christmas-markets

There’s nothing like a snow dusted Christmas market to make even the biggest Scrooge feel festive. Buying handcrafted gifts from candlelit wooden stalls in snowy medieval squares, guided by a few cups of mulled wine, certainly beats doing battle with the hordes of people on the high street frantically searching for a pair of socks or a scarf. The Christmas market is a wholly European tradition, with Vienna’s ‘December Market’ a precursor that dates back to 1294. And in many towns throughout Austria and Germany, Advent only truly begins with the opening of the Christmas market, or ‘Weihnachtsmarkt’. Each market across the continent has its own individual customs, but still delivers the magic of the season that we all know and love. From sipping feuerzangenbowle in St Gallen to indulging in kiachln in Innsbruck, SUITCASE wraps up the best Christmas markets in Europe.

1. Stuttgart, Germany

Germany has over 2,500 Christmas markets, but the Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt is the country’s oldest, largest and, arguably, loveliest. Dating back to 1692, it has some 300 stalls spread out across the car-free heart of the city. Each are bedecked with angels, sparkling lights and boughs of fresh pine in an attempt to win the coveted title of ‘Best Decorated’. The fair is a treat for the ears, too, with world-class choirs and musicians performing every evening in the Renaissance courtyard of the Old Palace and on the steps of the Town Hall.

2. Stockholm, Sweden

Dating back to 1837, Stockholm’s Christmas market is relatively new by European standards, but it is no less joyful than its storied counterparts. Set up in the heart of the Old Town at Stortorget square, just round the corner from the Royal Palace, the snow-dusted red stalls sell traditional Swedish gifts with an emphasis on hand-craftsmanship. Richly spiced pepparkakor (thin ginger biscuits) and saffransbullar (saffron buns) are not to be missed, nor are the sausages made of reindeer meat (just don’t tell Rudolph).

3. St Gallen, Switzerland

“The city of stars is what the people of St Gallen call their home during Advent – no less than 700 star-shaped illuminations twinkle over the UNESCO-protected Old Town. The festive fun starts with the lighting of the tallest Christmas tree in Switzerland, accompanied by carol singing. The market itself is small but sweet, with around 70 huts serving biberli, a marzipan-filled honey gingerbread, and feuerzangenbowle, a warm drink made by setting a rum-soaked sugarloaf on fire and catching the drips in a glass of mulled wine.

4. Strasbourg, France

Alsace, the region in the east of France on the border with Germany, is known as the ‘capital of Christmas,’ and Strasbourg’s ‘Christkindelsmärik’ has done a great deal to cement that reputation. Dating back to 1570, it’s the oldest Christmas market in France, and even mention of the magnificent fir tree on place Kléber is recorded in a manuscript dated 1605. There’s around 300 little chalets spread out around 12 different ‘villages’, or themed areas, and every year the market plays host to a special guest-country village. For 2016, traditional Portuguese Bolo Rei cake and Massa de Filhos doughnuts will be served alongside traditional Alsatian bredele biscuits – made in many shapes and flavours, such as lemon, honey and cinnamon.

5. Bologna, Italy

The festive cheer isn’t just confined to central Europe – south of the continent has a strong Christmas market tradition, too, with Bologna a particularly enchanting highlight. The Fiera di Natale market has the 12th century San Pietro Cathedral as its backdrop, while the smaller Antica Fiera di Santa Lucia is situated in the cloisters of Santa Maria dei Servi, where it has been since 1796. Food is still the main draw, with marzipan fruits, citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate and torrone – a Christmassy nougat made with nuts and honey. Bologna is also famed for its unique Nativity crib figurines. Watch out for The Wonder, a woman who stands in awe of the infant Christ, and the male ‘Sleeper’, who lies dozing in the background.

6. Innsbruck, Austria

For six months of the year, Innsbruck is hidden under a blanket of snow, making it the perfect place for a white Christmas. The market comprises of around 70 stalls in a beautifully preserved medieval setting, selling wooden toys and brightly coloured felt hats to a soundtrack of trumpeters performing on the 500-year-old Golden Roof. After some Kiachln – piping hot doughnuts served with sauerkraut – ride the funicular to the top of the Hafelekar for picture-postcard views of the twinkling city below.

7. Vilnius, Lithuania

In a season of goodwill, Vilnius leads the way with its International Christmas Fair, where foreign embassy staff sell home-made gifts and cakes in City Hall Square. What Vilnius lacks in history, it makes up for with lavish decorations – the Television Tower is transformed into a massive Christmas tree with thousands of light bulbs, while a huge 3D display is projected on the side of the cathedral playing a fairytale story entitled The Christmas Dream. Sample traditional Lithuanian delights, such as raguolis, a rich batter cake cooked on a rotating spit over an open fire, and famously light poppy seed cake.

8.Cologne, Germany

Doused in Glühwein and twinkling lights, Cologne’s cathedral Christmas market delivers a classic German spread. After you’ve had your fill of cinnamon-coated snacks and have sifted through reams of kitsch decorations, head to the market’s main stage to soak up a performance of anything from swing music to gospel. Load up on schnitzel (you’ll snack a lot over the course of your trip) before heading off to the Angels’ Christmas Market at Neumarkt, bedecked in garlands and stars carved from wood. You’ll snag a similar vibe at Saint Nicholas’ Village where 60 stalls are decorated with evergreen garlands and fairy lights spreading across Cologne’s Rudolfplatz.

9. Gothenburg, Sweden

With the scent of toasted almonds and spices wafting all around, make a beeline for the glögg or to the pepparkakor ginger-snaps – or both – and fill your gullets to bursting. Gothenburg bills itself as “Scandinavia’s Christmas city” but it’s seasonal fare is worthy of top billing. After you’ve tired of fudge sampling, stroll through the “Lane of Light” – a 3km strip of illuminations – before working your way back to where you started. Later, hunker down by one of the market’s many fire pits, watching reindeers lap the extremities of the park.

10. Nuremberg, Germany

A smorgasbord of festivities, Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt turns over a crowd of more than two-million annual visitors. Located in Hauptmarkt, the central square in the city’s old town, this is one of the world’s most popular Christmas markets. Sampling gingerbread is mandatory, and also serves as a great souvenir. While sauntering through this snow scene, if you see a girl with blonde locks, donning a big crown and golden dress, she’s not a hen party straggler – she’s the Christkind. Those lucky enough to spot her can rest easy in the knowledge that you’re on the “nice” list this year.

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