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Experience Europe’s Old World Christmas markets for off-peak prices

SmarterTravel

For Americans used to Christmas shopping that entails duking it out with strangers for parking spaces and browsing among plastic trees and animatronic Santas, the old-fashioned Christmas markets of Europe offer an alluring alternative. With some markets hundreds of years old, most European Christmas markets—better known as Christkindlesmarkt—are steeped in tradition, serving as gathering places for the community (and visitors) during the holiday season.

Rather than fancy consumer goods, you’ll find traditional crafts, toys, and Christmas ornaments for sale in the markets’ wooden stalls, along with mouth-watering arrays of sweets, salty snacks, and hot libations. But you don’t have to spend money in the markets to enjoy them; free live music, pageantry, and special activities for children are also daily occurrences in most of the major ones.

Traveling to Europe to visit the markets doesn’t have to eat up your shopping budget either. By timing your trip to avoid peak Christmas travel dates, you can take advantage of low season prices for airfare and accommodations.

Top Christmas market destinations

Christmas markets are held in cities and towns all over Europe, but some are more worth the flight across the Atlantic than others. Here are five cities with markets that warrant a trip.

Nuremberg

Christmas markets are a distinctly German tradition, and the event held in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg is considered by many to be the quintessential German Christkindlmarkt, attracting nearly two million visitors every year. With a market tradition dating back to 1628, organizers have made a concerted effort to preserve the market’s traditional, family-oriented atmosphere over the years, avoiding overly modern and commercial elements.

Taking place on the main market square in Old Nuremberg against the backdrop of Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), the event is officially opened on November 25 by the Christ Child, a local teenager selected to serve as the event’s ambassador. Amongst the main market’s 190 candlelit stalls, you can sip steaming gluhwein (mulled wine) from ceramic mugs and sample local foods such as Nurnberger rostbratwurste (grilled sausages), gingerbread cookies, and hutzelbrot fruit bread. If you’re looking for souvenirs, pick up a traditional gold foil Christmas tree angel or a zwetschgenmoh (prune man), a hand-crafted figure made of figs, nuts, and prunes.

Notably, the Nuremberg Christkindlemarkt is one of the most child-friendly markets in Europe. Close to the main market is a special children’s market with old-fashioned merry-go-rounds, a Ferris wheel, and a steam train. There are also candle-making and baking workshops, a Christmas playhouse, and children’s cultural programming at the nearby Sterenhaus (Star House). Children take center stage on December 8, when 2,000 local school children parade with hand-made lanterns through the city to Nuremberg Castle where they present the Christmas story in living tableaus.

The market closes December 24.

Vienna

Vienna’s glitzy Magic of Advent Christkindlmarkt is one of Europe’s most popular, with traditions that date back 700 years. It’s open from November 12 to December 24, making it a good choice for those who want to hit the markets early in the season. About 140 stalls line the Rathausplatz in front of Vienna’s lavish City Hall selling wooden toys, beeswax candles, and a smorgasborg of goodies like candied fruit, gingerbread men, and cotton candy. Adults can get their sugar fix by sampling one of the many varieties of punsch, a classic Viennese Christmas drink made with warmed fruit juices and wine or schnapps.

The City Hall hosts numerous events throughout Advent, including an international choir festival each weekend beginning November 25. In the building’s Great Hall, Children can participate in activities such as candle decorating and Christmas cookie baking. Other amusements for kids await in the elaborately decorated Rathauspark, including an old Viennese carousel, a miniature train, and pony rides.

While in Vienna, you should also head outside the city center to the market at Schonbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Habsburgs. Although smaller than the market at Rathausplatz, its spectacular setting and an entertainment lineup of world-class performers make it worth the trip.

Brussels

Brussels hosts the largest Christmas market in Belgium as part of city’s Plaisirs d’Hiver/Winterpret holiday celebration from December 2, 2005, to January 1, 2006. The heart of the action takes place in the Grand Place, Brussels’ main square, where the town hall and baroque guild halls are dressed in colored lights and the central plaza is decked out with lighted trees and a living nativity scene.

The market, made up of more than 220 wooden stalls, stretches from the Bourse (Stock Exchange) to Place Saint Catherine and the Marche aux Poissons (Fish Market). It has an international theme, with various stalls representing different European countries selling goods, but the vendors offering Belgian foods are the real treat. Some of the local gastronomic temptations include Belgian chocolate, sugary Liege waffles, gingerbread molded into the shape of St. Nicholas, steamed snails, and hard, flat cookies known as speculoos. After indulging, you can work off some calories at the large skating rink at the end of the Marche aux Poissons, where there’s also a small rink for children and a Ferris wheel.

Munich

Dating back to the 14th century, Munich’s Christkindlmarkt takes over Marienplatz square from November 25 to December 24. More than 150 stalls encircling a 100-foot tall Christmas tree offer Bavarian specialties such as spicy Lebkuchen gingerbread, sausages, baked apples, roasted chestnuts, and potato pancakes called reiber-datschi. Nearby is the Kripperlmarkt (Crib Market), where craftsman from the Bavarian village of Oberammergau sell exquisitely carved wooden nativity sets.

Besides shopping, there are plenty of other activities to keep you entertained. Every evening, Bavarian choirs from local towns sing Christmas Carols from the balcony of the Town Hall on the Marienplatz. The Town Hall is also the scene of “The Heavenly Workshop,” a free kids’ program where children ages six to 12 get to dress up as angels and learn how bake and make traditional crafts. You can also soak up the festive atmosphere by taking a ride in the Christkindl streetcar, an old-fashioned horse-drawn streetcar, which will take you to some of Munich’s smaller markets.

Prague

Prague’s Christmas market, composed of 160 stalls in Old Town Square and Wenceslaws Square, has a more laid-back and intimate feel than some of Europe’s busier markets. Surrounded by stunning Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic buildings and the famous Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall tower, the market in Old Town Square has a magical quality. The stalls are arranged in the shape of a star with a nativity display and a huge Christmas tree brought from the Sumava Mountains standing in the center. Here you can shop for Czech goods like wood-carved toys, Bohemian crystal, hand-made jewelry, and puppets, and munch on snacks like honey gingerbread and—for adventurous eaters—blood pudding sausages. On the days just before Christmas, you’ll also see live carp in plastic buckets, ready to be purchased for the Czechs’ traditional Christmas Eve carp dinner. While browsing, warm yourself with a hot mug of svarene vino, a type of mulled wine that’s a bit sweeter than German gluhwein.

Musical performances, including a production by Czech school children, are staged throughout the market season, which runs from November 26, 2005, to January 1, 2006. There’s also a petting zoo in the market with sheep, goats, and lamas as well as pony rides for kids.

How to save

Winter is low season in Europe with the exception of travel around Christmas and New Years, when airfare prices can climb close to summer highs. You can avoid paying for expensive flights and still enjoy the market festivities by traveling before Christmas week. For instance, by traveling from December 14 to 21 rather than December 21 to 28, you can cut your airfare expenses by as much as 50 percent:

Route Mid-December fare Christmas week fare Price difference
Baltimore to Brussels $406 $613 $207
Boston to Vienna $397 $771 $374
New York (JFK) to Munich $300 $539 $239
Chicago (ORD) to Prague $510 $700 $190
Los Angeles to Nuremberg $490 $719 $229

Fares do not include taxes and fees.

Finding reasonable hotel rates for stays in mid-December should also be easier than during Christmas week. And, in some cities, occupancy rates at some hotels are low enough that even during Christmas you might get a deal. For example, the Sofitel hotels in Strasbourg, Aachen, Munich, and Berlin are discounting rates by 40 percent for stays through December 31, with no date restrictions.

Booking a package that includes accommodations and airfare can also help you save. Currently, Gate1Travel has Christmas Market packages to Germany and Austria, including four-night airfare-and-hotel vacations to Vienna that start at $549 per person before taxes. You can search for other Europe vacation packages in the SmarterTravel.com vacation section.

The Christmas markets described here are just a few of the many scattered across Europe. Most of the other big markets worth seeing are held in major German and Austrian cities like Berlin and Salzburg, but there are countless tiny ones in small towns and Alpine villages too. To learn more, visit the official German and Austrian tourism websites.

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