Open the Map and view the continent of Europe. Dotted around the continent are many cities, towns and small villages that light up the winter night when the holiday season begins. I am passionate about travel yet the current pandemic has prevented me and my family from going on new adventures. But memories of past travels have provided sustenance for my hunger to see the world again. To inspire you with the holiday spirit, I want to regale memories of a Christmas past that filled me with a wistful love of this magical season. When jets once again fly across the Atlantic, consider spending your holidays touring the iconic Christmas Markets of Europe where twinkling lights, mulled wine and the hand-made decorations by local artists will fill you with the holiday spirit. It is an investment in the “market” worth making!
In November, 2015, our family of four took a trip to Eastern Europe and were fortunate enough to find the famous Christmas markets in Salzburg, Vienna and Budapest open. It was a fairytale land of lights, nativities, snowflakes, hot cider and mulled wine with carolers to ring in the most wonderful time of the year. No matter one’s religion or creed, these bustling and lively markets fill everyone with good cheer.
Christmas Markets were first recorded in history in 1298 in Vienna and 1384 in Germany, and slowly evolved from selling only special cuts of meat to art, decorations, treats, wines and seasonal entertainment featuring dancers and carolers. After the Protestant Reformation lead by Martin Luther swept Germany, markets popped up during Christmas near local churches to encourage attendance. The tradition of gift giving during Christmas was popularized. From Germany and Vienna, the beautiful markets popped up all over Europe around late November. They can be found as high as the Swiss Alps and as far west as Bath, England. They are commonly built in town squares and as many as 200 vendor stalls will be placed around many decorated trees, petting zoos and impromptu cafes and bars selling hot chocolate, mulled wine, real cider and all kinds of hand held delicacies to eat.
The European Christmas Markets are so popular that several travel companies have built tour itineraries around visiting them. River cruise lines and group travel companies have options every winter to travel and enjoy a week long itinerary of the merriment the markets provide. If you book with them you will also have the pleasure of seeing some of Europe’s most beautiful areas.
Our family planned a trip to Salzburg, Vienna and Budapest. When we arrived jet-lagged in lovely Salzburg, we took a walk in the cold to revive ourselves from the long plane trip. We stayed at the historic Goldener Hirsch Hotel on the famous shopping street of Getreidegasse which boasts the home of Mozart’s birthplace. One street over we came upon a scene out of a storybook: chestnuts really being roasted on an fire (not just in the song by Mel Torme), giant cedar trees lit up with twinkling lights, reindeer in pens for petting and rows of stalls full of tree ornaments, candles, small art objects and handmade lace and linens. The people of Salzburg were milling about, enjoying mulled wine and warm pretzels as carolers belted out Ave Maria. Small children in their coats and fur hats pointed at all the bright and shiny objects with smiles on their rosy cheeks. Immediately our family was enchanted and filled with the holiday spirit. We enjoyed several days in Salzburg, especially the Sound of Music tour we took, but every night we returned to the Christmas Market to soak up the winter atmosphere.
We then traveled by car to vibrant Vienna and checked into our hotel on the Ringstrasse, Le Meridien. Again, we walked to the city center to be surprised by more Christmas Markets, the largest in front of City Hall where the entire square is lit up and transformed into a mini-north pole. Here there were vendor booths but also midway rides and a sprawling ice rink. In Maria Theresa Park was another traditional market, and our favorite was at Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburg kings. Here we bought snow globes as gifts and discovered snow globes were invented in Vienna by a surgical instruments inventor, Erwin Perzy. Trying to brighten the new lightbulb with glass orbs filled with water, Perzy found his idea didn’t work in the operating room but he thought they could be interesting dioramas to sell filled with tiny fake snowflakes.
After a few days in exciting Vienna, our family ventured further east to Budapest. Again, we struck it rich with more Christmas markets. A traditional market occupied Freedom Square but a high end market was set up at the Four Seasons Hotel. Instead of mulled wine and ornaments for sale, they offered champagne, crystal and fur coats in their booths! I guess they know who their clients are!
Our family felt so fortunate to have seen these beautiful cities when their historic and beautiful Christmas Markets had opened. What made the experience even more enchanting was the dusting of light snow that generously accompanied us each time we walked through them and soaked up their magic. I did some research and discovered Germany and France also boast some of the most visited markets. But I am happy with the ones we enjoyed in Austria and Hungary. So Open the Map! If you want a good investment at Christmas, invest in the Christmas Markets of Europe that will pay dividends of great memories for a lifetime.