By Lorraine Simpson
The festive season is almost upon us, bringing the aroma of cinnamon spiced mulled wine, Christmas tunes and plenty of holiday spirit, and I can’t think of anything more festive than taking a European break to shop in some of the best Christmas markets in the world!
The Christmas market has become a key part of Europe’s festivities with large cities, smaller towns and villages joining in the craze with pretty log cabin style market stalls packed with all kinds of unique gifts and foods.
From the medieval streets of Prague to the cobbled stones of Strasburg the Christmas markets in Europe are a feast for the senses.
Beautifully decorated stalls offer handicrafts and gifts, festive baked treats, glühwein and delicious regional specialities. All the while, choirs and brass-bands provide festive musical accompaniment.
Last November I went on an AMA Waterways river cruise along the Danube River from Budapest to Vilshoven. Many Christmas markets were already open and the favourite for me was Vienna. Actually in any season Vienna is my favourite city in the world and I could happily relocate there.
Like an advent calendar come to life, Vienna truly radiates holiday charm from mid-November until January.
With more markets to choose from and thousands of sweet and savoury treats awaiting at each, you can easily spend your entire visit eating your way through each of the spectacularly different markets.
Even though thousands of visitors swarm to the picture-perfect city for the markets, it’s just as popular for the locals – who dub the holiday a true social affair. Every day you’ll find locals dressed elegantly sipping Glühwein (the local mulled wine), and munching on freshly roasted chestnuts and spicy Christmas cookies.
The main Christmas market is in front of the famous City Hall – Rathausplatz and is an entire complex complete with an ice skating circuit and a carousel.
If you’ve never been to Budapest before, the city might take you by surprise, especially at Christmastime.
One of the most festive and beautifully decorated cities you’ll ever see, Budapest really puts on a gorgeous show for the holidays.
You’ll find many Christmas markets spread across the city but the most famous is the one found in front of the majestic St. Stephen’s Basilica in Vörösmarty Square which is home to over 100 stalls selling a vast array of arts and crafts from local vendors.
As a devout foodie I headed for the food area which sits in the centre of the market, adjacent to the large well-lit Christmas tree. The selection of dishes is almost dizzying, with vendors selling plump grilled sausages topped with spicy mustard and paprika; mulled wine spiced with fresh fruit; puff pastry chimney cakes that are cooked on an open spit and rolled with chocolate or cinnamon sugar and the largest (and crispiest) potato
pancakes you can find. For something truly Hungarian, opt for a warm duck or beef filled cabbage roll doused in a fresh tomato sauce or a succulent tray of melt-in-your-mouth pork knuckle served with caramelized onions and peppers.
As a Brit it would be remiss of me to leave out my home city of London. You can find a Christmas market on nearly every corner starting in mid to late November.
Because of the sheer size of the city, the Christmas cheer is spread throughout – from the official Norwegian stalls decked out on Trafalgar Square to the ice skating rink right in Somerset House.
For foodies, some of the best fare can be found in East London at the Hyper Japan market on the Tobacco Dock.
Here you’ll find endless supplies of sake, stalls selling authentic crafts, art, kimonos and amazing Japanese cuisine – such as Wasabi frosted cupcakes, hot bowls of miso soup, expertly crafted sushi and perfect slivers of sashimi and more in the bustling eating area.
Along with over 100 vendors selling hand-made crafts and gifts, there’s the Urban Makers Feast, which features amazing bites from local chefs – like succulent pork sliders, decadent chocolate tortes and layered banana cakes and mulled wine cocktails spiked with bourbon, to name a few.
Soak up the festive atmosphere at Winter Wonderland – one of the biggest Christmas markets in London in the magical setting of Hyde Park. There are more than 200 wooden cabins overflowing with fantastic gift ideas including handmade crafts and beautiful pieces of jewellery and of course lots of fabulous food to taste.
After Christmas shopping in the markets walk past the iconic shop windows of famous stores such as Harrods and Selfridges and get lost in the food halls as you try to stop your credit card from spontaneously combusting.
So how can you visit these wondrous festive markets?
There are many ways. Of course my favourite way will always be by riverboat. AMA Waterways offers many Christmas Market cruises where you hop from one city or town to the next visiting the best European waterway towns have to offer.
The benefits of course include never having to pack and unpack and your food, drink and entertainment are all included as are the excursions to each market over the seven-night cruise…what could be better?
Actually it does get better, next November we are inviting our friends and celebrity Chef Massimo Capra and his lovely wife Rosa on a Christmas in November River cruise on the Rhine where we will visit Strasburg, Cologne and Amsterdam Christmas Markets along others.
The cruise will also include cooking demonstrations and food tours with Chef Massimo and crafty demonstrations and talks on Christmas decorating by the very talented decorator, Rosa Capra. Wouldn’t that be an amazing Christmas gift?
Of course you could always opt for the independent route by train. The trains in Europe are very easy to navigate and reliable.
You could easily do three cities in a week and my best suggestions for locations and originality would be to combine Budapest, Vienna and Prague.
Each city is different in their look and feel, their food and their Christmas markets.
I would love to talk to you more about this and we will be hosting an evening at Capra’s Kitchen in Mississauga in
November to discuss our Ama Waterways cruise for next year.
Check our website for details coming soon:
Please feel free to contact me to help book your Christmas market tour or for any travel needs including gift cards for Christmas.