The month of December is a special time to be in Europe. As it gets closer to Christmas, many cities decorate and are host to special events, including some fabulous Christmas markets. If you've never been to a Christmas market before, they're an excellent way to see some of the local culture exhibited in handicraft stalls, traditional foods and drinks, concerts, and socializing. Although many places in Europe hold Christmas markets, however, there's no denying that some are better than others. Here are five markets to make sure you check out:
1. Nuremberg, Germany
Although the markets in Dresden, Cologne, Frankfurt, and many other cities are fantastic as well, Nuremberg's is really something else. This city is located a little bit to the north of Munich and has a wonderful Old Town including a castle, the city walls, and numerous historical buildings.
The magical Christkindlesmarkt really brings the town to life, giving you the feeling almost that you've stepped back in time or into some fairytale: most of what's sold at the stalls is produced in the region, making it one of the more traditional Christmas markets that you'll encounter. Make sure to try the Weckla (a sandwich made with three of Nuremberg's signature sausages) and the Lebkuchen (a type of gingerbread which has been made in Nuremberg for over half a century)—and wash it down with a steaming mug of glühwein (mulled wine)!
2. Vienna, Austria
One of the wonderful things about Vienna during Christmas-time is that seemingly everywhere you turn, there's another Christmas market. The main ones are located at the Rathaus, Schönbrunn Palace, Belvedere Palace, and the Maria-Theresien Platz, but you'll also find stalls winding up smaller streets in various other places.
The Rathausplatz market is one of the favorites, with its lights and the surrounding architecture providing a unique backdrop to the festivities. There are often free choral concerts on the weekends, which add a special touch as well. Similar to Nuremberg's market, make sure you try the Viennese sausages and glühwein, as well as the Eierlikörpunsch (eggnog).
3. Barcelona, Spain
The Fira de Santa Llúcia market in Barcelona is located in the city's Gothic quarter, surrounded by historic buildings. There are four sections to the market: nativity scenes, simbombes and instruments, greenery and plants, and crafts. Due to the city's fierce Catalan pride, many old, highly unique traditions have been kept alive.
For example, tradition has it that Caga Tió, a log decorated with a smiley face and red hat, poops out presents for children on Christmas Eve—so children spend the month of December taking care of the log and feeding it so it'll get nice and fat. On a related note, Catalans are very proud of their nativity scenes, which usually will include the figure of the Cagener, a Catalan man squatting over a pile of poop. This may seem odd, but the poop is said to be good luck.
4. Budapest, Hungary
Budapest's Christmas market may be a little smaller than some of the other markets on this list, but that doesn't diminish its charm. There are actually two main markets, and they're within easy walking distance of each other. The oldest is on Vörösmarty Square; the other is in front of St Stephen's Basilica. You'll find handicraft stalls galore, and there are a lot of free concerts with music ranging from jazz to Christmas carols.
For foods, you can choose between many hearty dishes like stuffed cabbage, goulash, pork knuckles, or lángos (fried bread dough traditionally topped with sour cream and cheese), all washed down with a mug of forralt bor (mulled wine) and followed up with sweet kurtoskalacs (cinnamon-flavored chimney cake).
5. Strasbourg, France
France has many lovely Christmas markets, but Strasbourg's is the oldest—as well as being one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe. The market has one of the most extensive lists of cultural events, with plenty of concerts and shows scheduled to fill you with that holiday spirit as you browse among the hundreds of stall full of Christmas decorations and gifts. You'll find lights in all the streets around the city, with shopkeepers often competing against one another to provide the most spectacular displays.
Given that Alsace is such an important wine-producing region in France, it's only fitting that their vin chaud (mulled wine) is some of the finest in the world, although in terms of drinks to warm the soul, the lait de poule (eggnog) is equally delicious. Keep an eye out for foie gras, which in France is traditionally only served during the holidays.
With so many markets all over Europe to choose from, it's hard to narrow the list down to just five! Wherever you end up, you're sure to find something wonderful to get you into the holiday spirit and warm your bones on a chilly December night. Use the markets as a way to learn more about the local culture and its traditional flavor—but don't forget to have fun as well!