Time really flies. I was a little bit shocked that it was almost April when I started writing this post. A quarter of the year has passed, and it felt like yesterday when I was passing through the markets and historic architecture in the cold in Central Europe.
When I first planned my trip there in December I was not thinking about the Christmas Markets in Central Europe; the magnificent sites, architecture, cathedrals, palaces, and museums are fascinating enough – after all, it’s been some time since I am in Europe after my Master degree graduation in the UK (and we explored a little bit of London and Norway with my friends that time).
It was until later that I realized Christmas Markets are not limited to Germany. I heard some of the most famous and popular Christmas markets are in Munich, Nürnberg, Köln, Frankfurt, and Dresden. While these 4 cities are not on my route this time, I discovered the markets in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. I had a great time in these markets among all the other places that I visited (which I will share later). It’s like I had celebrated four Christmases!
Christmas Market, also known as Christkindmarkt, originated in Germany. The word “Christ Child” refers to the angel-like “spirit of Christmas” and it is a street market associated with the celebration of Christmas during the four weeks of Advent. These markets were all over Germany (as mentioned earlier) and were held until Christmas Eve. Today, they are being held until new year’s eve and in many other countries like Austria, Czech, Hungary, Switzerland, Poland, and more.
Weihnachtszauber am Gendarmenmarkt
If you do a search on Google and you type in “Berlin Christmas Market”, you would probably get a bunch of photos of the Gendarmenmarkt. That’s the picture I chose for the cover of this post, too. Well, because the image of the market is just so beautiful. The Christmas market takes place in Gendarmenmarkt, a square in Berlin, and it’s a site of an architectural ensemble including the Berlin concert hall and the French and German Churches. The two structures are called Dom in German, but actually, the word refers to “dome” – neither of the two churches in Gendarmenmarkt was ever the church of a bishop. The two structures were built on the French churchyard at the order of Frederic II for decorative purposes. For that, these churches effectively fulfilled their roles because they are a perfect backdrop of a Christmas market together with the white tents adorned with a shining star shining at night on their tippies.
The entrance to the market (and it was the only one that I visited) wasn’t free, but the entrance fee is only 1 Euro and totally worth it. The market, in general, looks clean, more mature, and classier. The singing and dance performance was great, the souvenir stalls have many exclusive crafts and Christmas decorations, and the food stalls offer a wide range of food choices, from Sausages (of course) to nuts, chocolates, pretzels, Currywurst, pancakes with berries, or plums, chicken, mulled wine and more. When it gets cold, it’s nice to go inside the hot tents with serving.
Christmas Market Tips #1 The opening hours change
Christmas markets usually start in late November/early December until New Year’s Eve. Some of them still only open until Christmas Eve though. Hence, make sure you check the opening hours on their website before visiting – especially during Christmas, the opening hours are quite different. The market usually closes early (or even closed) on Christmas Eve. In terms of visiting time, I would say the best time to visit the market are right before Christmas – because the market might not be “fully opened” too early in the month, and you get the best atmosphere and festival vibe as you visit the market closer to the holidays.
Berliner Weihnachtszeit am Roten Rathaus
While the Christmas market on Gendarmenmarkt is considered the most beautiful and popular, yes, it’s cozy with a bit of luxury, but it lacks a little bit of fun. The Christmas market in front of Roten Rathaus certainly made up with a more “joyful joyful” atmosphere. This is a market for everyone – kids can go play in the skating ranch, couples can go on the Ferris wheel ride, friends can gather and drink they drop, and the rest could shop and sit on a bench enjoying a mug of mulled wine or hot cocoa.
The market offers a wide range of local dishes, crafts, and souvenirs. Besides, it is located in a cluster of city landmarks. The Rotes Rathaus, a.k.a. The Red City hall is the town hall of Berlin, the landmark of Berlin and it is the home to the governing mayor and the government of the Federal State of Berlin. The name of the landmark building dates from the facade design with red clinker bricks. St. Mary’s Church, a.k.a. Marienkirche was originally a Roman Catholic church, then converted to a Lutheran Protestant church and a united Protestant church in the early 19th century. Berliner Fernsehturm is a television tower with an observation deck that dominates the city’s skyline since 1969. It is one of the oldest extant towers in the world and still the third tallest structure in Europe. DDR Museum, the Museum Island, Berliner Dom, Hackescher Markt, and Hackescher Hof, and GALERIA Kaufhof Berlin shopping center are all within walking distance from the market.
Christmas Market Tips #2 What’s with the mugs?
Many Christmas market (mostly in Germany and Austria) has their own mugs. They have nice designs and are nice collection items. These mugs cost £3-4 and you will have to pay in advance when you order your drinks. After that, you can return those mugs to the stall and get them refunded. So, if you plan on keeping the mugs as a souvenir, you may consider choosing a nicer one when you order your drinks.
Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Alexanderplatz
Another market located in the heart of Berlin, is Alexanderplatz. Like Berliner Weihnachtszeit am Roten Rathaus, it has a mix of market, fairground, and party. The fairground offers a bunch of fun rides for children and there is a Ferris wheel nearby. The market opens until Boxing Day, but the ice rink and party house open until the end of the year.
A special feature of the market is the Christmas pyramid decorated with more than 5000 lights. It is the biggest walk-in Christmas pyramid in Europe. Anyway, the market is in proximity to GALERIA Kaufhof Berlin and Primark.
Other than these places, explore some other places in the city like Sony Center, Altstadt Spandau, Wintertraum am Alexa, or Charlottenburg Palace and soaked in the Christmas cheer!
Christmas Market Tips #3 Do we eat the cookies?
The answer is – depends :P. Many stalls usually sell festive giant cookies, and they are all hung nicely at the front of the store with words written or drawings on them. They are edible, they are real food, but actually, they are more for a decorative purpose. So if you really want some cookies, buy those small ones in a bottle or a can, and leave the big ones hanging nicely on the wall for the holidays.
Prague’s charming Bohemian historic old town has always been one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe. The Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, Astronomical Clock, and Old Town Square are filled with sights and attractions that leave an unforgettable impression on heart.
The city’s biggest Christmas market, I believe, is located in Old Town Square.
Prague’s old town is filled with Tourists during Christmas, just like any other day. I was following the crowds in the Vaclavske Nam through Wenceslas Square in the morning; once the iconic Church of Our Lady before Týn was in view, my jaw dropped and I gasped in amazement. Finally, I am here…
Many Gothic cathedrals in the region have a black roof, but let’s dive into the city’s history later in other posts.
Prague’s Old Town has a lot of classic cafes worth trying, and the Christmas market food stalls are all gathered around the Jan Hus monument in the Square and souvenir stalls fill up the remaining open space in front of the Astronomical Clock. All these stalls are free and open to the public, and if you fancy trying some hot wine or trotters, you should prepare some Czech koruna from the currency exchangers nearby the train station. (not in the commercial Vaclavske Nam, the exchange rates are bad). To me, the Christmas markets in Berlin have a wider range of food choices, and the souvenirs are more elegant. Besides, there are some high tables but no sitting in the Old Town Square. However, Prague’s Old Town Square is an incredible backdrop that adds to the market.
Christmas Market Tips #4 It could get cold
While it is not exactly the coldest time in December, the temperature could get pretty low (to a few degrees Celsius) during the nighttime; If you are lucky, you might even catch the December snow (to zero degree Celsius). Dress warmly as the Christmas Market is usually outdoor and you might spend a couple of hours there. Of course, another way to get warm is a glass of hot wine or hot cocoa.
There’s another upside to visiting Prague during Christmas. The Prague castle, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the largest coherent castle complex in the world. The castle also gets festive during Christmas with food stalls set up in a small square behind St. Vitus Cathedral. To me, it’s a Christmas bonus because it took me a day to complete the grounds of the huge castle and it was nice to get some food in the middle of my visit.
There are quite a few Christmas markets in Budapest and luckily, my apartment is only a street away from the Christmas market in Saint Stephen Basilica Square. The facade of the Saint Stephen Basilica served as a giant screen for a dynamic laser and lighting projection show during the holidays.
Like many other cities in the world, the Budapest Eye, an observation wheel that opens periodically since 2015, is located just across the market to add a little bit of holiday cheer.
Compared with Prague, the Christmas market on Csaladok eve is a bit quieter than the Old Town Square. However, it has more crafts and souvenir stalls set up in the market – the products are uniquely designed by local vendors; souvenirs like postcards, magnets, and holiday decorations that I saw were very beautiful. There is a sitting area under the Christmas tree in front of the basilica, where I could enjoy the light projections whilst I enjoyed the food. There is also a small ice skating ranch underneath the tree. In general, the food was cheaper, and the hot wine servings were larger than those I had in Berlin or Prague.
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is located in front of the famous Café Gerbeaud, right outside the Vörösmarty tér M1 metro station (the M1 line is the oldest and iconic metro line that was completed in 1896). The market is only a short walk away from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge; so I recommend visiting there after a day of exploration in the Fisherman’s Bastin, the Buda Castle, and the Hungarian National Gallery. Walk through the Chain Bridge and then enjoy a bowl of Goulas soup (pork soup in a giant bread) to get warmed up.
Christmas Market Tips #5 don’t hog the tables.
Even if you are visiting the market by yourself, it is always to meet new friends and the locals. There are high tables or sitting areas in the public area of the markets, don’t hog the tables but share with the others. You will find many people are actually very nice and fun to talk to! After all, it’s all about spreading the holiday joy and you might get some great local tips from the people as well!
Vienna is simply magnificent. Not only Vienna is one of the most livable cities in the world (consistently), but also a beautiful city filled with historic architecture, art museums, and cafes. Many public squares and plazas would turn into a carnival during the holiday season. Like the Maria-Theresien-Platz at the Museum Quarter (where the Museum of Natural History, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Mumok, and Leopold Museum are located), Kärntner Straße behind the State opera, or the Viennese Giant Ferris Wheel at the Grand Autodrom Amusement Park. These are not exactly a Christmas market yet like others, the food stalls are extra to your visit during Christmas time.
Christmas markets in Spittelberg, Am Hof, Karlsplatz, and Belvedere Palace are exciting to see, but take note that many of these Christmas markets may close before Christmas Eve. There are food stalls set up in front of the Schönbrunn Palace as well. The palace may be closed at around 5 pm in the evening but the food stalls in the front yard would open a little bit later at night. Many people visit there after dark and it was quite a unique experience to enjoy local food in front of the palace.
Vienna Christmas Dream
The most exciting Christmas market in Vienna is at the Rathausplatz located in front of Rathaus (the City Hall). The City Hall is the seat of the local government of Vienna, and the building was completed in 1883. The City Hall was actually much bigger and more beautiful than I thought, and I appreciated that the open space in the front park was used as a platform for everyone to enjoy. One of the most exciting highlights of the market is definitely the ice skating rink. The tracks are much bigger and longer than the ones that I saw in Budapest and Berlin; both adults and kids had a great time chasing each other in the rink! Not only that, inside the City Hall there is an area dedicated to Children, where they can learn how to make Christmas cookies or candles.
Christmas Market Tips #6 The Food!
So… about the food. I was really excited about the wide range of food choices in the Christmas markets; the food offerings across the four countries could be similar, but not necessarily all the same. Here, I am picking out a star dish that I find in each country.
In Germany, while I am not a big fan of sauerkraut, I love Schweinshaxe (the pork knuckle) and oh so many kinds of Wurst (Sausages). Besides, potato pancakes, roasted almonds, pancakes, and currywurst are some of the popular choices among locals.
In Czech, a must-try snack is Trdelník. It is a Transylvanian traditional pastry that could be seen now everywhere in Prague. It is a traditional Slovak rolled pastry and they are served warm topped with a dusting of sugar, nuts, or cinnamon. In terms of flavor, it tastes like a doughnut because of its coating, yet the pastry is chewy on the inside because it was roasted, not fired. In terms of recipes, it sounds like crepe because there is a lot on the menu. You could put ice cream or fruits in of the cone, topped with chocolate sauce, nuts, syrup, caramel, the list goes on.
The Hungarian Goulash in Budapest was a surprise. Goulash is a stew of meat and vegetables usually seasoned with paprika and other spices. Originating from medieval Hungary, goulash is a popular meal predominantly eaten in Central Europe but also in other parts of Europe. In the Christmas markets, they serve the soup in a giant bread bowl. it really makes you warm when you are walking in the December cold.
For dessert, I personally love the Kaiserschmarren à la Sacher in Vienna – it is a shredded pancake that takes its name from the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, and the pancakes are topped with plum sauce (sometimes berries). A simple, homey, and heart-warming food.