages. A deposit for mugs is normally required, allowing you to return empty vessels for refuelling or hang onto a great souvenir. Perfectly complement your Glühwein with "Lebkuchen" (Gingerbread cookies) for dipping.
The Tivoli Gardens are Europe’s oldest amusement park and host Copenhagen’s biggest annual Christmas market (November 11th-29th December). Think Hans Christian Andersen with hundreds of Christmas trees and over half a million lights illuminating the stalls and park.
The gardens are transformed by a huge Christmas Tree and 1,800 fairy light chains, devised by Tiffany’s head designer, John Loring and snaking around the park's willows and main lake. The lake itself becomes a huge outdoor winter ice skating rink, where visitors can hire skates. Other attractions include pony rides, a colourful light show on a section of the lake and a Father Christmas posing for photographs inside a tent filled with red clothed elves.
Over 60 colourfully-painted stalls sell locally produced arts, crafts and decorations but it's the food stalls where you'll spend the majority of your cash. “Glögg” is a Danish version of mulled wine, mixed with liquor and spices and is traditionally paired with “æbleskiver” (round pan-fried cakes) served with sugar and jam.
Away from this carnival atmosphere are smaller markets at Nyhavn, alongside the picturesque canal and in the Grey Hall at Christiania, Denmark's alternative hippie district (December 10th-20th).
Barcelona's Christmas fair (November 3rd-December 23rd) dates back to 1786 and has somewhat expanded since its humble beginnings, now spread out across several locations in the city. Fira da Santa Llucia is perhaps the most popular, located in the Gothic quarter near the cathedral with more than 300 stalls, selling all manner of handmade Christmas decorations and gifts, along with mistletoe, poinsettias and Christmas trees.
Once you've sampled traditional Spanish Christmas sweet “turron”, another must-have Christmas market souvenir and bizarre Nativity scene addition is the Catalan figure of the “caganer” (crapper) - a small Noddy-hatted figure crouching with his trousers down in the act of excretion. Another fascinating local Christmas addition is the “caga tió”, a smiling log-shaped vessel full of presents that are deposited after a stick thrashing. A nativity scene contest, life-size nativity scene in Plaça Sant Jaume, musical parades and exhibitions, make Fira da Santa Llucia a lively affair to remember.
If you stay around December 28th, you’ll be treated to the Spanish version of April Fool’s Day when the streets are filled with even more lively entertainment, artists and music. To keep you going until the 28th, other markets are dotted across the city, including one at the foot of the Sagrada Familia (Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Familia), the more intimate Col.lectiu d’Artesans de l’Alimentació, a craft market at Mostra d’Artesans de la Ribera and “The Three Kings Fair” (Fira de Reis a la Gran Via) that stretches to New Year.
Christmas in Belgium get bigger every year. The Christmas Market in Brussels (25th November-January 1st) covers almost 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) extending along the streets from the lit-up Grand Place to Place Ste-Catherine, punctuated every now and again by a merry-go-round. Each of the 240 market stalls is housed inside a little wooden-roofed snow-covered hut resembling a gingerbread house, specialising in arts and crafts-ware.
Other festive highlights along the market's stretch include a 35m toboggan slope and the largest travelling big-wheel in Europe (48m) with its 18,000 lights. The organisers also thoughtfully provide a separate smaller ice skating rink for parents and toddlers, away from the gliding couples and fast-moving show-offs in the main rink.
In Belgium's largest seaside resort, Ostend, there's also a colourful Christmas market in Wapenplein Square with festively decorated stalls and an open-air skating rink. Sample real Belgium waffles and roasted chestnuts while browsing this less-visited festive treat.