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The magical allure of Europe’s Christmas markets

Adam Jacot de Boinod
01 October 2016

Adam Jacot de Boinod, author of The Meaning of Tingo and former researcher for QI, investigates the unique appeal of Europe’s best Christmas markets

In this age of perpetual Pokémon pursuit, sometimes a return to the artisanal, joyful and traditional is all the heart desires ahead of Christmas. Every year, festive markets throughout Europe see cockles, hearts and spirits warmed at these wintery wonderlands.

What these markets all offer is a refreshingly traditional approach to your festive shopping – a choice rather than a chore. A pensive purchasing process is rewarded by craftsmanship not tat and by local specialities rather than generic high-street selections. It is also a far more satisfying transaction than simply clicking ‘add to basket’. The traditional gifts and classic comfort food are reassuringly familiar – this is the festive experience in its purest form.

What Christmas markets offer is an annual ‘greatest hits’ of outdoor shopping, casual chatting with stall owners and fellow inquisitive browsers. The children are kept happy with marzipan, thrilling fairgrounds and other snowbound diversions. Naturally, there’s also the spiritual goodwill of Christmas from the customary carol singers.

All of this traditional festivity started in Germany and Eastern Europe around 1300, although it has now spread right across the continent from Reykjavik to Romania. Berlin remains the destination with the most impressive range of markets – as many as 60 each year, hosting more than two million visitors. In fact, many of our Christmas traditions are owed to Germany: baubles, Advent calendars and bringing the tree indoors all began with our Germanic predecessors. As anyone who has stayed in Hotel am Steinplatz will testify, the Germans also celebrate Christmas in some style.

Much of any market’s appeal is the setting: these are magical backdrops, rich in wonder, such as Berlin’s Charlottenburg near The Ritz-Carlton Berlin on Potsdamer Platz.

Meanwhile, Prague’s stalls offer a distinct setting, enchantingly surrounded by the historic architecture of the Old Town Square. Vienna’s Spittelberg Market has romantic cobbled streets. Zurich’s Sechseläutenplatz is set spectacularly on the lakeshore, while the rooftop bar of The Ritz-Carlton Vienna boasts the city’s highest Advent market with an Alpine hut serving up punch and Camembert-smothered flatbreads above stunning views of the city.

Christmas is clearly a time of spectacle – the large indoor Christkindlimarkt at Zurich’s main train station features a 50 foot tree decorated with thousands of sparkling crystals. Alternatively, head across town to the ‘Singing Christmas Tree’ in Werdmühleplatz, where choirs stand on platforms, seemingly perched on branches. Over in Vienna, the huge tree in front of the City Hall is adorned with hundreds of environmentally friendly LED-lights, while Prague’s Old Town Square tree is draped in a blaze of bulbs set against its dark Gothic skyline.

This seasonal magic is healthily pervasive. At Prague’s Old Town Square they keep a stable where children stroke the donkeys, sheep and goats, while Berlin’s Reformationsplatz has a crib accompanied by lowing livestock. At Budapest’s Gozsdu Market, a short stroll from the Boscolo Budapest hotel, Santa Claus appears on 6 December with reindeer helping to dish out the presents.

If you’re looking for unique presents, you can find them at the markets. Head out of The Ritz-Carlton Vienna for Rathausplatz (the City Hall Square) and splash out on miniature wooden houses. Or, if in Prague, look out for the traditionally dressed puppets and dolls. Elsewhere, Vienna’s Karlsplatz specialises in stained glass and musical instruments and Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt promotes flax embroiderers, wood carvers 
and stonemasons.

To sustain the magic, the most memorable markets are about more than shopping. Vienna’s Spittelberg has puppet theatre, fairy tales, biscuit-baking and candle-making. Berlin’s Alte Potsdamer Straße has an ice rink and the Winter World Europe’s largest mobile toboggan. Zurich’s Lichterschwimmen has a candle-floating event and both Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt and Vienna’s medieval Advent market have impressive line-ups of jugglers, swordsmen, acrobats, dancers and fire breathers. Not traditional enough for you? Try carols at Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt, Vienna’s City Hall Square and children singing on Sundays at Budapest’s Gresham Palace.

Festivities also naturally involve feasting. Berlin’s diners are treated to heated tents. Or if in the Czech capital, the Boscolo Prague is the ideal base for exploring the city’s culinary side – try the barbecues of klobása sausages. At Budapest’s Vörösmarty Square, pruned goulash vies with sandwiches of mutton and paprika cream. Zurich’s Sechseläutenplatz arguably triumphs over all by offering a ‘fondue chalet’ – the sort of decadence you will only match by a stay at the Kameha Grand Zurich.

For something sweet, Prague serves up crispy trdelník and raisin-studded vánocvka pastries. The Ritz-Carlton Vienna goes one step further by hosting a market on the rooftop bar with traditional Christstollen cakes with dried fruits, Zimtsterne cinnamon biscuits and Vanillekipferl nutty shortbread. In Prague, refreshments transcend the traditional mulled wine and gluhwein, conjuring up mead flavoured with vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon or fruit juice. Vienna instead offers a mugful of hot apple – with snacks, as with markets, sometimes the simplest feature is the most effective.

Berlin: where to stay

Hotel am Steinplatz
Two-night Christmas Market city breaks at Berlin’s chic Hotel am Steinplatz, Autograph Collection,  including flights, start from £269pp. ba.com/autograph

The Ritz-Carlton Berlin
Traditional, luxurious and smart, this outpost of The Ritz-Carlton offers two-night Christmas Market city breaks including flights from £279pp. ba.com/ritzcarlton


Park Inn Alexanderplatz
This dynamic hotel offers two-night Christmas Market city breaks including flights. From £169pp. ba.com/parkinn

Budapest: where to stay

The Ritz-Carlton Budapest
The Ritz-Carlton Budapest offers two-night Christmas Market city breaks with flights. From £339pp. ba.com/ritzcarlton


Boscolo Budapest
A blend of modernity and gilded history pervades this Autograph Collection hotel. Two-night Christmas Market city breaks with flights start at £239pp*. ba.com/autograph


Atrium Fashion Hotel Budapest
Fusing chic design with Hungarian hospitality, two-night Christmas Market city breaks with flights start from £149pp*.

Elsewhere...

Boscolo Prague
Two-night Christmas Market city breaks, with flights, at this Autograph Collection hotel start from £199pp*. ba.com/autograph

Kameha Grand Zurich
This quirky Autograph Collection hotel offers two-night Christmas Market city breaks with flights*. From £249pp. ba.com/autograph

The Ritz-Carlton Vienna

The Ritz-Carlton is composed of four 19th-century houses. With an abundance of original features, it holds an Advent market on its rooftop bar.  Two-night Christmas Markets city breaks including flights start from £419pp*. ba.com/ritzcarlton

*Terms and conditions apply. Availability may be very limited. Prices shown include return British Airways flights from London Heathrow and a two-night hotel stay in the featured hotels, based on two adults sharing, for selected travel from 25 November to 30 December. Some payment methods attract a handling fee. Holidays are ATOL protected (number ATOL5985). For full terms and conditions, visit ba.com