I’m this completely average guy from the Gulf Coast. Before I turned nineteen, I’m not sure I’d gone beyond the borders of Texas more than once or twice, and then only for small trips with family or friends. I was too inexperienced to recognize my own inexperience.
Which is okay. In some ways, inexperience is refreshing.
But there was this world out there that I was missing. Spinning on its axis, third rock from the sun, mother Earth has a lot of stuff to offer if you have the opportunity to get around.
One of those really cool things, especially during the holidays, is the Christmas Market.
If you’re like the young me, you’re asking: what? What is a Christmas Market?
To my knowledge, Texas doesn’t have Christmas Markets. There are malls. Outlet stores. Festivals and parades. You can seek out homemade things here and there, from specialty stores, or home businesses. But, we don’t have anything like what I’m talking about.
Western European countries come alive with these local markets at the end of each November, and they last through the end of the year. Depending on the country, or region, the dates and specifics of each differ. And, most have bragging rights to a special offering of some sort that you can’t find everywhere.
Of course, the underlying DNA of the Christmas market is undeniable. You can expect some common features at nearly all of them…
Hot alcoholic drinks. In Germany, it’s hot wine, known as Glühwein. This delicious treat warms the stomach, and is usually made from common holiday spices, such as apples, plums, and raisins. Keep the cup, which usually has the location drawn on it, or return it for a euro or two refund.
Food. Everyone has to eat, right? Brats, baguettes, pork sandwiches, pizzas, chocolate covered fruit, candy, chimney cakes, dampfnüdeln, waffles, and crepes abound. Healthy applications of Nutella and sugar available for most sweets.
Rides & Animals. Expect a carousel. And, don’t be surprised if there is a camel lurking nearby for the kids to pet and feed.
Live music. From individual street performers playing for change, to large, city-sponsored brass and woodwind ensembles, holiday music is almost always in the air.
Christmas ornaments/decorations. It’s a Christmas celebration, after all, and some of the best decorations in the world are available. Heard of Käthe Wohlfahrt? Visit the original stores in the midst of many of the German markets.
Other wares. Yep. Lots of folks, peddling goods, mostly homemade or handcrafted, but all of it unique.
People. Sometimes smatterings and small groupings—other times, a packed town center.
This year we tested out six Christmas markets. Here’s a little about each…
Valkenburg (Holland). Touted as the oldest and largest subterranean Christmas Market. Also has the world’s largest nativity scene sculpted from sand. Okay, it might be the only nativity scene made from sand, nonetheless, it’s both beautiful and impressive.
Barcelona (Spain). Barcelona has multiple markets, one of them being just across the street from La Sagrada Familia, the famous Basilica designed by Gaudi.
Strasbourg (France). Medium-sized, but pretty and well-organized, with plenty of Vin Chaud to go around.
Rothenburg (Germany). The medieval walled city is a great spot for a holiday celebration. Historically, it was at the crossroads between Scandinavia and Italy, and Paris and Prague, frequented by travelers from all around Europe. Today, it retains the magic and wonder of older times.
Nürnberg (Germany). Possibly the mother of them all. All that stuff I said Christmas Markets have … it has times two.
Heidelberg (Germany). A beautiful city—the market has a little bit of everything.
If you find yourself in Europe in the winter, make sure you add some Christmas Markets to your itinerary. They’re beautiful … and every holiday craving can be satisfied.