The build-up to Christmas is filled with many things. If the hustle and bustle of the season put a damper on your holiday spirit this year, it might be time to consider changing how and where you shop.
Steeped in tradition, and doused with twinkling lights, the Christmas markets of Europe offer a festive reminder of the spirit of the season. Winter means there will be a chill in the air, and possibly snow of the ground, but strolling with steaming mugs of mulled wine in hand have a way of encouraging a wealth of good cheer.
Dates vary year to year, but most Christmas markets are open from the end of November until just before Christmas Eve.
In Eastern France, Strasbourg bills itself as one of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets. With close to a dozen locations, you could spend days wandering from stall to stall, eating foie gras, drinking wine, and walking among the medieval half-timbered houses of the Petite France district.
If you have your sights set on visiting a variety of Europe’s Christmas markets in one trip, the easiest way to cover the most ground, is to travel by river, along the Rhine, Main or Danube. A seven-night sailing from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Basel, Switzerland can cover more than 500 miles along the Rhine River, visit four countries, and half-a-dozen Christmas markets, but guests only need to unpack once.
Though Germany may be best known throughout the world for its Christmas markets, some towns and cities are more famous than others. No matter how many visitors markets attract, each has a unique way of making a lasting impression. Regardless of which you choose to explore, expect to be enchanted.
In the shadow of the Cologne Cathedral, said resting place of the three Magi, (Three Wise Men or Three Holy Kings) the Cathedral Christmas Market boasts a reported 150 stalls. A glowing frenzy, particularly on weekend nights, locals and visitors feast on gingerbread, sausages, and pretzels, while watching craftsman at work to stock their stalls with wood carvings, toys, glass balls, and other artisan goods. The more than 80-foot tall Christmas tree, marking the heart of the market, is easy to spot thanks, in part, to 50,000 lights.
Just one of Cologne’s many markets, the Cathedral Christmas Market is an easy walk from where the river boats typically dock. Sail through the castle-lined Rhine Gorge toward Switzerland, away from the bustling German city and its million inhabitants, and the charming winemaking town of Rüdesheim offers a dramatically different slice of winter life in Germany.
Its Christmas market is spread throughout town, but with a population of just 7,000 people, getting lost is hard to do, but fun to try.
Coffee lovers should try the Rüdesheim Coffee, made with locally distilled Asbach Uralt Brandy and whipped cream. Asbach Uralt is available throughout the Rüdesheim Christmas market for those wanting to recreate the drink at home. A cable car ride whisks visitors over vineyards, when taking a break from the festivities.
Castle ruins perched above the old town of Heidelberg offer another attractive spot to catch your breath before taking in the holiday light show waiting below.
After taking in the view, and a quick glimpse of the giant wine barrel that can hold more than 34-thousand gallons of wine, take the funicular down to explore the Christmas market stalls scattered throughout.
Heidelberg’s Hauptstrasse, a pedestrian shopping street that stretches almost a mile, connects one bustling square to the next. The magic of Christmas lights shines bright everywhere you look.
Home to what residents say is the world’s largest advent calendar, little-known Gengenbach, Germany, uses its town hall, with 24 front windows, to countdown to Christmas. Every evening during advent a window is revealed, and the 200-year-old town hall slowly transformed.
With 10,000 residents, this charming town in the Black Forest is larger than Rüdesheim, but its location off of the Rhine River, a 30- to 40-minute drive from Strasbourg, France makes it a little harder to get to. Don’t let that dissuade you from seeking it out. It’s all the more reason to go. Local centric, outsiders are welcome, but in the minority.
New excursions to Gengenbach were introduced this year by AMAWaterways on their Rhine Christmas Market cruises.
Set in the center of town, you will hear enthusiastic residents cheering for loved ones singing in the choir. There’s an enclosed market stall, complete with oven, for local kids to bake Christmas cookies. The Franciscan Sisters of Gengenbach sell handmade Christmas gifts, including candles, Christmas tree decorations, paper stars, jams and baked goods from their monastery kitchen. Local artisans sell ceramic goods, wood Christmas decorations, and just like other bigger, more frequented markets, stalls pouring hot mulled wine, called glühwein, is a given.
The only thing missing is the crowds.