For me, the holiday season is simply enchanting. Images of Santa’s red suit, Rudolph’s bright nose and festive twinkling lights intertwine with memories of family gatherings and culinary delights reserved for this special time of year.
After a December trip to Germany and Austria, I expanded my stateside version of holiday enchantment to include an age-old European tradition—Christmas markets. The holidays will never be the same!
Traditional Christmas markets transform city and small-town squares across the continent into festive, aromatic, music-filled fairs. Lights outline stalls where local vendors dole out hot mugs of gluhwein (sweet, mulled wine) and artisans share one-of-a-kind wares.
Since their founding in the Middle Ages, the original markets’ festive sounds have expanded to include the myriad languages of international visitors reveling in their delights. Germany hosts approximately 3,000 markets nationwide. Austria claims a Vienna market as the world’s oldest, dating all the way back to 1296!
I fell in love with the concept in Munich, where the largest market occupies the Marienplastz. First documented as a Nikolausmarkt in 1310, today’s version overflows with hand-carved ornaments and nativity scenes that are as captivating as the beautiful Munich City Hall in the background of the market.
My favorite purchases were individually crafted Nutcrackers. According to German folklore, they will bring luck and protection to the homes of those who find them wrapped under their trees. Of course, my visit wasn’t complete until I indulged in Bee Sting Cake, a Bavarian pretzel and other delectable treats!
In Austria, nightly caroling on the steps of the Salzburg Cathedral and concerts throughout the city honor Mozart, the city’s most famous son. Refrains of Stille Nacht (Silent Night) often fill the air, paying homage to its origins nearby.
While the city’s main market is hosted at the Cathedral, another lovely one is located in the courtyard of the imposing Salzburg Castle. In either, expect to find hand-knitted scarves, caps and socks along with beautiful glass ornaments boasting intricate frosted scenes.
My group also dropped by St. Peter Stiftskulinarium to warm up with a glass of Austrian wine while soaking in the restaurant’s storied history—it claims to have served the Emperor Charlemagne!
I made one last stop at the elegant Vienna, capital of the Hapsburg empire. Myriad markets pop up around the city each year. Stalls overflow with traditional wooden toys reminiscent of the classic St. Nick, while the aroma of roasted chestnuts, strudel and rich pastries permeates the air. A favorite market, the “Vienna Magic of Advent,” transforms City Hall environs into a magical fairyland. Another fills streets set against the romantic backdrop of Schonbrunn Palace. Both are a Viennese delight not to be missed!
A visit to Europe’s Christmas markets is guaranteed to add to the enchantment of your season. And the treasures you bring home will allow you to re-visit the markets for years to come.