For most of us, the Christmas season is both enchanting and daunting. Yes, it’s the time of year when the world becomes just a little bit more whimsical and beautiful. But it’s also the time when gift getting can begin to feel like a burden. Luckily, many towns around the world manage to maintain the holiday magic (and offset the often overwhelming commercialization of the holiday) with their unique and often whimsical Christmas markets. From late November through the New Year, you can find amazing candlelit displays, winter delicacies, delicious mulled wines, and spectacular crafts at seasonal markets around the world. These markets are time-honored traditions — some have been around for centuries — that make the historical magic of Christmas feel a bit more present-day.
These Christmas markets, also known as Holiday Markets, Christkindlmarkts (the spelling of this varies from city to city) or Weihnachtsmarkts, are based on a tradition that dates back to the late Middle Ages in German-speaking parts of Europe — a time when decorations and ornaments only came in handmade form from talented artists. Traditionally, these markets were held across Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, South Tyrol, and Alsace, but today these spirited celebrations can be found all over the world.
Less expected cities, such as Sapporo, Japan (which fell into the mix because Munich is its sister city) and Quebec City, Canada, now host holiday markets, turning sections of their cities into winter wonderlands you’d have to see to believe. In the United States cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia have introduced traditional artisanal Christmas markets, some of which are outdoor pop-ups while others invoke the ritual of incorporating a Christkind into an established market program, à la Nuremberg, Germany’s original market.
What is a Christkind, you ask? While it literally translates to "Christ child," the Christkind is an angelic woman with long, flowing blond locks, a gilded crown, and a robe of white and gold who is responsible for reciting the customary prologue to commence the festivities. At some markets, you’ll find the Christkind schmoozing with guests, spreading holiday cheer, and even reading Christmas stories to children.
If you find yourself in any of these cities during the holiday season, make a point to explore the Christmas market to see the lights, trees, and tinsel, to smell the pine and spiced wine, and to gawk at the gorgeous pieces of art and antiques on display and for sale. You’ll be able to score eclectic gifts for everyone on your list, and no matter how Grinch-like you may naturally be, if you celebrated Christmas growing up you’re pretty much guaranteed a (momentary at least) flashback to your former, childlike self (if not a full-on regression to a stuttering, awestruck tyke at the sight of Santa Claus sitting in his cushy red chair).
Think of this slideshow as your passport to the markets around the world, or those nearest to where you are — these amazing venues are sure to get you into the holiday spirit!
Christmas Market — Vienna, Austria
Known as one of the most romantic cities in the world, Vienna transforms into a holiday haven during winter months, hosting several traditional Christmas markets around picturesque spots including the town square Rathausplatz and the Historic Quarter. Vienna held its first, Dezembermarktes, or “December Market” in 1294, kicking off a tradition that carries through to today's Christmas Market. Now, festivities center on Rathaus, the city's town hall, where millions of revelers gather to ring in the season. The markets open in mid-November and host vendors selling handcrafted decorations and artisanal beeswax candles. Twinkling trees bedecked in lights surround the park around the market. Travelers will enjoy weekend performances by choirs from around the world and families can take advantage of daily kids’ workshops. Top picks include the Vienna Magic of Advent & Christmas Market where visitors are immersed in the aroma of roasted chestnuts and are spoiled for choice with over 150 stalls; the Christmas Village on Maria-Theresien-Platz, offering handicrafts and other stocking fillers along with freshly-baked pastries; and the Kultur-und Weihnachtsmarkt in front of the monumental Schönbrunn Palace, which specializes in lucky charms to offer to loved ones for the New Year.
Christmas Market — Brussels
The Brussels Christmas market has more than a mile of shops, stalls, and chalets with gifts, food and drinks, ornaments, and artisanal arts and crafts. With help from the Montreux Noël team (who worked on a very successful holiday market in Switzerland for two decades), the market is equipped with an authentic Swiss chalet serving culinary delicacies from Switzerland (think fondues and expertly paired wines from the Lavaux and Fendant regions), and the Rue Devaux will be a big part of the action, hosting a number of participating shops, vendors, and outdoor eating areas.