5 of Europe’s Best Christmas Markets for Foodies
Best for Drama Vienna, Austria
The Austrian capital always oozes elegance, but in December, Vienna takes itself a little less seriously and gets its party clobber on. They city’s prettiest squares transform into markets dotted with chalet-style stalls, while garlands of bulbs and ribbons are strung along the city’s streets. And every year, giant chandeliers light the route to St. Stephens Catheral.
Swing by Rathausplatz to see the city hall illuminated like a fairy-tale castle, with advent windows designed by local artists, plus lovely decorated trees in the park. But skip the tacky 150-plus stalls here and head for the less touristy craft-oriented Altwiener Christkindlmarkt at the Freyung, and Spittelberg (a foodie favourite), set in the chocolate-box streets between Burggasse and Siebensterngasse in the 7th district.
Spittelberg is one of Europe’s most established Christmas markets, attracting more than 500,000 visitors each year for over 25 years, but the culinary offerings remain artisanal and inventive. Sit at an outdoor cafe, sip potent ‘punsch’, and stock up on treats such as lavender and sea-salt raw chocolate, gluten-free apfelstrudel and farm-to-table schnitzel.
While there, why not stay at The Grand Hotel Wien, a beautiful Belle Epoque property that opened in 1870 and boasts decadent touches such as silk-covered walls and antique furniture. Just one block from the State Opera on Ringstrasse, it’s at the heart of the festive action.
Best for Elegance Madrid, Spain
If you find most Christmas lights garish, glaring and depressingly commercialised, classy Madrid will be a breath of frosty fresh air. Those Scrooge-like tendencies will dissipate amid the Spanish capital’s achingly gorgeous street, illuminated by lanterns with zero tackiness, thanks to strict post-recession penny-pinching rules about lighting.
Dating back to 1860 and featuring more than 100 stalls, the Christmas market at Plaza Mayor is the main hub for all things festive. It’s the best place to be infected by Madrid’s legendary navideno spirit, with food and craft stalls spilling into surrounding plazas and streets. Get your bearings by hopping aboard the Navibus, a whistlestop bus tour of the prettiest lights of the city for just 1.70 euro. Keep your eyes peeled for belenes (nativity scenes) dotted around the city.
Right in front of the Royal Opera House, the foodie Navidad en Oriente sells sweet Spanish delicacies next to a pretty pop-up ice rink. Expect churros and chocolate, polverones (vanilla shortbread) and turron (turron duro is similar to nougat, turron blando is more like halva). Nearby Toledo is the Spanish capital of marzipan, so you’ll also find elaborate ‘mazapan’ cakes and figures.
Located on Gran Via is the Principal Madrid, a melds elegant 17th century flourishes with quirky artwork and mid-century furniture, making this the ultimate Christmas crash-pad for design livers.
Best for Escaping the Crowds Gothenburg, Germany
Often overlooked in favour of big sister Stockholm, this majestic port town offers the same Scandinavian delicacies and design without the crowds or hefty price tags in the capital. This year the harbour front is set to be decorated with more than five million lights, while liseberg Amusement Park houses Scandinavia’s largest Christmas market, a lovely festive spot dotted with more than 700 Christmas trees and brightened with fire pits and torches where you can feast on marinated herring and marzipan pigs, all washed down with glogg (mulled wine).
Another way to enjoy this city in the festive season is to ditch the crowds and wander this eminently walkable city’s streets, stumbling upon smaller, neighbourhood markets and concerts. Star by strolling down to the old artillery Kronhuset, then get lost in the streets in the atmospheric heart, with plenty of pit-stops for coffee and Christmas pepparkakor (gingerbread) and lussebullar (buns spiced with saffron).
Suitably sugar-fuelled, make a pilgrimage to the design-oriented Roda Sten Art Centre to pick up unique Scandinavian Christmas presents; it’s a chic alternative to what you might give your friends and family every year.
Best for Tradition, Denmark
At Christmas, Copenhagen is positively brimming with festive spirit and hyggelige (the unique Danish word for ‘cosiness’) bars and cafes to dive into for hot chocolate. The entire capital city is dotted with Christmas markets and (typically for Denmark) tasteful decorations, but the city’s prime Christmas spot is the iconic Tivoli Gardens.
Every November the second oldest amusement park on the planet (dating back to 1843) is transformed into a winter wonderland with spectacular light displays, lavishly decorated gardens, an ice rink, rollercoaster and theme park rides for those who want a side-helping of adrenaline with their artisanal pastries.
The park attracts up to a million visitors, so expect crowds, but this is as tasteful as amusement parks come: the 21-acre site is landscaped with fountains and flowerbeds, and illuminated b more than 111,000 custom-designed lights. Drink glogg with apple dumplings, and get cosy. Located a short stumble from the Tivoli Gardens is the Hotel Skt Petri, which offers a textbook Scandinavian design in a renovated Thirties department store.
Best for Variety Cologne, Germany
Christmas markets in this city on the banks of the Rhine are the stuff of legend, with scores of clusters of wooden, huts dotted across Cologne. Look out for a gay and lesbian Christmas market called Christmas Avenue, complete with pink and purple chalets hawking kitsch Christmassy cocktails and avant-garde artwork.
The most attractive market for festive foodies, though, is the Alter Mkarkt, situated right in front of Cologne’s town hall with its beautiful tower. There is now a dedicated futtergasse (which translates as ‘Feeding Alley’, easily the best kind of alley in our opinion) brimming with international and local specialities.
Do as the Kolsche (that’s the locals to you and me) do and start your evening with crispy reibekuchen potato fritters with apple sauce, then take your pick from a baffling array of sausages, served with sauerkraut and all washed down with copious mugfuls of mulled wine. Before you leave, stock up on bricks of sweet and sticky nougat as gifts for the hungry souls back home.
With enough mulled wine and food, rest your head at the Qvest, a former historic city archive located on the quiet square minutes from the Basilica of St Gereon; it offers a combination of neo-Gothic architecture with contemporary art and mid century Bauhaus furniture.