Every November and December, Christmas markets spring up around the world in every shape and size. Those who want to experience the top draws (and crowds) – think chalet-lined streets and squares with ample food, gift shopping and festive entertainment – will find plenty of city centres that go into holiday overdrive. So, put on your walking shoes and get ready to explore some of the largest Christmas markets around the world.
Dating back to 1434, when it was just a one-day event, Germany’s oldest market has expanded over the centuries and now attracts millions of visitors each year from all over the world. Visitors can peruse 240 stands selling locally made gifts and souvenirs, and get up close to Germany’s largest Christmas pyramid and a fairytale castle that doubles as a life-size Advent calendar. Special traditions include the baking of stollen, a light airy fruit cake shaped like an entrance to a mine tunnel to pay homage to the area’s mining industry. Each year, dozens of local bakers work together to make the world’s largest stollen, which is then paraded through the market on a carriage (snag a slice for a small donation). The market is hard to miss, in Dresden’s city centre throughout December until Christmas Eve.
Though there are 12 Christmas markets in Vienna, the largest and most popular one is Vienna’s Christmas World. It’s held in the large Rathausplatz square, facing Vienna City Hall. Some 150 stalls sell quality gifts and souvenirs, many made from wood and glass, plus tempting Viennese foods, baked goods and Christmas-spiced beverages. Walk off the strudels by hunting for the famous tree of hearts, which comes with a platform for photographs, or follow the trail of Nativity scenes. Then, lace up and enjoy an illuminated ice skating rink playing Christmas music in the background. The market usually starts in mid-November and lasts until the day after Christmas. It’s popular, so expect large crowds, especially in the evenings.
From mid-November until early January, the magic of Christmas comes alive with a million twinkling lights at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens – which also happens to be one of the world’s oldest amusement parks, having been open since 1844. Enveloped in Danish hygge, there’s plenty to see and do here: pose for a photo with Father Christmas (known as Julemanden), ride roller coasters, join twilight garden tours and attend holiday-themed shows, including plays and ballets. There’s also mulled wine and Danish doughnuts. On some nights, fireworks even light up the sky. It’s no surprise that Walt Disney gained inspiration from Tivoli Gardens for his own amusement parks in the 1950s.
Between late November and Christmas Eve, this Alsatian city dubs itself as the capital of Christmas – and it has four centuries of experience. Strasbourg once belonged to the German Rhineland where there were long-standing Christmas traditions, so when Strasbourg became a French city, it retained these traditions as part of its heritage. The heart of the festivities takes place in front of Notre Dame cathedral with a large Christmas tree and pretty wooden chalets, selling Alsatian delights like bredele cakes. What makes this market stand out is the expansive range of events featuring top Alsatian designers, woodworkers, carpet weavers, ceramicists, designers and makers of beautiful linens, as well as quality food items such as smoked fish and foie gras. It’s no wonder that Francophiles from all over the world flock to this Christmas festival.
How does a cheerful midwestern city known for its German heritage celebrate Christmas? With its own version of an authentic German-style outdoor Christkindlmarket, of course. Set up in Daley Plaza, it’s all thanks to an original partnership with Nuremberg’s Christmas Market. Since 1996, this annual festival (from late November until Christmas Eve) is often considered to be the largest and most authentic traditional holiday market of its kind outside of Europe, offering cultural activities, German food and drink (including imported mulled wine), shopping and all-ages events. Take the opportunity to learn about Christkind, a fairy-like woman and the bearer of gifts to children in most German-speaking countries.
From early November until a few days before Christmas, this expansive Christmas market (the largest in the UK) has attracted millions of visitors every year since it began in 1998. Though Albert Square is the heart of the market, it expands throughout the city centre with several distinct locations such as Exchange Square, New Cathedral Street, King Street and St Ann’s Square. There are 300 charming stalls in total, hosting traders selling specialty gifts, foods and drinks – from paella, burritos, fried chicken and fish and chips, to a vast selection of beer and wine. There’s a giant Christmas pyramid, an Ice Village and skating rink, amusement park rides and even a street theatre. All the market locations are within walking distance of each other for most people, though there are transport options to make your journey between each area a little easier.
This high-tech Asian city is known for its colourful lights year-round, but no more so than during the annual WinterFest. The entire city is transformed into a magical place covered in festive decorations and laser audiovisual displays. Couples can head to the dazzling Christmas tree in Statue Square and take part in the ritual of leaving love locks along the railings. Every night during the season, Victoria Harbour puts on a free holiday light show of the Symphony of Lights. There’s also a government-sponsored luminescent art exhibit, featuring artists from around the world on the Central Harbourfront. Several performances by the Hong Kong Ballet and Hong Kong Philharmonic liven things up, while the city’s best restaurants prepare special gourmet menus designed for the holidays.
The standout Christmas market in Brussels attracts millions of visitors each year, with so much to offer that it is technically divided into six sections that merge together for one, ginormous Christmas celebration, with different layouts and themes. Start at the 17th-century Grand Place, the main square of Brussels, to see the city’s largest Christmas tree and regular light shows against the Unesco-protected facades. Then prepare to walk. The easiest route winds northwest, to 200 stalls selling a sea of crafts and gifts, as well as international food and drink in the form of escargots, oysters, tartiflette and gourmet products from around Europe. In one area, a different country’s culture is featured each year (a recent example was Finland). Keep walking to get to the ferris wheel, champagne bar tent and igloo which has live music performances. This elaborate celebration is open for five weeks, from early December through to the first week of January.
This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Varia Fedko-Blake.
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