Europe's Christmas markets
European holiday markets, which date back centuries, are enjoying renewed popularity.
Prague, Czech Republic
My first Christmas abroad caught me by surprise. The heart and soul of my new home – Prague's highly esteemed Old Town Square – had been transformed, seemingly overnight, into a scene from a Charles Dickens novel.Skip to next paragraph
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Little, red, thatched-roof gift booths strung with garland, tinsel, and holly dotted the snow-covered square. Smoke from roasting chestnuts snaked through the air, and pretty women in colored dresses, earmuffs, and scarves sang carols as horse-drawn carriages stood waiting for their next fare.
Dazzling and magical hardly seemed like adequate descriptions for such a yuletide display. Rather, what I remember unfolding before me on that crisp winter afternoon two years ago seemed astonishingly surreal. I didn't think the holiday season could get much better.
As it turns out, the Czech capital's famous outdoor markets were just the prelude. Europe is renowned for its Christmas markets. Practically every big city has at least one, if not several. But – not to be biased – some of the best, biggest, and oldest seasonal marketplaces reside right in the center of Europe.
Nuremberg, Germany's internationally acclaimed Little Town From Wood and Cloth braces each year for the onslaught of foreign visitors that steamrolls in for five consecutive weeks, looking for those one-of-a-kind gifts to place under the tree.
For me, though, the region's Christmas markets are not so much about the shopping experience as they are about the atmosphere. Just imagine celebrating the holiday season against the backdrop of Munich's bustling city center, Prague's baroque landscape, or the extensive, snow-capped mountains of Salzburg, Austria. The view, quite literally, will take your breath away.
"This is the problem with [something that's considered] a paradise – once it is discovered, it is no longer a paradise," says Michael Weber, the general manager for Nuremberg's tourist office. "Indeed, the Christmas market is Nuremberg's biggest tourist draw. I would go so far to say that it is for Nuremberg what the Oktoberfest is for Munich."
Perhaps he has a point. After all, it seems almost impossible these days to find a traditional European Christmas market that hasn't already been thoroughly overpromoted by the tourism industry. Still, the fascination persists, and city officials here push aside talk of a global economic meltdown, insisting their winter tourism numbers will remain steady this year.
"There has been a certain fluctuation, yes," Mr. Weber admits. "Not because of weak economies but because of an increase in the number of good markets in Germany. That number grew faster than the number of possible visitors."
Top Christmas markets
Year of first recorded market: 1434
Must buy: Stollen loaves
Year of first recorded market: 1642
Must buy: Rauchermann, small wooden figures used to burn incense
Year of first recorded market: 1628
Must buy: Nuremberg plum people, little figures made out of prunes
Year of first recorded market: 1626
Must buy: Vanilla crescents, traditional Viennese Christmas cookies.
Year of first recorded market: 1491
Must buy: Mozartkugel, a tasty chocolate delight since 1890.
Prague, Czech Republic
Must buy: Honey gingerbread