Merry Christmas, friends and family near and far!
Like the rest of 2020, this holiday season admittedly feels … different. We’re currently under a stay-at-home order here in southern California, so two of our favorite holiday traditions – gathering with our loved ones and traveling – are out of the question in the coming weeks (and in all probability, the coming months). We won’t lie – this is really hard! We wish we could be with our families, and were able to embark on far-flung adventures without reservation. But that time will come, and in the here and now we are enormously thankful that our little family of three is healthy and together this holiday season. We have so many blessings to be grateful for, including a treasure trove of meaningful travel memories from years past. And when it comes to the holidays, none of our journeys have brought more joy and laughter than those we made to Europe’s festive Christmas markets.
Today, we share the memories of our favorite markets*, big and small, across Germany, France, Austria and Slovakia. We revel in the millions of twinkling lights, the jingle of bells, and the warmth of glühwein, chocolat chaud and good company. We hope these enchanting places bring a smile to your face, but most of all, we hope they inspire you to stir up a little magic of your own during this strange holiday season. We could all use a little more magic right now!
Situated on the banks of the Moselle River, Bernkastel-Kues is a fairytale dream come true during the holiday season. Though the village isn’t large, the market packs a lot of charm in the small space of its main square, featuring over 40 festively decorated half-timbered houses, a golden tannenbaum and the largest Advent calendar in the region. Given its location squarely in the midst of a world-renowned wine-growing center, this market is particularly prized for its glühwein, made using only the best Riesling (white) and Dornfelder (red) wines. We can attest both to the quality of the glühwein and to their banana-Nutella crepes, a longtime festival favorite of ours!
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Few places in the world embrace the spirit of Christmas quite like Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The market in this well-preserved medieval city dates back 500 years, and is held in honor of the so-called Rothenburg Rider, a mythical figure on horseback purported to fly through winter skies beside the souls of the dead. Once a much-feared character, the Rothenburg Rider has since become a beloved Christmas ambassador. The Reiterlesmarkt is famous worldwide for its white mulled wine and traditional Christmas pastries, including the peculiar schneeballen, a sweet treat made from shortcut pastry formed into a ball and covered with confectioner’s sugar (hence the name “snowball”). Our favorite market delicacy, however, was the 1/2-meter long, fire-grilled Franconian sausages – YUM! The holiday cheer here isn’t confined to the market – Rothenburg is also home to Germany’s largest commercial Christmas store, and the nation’s Christmas museum, both open year round. We love Christmas in Rothenburg so much, we’ve visited this market three times (despite living 3+ hours away)! For more on this breathtaking city, check out our previously published post.
Frankfurt am Main, Germany
One of the oldest markets in Germany, the Frankfurter Weihnachtsmarkt dates back to 1393, when mystery plays were carried out in the city’s Römerburg Square alongside vendors selling essential winter goods. The practice of erecting a Christmas tree in the square began in the 19th century, as did the introduction of stalls offering wooden toys, cloth dolls and Christmas-related products. The historic half-timbered houses in the square were destroyed in World War II, and for several decades the market shifted to other areas of the city. After reconstruction was completed in the 1970s, the weihnachtsmarkt returned to the Römerburg, and has been held here annually ever since. Holiday revelers are drawn to the market for its stunning location and seasonal specialties, including candied almonds, baked marzipan treats known as Brenten and Bettmännchen, as well as quirky figurines made of prunes and nuts called Quetschemännchen. As always, we came and stayed for the delicious glühwein!
Each year, the main market square in this Bavarian city is transformed into the Christkindlesmarkt, a village of wooden stalls adorned with red-and-white striped cloths, each offering unique handcrafted gifts or holiday decor. Hundreds of thousands of Germans and foreign visitors flock to the city in particular for its world famous lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Nuremberg sausages. The market’s opening – on the Friday evening before the first Sunday in Advent – features the theatrical appearance of the Christkind, or Christ Child, to bless the holiday season. Thanks to Tito’s mum, we were fortunate to witness the arrival of the Christkind during our visit to the market in 2017.
Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany
Located on the banks of the Rhein River, Rüdesheim’s market – officially known as the Rüdesheimer Weihnachtsmarkt der Nationen – features over 100 stalls representing 15 countries on six continents. This market is truly a place to celebrate Christmas customs and traditions from around the world! The market is known throughout Germany for its delicious Rüdesheim Coffee, exclusively made with locally distilled Asbach Uralt brandy and whipped cream, traditionally served in an authentic Rudesheim coffee set. This small Hessen town is also home to Europe’s largest Nativity scene.
This market isn’t particularly remarkable, other than the fact it was our local weihnachtsmarkt! We lived in/near Kaiserslautern from 2009-2012, and again from 2015-2018, and visited this market frequently over that period with friends and holiday visitors.
The festivities in this striking French metropolis aren’t reserved for Christmas; in fact, the highlight of this market – known as Les Fêtes de Saint Nicholas – actually occurs much earlier in the holiday season, in honor of good ol’ St. Nick! On December 6th (a date celebrated throughout central Europe as Saint Nicolas Day), a grand parade of over 30 decorative floats winds its way through city streets from Place Carnot to Place Stanislas, where Saint Nicolas himself appears on the balcony of the hôtel de ville (city hall). The market itself is spread over five locations across Nancy, featuring over 60 booths of handcrafted toys and crafts, a gourmet market selling freshly made bergamotes (bon bons), macarons and gingerbread, a Ferris wheel and an ice skating rink. We were fortunate to book a hotel on Place Stanislas late in the market season, and enjoyed a beautiful night admiring the unique decorations, lively street entertainment, and the city’s massive Christmas tree, a fir from the nearby Vosges Mountains adorned with over 4,000 sparkling lights.
With a magical atmosphere of twinkling lights, jingling bells and colorful gingerbread houses, the holiday season is not to be missed in picture-perfect Colmar! The festivities here are spread across six specialized markets, all located along a kilometer-long pedestrian path featuring craft booths, a children’s chorus, a carousel and ice skating rink, and numerous wine cellars open for special tastings. We love Christmas in Colmar so much that we previously devoted an entire post to it!
Located a short distance from Colmar is the idyllic Alsatian village of Riquewihr. Nestled among vineyards and encircled by ancient ramparts, charming Riquewihr – declared on numerous occasions to be one of the most picturesque villages in France – offers a truly remarkable feast for the senses. Vin chaud (mulled wine) and chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) flow freely here, and the air throughout the village is filled with the scent of freshly baked bread, roasting chestnuts and traditional Alsatian confections. The only items for sale at the handful of stalls in the market include goods made by local artisans, making these holiday wares unlike any others in Europe. While Riquewihr is like a fairytale any time of year – as we gushed over in a previous post – the magic truly comes alive at Christmas!
The origins of this lovely market – located in the shadow of the sprawling Hohensalzburg Fortress – date back over 500 years. Originally known as the Tandlmarkt, it served as a gathering place for 15th century Salzburg residents to purchase a wide range of items for the coming winter months. By the 17th century, this Advent market had been christened the Nikolaimarkt; for two weeks before and two weeks after Saint Nicholas Day, a variety of products from foodstuffs to home wares were available for sale in and around the city’s Cathedral Square. The current iteration, known as the Salzburg Christkindlmarkt, has existed since 1974. Every year, the market is opened on the Thursday preceding the first Sunday in Advent, and closes the day after Christmas. It features 100 market stalls selling traditional Austrian holiday decorations, gifts for big and small, and local specialties from throughout the region. Events at the market include choral performances, readings of Christmas stories for children, visits from the Salzburg Christkind, and, on the night of December 5th – Krampusnacht – parades of the terrifying and highly entertaining half-goat half-demon Krampus.
The Austrian capital is home to over 20 (!) Christmas markets, the largest and most popular of which we visited in 2017. Set before the breathtaking facade of the neo-Gothic Rathaus (city hall), the roots of this market date back to the 18th century. The Christmas tree erected beside the Rathaus – an annual gift from a nearby Austrian state – is lit by more than 2,000 LED lights. Indeed, lights are a major feature of this market – the park adjacent to the Rathausplatz is illuminated by hundreds of thousands of sparkling lights in every color and configuration imaginable. The market itself features over 150 stalls selling high quality toys, crafts and delectable food, including Wiener sausages, cream-filled pastries, chocolate-dipped strawberries and our personal favorite: pizza in a cone! (Yes, it sounds weird, but tasted a-m-a-z-i-n-g!)
This charming market, located in the main square of the Slovakian capital, is one of the smallest on our list. But don’t discount it for its size – it also offers some of the most unique and authentic fare of any market showcased here. Local specialties featured include lokše (potato pancakes), cigánska pečienka (a bread roll filled with roasted chicken or pork, mustard and grilled onion), klobása (sausage), medovník (honey gingerbread) and trdelník (funneled pastry filled with cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa or nut spread). Beverages for sale include the ever popular varené víno (mulled wine), punč (punch) and medovina (a traditional alcoholic drink of fermented honey and water). We visited during the day during a short jaunt from nearby Vienna – an hour’s drive away – so the market was quiet and relatively empty. We’d love to go back for the nightly festivities one day!
Thank you for joining us on this holiday adventure across Europe! -Tito & Brooke June
*please note that these markets are cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19