Curtain up, light the lights! Today Yuletide season opens across Europe with beginning of many of its fabled Christmas markets in dozens of cities and towns across the continent. The magic of the season comes back in full force with multicolour lights; the scents of pine, hot chocolate, gingerbread, cinnamon, and roasted chestnuts; market stalls filled to bursting with holiday cheer; and crowds of excited kids of all ages. And without further ado, here’s a look at my favourite markets in a half dozen Iberia destinations.
Austria‘s capital definitely stages one of Europe’s most magical markets, the Christkindlmarkt in front of the Viennese capital’s city hall (though it’s just one of several throughout the city). In addition to some 150 booths, glowing trees in the square and surrounding streets, and the sounds of holiday songs, there’s also ice skating on a 3,000-square-metre (more than 32,000-sq.-foot) rink and along paths through the park, as well as a Children’s World with a carousel, a reindeer train, and light installations based on Christmas stories for kids.
Vörösmarty Tér, the main square of the Pest side of Hungary‘s capital, is the staging ground for a market with more than a hundred gaily festooned wooden stalls hawking all manner of holiday décor and gifts (in particular, check out the handmade toys and puppets), as well as roasted chestnuts, cinnamon-dusted chimney cakes, and of course Hungarian goulash soup and spicy sausages. If you can’t get enough, there’s another market in front of Szent István-Bazilika (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).
Perhaps few European Christmas markets can boast more fairytale-like settings that the vanocní trh in the Czech capital‘s Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square), dominated by the Gothic Týn Church, the Old City Hall with its famous astronomical clock, and at this time of year an enormous Christmas tree in the centre of it all. Locals and visitors alike watch street performances and roam brightly lit stalls hawking all manner of Yuletide paraphernalia along with holiday gifts (local wooden toys and puppets are a particular speciality); traditional Czech crafts including lace and crystal; and edible treats including hot, spiced wine, sausages, palačinky (crêpes), the delicious local beer, and trdelníky, sugar-dusted spit cakes originally of Hungarian origin. There are several other markets around town (including one up in front of the Prague Castle) as well as an even larger one nearby, running the length of huge Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square).
Another historic old-town square, the Grand’ Place, is the most grandiose of backdrops – with a spectacular sound-and-light show and its mediaeval buildings brilliantly illuminated – for the Belgian capital‘s Christmas markets, with other venues including the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place Sainte-Catherine, and the Marché aux Poissons. Among the attractions: rides such as merry-go-rounds and a Ferris wheel; a skating rink; festive parades; and concerts including choirs and pop music.
The capital of Sweden boasts nearly a dozen Christmas markets, starting with the cosy one in Gamla Stan (the historic centre), featuring the usual fare but also including particular Scandinavian delicacies such as elk and reindeer meat. Another of our favourites is the one out at Skansen, the open-air museum of traditional Swedish architecture and culture. Others include markets at various castles and palaces, as well as out on several islands of the Stockholm Archipelago such as Vaxholm and Blidö. 13 December is an especially dramatic day to experience Yuletide here, celebrating the legend of St. Lucia with candlelit, concerts, and other events (gingerbread and lussekatter saffron buns a must!).
Denmark’s capital also pulls out the stops for jul, with markets in Tivoli Gardens, the old historic harbour, and various city squares (a particular favourite being the one in Nytorv Square named after Hans Christian Andersen, with booths named after his fairy tales, a carousel for kids, a Christmas caravan, and of course visits from Santa). But without a doubt the funkiest in town (and probably in all of Europe) takes place in Freetown Christiania, an enclave established by hippies based in onetime military barracks. Here the market feels more like an Oriental bazaar!