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For Christmas in Europe, Experience The Christmas Markets

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The Travel Notes Guide to Christmas in Europe presents a gift-wrapped selection of European Christmas markets and last-minute shopping tips for unique gifts.

This could well be the best Christmas shopping list for unique gifts from Amsterdam to Zurich.

Christmas Markets

Tasting the regional specialities are all part of the Christmas market experience. Join in the ambiance and sample the delights on offer.

Where to Find a Christmas Market in Europe

My first experience of a traditional Christmas Market on mainland Europe was when I lived in Montreux, in 1996.

I had been skiing over Christmas in Switzerland, France and Italy before that but I don't seem to remember much of a fuss being made about the Christmas markets during Advent in those days. Perhaps because we were in such a rush to test the snow on the ski slopes.

Now there are websites created just with Christmas markets in mind, and millions of search returns for the term 'Christmas Markets'.

If you travel in Europe around Christmas you'll probably stumble on at least one Christmas market without expecting to, or maybe just a row of empty wooden huts.

While you might think that all Christmas markets would be open during Christmas, quite often the opposite is true.

Some markets might only be open for a few days; in November. Others, including ones like Bratislava, tend to wind down for Christmas Eve. In 2009, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Christmas market along the river in Ljubljana still in full flow; on New Year's Eve.

If you intend to visit one of the more famous Christmas markets, be prepared to pay inflated hotel prices; if the rooms aren't already fully booked. Another option is to stay somewhere else, then travel in to the Christmas market and experience its unique atmosphere for a day.

At various Christmas markets around Europe I've seen many pleasant displays of arts and crafts with artisans busily creating new items before my eyes; smelt various aromas of regional produce being cooked under my nose; drank all sorts of fruity, spicy and very tasty variations of mulled wine (Glühwein in German or Vin Chaud in French); heard the sweet sound of innocent choral voices in a variety of foreign tongues; felt snowflakes touch my rosy cheeks before silently melting away; and bought some truly original gifts for loved ones.

Maybe this will inspire you to visit a Christmas market or two.

Germany is Famous for it's Weinachtsmärkte

Christmas gifts

Christmas markets are ideal for some last-minute Christmas shopping for that unique, hand-made gift for a loved one.

While Austria and Switzerland also hold Christmas markets (Marché de Noël, in French) some Swiss take organised coach trips to Germany, Stuttgart in particular, around this time of year - just for the Christmas market.

Some Christmas markets start in November but I think the atmosphere of a Christmas market is better when you visit one in December, possibly on or after December 6th - the celebration of St. Nikolaus (the day St. Nicholas died in AD 342).

It also helps if it snows.

Choosing a Christmas Market

If you like the taste of Glühwein and the smell of roasted chestnuts on a cold winter's evening, then you'll love the Christmas market atmosphere; the glittering lights in historic city centres beckoning you to the wooden stalls offering a wide range of artefacts and local produce.

Make a bulk purchase of regional hams and salamis and you could get a bottle of Schnapps thrown in.

Christmas in Amsterdam: (Dec 02 to Jan 12)
Rembrandt Square (Rembrandtplein) is where you'll find the festive Winterland Amsterdam.

Christmas in Augsburg: (Nov 21 to Dec 24)
Located on the marketplace in front of the Augsburg town hall. As well as the specialities found at other Bavarian markets, Augsburg is also famous for its Angel play and advent calendar. The first Lebkuchenmarkt was held here in 1498.

Christmas in Baden-Baden: (Nov 22 to Dec 26)
The Baden-Baden Christmas market comprises 90 stalls in front of the Kurhaus Colonnades. Visit if you feel like a little spin on the roulette wheel while you're at it.

Christmas in Barcelona: (Nov 26 to Dec 22)
Located along the Avenida de la Catedral, the Fira de Santa Llúcia has been a Christmas tradition in Barcelona since 1786. Also visit the Fira de Nadal at Sagrada Familia, first held in 1962.

Christmas in Berlin: (Nov 21 to Jan 01)
Germany's capital is home to over 60 Christmas markets; ranging from traditional markets, with handicraft and nativity scene, to extraordinary ones, with ice skating rink and Ferris wheel. Visit Berlin even puts out a special PDF document to list all the various opening times with links to individual Christmas markets around Berlin.

Christmas in Bratislava: (Nov 25 to Dec 23)
The first time we stayed in Bratislava at Christmas, the Radisson Carlton Hotel (close to the US Embassy) offered visitors an amazing festive deal. Even today, if you can get a double room here for €85 or under, take it! The collection of stalls outside the hotel is not the main Christmas market, for that you'll need to walk up to Hlavne namestie (Main Square). It's not far. That's the beauty of Bratislava, its much smaller than Prague or Vienna and has a very cosy feel.

Christmas in Brussels: (Nov 25 to Jan 01)
Experience the 'Pleasures of Winter' (Plaisirs d'Hiver/Winter Pret) in Belgium's capital, where some 240 chalets await you; between the ice rink at the fish market (Marché aux Poissons) to Place Sainte Catherine. Use metro stations Bourse or Ste Catherine.

Christmas in Budapest: (Nov 18 to Dec 30)
Located on Vörösmarty tér, I was lucky enough to visit the Budapest Christmas Fair a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The nice thing here is the performances of Hungarian folk music with folk dancers clothed in colourful, traditional dress. Not to mention the spicy sausages oozing grease.

Christmas in Colmar: (Nov 24 to Dec 31)
The timber-framed houses in Colmar are divine any time of year but once the lights and Christmas decorations get added you really do have the Magic of Noël glittering all around you.

Christmas in Cologne: (Nov 21 to Dec 23)
Cologne has a number of Christmas markets  to choose from. While Neumarkt is the scene of Cologne's oldest Christmas market, Alter Markt - in front of Cologne's town hall - is probably the most attractive. Cologne's Cathedral is the scene for another Christmas market; there's a Medieval Christmas market next to Cologne's Chocolate Museum; or you can try a rather different floating Christmas market - on the 'MS Wappen von Köln'.

Christmas in Copenhagen: (Nov 11 to Dec 30)
One million people a year visit the Tivoli Christmas Market (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). It helps that they can then move on to a number of other Christmas markets around wonderful Copenhagen.

Christmas in Ceský Krumlov: (Nov 27 to Jan 06)
If you're looking for a quiet, romantic Christmas atmosphere then Ceský Krumlov could be the place. The old medieval-style market comes to life on Advent weekends; in a slow-moving, appealing way. Don't miss out on a walk up around the castle; added to the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Monuments in 1992.

Christmas in Dresden: (Nov 24 to Dec.24)
Dating from 1434, Dresden's Striezelmarkt (named after the bread-like sweetcake made around Christmas time) is the oldest Christmas market in Germany. The Dresden Frauenkirche has been rebuilt since we last visited Dresden, so enjoy the sightseeing too.

Christmas in Frankfurt: (Nov 23 to Dec 22)
This is the time of year when Germany's financial centre takes its mind off the money markets. Standing in Frankfurt's Paulsplatz, the Christmas tree seems to tower above the surrounding facades. Look back down again and start seeking out those special Christmas gifts.

Frankfurt's Christmas market is set in the oldest part of the city, near the Römerberg. Specialities include Brenten (almond cookies), Bethmännchen (marzipan balls), and Quetschenmännchen (prune figures).

Christmas in Innsbruck: (Nov 25 to Jan 06)
I'd probably put the Innsbruck Christmas market in third place; behind Vienna and Salzburg but if you're in Tyrol (or Tirol, as the Austrians say) then I'm sure you won't be disappointed. The Golden Roof seems to attract visitors like a magnet, and that's where you'll find the main Innsbruck Christmas market. There are also Christmas markets at Marktplatz and along the main shopping street of Maria-Theresien-Straße.

For a Christmas market with a difference, how about the Konstanz Weinachtsmarkt am See; complete with a boat trip around Lake Constance.

Christmas in Konstanz: (Nov 24 to Dec 22)
The Weihnachtsmarkt am See might not rank in the premier league of Christmas markets but if you're in the Lake Constance area it's pleasant enough; stretching as it does from the main square, under the main road that leads to the train station, and out onto an area around the lake.

Christmas in Krakow: (Nov 22 to Jan 06)
If you fancy a Polish Christmas, Krakow's Rynek (main square) is the place to go; although some might prefer the smaller Wroclaw at Christmas (Nov 25 to Dec 23).

Christmas in Ljubljana: (Dec 03 to Jan 02)
If you can get a room at the Grand Hotel Union Executive Ljubljana you're perfectly placed to enjoy a stroll along the Ljubjanica river in the centre of the town; where the Ljubljana Christmas market is located. The abundance of blue lights in the old town make for a different feel to your night photography.

Christmas in London: (Nov 18 to Dec 24)
Once the Regents Street Christmas lights are turned on in November it's hoped that the tills keep ringing all the way up to Christmas Eve.

Christmas in Lübeck: (Nov 21 to Dec 30)
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Lübeck's Christmas market was first mentioned in historical documents way back in 1648. Today the city markets itself as the 'Christmas Capital of Northern Germany'.

Christmas in Luxembourg: (Nov 25 to Jan 01)
During the Winterlights festival, Luxembourg's Christmas markets can be found on place d'Armes (Marché de Noël) and place de Paris (Marché Saint-Nicolas). The markets close at 5pm on Christmas Eve.

Christmas in Montreux: (Nov 24 to Dec 24)
Having lived in Montreux for a while, with a stunning view of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), I still have a soft spot for the French-speaking region of Switzerland. The Christmas market in Montreux has expanded since I had my first experience of Montreux Noël and there's now a weekend Medieval Market at nearby Château de Chillon (Dec 03 to Dec 18).

Christmas in Munich: (Nov 25 to Dec 24)
Munich's traditional Christmas Market is held on and around the Marienplatz. Originally called the Nicholas Market, the festive tradition dates back to the 14th century. The town's annals first mention Christmas activity near the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) in 1642. The Neuhauser Strasse Christmas manger market is also worth a visit.

Although the main Munich Christmas Market spreads out from the Town Hall, there are plenty of other Christmas markets around Munich to choose from.

Christmas in Mulhouse: (Nov 24 to Dec 29)
If you really want to visit a Christmas market in Alsace and the hotel rooms in Strasbourg and Colmar are either fully booked or too expensive, then you might want to consider Mulhouse as an alternative. The villages around South Alsace only have a Christmas market for a day or two; many competing with each other on the same day.

Christmas in Nancy: (Nov 23 to Dec 24)
As the Patron Saint of Lorraine, Saint Nicolas is afforded a special parade and celebrations on Place Stanislas, during the first weekend of December. Nancy's main Christmas market is held around place Maginot.

Christmas in Nuremberg: (Nov 25 to Dec 24)
The famous Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt is located on the Nürnberger Hauptmarkt (main market square). While the earliest Christmas market was held here in 1628 and some two million visitors are attracted to Nürnberg's Christmas market annually, it is neither the oldest nor largest Christmas market in Germany.

Christmas in Paris: (Nov 19 to Jan 02)
From Champs-Elysées to Montparnasse; La Defense to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Alsace-influenced wooden chalets spring up around the capital of France. Kids will enjoy the Christmas market and ice rink at Trocadero (Dec 08 to Jan 02).

Christmas in Prague: (Nov 26 to Jan 08)
The Christmas markets in Prague are centred around the Old Town and Wenceslas Squares. In the last few days before Christmas you'll probably see plenty of live carp for sale; as it's tradition to eat the fish on Christmas Eve.

Christmas in Rome: (Nov 26 to Jan 06)
The Mercatino di Natale e Festa della Befana (Italy's good witch who gives Italian children presents on Epiphany - 6th January) takes place around Rome's Piazza Navona.

When in Rome, you're also at the home of the Christmas Eve Mass (Solemnity of the Lord's Birth) - at the Vatican.

Christmas in Rothenburg ob der Tauber: (Nov 25 to Dec. 23)
The medieval setting in the walled city of Rothenburg makes the Reiterlesmarkt a special event for those who like to feel as though they're stepping back in time. The German Christmas Museum is also located in Rothenburg.

Christmas in Salzburg: (Nov 17 to Dec 26)
Although Salzburg's Christkindlmarkt on Cathedral Square is the main event there are plenty more Christmas markets in and around Salzburg to keep you feeling festive for well over a month. Be sure not to miss the Advent market in the courtyard of Hohensalzburg Fortress (up on the hill) or the Christmas Market down on Mirabell Square.

Capitale de Noel - Strasbourg

Christmas in Strasbourg: (Nov 26 to Dec 31)
Marketed as the 'Capital of Christmas', Strasbourg staged its first Marché de Noël in 1570 - making it the oldest in France - and now boasts eleven Christmas markets to choose from. The Christmas market in Strasbourg (Alsace) is so popular that coach tours are even organised from Switzerland and hotels seem booked out months in advance.

Christmas in Stuttgart: (Nov 23 to Dec 23)
Although a seemingly modern metropolis in southern Germany, Stuttgart's Christmas market tradition still goes back over three hundred years.

Christmas in Tallin: (Nov 26 to Jan 08)
Estonia's Christmas tradition is celebrated around the huts radiating out from the country's tallest Christmas tree on Town Hall Square. The Christmas Village at Estonian Open Air Museum (Vabaõhumuuseumi tee 12, Tallinn) operates from December 16th to 18th.

Christmas in Turku: (Nov 26 to Jan 13)
Billed as the 'Christmas City of Finland', Turku - along with Tallinn - was chosen as European Capitals of Culture for 2011. If you have to work over Christmas you might be pleased to know that the Christmas atmosphere continues in Turku right up to St. Knut’s Day, on the 13th of January.

Christmas in Vienna: (Nov 12 to Dec 24)
While first stop might be the traditional Christmas market in front of Vienna's City Hall, you'll also want to visit the Christmas Market at Schönbrunn Palace, the Old Viennese Christmas Market (Altwiener Christkindlmarkt) at Freyung (they've held a Christmas market here since 1772), and the picturesque setting for a Christmas market at Spittelberg.

Christmas in Würzburg: (Nov 25 to Dec 23)
Located in the Franconia region of Northern Bavaria, this romantic setting might be a little off the beaten track for most people, but that's what's makes a winter visit along the Romantische Straße so appealing.

Christmas in Zagreb: (Dec 01 to Jan 05)
The capital of Croatia holds its traditional Christmas Fair in the streets surrounding Jelacic Square.

Christmas in Zurich: (Nov 17 to Dec 31)
If you arrive in Zurich by train you'll be greeted by Europe's largest indoor Christmas market. Stroll out along Bahnhofstrasse for some elegant Christmas shopping and then across the Limmat for a little romantic Christmas atmosphere in Niederdorfstrasse.

Switzerland at Christmas

On December 6th, most restaurants will put out bowls of nuts, oranges and chocolates for their customers.

The Christmas market itself is not as big an event as in neighbouring Germany, Austria or France but many places do have smaller markets that run for a few days.

With Montreux (nicest) and Zurich already listed, other notable Christmas markets in Switzerland can be found in Basel, Bern, Geneva (marché de Noël des artisans), Luzern and St. Gallen (largest Christmas tree in Switzerland).

Bremgarten, in Kanton Aargau, is said to be romantic (Dec 01-04) and Beckenrieder Samichlais-Märcht (Dec 03) is short and sweet.

By Michel.
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More Christmas Markets

There's no worries about the trees being called holiday trees in Germany. Here they're still traditional Christmas trees (Christbaum), or Weihnachtsbaume.

Germany's Christmas Markets:
Large listing of Christmas Markets in Germany.

United Kingdom

Christmas Markets in the UK:
Christmas markets and holiday events are a festive way to get into the spirit of the season and do your Christmas shopping.

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Rick Steves' European Christmas
European Christmas Markets

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