I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month.
After a whirlwind tour of some of central and eastern Europe's Christmas markets, I can honestly say that this is the best way one can get in the holiday spirit and savor the true meaning of Christmas: Taking time to relax and enjoy delicious food and drink in good company with shopping on the side. (Note: The senseless Christmas market attack in Berlin that took 12 lives is a horrific tragedy and makes my heart heavy.) Being my first Christmas market experience, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a variety of amazing food, drinks, gifts, and entertainment. I loved that most (or all?) of the items sold in the stalls were local and hand-made, and there was something for everyone. I did set the personal goal of finding and eating as much gingerbread as I humanly could and I found Prague to have the best selection.
Christmas markets in Europe generally run from November 24th to December 24th, which is plenty of time to take a train across Europe to see most of them (note to self: next year visit the markets in western Europe). Christmas markets are a European tradition, with many dating back to the 1400s and 1500s. Although it has become a bit touristy, Christmas markets are still a great way to sample local merchandise, food, and customs, all while celebrating the holidays. Suggestion: If you plan on visiting the Christmas markets, bring hand warmers to slip in your gloves. And cash. And an empty stomach.
Because I've posted so many pictures on the markets, here are links to jump to a particular city:
We were in Zagreb the night the Christmas market opened and despite the cold rain, the markets were packed with people out celebrating. Having won the title of Europe's best Christmas market both this year and last, Zagreb had set a high bar for itself this year by doubling (or tripling) in size and budget. This was my first real taste of Europe's Christmas markets and I was not disappointed, although I'm surprised that it beat out the markets I would later visit (maybe this was because I only saw the beginning of the market). I did love how happy everyone was and how many families were out; it seemed like more locals than tourists were in attendance, which is always a good sign to me. Plus, this had to be the most affordable market I visited, with drinks and snacks costing just a few dollars or less.
Takeaway: Family-friendly & inexpensive
Prague, Czech Republic:
I'm just going to come out and say it: Prague was hands-down my favorite Christmas market. Maybe it was the abundance of iced gingerbread cookies or that damn fine grilled cheese I had, but Prague is one Christmas market not to miss. The city in itself is gorgeous, so it makes quite the dramatic background for the festive stalls. The prices were reasonable (not as low as Zagreb, but definitely not as high as Austria or Nuremberg) and the merchandise was varied and interesting. The food was spectacular with many vegetarian options, and of course plenty of the famous Czech pastry trdelník.
Takeaway: Don't miss!
Like Prague, the Christmas markets of Vienna had quite the variety of dramatic backdrops but on a grander scale, from sprawling Baroque palaces to the Neo-Gothic city hall. Vienna definitely had the most beautiful Christmas markets on my route. The streets and shop windows were sumptuously decorated with holiday lights and decor, which was a unique experience in itself. I found the market prices to be higher than Zagreb and Prague, but still reasonable. I also thought the food selection (at least for vegetarians) and merchandise were limited.
Takeaway: Fine markets in a gorgeous, festive setting
This city does Christmas markets like it's their job, because it essentially is and has been since the 1600s. Many locals I talked to avoided the market, citing how touristy and crowded it has become. Regardless, my tourist self found Nuremberg's market to be fun and a great experience. Essentially, Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarket is located at the Main Market Square by the imposing Frauenkirche Nürnberg, or Catholic church. It is a massive show of stalls dressed in red-and-white stripes with more stalls popping up in nearby pedestrian thoroughfares (where I had the most luck with shopping and food). Apparently the folks running the Christkindlesmarket are very strict when it comes to what the stalls can offer, so you will see much of the same food (bratwurst), drinks (mulled wine), and merchandise (wooden figures). Outside of the main square, you'll find international stalls, vegetarian food, and unique treasures, and the cozy village-like Craftsmen's Courtyard (Handwerkerhof Nürnberg) should not be missed. And while Nuremberg had a huge variety of traditional gingerbread, they also had a lot of interesting and fun sweets worth every single calorie.
Takeaway: A traditional German Christmas experience
Salzburg's markets had lots of gorgeous items I would scoop up in a heartbeat if I wasn't living out of my suitcase, like fresh wreaths and fine cutting boards. I loved the "woodsy" themes at the markets, which made me feel like I was walking through the woods and stumbled upon some magical, dreamy paradise. The markets were heavily-trafficked with tourists and a bit on the expensive side (still reasonable when compared to something like state fairs in the U.S.) with more shopping than food, but all-in-all a worthwhile experience.
Takeaway: Great place for traditional Christmas decor & gifts