Europe’s Magical Holiday Markets
Greetings, readers! I’ve been away waaaaaaaay too long so I’m sleigh-riding back into the blog-o-sphere with a post full of holiday cheer! Put on your ugly Christmas sweater, heat up the eggnog and crank up the Sinatra holiday tunes! With this post we’re time traveling to Europe to have a look around the ever-amazing holiday markets! I was there just a year ago, indulging in the smorgasbord of sparkling lights, ornaments, gluhwein, cookies, pretzels, marshmallows, nougat and enough Nuremberger sausages to classify as Obsessed. If you’ve never been to Europe during the holidays, you’re in for a treat. There’s nothing quite like it. So let’s push the sleigh out and get on the road to Paris, Strasbourg, Luxembourg City, Wiesbaden and Nuremberg! Allons-y!
The City of Light is so glorious during the holidays that a market seems almost unnecessary. Yet its location on the strip of land between the Rue de Rivoli and Les Jardins de Tuileries makes it an easy stop for anyone hanging out in the city center looking for holiday cheer. The Paris market has a Ferris wheel and a few carnival rides, along with lots of sweets and indulgences. Slabs of chocolate and perfectly stacked rows of marshmallows are displayed next to potent liqueurs in glass bottles shaped like La Tour Eiffel. Half-wheels of raclette rest under individual heat lamps, rendering the exposed edge into a malleable strip that can be scraped onto a plate. Scoop it up with bread and a mug of hot wine for a French holiday delight.
When you tire of the market, the surrounding streets of Paris keep the spirit bright with all the glitz and glitter of the season. Walk the Champs Elysée and stop by Hotel George V to see what inspired décor they’ve created for the holidays. For a special treat, take a few minutes to gaze up at the exquisite display of changing light and color within the central dome of Galeries Lafayette.
Hugging the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg has all the characteristics to qualify it as a quintessential holiday market village. The heart of the city, surrounded by waterways, can only be reached by crossing one of approximately 20 stone bridges to the island. Near the center of this island sits Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg – a tall and glorious example of Gothic architecture that has existed on the site in some form since the 11th century – that’s a lot of holiday seasons! Just a few steps down the cobblestone street, Place Kléber draws crowds to the illuminated Christmas tree and surrounding stalls selling hot spiced wine in souvenir mugs. Strasbourg’s skinny streets and storefronts are dressed in light and adorned with angels, stars and even teddy bears.
Strasbourg offers a few foodie delights we didn’t see anywhere else – hanging salmon that smokes all day next to a small fire and huge toasted baguettes piled with rich spätzle and bacon. The usual holiday treats were also present including loaves of nougat, beignets filled with strawberry jam, and some of the longest displays of holiday cookies I’ve ever seen. So many to choose from and all so fun to taste! Fill up a bag and take some home.
Strasbourg’s holiday market is sprinkled throughout the city center so walking in any direction takes you to more and more stalls filled with blown glass and wooden ornaments, miniature hand-painted tudor-style houses and so many handmade trinkets it’s impossible to see them all. The connecting streets, too, are lit up and festive with unique decorations like a suspended Christmas tree decorated with reindeer. How can you not stand underneath for a photo?
On a two-hour stop while riding the train between Wiesbaden and Paris, we had just enough time to catch a cab into Luxembourg City to see its central holiday market. Luxembourg City is refined and beautiful, made even prettier by the unusually warm light of dusk. The market was just getting started but there looked to be plenty to enjoy with food, crafts, a children’s train ride and Ferris wheel towering above the festivities. Being still so close to Germany, we of course had to try one more sausage baguette with an accompanying beer. Prost! All in all, this holiday market was a worthy way to kill two hours and enjoy a fantastic dinner in the process.
We found ourselves in Wiesbaden unexpectedly when we decided to (while riding the train to Heidelberg) literally change direction and go to a city neither of us had been to before. This is one of the best benefits of not booking ahead – you can make it up as you go and see places you never expect to.
We checked into Hotel Nassauer Hof and then walked to Wiesbaden’s Market Square where stalls of holiday crafts and food were tucked around the perimeter. The Evangelical Market Church is not old by European standards, but is stunning nonetheless as the backdrop of this holiday market. Flowers of light top the market stalls, selling the widest array of items of any of the markets we’ve been to – hats, toys, candles and home décor in addition to ornaments and treats. It was here in Wiesbaden that we saw the one and only suspended, rotating wheel of grilled brats – quite unlike anything we’ve seen before and very convenient for the folks spinning and serving from it.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to refill your mug of gluhwein and get ready for the grandmother of all holiday markets. Few, if any, can rival the history and handmade nature of Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt. The market has existed in some form since the mid-1600s and, as a result, conveys a strong feeling of tradition and the true meaning of Christmas. Nearly everything sold at the market is made by hand so there’s a special quality to the gifts and souvenirs found here.
My husband J spent many years of his childhood in Nuremberg, so returning here was a chance for him to reconnect with the city while also enjoying the market … and lots of Nuremberger sausages, too. I have heard about these Nuremberger sausages for years. They are lore in his family, and have even been hand-carried by his mother all the way back to the U.S. as precious cargo to be consumed and savored from abroad. Part of my market experience would be to eat one (at least) and see what all the hullabaloo was about. Anyway, Nuremberg is a charming city and the Christkindlesmarkt starts on the Friday before Advent and lasts through Christmas Eve. It was pouring rain and very cold on the first night of the market but we waited it out, heard the opening night speeches and songs, and watched as the lights turned on.
We stayed in Nuremberg for about five days, visiting the market every day and night – sometimes just to eat and other times to walk the rows and rows of market stalls and side streets all dressed up for the holidays. We strolled with gluhwein and marveled at the craftsmanship of everything on display. Frauenkirche Nürnberg (Church of Our Lady) looks over the market from the east side. We climbed the stairs to the deck late one afternoon to see the Christkindlesmarkt from above, in all its bustling splendor.
Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt really is a sea of Christmas! The stalls overflow with color and light, and nearly every inch of space holds a trinket or ornament or character. The vendors are sometimes hard to see amidst the effusive display of everything holiday. To really see and appreciate everything takes some time, which is why staying primed with food and drink is so crucial to any foray into this spectacle!
Among the handmade items of the Christkindlesmarkt, you’ll find painted cookies made into ornaments, edible cookies and various kinds of lebkuchen, stacks of dark and dense fruitcake, and shelves full of painted Santas and nutcrackers. If you desire some kind of heirloom, start a collection with a painted house and build a village over the coming seasons. Or maybe a painted glass ornament with the town and the year is the perfect small token to box up, slip into your suitcase and hang on your tree at home.
By the end of our days in Nuremberg, I had eaten my fair share of Nuremberger sausages. Verdict? They are delicious. With so many grills full of them at the market, and options to eat them sliced or lined up and stuffed into buns with spicy hot mustard (only a few Euros!) it was futile to resist. They are uniquely spiced and pair perfectly with mulled wine and a sweet dampfnudel for dessert.
We ended our stay in Nuremberg with a wonderful meal at the Heilig-Geist-Spital restaurant, tucked away in an old stone building overlooking the River Pegnitz. This restaurant oozes German character with its heavy interior, communal tables and menu filled with Bavarian classics. Plates are heaped with steaks, schnitzles, knuckles, potatoes, spätzle and more. The atmosphere gets livelier as the day goes on – you can linger over a late afternoon lunch or prost with your neighboring diners during the dinner hours when every seat is filled. This is the kind of place that every city needs, where people go to share great food with friends old and new.
If you love the holidays then Europe’s magical markets really are something to experience at least once in your lifetime. Skip the holiday shopping and splurge on travel instead. You’ll have stories to tell, photos to share and memories to keep forever. Happy holidays!