Every year around the end of November, hundreds of Christmas markets all over Europe light up, signaling the advent of the world’s biggest holiday. For forty or so days, thousands of small wooden stalls fill the streets and squares, sending their heartwarming smells of chestnut and mulled wine across the atmosphere.
Christmas markets, as we know them today, are a German invention dating back to the 15th century when Dresden’s Strielezmarkt opened its gates for the first time. Prior to this, were the December markets which allowed people to buy the last provisions before the coming of the heavy winter. The oldest one being Vienna’s.
During the last two decades, Christmas markets have been adopted by many cities outside central Europe and numerous German styled Christmas markets have popped out in an effort to get consumers out of their houses and boost the local commercial sector. If you want to see the real thing though, Europe is still the place to be.
This year I visited the markets of Vienna and the nearby Bratislava, tried the local delicacies, bought beautiful ornaments and of course had multiple mugs of mulled wine that kept me warm in the freezing Central European winter.
I’ve said before and will say it again, Bratislava is a seriously underrated city and deserves much more time and attention than being treated as a single day trip from Vienna or Budapest. Alongside the beautiful architecture, intriguing small museums, and flourishing galleries, Bratislava has some very scenic Christmas markets to offer and some of the best food you can find in markets of this kind.
The biggest market is located on Main Square outside the town hall, right in the heart of the city. More than ninety wooden stalls serve local and foreign visitors every year. One of the things I love about Bratislava is food. Next to mouthwatering street bites like klobasa (local sausage similar to chorizo), Ciganska pensinska (roast pork in a bun with caramelized onions), lokse (salty pancake) and the fried potato pancakes you will find main dishes like the delicious roasted duck with red cabbage, pork knuckle and above all the queen of soups—capustnica. This amazing Slovak soup made with sauerkraut, sausage, pork and lots of red pepper, tastes like heaven and is one of the best remedies for cold weather.
Naturally, a good meal has to be accompanied by an equally good drink. While mulled wine is the protagonist here, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to try the local fruity punches which come in alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions as well as the local knockout punch made with absinthe—just in case you can’t shake off the cold. Don’t forget to check the tiny and incredibly romantic market in the town hall’s yard and climb up to the town hall tower for a bird’s eye view of the square (entrance from the City’s history museum, last admission 16:30).
A couple of blocks away on Hviezdoslav square, in front of the magnificent Bratislava opera is the city’s second-biggest market. Hviezdoslav market has a different ambient with Airstream caravans converted into bars (finally a market where you can have a gin and tonic) and an ice skating rink for the young and the… not so young. A stage in front of the opera features many band and choirs and there is even a kid’s corner with workshops for the little fellows.
As a bonus, you can stroll your way to the all-white castle of Bratislava that stands proud and imposing on a hill next to the Danube, not far from the city center, and features a quaint Christmas market of its own. This is the most family-oriented market of all, with a beautiful Nativity scene (there is also one inside the castle with real animals) and several events for the kids.
The capital of Austria is one of the few cities that can compete head-on with the Germans when it comes to Christmas Markets. After all, Vienna’s December market is considered the predecessor of Christmas Markets as we know them today. There are many great markets around the city (around twenty) every year. Here, I write about my favorites.
The biggest, most glorious and most lighted market of the city is the imposing Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt in front of the historic town hall. More than three million people pass by Rathausplatz every year, and there is a very good reason for this. Thousands of lights decorate every corner and every stall of this amazing market giving it a fairytale appearance that makes it look timeless. Bratwurst and chestnut, mulled wine and strudel, fill the atmosphere with their aromas making the experience even more whole and absolutely memorable. This is how Christmas should feel.
Here, you will find the finest crystal ornaments for your tree, and a million handmade trinkets and artifacts, so beautiful, that make the sellers behind the counters look like elves that carried the merchandise from a fantastical workshop somewhere in the Pole. The huge ice skating park has icy paths that take you around the market and the Tree of Hearts is one of the most beautiful decorations I’ve ever seen. If you have time to visit only one market in Vienna, then this should be Rathausplatz.
Not far from the Rathaus, is the smaller but equally scenic and romantic Maria Theresien Platz with an exquisite market between the Art History and Natural History museums. This market features some amazing light decorations that really complement the extravagant monument of the Empress and the two lavish buildings that compete in beauty and grandeur. Save for the usual food and drink, here, you can find stalls selling exceptional artifacts like elaborate snowballs, distinct framed art, chocolate sculptures, candles, and lanterns as well as Raclette cheese and cured meat products. The atmosphere is much more loose and the crowds way smaller. A much more relaxing experience.
Last but not least, is the Art Advent market on Karlsplatz which is unlike any other Christmas market in Vienna. The lights, the glühwein, the spirit, are all there, it’s just less food-and-drink oriented. I would say that it is more like a Christmas themed art festival. The stalls here belong to artisans who produce their products, meaning that everything in Art Advent is unique and you won’t find it in any other market. To raise the bar, even more, all the artists have to go through a committee and only if approved they can sell their art in this market. Here, you will find everything from clothes, jewelry, and glassware to leather goods, photography and all kinds of artifacts made of any imaginable material.
This is a great place for a night out. Cozy with a bohemian crowd and several local bands that fill the stage, this market still has people when other markets are already closed. It’s not just for grownups though, there are also many workshops and a straw playground for kids.
There are two types of people in this world: those who put up their Christmas tree in November and the others who put it up a week before Christmas just to take it down two weeks later or throw it in the closet with the ornaments still hanging from the branches (I admit that I used to do that). No matter if you love Christmas or not, it is the most special time of the year, and visiting a Christmas market is a great opportunity to let those childhood memories creep in and be surrounded by joy.