Twinkling fairy lights, the warm smells of gingerbread and hot mulled wine, yuletide carols being sung by a choir—there’s nothing quite like an authentic Christmas market to stir up that festive feeling.
Originating in Germany, Christmas markets, also known as Christkindlmarkt and translating to “baby Jesus market,” are associated with the celebration of Christmas and usually held during the four weeks of Advent. In Austria, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire and the German Confederation until 1866, Vienna’s December Market dates all the way back to 1298 and is a forerunner of the modern Christmas market.
Since the late Middle Ages, the festivities have also spread all over Europe, with many towns in Germany, France and Switzerland ushering in Advent with Christmas markets held traditionally in the town square. Open-air stalls brightly lit in the glow of fairy lights hawk regional food specialties, Christmas drinks like mulled wine and glühwein, and seasonal products and gifts, accompanied by singing and dancing.
Today, Christmas markets are held all over the world from America to Asia, fashioned after these traditional European festivals. New York City's iconic Bryant Park becomes a winter village, with the lawn transforming into an ice rink. In Singapore, the iconic Gardens By The Bay is transformed into an elaborate Christmas market complete with a carousel, ice skating rink and foam snow fall as the supertrees come alive with light shows played to Christmas carols. In Hong Kong, the Stanley Plaza Christmas Market is decked out like a Finnish market, hosting over 100 stalls, a life-sized traditional Finnish Yule goat and a seven-meter-tall Home of the Elves.
Still, there's nothing quite like the festive mood of an authentic European Christmas market—here we explore five of the oldest and most popular Christmas markets in the world, steeped in history, tradition and the magic of the yuletide season.
One of the most iconic Christmas markets in the world is the Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz near Vienna's historic city hall, Rathaus. The tall arched gateway that flanks the entrance welcomes some three million people each year who wander about the 150 market stalls offering traditional Austrian foods, Christmas ornaments, handicrafts and drinks. Listen to choirs and trumpeters on the Christkindl stage directly below the grand Christmas tree and skate around the nearly 10,000-square-foot ice rink while taking in the beautiful light installations based on children's Christmas stories.
This is the most visited Christmas market in Germany with an estimated four million visitors annually. Held at the foot of the grand Cologne Cathedral beneath the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland, the fair has about 150 stands offering all manner of gifts, food and drink. Festivities center around a big stage with more than 100 free Christmas programs and performances.
Prague comes to life at Christmas as festive markets pop up across the Czech capital. Of these, the biggest and prettiest can be found at Old Town Square, nestled around the Jan Hus statue and surrounded by centuries-old Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Tuck into Czech specialities like barbecued pork, blood sausages, Czech muffins and conkers, and wash it down with local beer, mulled wine and mead. The festival program features folk dance and musical performances as well as an elaborate Nativity scene featuring live animals. If the large Christmas market is still not enough to hold your attention for the night, a short walking distance away is Wenceslas Square Christmas Market specializing in handmade goods and crafts.
Dubbed the "Capital of Christmas" by Strasbourg’s deputy mayor since 1992, the French city is home to about a dozen Christmas markets in different squares throughout the city. The most iconic one has been held at the foot of Strasbourg Cathedral since 1570, when the city was part of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, making it one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe. In the center of a Christmas village festooned with miles of twinkly lights is a 100-feet-tall Nordic pine. Some 300 stalls sell everything from pastries and glühwein to handmade gifts and festive decorations.
Lying on the border of France and Germany, the Swiss city of Basel has three main Christmas markets; the one on Barfüsserplatz in the old town is the largest, with a new market next to the cathedral on Münsterplatz and a smaller one on the right bank of the Rhine on Claraplatz. The three are within easy walking distance from each other, linked by beautifully decorated streets, shop windows and homes. The streets are lined with little wooden chalets hawking crafts, regional products and food specialities like oozy Swiss Raclette and a thin German pizza called flammkuchen.