In 1616, so the story goes, the priest at Nuremberg’s beautiful Frauenkirche arrived for his Christmas Eve service to find, to his surprise, an empty hall. The worshippers, instead, were outside, totally preoccupied by the city’s Christkindlesmarkt, the sprawling Christmas market that is still held there to this day.
Inextricably linked with religion, these markets, even now, are found in the shadow of city churches and cathedrals. In a sense it was Martin Luther, the theologian who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation, who helped transform the markets into what we know today. Originally, these gatherings — in the likes of Vienna (first recorded in 1294), Munich (1310) and Frankfurt (1393) — were simply so townsfolk could stock up on essentials during the bleak winter months. After Luther promoted the idea of buying children gifts during the festive period, the markets slowly changed: tradesmen began selling ornate toys and crafts and, eventually, tourists began to visit in huge numbers.
As the Nuremberg priest was shocked to discover, Christmas markets had taken on a life of their own. Four hundred years later, the public appetite for them is greater than ever. In Germany, where they originated, there are thousands (almost every town and all cities have one), to which millions flock each year. But you now see these distinctive wooden huts illuminated by festive lights across Europe, from Edinburgh to Riga, and beyond: there are Christmas markets in Chicago, Quebec, Osaka and Shanghai. As Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, proudly put it in 2008: the Christmas market has become yet another great German export.
t’s been hungrily embraced by the British, too. Birmingham, which now boasts the largest Christmas market outside Austria and Germany, welcomed 5.5million visitors in 2014.
“Each market has a similar culture, maybe a different dialect and slightly different mentality, but they promote the same atmosphere,” says Xmas Markets founder Mark Lovegrove, who, along with his wife Edith, is credited with bringing the Christmas market to the UK.
“The whole idea is to create this medieval village out of wooden chalets where you can browse, where you can enjoy beer, wine, the whole Christmas atmosphere, where there’s music and everything smells of roasted chestnuts.
“It submerges people into a different, stress-free shopping environment — it’s totally different to the high street where you get bombarded with that corporate ‘Christmas spirit’,” he adds.
Here, we pick some of our favourites across Europe.
he Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt — the market of infant Jesus — is one of the Gemany’s most historic, and one of the largest. Like most German Christmas markets it opens in late-November, marking the start of Advent, and ends after Christmas day. The city is home to the bratwurst — a delicacy that dates back to 1313 — but is just as famous for its gingerbread. It’s the perfect market for those looking for the authentic German experience, and the city of Nuremberg, with its fascinating history, lively nightlife and delicious dark beer, is great place to explore.
Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market is easily the most famous of its kind in Britain. An ode to the city with which it has a long-running ‘partnership’, it is totally Germanic in outlook: expect pretzels, schnitzels, bratwurst, roasted chestnuts and handcrafted decorations, toys and jewellery. The stalls are borrowed from Frankfurt, too, although the sellers are unmistakably Brummie.
Since moving from the South Bank three years ago, London’s main Christmas market has been stationed outside the imposing Tate Modern for three years, giving it a different atmosphere to the German classics (although St Paul’s Cathedral is, of course, seen just across the Thames). There’s a carousel, live music and lots of glühwein — and, if you get bored, one of the world’s largest cultural spaces next door.
Strasbourg, which fancies itself as the “capital of Christmas”, is also one of a number of cities to lay claim to the oldest Christmas market — here it’s known as the Christkindelsmärik in Alsatian dialect or Marché de Noël in French. Sat before the city’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, the market also boasts one of the most impressive Christmas trees you’re likely to see anywhere: in 2010, it was 32.5m in height, and rarely much smaller. Like the market, the city itself is a fascinating blend of German and French culture. Paris’s market, on the Champs-Élysées, is also as beautiful as it sounds.
There are two Christmas markets in Prague: in its Old Town Square and in Wenceslas Square. The former is the most impressive, home to a huge nativity scene, massive Christmas tree and live music and, of course, its Old Town Hall, featuring the world-famous astronomical clock (the oldest still in operation). There’s distinctly Czech vibe, with stalls selling Bohemian crystal and trdelník, a rolled dough grilled and topped with sugar and walnut. It’s also a great excuse to see one of Europe’s most enduringly beautiful capitals.
Gorge on glögg (mulled wine) and pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) at the Stockholm Christmas market, found in the colourful Stortorget square, before the Nobel Museum (which documents the history of the prize), in the Swedish capital’s old town. The market has its roots in the middle ages, although its current incarnation is more modern. You can also buy reindeer meat there (this is Scandinavia after all). Poor Rudolph.
Cologne boasts seven Christmas markets, four of which are next to the city’s stunning cathedral, one of the finest examples Gothic architecture anywhere in the world. Expect glühwein, stollen (a heavy fruit bread), beautiful wooden toys and, yes, an enormous Christmas tree. The proximity of the cathedral and the Rhine (see cruises, below), give it perhaps the best backdrop of any Christmas market.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a heavy chocolate influence at Bruges’ Christmas market (you’ll find delicious, warming Belgian hot chocolate everywhere), and it sits in the Market Square, overlooked by the 13th-century Belfry, an incredible bell tower (well worth climbing – if you can face its 366 steps). While the market is by no means the most historic (it was only founded in the 1980s), Bruges — a stunning city at any time of year — is even more magical in the snowy winter.
Kraków’s Christmas market is held in the Rynek Glowny, the old town’s 13th-century main square. If you’re there on the first Thursday in December, look out for the szopki (colourful card nativities) by the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in the centre of the square. The best are chosen to be displayed in the Historical Museum of Kraków in Krzysztofory Palace.
Vienna has one of the oldest Christmas market traditions in Europe, dating back to 1294 when King Albrecht I granted traders the right to hold a Krippenmarkt (crib market) in the city. Today, try the Spittelberg Christmas Market, hidden in the cobbled streets near the MuseumsQuartier, for its friendly atmosphere and artisan craft stalls.
If you can’t decide on just one Christmas market, there are a number of river cruises that offer the chance to see half a dozen. Luxury boutique line Uniworld, for example, offers a Rhine itinerary that takes in Frankfurt, Bamberg and Nuremberg, among others, while Emerald Waterways runs a 14-night cruise that begins in Amsterdam and ends in Budapest, taking in Cologne, Vienna and more along the way.