Updated November 24, 2017
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I’ve been fortunate enough to spend 3 winters in Europe leading up to Christmas. One of my favourite things to do this time of the year is to visit all the Christmas markets. Living in Budapest, it was easy for me to visit the various Christmas markets of central Europe.
I managed to visit quite a number of them, but of course, there are still plenty more to see! While on the surface they may all look the same, each city has its own spin on this festive holiday tradition.
Budapest has a number of markets throughout the city. The largest ones are located outside St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István tér) and Vörösmarty Square (Vörösmarty tér), both in the centre of the city. At both, you’ll find stalls featuring classic Hungarian foods, many trinkets and crafts and beautiful Christmas decorations.
One of the unique things about the Christmas market in Vörösmarty square is the light show that is projected onto the Gerbeaud House – the famous pastry shop that stands on one side of the square. The show is set to holiday music and is quite spectacular to see. You can see the lights every evening the market is open at 17.00, 18.00, 19.00 and 20.00. The windows of the Gerbeaud House also have an advent calendar with each corresponding window opening every day at 17:00.
The market in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica comes complete with a tall decorated Christmas tree surrounded by a free ice rink. Bring your own skates for a quick whiz around the rink. It’s not very big and can get busy at nights though so be warned.
One of my favourite snacks to pick up at the markets are kürtös kalács or chimney cakes. Imagine a piping hot pastry sweetened with cinnamon sugar on a cold winter’s night. It’s the perfect dessert. They have other offerings like walnuts and almonds. And of course, no visit to a Christmas market is complete without some forralt bor or mulled wine.
Know Before You Go
Both are easy to get to from all metro lines. Get off at Deak Ference ter and you can easily walk to both and from one to the other.
Set in the centre of the medieval Market Square (Rynek Glowny), Krakow’s Christmas market is the smallest of all the markets that I visited in Central Europe. Stalls were lined with holiday crafts from ornaments to traditional crafts. The juxtaposition of the new with the Baroque and Renaissance buildings of the square is not lost on any visitor.
The first night we were there, we caught an opera performance happening off the balcony of a building that looked into the square. It was bitterly cold that night so we stayed for a little bit before hurry off to find some food. If you’re going to be in Poland over the holidays, remember to pack lots of warm clothing and a thick jacket! You don’t want to end up catching a cold like me.
Unlike the other markets, you don’t need to put a deposit on a cup to get a glass of mulled wine. It came in a plastic cup! It tasted vastly different from the others as well. It was much sweeter than the other ones that I had gotten so accustomed to drinking, but it definitely warmed you up in the bitter cold. If you’re lucky, you might stumble upon some mulled beer. With beer as its base and the addition of the spices found in mulled wine, you find yourself with a treat that is unique to this region.
The best thing I discovered was this grilled cheese below (Polish: Oscypek) which was all over the market. Yes, a chunk of cheese, heated up on a grill. No bread. The Polish know what’s up. We bought it because it looked cool (food with spikes!), not knowing what it was and I ended up really liking it.
Turns out it is a smoked cheese made from salted sheep’s milk. This cheese is made exclusively in the Tatra Mountains in Poland and is a protected name meaning only if the cheese is produced here can it use the name Oscypek. Similar to how only champagne from the Champagne region of France can be called that. You can enjoy it plain as we did or with a spot of cranberry sauce. Curious about how the cheese is made? Check out this photo essay from The Big Picture.
Know Before You Go
Market Square – November 24, 2017 – December 26, 2017; 10:00 – 20:00 daily in Market Square (Rynek Główny). Food stalls are open until 22:00. Website (in Polish)
Praha, Czech Republic
The two main Christmas markets are in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square in the centre of the city within a 5 minutes walk from each other. There are a few other smaller markets dotted around the city most notably at Namesti Republiky and Hevelske Trziste. The stalls are filled with traditional Czech gifts like handmade marionettes, glass and crystal. There is also a wide range of foods available and of course, the Czech version of mulled wine (svarene vino) to keep you warm. Other things to drink are grog, a drink made from rum, hot water, lemon and sugar, and medovina, a honey wine.
At the centre of the market in the Old Town Square there is a pavilion with a constant flow of musical entertainment. Stop to enjoy some Czech Christmas carols – familiar melodies in a completely different language. Every evening the lights on the main Christmas tree come alive at 17:00. There is also a petting zoo at the market where you can get face to face with sheep, goats and donkeys.
Prague to me has the most delicious sausages in the region so make sure you grab a couple of these. You can also find them in the permanent stalls that can be found around Wenceslas Square. The markets also have a pastry that looks and tastes similar to the kürtös kalács in Hungary, except they call it trdelnik here. Eat it when it’s hot off the grill for a delicious dessert or snack.
Know Before You Go
Old Town Square & Wenceslas Square– December 2, 2017 – January 6, 2018. Daily 10:00 – 22:00; Food stalls until midnight.
More info available here.
Vienna is home to many Christmas markets. It’s almost as if the whole city is one massive Christmas market. You’ll be walking along and there will be huts set up along the side of the road selling knickknacks and other gifts even though there isn’t officially a Christmas market nearby.
I visited a lot of them as many of them were placed in or by cultural landmark. My favorite two markets were at Schloss Schonbrunn, and the one in front of the Rathaus. Both locations were beautiful and full of lights. The markets were against a backdrop of history and grandeur.
To get your mulled wine, you pay a deposit to receive a cup. If you want to keep the cup go ahead, but you can also return it to get your deposit back. I ended up keeping the cup below as a souvenir. It’s such a good looking cup! Each of the markets have different cup designs so in theory you could go around collecting all the different ones.
Another thing I loved about the markets here more so than anywhere else was the diversity of food. Look at that massive baked potato! It was the size of my face! They also had plenty of pretzels, pastries, candy and sausages. We ate a lot of sausages.
Know Before You Go
For details of all market locations and hours visit this site for a comprehensive listing.
Whether you call it a Christmas market, Christkindlmarkt, Karácsonyi Vásár, Vánoční Trh, or Jarmark Bożonarodzeniowy, the spending the holidays in Central Europe isn’t complete without a visit to one of these markets. I have yet to go to a market in Germany and hope one day to be able to do a tour of the different markets there, but until then, I’ll be dreaming of mulled wine and all the delicious foods found at these markets.
Have you been to any of these markets? What did you think? Any major ones that I’ve missed?