I first became aware of the Christmas Markets about 7 years ago. I had been traveling in Europe once or twice a year for almost 15 years at that point. These trips have been taken to a variety of places, for a variety of reasons, and to satisfy a variety of interests. This particular one, to Vienna, was taken in December.
I know December is not the traditional high season for travel to Europe, but I find myself traveling at that time for several reasons. First, as a workaholic, I tend to let work take priority during the year, and end up in December with use-or-lose vacation days that must be taken. I always miss Paris in the spring. I have planned several summer biking vacations in Europe, but never taken one. I have never managed to go hiking in Norway in July or August, the only months when it is possible.
Instead, I tend to end up in Copenhagen in September, when Tivoli is still open, but all of the music and other performers have stopped for the season. Or hiking in places where the trails are limited due to early snows. Or wandering in museums in Zurich or Brussels that do not interest me much, but it is too cold to be outside and I do not want to confine myself to the hotel.
Until this one trip to Vienna, intended as just another gloomy, museum-focused trip to burn some vacation days before the end of the year. So on my first evening, settled into my hotel outside of the Ring near the Votiv Kirche, I planned to walk into the city center, to the Stephansdom, in order to get re-acquainted with the city, and to find dinner. Having been to Vienna a few times, I knew my way down Schottengasse to Graben, so I proceeded in the cold, dark, and drizzle.
Approaching the Schottenkirche at Freyung, my attention was caught, looking to my right down Teinfaltstrasse. It appeared . . . yes, those are giant red lights floating in the air at the end of the street. A very unusual sight and, since I was generally wandering anyway, worthy of investigation. As I approached the back side of the Burg Theatre, the giant floating lights resolved themselves into large, plastic hearts, lit from within. But I still could not tell how they were floating. Once in front of the Burg Theatre, on the Ring, I realized that the hearts, dozens of them, were hung in a tree. And the reason they appeared so high in the sky was, well, it was a very large tree.
By now, I could see similar lights in other large trees, and they were grouped into themes. My first tree had only red hearts in it. Another tree had large candy canes, so I now understood this to be a Christmas lights display in front of the Vienna Rathaus. Another tree had lights in the shape of Christmas presents. Another in the shape of hot air balloons which, although apparently having nothing to do with Christmas, are still whimsical, and draw out a smile. I love creative night lighting, being a lighting designer myself. I also generally love Christmas, and always put up and light a tree in my house, even if it is only for me and a few visitors.
But upon crossing the Ring, the entire scheme became clear to me. For the decorated trees were only a small part of the overall flavor of the Vienna Christkindl Market. I had never heard of a Christkindl Market before. Obviously, I was familiar with Christmas decorations set out by our city governments, or by department stores and shops. Who among us has not visited, or at least heard of, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza, and the Christmas displays in the shop windows along 5th Avenue? I had even visited a few cities, including Paris, Zurich, and Brussels in December in years past, and had found pretty much the same department stores and shops with the same holiday lighting, in an attempt to make the shops special.
But this was different. This was not a store decorating to entice holiday shoppers, or even the city hanging out a few lights. It was an ad-hoc market, composed of dozens of wooden huts or kiosks, each about 10 feet square, each selling a variety of gifts, decorations, crafts, food, and drinks. And the entire thing was located in a city park, Rathaus Park, so it was not just an outward display spilling out from existing shops onto a sidewalk. Instead, it was a miniature Christmas city, risen just for the occasion.
Once I had returned home, my internet investigations revealed that the Christmas Markets have been a growing phenomenon in Europe for several years. I have no idea where and when it started, but cities had learned that, by re-creating the nostalgic feel of a market from the Middle Ages, they could transform Christmas from the simple encouragement of more shopping into an attraction in and of itself.
So what is the attraction of the Christmas Markets? What is there to lure visitors during what is otherwise the low season, when many tourist attractions are closed and outdoor activities are only for the hardy? Undoubtedly, the attraction is different for everyone. The most obvious answer, for a large number of people, is the shopping, for gifts and for self. For if this is an interest of yours, I cannot think of a better place to do it. It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive list of the goods available, except in generalities. First, there is very little of what, I would normally assume, is a primary objective of many Christmas shoppers. And that is, although there are occasional kiosks selling toys and other items for children, there is not nearly as much of this as one would expect.
Instead, the focus of items for sale appears to be winter and Christmas-related clothing and crafts. Lots of Christmas tree ornaments, for instance, from cheap plastic low-end ornaments to the most beautiful blown glass, generally arranged by style or theme. Also, it seems that every other kiosk is selling candles. Winter clothing available includes hats, scarves, socks, gloves, and sweaters. Most of the items for sale are hand-made, further helping to remove the event from the normal department store atmosphere, and towards that of a more nostalgic feeling.
A second attraction, and one that speaks more directly to me, is the food and drink! If your objective in Europe is fine dining, or health foods, then please, proceed to a restaurant and read this description no further. But if comfort food in a festive atmosphere is more your style, as it is mine, then the Christmas Markets are the place.
I find that I hardly visit restaurants at all anymore when visiting Europe in December. Morning at a museum. Then pop out at lunchtime for a hot-off-the-grill bratwurst. Maybe visits to a couple of churches, and then perhaps a mid-afternoon snack of kartofelpuffer, an extremely unhealthy and delicious fried potato pancake. I am now ranking cities by the quality of their Christmas kartofelpuffers. Prague presents their fried potatoes in chip form, which is unacceptable. Vienna offers kartofelpuffers that are a little bland, but become delicious with gobs of sour cream. German cities along the Rhine, such as Koblenz and Bonn, have kartofelpuffers that seem to have more spice (maybe it is just extra salt!), and they are also careful to only serve them piping hot, straight out of the fryer. For evening, desert items can include crepes with fruit or chocolate. I have also found that the crepes, with ham and cheese, can make an excellent breakfast before heading out to your tourist sites for the day.
But my favorite desert was found in Prague, and is called trdelnik. This is a dough wound around a spindle, and then baked above a charcoal or gas fire. Once baked, the trdelnik is rolled in sugar, cinnamon, and almonds.
On my recent trip to Prague, my advance reading indicated that there was only a single Christmas Market, on Old Town Square. But on my fourth day there, I got lost in mid-afternoon, trying to walk back to Old Town from Vysehrad. It was raining and cold, but still early, so there was nothing to worry about. After some time, I ended up on the square in front of the St. Ludmila church, only to find a good-sized Christmas Market that had not been mentioned in my internet reading. And interestingly, even though I was only a short distance off of the beaten tourist path, I noticed a difference. The Christmas Market on Old Town Square was designed for tourists. Signs on the kiosks were largely in English, and all of the vendors spoke fluent English. But here, a few blocks on the back side of the National Museum where few tourists venture, all of the Christmas Market signs were only in Czech, and the vendors I attempted to speak with spoke no English.
I persevered. After walking for hours, I was hungry. I approached a kiosk, and pointed at a trdelnik lying on the counter. The vendor, speaking no English, happily took my coins, but when I reached for the treat, she stopped me and shook her head. I tried again, and she refused to give me my trdelnik. I looked around for help. It was raining, I was freezing, I wanted my trdelnik, and she had my money. But my friend just stood there, refusing to allow me to pick up the tredelnek sitting right in front of me. I stared at her. She kept speaking and making hand signals, none of which I understood. Just when I was ready to walk away, she turned to her grill and poked at a few trdelniks turning on their spindles. Satisfied, she pulled one straight off of the fire, rolled it in sugar and cinnamon and almonds, and handed it to me, piping hot. Now I was doubly warmed, first by her gesture, and then by the delicious trdelnik.
Two lessons learned here. First, your advance internet research is likely to lead you to the large-scale, tourist-focused Christmas Markets. But smaller, local-focused markets are out there, and are not advertised. But they are well worth seeking out. And second, never accept the trdelniks and kartofelpuffers that have been sitting on the counter. Hold out for the hot ones!
My favorite treat at the markets is a drink called glühwein in Germany and Austria, and svarak in the Czech Republic. This is a hot, spiced red wine equivalent, I suppose, to mulled wine in the US. The glühwein serves numerous purposes, of which the obvious one involves its being wine. But it is also hot, which comes in handy for allowing one to spend all this time outside in the middle of winter. The largest crowds at the Christmas Markets are those gathered around the vendors that serve glühwein and other hot beverage treats.
Another attraction of the glühwein is the cups in which it is served in many places. The drink is served in stoneware coffee cups which are nicely designed to be kept and collected by the visitors. The purchaser pays a deposit of 2 to 2.5 Euros on the cup, which can be redeemed by returning it to any of the glühwein vendors. So you can buy at one end of the market, sip while you wander to the other end, and then return for your deposit back at a different kiosk. Or you can just keep the cup for your collection at home.
Although I tend to live sparely and do not purchase or collect many souvenirs from trips, I have to admit I have been tempted by the glühwein cups. Because they are very well done. Most are decorated with the official logo of that particular city, year, and/or Christmas Market. So, for instance, one could visit Trier and obtain the Trier 2012 cup, and then return the next year and collect a different, but equally beautiful, Trier 2013 cup. Or one could put together a multi-city trip and, within a few days, collect the cups from Trier, Koblenz, Mainz, Bonn, and Cologne.
One of the primary reasons I have not collected the cups is, as I mentioned, that I tend not to collect souvenirs. But my other reason is that I simply realized, too late, that I should have been collecting them all along. By the time I figured out the “system”, that each city and each year had a unique design and that the cups were meant to be collected, I had already attended numerous markets and drunk numerous cups of glühwein. I could have started collecting, but I had already missed my opportunity to collect Vienna-2005, or Innsbruck-2009, so any collection I started now would be incomplete.
To me, the major attraction to the Christmas Markets is simply the atmosphere. In 7 years of going to the markets, I have never actually bought anything, other than food and drink. But I love the festive atmosphere, the beautifully decorated lighting at night, and the music from street performers and instrumental and choral groups on the stages which are present at every Christmas Market. The schedules of performances are generally made available on placards located somewhere near the stage, so make sure to investigate these upon your arrival so you can plan some Christmas music into your trip. If I have one complaint about the markets, it is that they schedule music performances only a couple hours each day, usually in the late afternoon and early evening. Personally, if singers and musicians were scheduled, I could sit there and listen, drinking glühweins, for hours on end.
Obviously, a visit to Christmas Markets will only be part of your December trip. Each of the cities also has its regular tourist attractions, including museums, churches and cathedrals, and historical sites. Many of these are closed in December – for instance, I found on my German trip last year that most of the castles in the area were closed for the season, and that there would be no boat excursions on the Rhine or Mosel. But those can wait for a later summer trip. I found one excellent castle, the Marksburg, open, and the churches and Roman sites in Trier are worth a visit any time of year.
By doing internet research in advance, one can fly into a large city and visit markets in numerous nearby towns. Most small towns throughout Germany and Austria now have them, and many larger cities have multiple markets. Vienna, as far as I can tell, has at least 6 or 7 separate markets in different parts of the city, including Rathaus Park, Freyung, Am Hof, Karls Kirche, Belvedere, and Shonnbrünn. In Prague, I discovered that they have local neighborhood markets that, as far as I could tell, were not advertised to tourists. My internet research indicates that there are markets throughout England, France, and Belgium that I will have to put on my list for future visits.
Like everything that becomes popular, there are cities that appear to have jumped on the bandwagon, but without the full effect. The Copenhagen market, promised in Tivoli, was Tivoli with a few extra lights, but without the live music. I will continue to love and visit Copenhagen, in the summer. My visits in Delft and Brussels identified outdoor Christmas lighting, but with no markets that I could see. These cities may have since developed markets, so please investigate in advance before taking my word that these places are going to be a disappointment. But they should serve as a warning that the phenomenon has grown so that some places are simply calling their normal Christmas lighting display a “Christmas Market” in order to attract visitors.
My first visit was 7 years ago, and I have now made visits the Christmas Markets almost every year since, including several visits to Vienna, where this is being written. Two days ago, upon arriving, I knew exactly where the markets were, and how to get to them. But instead of heading directly to Rathaus Park just down the Ring from my hotel, I cut across the center of town along backstreets to come out behind the Schottenkirche at Freyung. Then I cut across Freyung to Teinfaltstrasse, and paused anxiously at the corner. Perhaps they have changed which lights are in which tree. Or maybe other lights have been added, diluting the pure redness of the hearts. Or maybe the hearts are simply out of style, and have been replaced with something else. But I peered around the corner and, to my delight, they were there, floating in the sky, my giant red hearts! And I could almost smell the glühwein, calling to me.