One of the best things about Christmas from the tourist’s point of view is that cities are decorated for the season and look especially beautiful. There is nothing better than succumbing to the spirit of the season, and visiting the best Christmas street markets in Europe to shop for those extra-special presents.
The best Christmas street markets in Europe
Prague Christmas street markets: raise a toast with svařák
One of the most beautiful cities in Europe is home to several street markets that will thrill and delight those who love lights, carols and everything that goes along with Christmas. Among the wooden huts that make up these markets, you can get hot drinks and food to keep you cosy while you hunt for the perfect gift.
If you want to blend in, not just with the Christmas spirit, but also with the local culture, try some of these food-and-drink tips: To drink, you could try svařák, mulled wine with cinnamon and cloves, or punč, a kind of punch made with water, sugar, alcohol, lemon and garnishes. If you fancy a bite to eat, why not try a sweet-smelling trdelník, a rolled biscuit with sugar and almond flakes which is eaten hot, or roast ham? You won’t go away cold or hungry.
Having eaten, it’s time to wander among the wooden huts of Prague’s Christmas street markets in search of gift-shopping inspiration, but first you have to decide which market to visit, as Prague has a large number, all arrayed in the traditional colours of the festive season – green, white, red and gold – and set out in the shape of a traditional five-pointed star. The largest market is in the Old Town Square, adorned with an enormous Christmas tree, and the setting for several concerts. Then, there are the markets held in Wenceslas Square, Republic Square, Namesti Miru Square and, the smallest, in Tylovo Square. In all the markets, you can find glassware, wooden toys, ceramics, craft items, candles and decorations for your Christmas tree or nativity scene.
Rome’s Christmas street markets, in search of la befana
The capital of Italy, accustomed to being high on the list of places for tourists to visit, was never going to be left behind in boasting some of the best Christmas street markets in Europe. Rome’s classic market is at Plaza Novona in the city centre, which draws on its reputation as a year-round traditional open-air market. Now, this Christmas market is the place all Romans make for when they want beautiful decorations for their homes, and when they do not want to miss their befana (Epiphany fairy). This is the fairy who leaves the children presents and sweets in their stockings on 5th January, so she is the undisputed star of the market and her character is ubiquitous.
Other, less traditional street markets that are nevertheless worth a visit if you travel to Rome and you’re a lover of Christmas, are those held in Plaza Mazzini and Plaza Verdi. And although it is not a market, a visit to St Peter’s Square is not to be missed as during the Christmas season, visitors will be rewarded by the sight of the tallest Christmas tree in Rome, at over 20 metres. At its side, a nativity crib (or presepi, as these traditional structures are known here) is placed to complete the Christmas decorations.
Hamburg Christmas street markets: something for everyone
While Berlin commands the centre stage, Hamburg remains discreetly in the background where tourism is concerned. However, the city which is also Germany’s principal port has countless Christmas markets scattered among its streets, among the most prominent of which is the historic one held in the Central Town Square, which is passionate about its image. Here you can find all types of traditional hot foods – sausages, salmon, ham, cakes, etc,- as well as the famous glühwein, sweet mulled wine that helps the shoppers to keep warm.
The huts sell all kinds of craft items: ceramics, items made from wood, and all sorts of Christmas decorations, leather articles and candles. All this is presided over by an old merry-go-round, with occasional visits – determined by a fixed time table – from Father Christmas who flies over the market three times a day.
Also near here, located on the banks of the River Alster, is the Jungfernstieg street market. This market has one great advantage and one disadvantage. On the one hand, the views from this site are truly exceptional, but its location means that it is even colder here. So if you visit this market, wrap up warm, and don’t forget to keep your temperature up with a few of the local delicacies. Very close by are the markets of Gerhart-Hauptmann-Platz, Spitalerstraße and Mönckebergstraße. And if you want to indulge your baser tastes, in the street market of St Pauli, Hamburg’s red-light district, you can find striptease, erotic goods, concerts and various shows that make this a favourite haunt of young people.
Budapest Christmas street markets: the magic of the advent calendar
In the heart of Budapest is the Vorosmarty Square market where, as you enter, you are assailed by the scent of mulled wine and cinnamon. Here the range of food and drink on offer is extensive; as a main meal we have Kolbasz (cooked sausages), pecsenye (grilled meat), kenyérlangos (oven-baked bread seasoned with smoked bacon), or langos (deep-fried bread with cheese and toppings). If you have a sweet tooth and you want to sample products like a true local, we recommend kurtoskalacs, a dough baked with sugar, cinnamon, nuts or coconut. The whole thing is dunked in traditional sweet wine with cinnamon and spices, and why not?
As far as shopping goes, local crafts are always a good choice, and you can choose from glass or ceramic items, wooden toys and Christmas decorations: anything you can think of, in over 100 wooden huts. However, one of the best things about this market is seeing the advent calendar projected onto the façade of the Gerbaud café where a window opens for each day.
The Hungarian capital’s other great market takes place in the square of St Stephen’s Basilica, where a light show is displayed on the façade of the Basilica. The finishing touches are provided by an enormous Christmas tree and an ice-skating rink, to the delight of both young and not-so-young.
Milan’s Christmas street markets the feast of St Ambrose
In Milan, the 7th of December marks the start of the Christmas season. On that date, the feast of St Ambrose, the city’s patron saint, is celebrated and signals the beginning of Milan’s Christmas market, which has been held since the thirteenth century, and is known as “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!”. The reason for this curious name is that it is the exclamation uttered by Milanese children on seeing their presents, which translates as, “Oh, how lovely!”. Nowadays the market is held around Sforzesco castle, and in the neighbouring streets.
Here you can find everything from traditional Christmas decorations, with nativity figures made from a combination of papier-mâché and clay, to local craft products, antique furniture and, of course, typical food, and drink based around mulled wine.