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).
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.
If you're impatient, go straight to the bottom of the post for our Christmas Markets slide show.
Best European Christmas Markets Awards
1. Hall, Austria: Best Gluhwein and Roasted Chestnuts
If you are looking for a laid back small town market where the locals pour out onto the town square at the end of the day to warm themselves with gluhwein (mulled, spiced wine), this is the place. Think Charlie Brown enjoying a Tyrolian Christmas in the mountains of Austria.
2. Salzburg, Austria: Best Kid Musicians
Some of the best young musicians play their hearts out to earn a little money for their Christmas shopping. Time your visit right with a light dusting of snow and the surrounding landscape will convince you that you are living in a fairy tale.
3. Munich, Germany: Best Mandeln
The best sugar-coated almonds (mandeln) in all of Central Europe. And if our memory serves, you can find leagues of smoking men from across the professional spectrum, from gardener to banker.
Munich was our first real European Christmas Market experience (1998), so it holds a special place in our hearts. We thank our friends, Thorsten and Christiane, for introducing us to gluhwein and mandeln.
4. Vienna, Austria: Widest Selection of Christmas Markets
Vienna is the city where every neighborhood gets its own Christmas market. There are so many Christmas markets here that you’ll need a map to find them all.
5. Nuremberg, Germany: Best Children's Market
OK, Best Sausages, too. Nuremberg is the classic German Christmas Market. When you tire of gluhwein, sausages, and other tourists, escape to the Children's Christmas Market and watch the kids make cookies. Better yet, join them.
6. Barcelona, Spain – Most Curious Nativity Scene Statuettes: El Caganer
Winner, hands down. Er, bottoms up. If you can't make it to Barcelona and feel that your nativity scene can't do without one, buy it here.
7. Malaga, Spain – Most Unique All Around
Which other Christmas market can boast fresh grilled octopus and a guy who will write your name in Arabic? If that isn't enticing enough, Malaga also sports some the best post-holiday (Three Kings Day) shoe sales.
8. Dresden, Germany: Most Tasteful Medieval Christmas Market
Better expressed as “best ability to pull off a tasteful medieval Christmas market.” The Advent Spektakel taps a nostalgic chord while the more traditional Streizelmarkt offers the typical German Christmas market fare. Dresden’s biggest plusses: fewer tourists and the Neustadt neighborhood which features its own Christmas market and the Kunsthof Passage (artists’ market).
9. Prague, Czech Republic: Best Market at Night
Though the Namesti Miru market in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood sports a village feel, the best nighttime setting goes to Prague’s main Christmas market on Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti).
10. Cadiz, Spain: Best Cabalgata (de los Reyes Magos)
Although technically not a Christmas Market, the Festival of the Three Kings is a frenzied, colorful Christmas surprise. Celebrated throughout Spain on the eve of Three Kings Day (January 6), the festival is worth a detour, especially in Cadiz, Andalusia’s and Europe’s oldest inhabited city. The Cabalgata de Reyes (Three Kings Day parade) takes over the entire town.
11. Märjamaa, Estonia – Smallest Christmas Market
Audrey's love of Christmas markets spurred her to organize one in the 3,000 person town of Märjamaa, Estonia when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in 1999. Local artists and students sold their handmade products to raise money for themselves and their classes. The Christmas market still continues today.