“Oh it’s the most wonderful time of the year!” But really, it is, and winter in Europe just wouldn’t be the same without its Christmas markets. All throughout Europe, cities and towns put on extravagant markets and festivals that draw thousands (some even millions) from November to early January.
It’s hard not to join in the holiday spirit, with hearty, mouth-watering food that warms your soul, the joyful and bustling atmospheres in the market squares, and the storybook surroundings (think snowcapped mountains, magnificent cathedrals and halls, or festive decor all around, serving as backgrounds in towns which seem as if they’re plucked from the past). With the season of giving growing nearer every day, here are some great Christmas markets you don’t want to miss.
London, Winter Wonderland
Things to do in London are never scarce. Some great family fun awaits at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. There is no shortage of activities here. Take a stroll around the grounds past the countless rides, around Santa Land (don’t forget to visit Santa’s grotto), or through the markets – this is a treat for everyone.
The festival also includes two circuses, a 60m tall Ferris wheel, and the Magical Ice Kingdom, where you can get up close with mythical frozen beasts as you adventure through a forest. The rides and roller coasters satisfy the thrillseekers, and the themed bars with real fires satisfy those who prefer to stay on the ground. There is also an Ice Bar (it’s what you think), and even the glasses are made from ice (no fires in here, for obvious reasons). Plus, the UK’s biggest outdoor ice rink is here, illuminated with over 100,000 lights.
Rome, Piazza Navona and Natale all’Auditorium
Piazza Navona is the largest market in Rome, and due to it’s size and location, is regarded as one of the biggest and most beautiful Christmas markets in the country. The booths, decked out in lights, sell decorations and gifts, along with pastries, unique Italian holiday food, and hot wine and are located in the iconic square, in front of the three fountains: Fountain of the Four Rivers, Fountain of Neptune, and Fontana del Moro. The combination of street performers juggling and dancing under the lights of the beautiful fountains and the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, the joy of the children, and the Christmas songs playing all around provide a great festive atmosphere.
For one-of-a-kind, authentic Italian-made gifts, check out the Arti and Mestieri Expo, from December 17 to 20, just a 20 minute train ride from Rome’s center.
Or, from December 2 to January 6, the Natale all’Auditorium puts on an amazing Christmas event. It is a smaller market, with around 30 or 40 stalls, plus one of the city’s few ice skating rinks, but the draw here are the wonderful performances and concerts (from gospel choirs to the Rome Orchestra).
Barcelona, Fira de Santa Llúcia
And speaking of figures, there probably isn’t a more unique figure you’ll find in a European Christmas market than in Barcelona’s Fira de Santa Llúcia. In operation since 1786 and with more than 300 stands selling assorted gifts and decorations, Barcelona’s market has it all. There is a huge life-size Nativity Scene in Plaça Sant Jaume, along with parades and exhibitions throughout the city.
That bizarre little figure in the corner? That would be the caganer or “crapper,” who squats above poop, with his pants around his ankles, and usually appears in a corner of Nativity scenes (he needs his privacy after all). It has become so popular that even celebrities are now made into caganers, and the mini figures can be bought from many stalls. Another strange tradition is the Caga Tió or “Christmas log”, which poops out presents for the children; these are also everywhere in stalls.
Paris, La Défense and Champs-Elysées
France’s capital city has numerous Christmas markets during the holidays, welcoming visitors with thousands of lights and ornaments throughout the city. Over 125 streets and squares are decorated with garland, Christmas trees, assorted lights, and multi-colored Christmas balls. It’d be difficult to visit each one, so I’ve highlighted two that are definitely worth seeing.
The Christmas village on La Défense is the largest in the Paris region, hosting over 350 wooden chalets, which offer varieties of crafts and French regional cuisine. It is one of the most beautiful as it is in the ultra-modern center of the capital, and during the evening, the surrounding buildings are illuminated, making the setting quite unique.
The Christmas market on the Champs-Elysées is a thematic market and features over 200 chalets, again selling food from French regions, decor and toys. If you visit a market in Paris, this has to be it. This market is decorated with more than 400 lit Christmas trees, and the decorations and illuminations stretch along the famous Parisian street for almost 2.5 km.
Berlin, Weihnachtszauber Gendarmenmarkt and Berliner Weihnachtszeit
Like Paris, France, Germany’s capital city of Berlin has countless Christmas markets. In case you missed it, the German people love to celebrate Christmas. This is evident by the decorations literally everywhere: the streets, houses, and shopping center. Oh, and I mention there are nearly 100 markets in Berlin alone? Here are two you can’t miss:
The atmospheric background guarantees a wonderful experience at the Weihnachtszauber Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, in one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin (It is in the middle of three great buildings). Here, manufacturers travel from around the world to display their talents. Find origami, ivory, flax embroidery, and much more, along with special delicacies (white chocolate milk, special cheeses, sausages, and the like). Most stalls let you try for free! It has been called the Mercedes S-Class of the markets, and while not free, it is only 1 euro to enter.
Not far from the popular Alexanderplatz square, in front of the Roten Rathaus, you’ll find the Berliner Weihnachtszeit Christmas market (if you get lost, just look for the 50m tall Ferris wheel). It is one of the oldest and most famous Christmas markets in Berlin and is decorated in the style of the early 1900s, giving it a special look and feel, along with barrel organ music, hot food, drinks like mulled wine, and varieties of arts and crafts. There is a large ice skating rink, and it’s only 4 euros to rent skates. It’s a great visit for children as well, with a small farm with friendly animals kids can ride, carousels, a train through a snow-covered forest, and Santa visits several times a day! The Berliner Weihnachtszeit has a lot to offer, for both young and old.
There is a lot of tradition at the German markets and they are definitely popular.