Christmas Markets: from bridges to Brussels
The festive season is upon us, and I think everyone is excited to head to their nearest Christmas Market to see what is on offer. Christmas markets can be a great way to ignite that jolly spark that has perhaps been extinguished for just a little bit too long; it helps you release your inner child - that’s Georgiana Gray's view on the matter, at least. Let her open your eyes to the wonder of the Christmas markets and the best ways to experience them:
Artwork by Ruby Tait (IG: @rubyt.art).
The festive season is upon us, and I think everyone is excited to head to their nearest Christmas Market to see what is on offer. Christmas markets can be a great way to ignite that jolly spark that has perhaps been extinguished for just a little bit too long; it helps you release your inner child - that’s my view on the matter, at least. Let me open your eyes to the wonder of the Christmas markets and the best ways to experience them
According to Collins Dictionary, a Christmas market is a “market with stalls selling Christmas gifts and decorations, and seasonal food and drink.” I would argue that it is so much more! Although not entirely necessary, cold weather enhances the experience and encourages you to indulge on mulled wine and crepes. They typically occur in the streets and are made up of little chalets selling everything from decorations and candles to chutneys and hot chocolate. The duration can vary but historically, they lasted for the period of advent.
Contrary to popular belief, the very first Christmas market not only in Europe but the whole world took place in Dresden, Germany in 1434, not Strasbourg. The latter was first opened in 1570 and is one of the most famous markets nowadays. Although I cannot vouch for those during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, I would imagine that they have changed slightly over nearly 600 years. Nowadays, they are a great way to promote local small businesses, and those from further afield, as well as introducing people to a variety of cuisines – recently, I have seen everything from hot dogs to gyozas!
When scouring numerous sources, I discovered that there is some dispute over the biggest Christmas market, but the best seemed to almost unanimously be Vienna’s Christmas World, which is held in the Rathausplatz. Vienna has an additional twelve Christmas markets, but Christmas World boasts the greatest crowds with roughly 3.5 million people visiting each year. There are endless stalls that sell high-quality products, often made from wood or glass, and a wide array of tempting Viennese delights. There are some notable attractions, such as the infamous tree of hearts, the trail of Nativity scenes, and the illuminated ice rink which has festive music playing in the background.
Some honourable mentions must go to the following:
Manchester, UK – This market has been expanding enormously ever since it began in 1998 and is the largest in the UK. The heart is in Albert Square, but it stretches through the centre of the city with notable locations like Exchange Square, New Cathedral Street, King Street, and St Ann’s Square. There is a lot in the way of entertainment here with numerous non-traditional food and drink options, including fried chicken and fish and chips.
Tivoli Gardens Copenhagen, Denmark – Having opened in 1844, Tivoli Gardens is one of the oldest amusement parks in the world and for a couple of months each year is home to the sparkling lights that come with the Christmas markets. Unlike many, Tivoli Gardens keeps the market beyond advent and into the New Year, so the joys of Christmas do not all have to end at once. Here, you will find a Danish spin on the food, which can be enjoyed with the pop of fireworks overhead on some nights.
Brussels, Belgium – With millions of visitors each year, the enormous festive celebrations in Brussels are split into six sections. It is recommended to start at the main square (Grand Place) and see the light shows against the UNESCO-protected facades. Then walk, winding through hundreds of stalls selling all the usuals, plus some Belgian specialities. There is a feature area where a different country’s cuisine is represented each year. A novel addition is a champagne bar inside an igloo. Similarly, this market is open into the New Year, so you can delay the winter blues come January.
Ravenna Gorge, Germany – This gorgeous setting fit for a fairy tale is certainly on my bucket list. This spectacular Christmas market lies in Germany’s Black Forest and takes place beneath the 40-metre arches of an old, brick railway bridge. This scene is often made even more magical with a thick layer of snow to compliment the twinkling lights. At night-time, the bridge is lit up in deep red to add the intensity and drama.
Having visited the Edinburgh Christmas Market this year, I can confirm that it is certainly smaller than on my last visit in 2019, but I suppose that is expected when comparing pre-covid and post-covid events. There seemed to be good variety in the stalls that were there, with my favourite being a map stall that I have come across in the past. I am a bit of a map fiend and find them so interesting to look at, especially when it is a place of some significance to me. The food options were varied and after some struggle, I opted for a portion of currywurst and a hot mulled cider. It hit the spot, so I would recommend. Other options included galettes, gyozas, mac & cheese, and burgers.
I cannot really tell you how to enjoy yourself, but I can absolutely make suggestions on how you may be able to get the most out of your visit to a Christmas market:
1. Wrap up warm: There is no indoor space and even on a mild day, the temperature will drop once it gets dark (the best time to visit in my opinion). Ensure you have a warm coat, scarf, gloves, and hat if you’re planning on staying for a while.
2. Accept that they are expensive, and you may have to sell a kidney: They are tourist attractions like anything else and ultimately will come with tourist prices. Despite that, it is possible to go and not spend anything. Most markets (including Edinburgh) do not charge an entry fee, so if you can resist the temptation of a mulled wine and a bratwurst, then you will be fine.
3. Prepare for the inevitable endless swathes of people: There will be tonnes of people and there isn’t too much you can do about that, unfortunately. Try to think of it as a positive since it wouldn’t be the same experience if it were empty; share the happiness and Christmassy joy with those around you.
Whether you are new to the world of Christmas markets – where on earth have you been for the past 600 years – or you’re just looking to learn a bit more about them, I hope you have found some amusement, and perhaps information, in this article. Enjoy the festivities and Merry Christmas!