The Best European Christmas Markets

We’re here in Beijing, China and the only things going up more rapidly than new buildings are Christmas trees (mostly fake, of course). Last night, we became nostalgic while strolling past another giant shopping center Christmas tree, this one shielded by a roof that houses the world's largest LED video screen (250 meters long by 30 meters wide).

Beijing Christmas Decorations
Getting into the Christmas spirit in Beijing, China.

Though the proliferation of Christmas decorations in Beijing is remarkable, their presence just doesn't capture the holiday spirit like a European Christmas market would. So, we offer a walk down European Christmas Market memory lane and our “Best of” European Christmas Markets list.

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To Grandfather’s House We Go

We’re headed next to Qingdao to look for my grandfather's birthplace and the house my great-grandparents built.

— explaining our travel plans in China to a group of expats at a Thanksgiving dinner in Beijing.

The group appeared utterly confused. I don’t look like I’m of Chinese heritage in the least. So how is it that my grandfather was born in China? And had a house in Qingdao?

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Christmas Reflections – A Detour to Dresden

One year ago today, we left our home in Prague to begin this journey of ours. Our first stop was Dresden, Germany where we found the Christmas spirit in its Advent markets on our way to Southeast Asia.

Christmas Market - Dresden
Smoking men at the Christmas market in Dresden.

We have a soft and nostalgic spot for Christmas markets. We were first hooked by our experience nine years ago at the markets in Munich (Germany), Salzburg and Hall (Austria). The storybook images in our heads sprang to life there in the midst of snow-capped mountains as communities gathered at dusk to drink spiced wine, eat freshly roasted chestnuts out of small paper bags and shop for handmade decorations. Spices wafted from stalls serving waffles and candied almonds and gift stalls burst with nutcrackers and wood-carved incense-burning Santa figurines.

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Uzbekistan? Overchargistan!

Shaft us once, shame on you. Shaft us twice, shame on us. Try and shaft us repeatedly and charge our friends $1.00 for a few teaspoons of sugar, and we write a blog post about you. [Yes, one of our travel mates was repeatedly charged for sugar – and outrageous sums, no less.]

Apologies to all of our recently acquired Uzbek friends, but rip-offs in Uzbekistan – particularly along the touristy parts of the Silk Road – seem endemic.

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Kicking Up 4000 Years of History in Turkmenistan

If a baby died, its bones would be kept in a ceramic jar in the house.

— Our guide Oleg providing another fascinating background tidbit on the ruins at Gonur Depe, Turkmenistan.

Fifteen minutes later, one of us literally kicked up the fragmented top of an ancient ceramic urn encrusted with earth and filled with small bones. The bit about the bones may sound morbid, but when you realize that what you just overturned with your hiking boots probably dates back 1000s of years, it becomes a really cool find.

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A Perfect Day in Kyrgyzstan

Though you might think that each day on a journey like this is blessed by beautiful fairy tale scenery, gourmet ethnic food, impeccable accommodation, comfortable transport and the best that humanity has to offer, the reality is often different. We thought it might be interesting to share what a “perfect day” looks and feels like to us.

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Lazing in Lahic: Caucasus Hill Towns

Lahic was the last of the Caucasus hill villages we visited and it reaffirmed that hill villages often have the most to offer in terms of scenery and real life experiences. They are generally hard to get to and usually involve boarding a Soviet-era school bus that should have been retired 20 years ago.

Lahic Elder - Lahic, Azerbaijan
Welcoming committee in Lahic, Azerbaijan

Winters in these remote villages are difficult – roads get snowed out and access to the rest of the world and its goods is limited. Locals reflect their accumulated years of difficulty with an outwardly rough exterior, but they usually soften quickly upon engagement. Even a “hello” in the local language will bring smiles, invitations for tea (or vodka), and possible induction into the extended family.

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Visiting Shaki, Azerbaijan: From the Khan’s Place to Local Conversations

While visiting the village of Kish just outside of Shaki, the Azerbaijani long weekend getaway of choice, we struck up a conversation with a newlywed couple – a young dentist and his wife – as they gave us a ride back into town.

Azerbaijan Travel, Khan's Palace in Shaki
Khan's Palace in Shaki

The situation with doctors and dentists is really bad in Azerbaijan. My salary as a dentist is only $30 per month.

“How could you afford a car like this on $30 per month?” Audrey asked, as she sank back into the deep plush seat of his Mercedes sedan.

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