There’s nowhere like the European Alps for getting into the Christmas spirit, with fairylit markets touting mulled wine, gingerbread biscuits and handmade, traditional decorations. Christmas shopping sorted – as well as a stay in a lesser-known, extra-romantic mountain village.
The Alps take on a special kind of magic at Christmas time. Medieval villages in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy string fairy lights over Christmas markets selling mulled wine and handcrafted goodies from wood cabins, to the festive backdrop of snowy mountains. While tourists often gravitate to bigger, more famous markets like those in Salzburg and Innsbruck, these intimate, lesser-known spots provide a chance to experience a slice of local life. And perusing stall after stall of Alpine craftsmanship and warming food and drink is especially welcoming after a day hitting the world-class slopes.
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Bolzano is the self-proclaimed Italian capital of Christmas, and it’s hard to disagree when met with its great location in the Dolomite mountain range. The town’s annual Christmas market takes place in the Piazza Walther, starting late November until early January. Some 80 stalls sell handcrafted objects and decorations from South Tyrolean artists, plus quality regional delicacies like cured meats, pastries, mulled wine and liqueurs. The frequent concerts, exhibits and lifesize nativity scene tempt visitors, too, hot wine in hand. The market has been awarded a ‘Green Event’ certification because of its eco-friendly principles and use of regional products, you can invest your holiday money in the safe knowledge it’s going somewhere good.
This alpine town in Bavaria is known for skiing for most of the winter. It’s in the shadow of Germany’s highest mountain, Zugspitze, making it an ideal setting for an authentic and bustling Christmas market in high-altitude surroundings. Start at the town’s large Christmas tree, where there are several wooden booths offering creative gift ideas and local delicacies: crepes, fondue, bratwurst and roasted chestnuts, plus the all-important gluhwein (mulled wine). Lace up for a go on the ice skating rink, with spectacular views of the Bavarian Alps. For a special night out, check out the nearby Partnach Gorge, where you can take torchlight tours when it’s frozen.
Merano is another pretty mountain town in Italy’s South Tyrol region, known for its upscale ski and spa resorts. From the end of November until early January (although it’s closed on Christmas Day), there’s a lovely and expansive Christmas market with over 80 stalls run by local producers. Once you’ve had a soak in the village’s famed thermal baths, stroll among the festivities at a leisurely pace while listening to the trickling River Passer and catching glimpses of the Italian Alps in the background. Take your time perusing the vendors’ Italian and German foods, regional decorations, candles, clothes, accessories and even perfume.
The glamorous ski town of St. Moritz has one of the most festive Christmas markets in Switzerland, drawing its fair share of faux fur-bedecked celebrities who are lured to the area’s luxury resorts. The market is just as upmarket, with an ice-skating rink (there are several in St. Moritz) and a gastro village offering an impressive range of gourmet foods, mulled wine and punch. Stalls sell a range of regional gifts (look out for the high-end jewellery made by a local goldsmith), but you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have fun. Simply walk around and check out the bedazzling Christmas decorations (especially at the five-star hotels), look for visits from Santa Claus, enjoy live music and perhaps join one of the candle-making workshops.
Visiting Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, along the German Alpine Road, gets you to the heart of an area blessed with distinct mountain ranges and pristine lakes. From late November to the end of December, the town holds a Christmas market which pays homage to the area’s immense history. A good place to start is in the bundle of festive market stalls, where local artists sell wood crafts and original Christmas tree decorations depicting centuries-old folk art. Keep an eye out for a live nativity scene, regular performances from a local brass ensemble, horse-drawn carriage rides, a Christmas tree labyrinth, historical tours, painting workshops and a bakery making sugary, doughy treats for children.
A mecca for cross-country skiers (it was twice a venue for Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976), the quiet, romantic town of Seefeld holds a tasteful Christmas market during the Advent season in the pedestrian core near the Parish Church of St. Oswald. You’ll find several wooden huts hosting artisan gifts and local food vendors, plus hot wine and punch. On Sundays, carriage rides and live orchestra recitals are added to the programme. Kids will love the chance to write and post a letter to Father Christmas in the angels’ mailbox.
This medieval town overlooking the Dolomites dates back to the 10th century, architecture buffs, you’re in for a treat. From late November to early January, head to the cobbled Piazza Duomo (next to the cathedral, which conceals a striking, marble-clad interior) and shop in 40 stalls, decorated by local school children. On offer are regional goods like ceramics, wooden figurines and candles, as well as German food and drink like bratwurst, mulled wine, apple cider, gingerbread, strauben (funnel cake) and krapfen (jam-filled doughnuts). There are plenty of activities to dip into – think multimedia light and sound shows, an antique carousel, an ice skating rink and horse-led carriage rides. Like the Bolzano market listed above, this certified Green Event prioritises organic ingredients, waste management, and energy conservation.
This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Marion Kutter.
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