Christmas Markets Might Be the Best Reason to Spend the Holidays in Europe

From mulled wine to intricate ornaments, Europe’s Christmas markets are a mix of food, goods and holiday cheer

The Stockholm Guild, which runs the market, was founded in 1914 to bring the tradition of a Christmas market back to Stockholm (there was a Christmas market here as early as 1523). © Rob Schoenbaum/Xinhua Press/Corbis
The Christmas market in Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn claims to be the home of the world's first publicly displayed Christmas tree, dating back to 1441. © Jeff Tzu-chao Lin/imageBROKER/Corbis
The Nuremberg Christmas Market is renowned for its gingerbread—the oldest written gingerbread recipe in the world (dating to the 16th century) can be seen in the city's Germanic National Museum. © Daniel Karmann/dpa/Corbis
Dortmund, Germany, claims to feature the world's tallest Christmas tree, which is comprised of 1,700 individual trees and measures over 147 feet tall. Though the world's-tallest claim hasn't been verified by anyone outside of the town, the massive tree towers above the Dortmund Christmas Market, which is the second-most-visited market in the world. © Felix Huesmann/Demotix/Corbis
The Budapest Christmas Market at Vörösmarty Square in 2013. © Stuart Black/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
A gluhwein (mulled wine) stand in the Stuttgart Christmas Market in 2013. The Stuttgart market is one of the world's oldest and largest. © Jon Hicks/Corbis
A view of the 2013 Christmas market, Christmas tree and Town Hall on the Marienplatz square in Munich. © Felix Hörhager/dpa/Corbis
A Christmas fair on Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, Russia. Many of Moscow's fairs are dedicated to different European cities in an attempt to recreate the experience of Christmas throughout Europe. © Konstantin Kokoshkin/Global Look/Corbis
The Christmas market in Copenhagen takes place in the city's Tivoli Gardens. © Francis Dean/Corbis
The Striezel market takes place in Dresden, Germany. Each year, portions of a giant fruitcake—baked at the Dresden Stollen Festival in early December—are sold to visitors. © ARNO BURGI/epa/Corbis
Berlin is a haven for Christmas markets, with more than 70 held around the city. © Jon Hicks/Corbis
The Christmas market in Cologne, Germany, is the most visited Christmas market in the world, attracting four million visitors. © Frank Lukasseck/Corbis
A Christmas market along the Champs-Elysées in Paris—the city's largest. © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis
The Christmas markets in Vienna are the oldest in the world (by some accounts), dating as far back as 1294. This year Christmas markets in Vienna will run through December 26, 2015. © Jon Hicks/Corbis
Strasbourg, which bills itself as the "Capital of Christmas," is home to one of the largest markets in Europe, with over 300 stalls spread among 11 distinct "villages." © Jon Hicks/Corbis
More than most other Christmas market's, Prague's version emphasizes traditional food and drink—such as the "Trdelník," a warm, sugar-coated pastry—over trinkets and decorations. © Jon Hicks/Corbis
Crowds walk through the Christmas market in Brussels. © Frank Fell/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
A bustling Christmas market in Birmingham, England. The Birmingham Christmas Market touts itself as "the largest outdoor Christmas Market in Britain." © Frank Fell/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
Shopping at the Christmas Market in Salzburg, Austria. © Gonzales Photo/Demotix/Corbis

If the thought of holiday shopping—the lines, the crowds, the stress—dampens your seasonal spirit, it might be worth taking a trip to Europe to explore their festive Christmas markets. Although the markets can be found all over the world, they are believed to have begun in Germany and surrounding areas, such as present-day Austria. Aglow with twinkling lights and dotted with charming vendor stalls, the markets offer visitors the chance to stroll through charming town squares, steaming cup of fragrant mulled wine in hand, while enjoying the sights, sounds, tastes and traditions of Europe at Christmastime.

It's difficult to pinpoint the oldest Christmas market: numerous cities, including Dresden, Germany, and Vienna, Austria, claim the “world’s oldest” title. Records show that Vienna held a December market as far back as 1294, though these were more general December events and less concerned with holiday-specific activities. Dresden's Strietzelmarkt, the oldest Christmas market in Germany, was first held in 1434. In Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, the country's oldest Christmas market has operated continuously since 1570. But the oldest markets aren't necessarily the most popular—Christmas markets in Cologne and Dortmund (both in Germany) earn the most annual visits, with 4 million and 3.6 million shoppers, respectively, wandering their stall-lined streets each season.

Although the Christmas market has spread out from Germany and its environs to places such as England and Romania, most markets contain certain key ingredients. They are typically composed of little chalets or roofed stalls, where vendors sell everything from Christmas decorations to the ubiquitous market beverage of hot mulled wine. Food is a major component, and visitors can expect to find everything from local favorites (Prague’s market especially emphasizes local food) to typical holiday sweets. Throughout Germany, treats such as lebkuchen (a baked cookie resembling gingerbread) or stollen (a fruitcake) are popular. Stollen is such an integral part of the German Christmas market, in fact, that Dresden hosts the annual Stollen Festival, where a giant stollen (the largest measured over 5 feet and 26 pounds) is paraded through town before being brought to the market, where it is sold in pieces.

In France, Strasbourg is the undisputed capital of Christmas (a nickname the city wears proudly): the city houses 11 different Christmas markets, with around 300 stalls combined, and attracts some 2 million visitors each year. In Paris, the largest Christmas market lights up the famous Champs Elysées, though various neighborhoods also house their own holiday market. Christmas markets in Moscow—of which there are now a record number—try to encompass the best traditions from all over Europe, with each market dedicated to a particular European town, such as Strasbourg

Even with a bounty of food and crafts, a Christmas market would be incomplete without a Christmas tree. To visit the (purported) home of the first publicly displayed Christmas tree, check out the market in Tallinn, Estonia. Or see the world's largest Christmas tree (according to the city) in Dortmund, Germany, where the Christmas market features a nearly 148-foot-tall tree decked out with 48,000 illuminated lights and ornaments.

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