The first snowflakes of winter are magical, and perhaps more so when you see them sprinkled on the scenery surrounding the Christmas Markets of Europe. The markets often occupy a cobblestoned square, surrounded by historic buildings and trees strung with twinkling lights, watched over by a fairytale castle on a hill.
Christmas Markets began hundreds of years ago, when tradespeople gathered in the town square to provide the materials and ingredients people needed to make gifts, decorate their homes and cook the special foods of the season. In the festive atmosphere, the townspeople would shop, enjoy music and dancing, and play games with neighbors and friends. Today’s Christmas Markets maintain the tradition, creating storybook settings in the modern world.
Several river cruise lines offer cruises that call on markets along rivers like the Danube and the Rhine. Sleek and compact, river cruise ships are often able to dock in the heart of town: you may be able to step off the ship and begin browsing for Christmas Market treasures right away, or after a quick taxi or shuttle ride.
Each Christmas Market has its own character: a market in Regensburg, Germany, features armor-clad knights watching over the festivities; a market in Valkenburg, the Netherlands, is in a spacious underground cave. Some markets some have a signature item, such as the pretty gold-foil angels at the markets in Nuremberg, Germany, and the Mozart chocolates in the markets of Salzburg, Austria. In most markets, you’ll find handmade toys and crafts; fragrant candles and handmade soaps; advent wreaths and lovely ornaments; and hand-knitted sweaters, scarves and hats, among other unique gifts.
As you browse, enjoy the classic aromas and tastes of the season, too: warm apple cider and mulled wines, hot chocolate and gingerbread, roasted nuts and piping hot sausages. At the Wenceslas Square market in Prague, Czech Republic, try the trdelnik, a cinnamon-dusted pastry that’s grilled on a spit.
Christmas Markets open around November 25 and welcome visitors until Christmas Eve. Be prepared for temperatures in the 30s; sunny days can be much milder, but you’ll want to pack a warm jacket, gloves and a hat. As you pack, leave room for the purchases you plan to make at the Christmas Markets, or bring an extra bag.
Finally, many Christmas Market vendors deal in cash only, so you may want to obtain some of the local currency before you leave home. Happy shopping!