Looking for the best Christmas markets? Want to find the best European food markets? Read on for 10 of the best continental Christmas markets…
A misty Lake Bled and the tiny, church-topped island at its centre form the backdrop to one of Slovenia’s most romantic Christmas markets, the Winter Fairytale. Walk beside the forest-lined lake, following a route marked by flickering fire torches and watch a team of divers ceremonially recover the lake’s sunken bell then hit the market stalls to track down festive gifts, and food and drink typical of Slovenia’s Gorenjska region.
Try a golden fried potato snack called pocrt krompir, or a slice of potica – a swirly cake made from paper-thin sweet dough and creamed nuts, rolled as tight as a pinwheel biscuit – but leave room for Bled cream cake, a neat little square made from layers of butter puff pastry, vanilla cream and whipped cream.
The air is sweet with roast almonds, mulled wine and glazed gingerbread at Riga’s Old Town Christmas Market. Way back in 1510, the Latvian capital was one of the first two cities in the world (the other was Tallinn) to display a Christmas tree in the way we do today – the supposed spot, in Cathedral Square, is where the festive market now stands.
Little wooden huts sell everything from hand-knitted mittens to carved wooden spoons and piping-hot “grey peas”. Despite the uninspiring name, the latter is actually a delicious combination of sticky-sweet onions, Latvian peas and crispy bacon, fried together until fragrant. You can also eat sausages with sauerkraut and drink hot cocktails made with Riga Black Balsam (a herbal liqueur made from vodka infused by black pepper and valerian).
If you fancy a change from the Christmas market norm head to the Dutch town of Utrecht (check out our foodie guide here) to catch its December beer festival. The Stomend Bierfestival Spoorwegmuseum takes place at the local railway museum and, as well as tasting regional beers from all over The Netherlands, visitors can go ice skating, listen to live jazz and go for a spin on an antique carousel.
The museum itself, steam engines and all, is decorated with Christmas trees and fairy lights, and on top of all the festive cheer each guest gets a beer menu, tasting glass and four starter tokens to spend on the festival’s range of over 60 beers (look out for those from brewer Kees Bubberman – try his subtly sweet Mosaic Hop Explosion IPA, or Spring Blossom Pale Ale for a spicy, amber-coloured pint). Drink and mingle on a heated terrace, or take an organised “beer history” walk through the centre of Utrecht dipping into its hidden cellars and ancient breweries.
Black Forest, Germany
Ravenna Gorge Christmas Market takes place, as the name suggests, in a geological chasm beneath a railway viaduct in Germany’s Black Forest. Among its 40 or so snow-capped cabins are those selling everything from cuckoo clocks to cherry-topped Black Forest gâteau, Black Forest-smoked trout and venison, and flammkuchen – a German-style flatbread topped with bacon, onion and cheese.
To drink, it’s all about a theatrical glass of feuerzangenbowle: mulled wine topped with a square of rum-soaked sugarloaf which is set alight as it’s served. While you shop, frosty blue lights bounce off the Höllentalbahn railway line 40 metres above you, and for a special treat you can hike to the Christmas market via the Löffeltal walk, a 3km trail starting from Hinterzarten village (there are shuttle buses back, if you’re knocked out by all that feuerzangenbowle).
Split across Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti, Trento’s Christmas market is so dedicated to local produce and sustainability (there’s a ban on plastic bags) that the city has earnt itself the reputation of Italy’s Città del Natale. Browse nearly 100 stalls selling regional specialities, including dried orange slices, local sheep’s cheese, grappa and mostarda di rosa canina, a Christmassy condiment made from rosehip berries and winter spices.
Go hungry – there are shallow-fried potato pancakes called tortel di patate to try, as well as polenta wedges, panettone and apple strudel (a nod to the city’s previous life as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Sit and eat awhile, enjoying (if you’re lucky) views of the snow-dusted Dolomites beyond the city.
Traditional Basque products hog the limelight at Bilbao’s Santo Tomás Fair, held on December 21 every year (officially the first day of Christmas in this part of Spain). Buy homemade cider, cheese, chorizo, honey and ever-so-slightly-sparkling txakoli wine from local farmers, then hit the street-food stalls for corn flour tortillas, txistorra pork sausages and rosquillas – cake-like ring donuts, often dipped in chocolate and dusted in icing sugar.
There’s always an exhibition of farm animals and plenty of live music to enjoy, including those from bertsolaris (singers of bertso, a Basque form of musical verse) and txalapartaris (they make rhythmic music using wooden sticks and planks).
The Fiera di Natale is Bologna’s biggest wintertime celebration, running right through until January 6. On New Year’s Eve, amidst the bustle of Piazza Maggiore’s street market, a statue of an old man (or an old woman on leap years) is burnt to symbolise the ousting of the old and beginning anew. Stalls are set out underneath the gaze of San Pietro Cathedral, selling ornate Christmas decorations, handmade nativity scenes, roast nuts, chocolate-dipped orange peel and torrone (citrus-scented nougat, studded with almonds). Plus you’ll discover Bologna’s version of panettone: a dense fruit cake made with brandy, dried figs and cocoa, then brushed with alchermes or saba liqueur (a sort of syrup made by slow-cooking wine in copper cauldrons).
An illuminated ferris wheel, vintage merry-go-round, ice-skating rink and colourful light show (projected onto Angers Cathedral) makes this French market ideal for families. Even Santa Claus shows up each year, to receive the keys to the city from the Mayor of Angers.
Stalls are set out on the Place du Ralliement in front of the Grand Theatre selling food and drink typical of the Loire Valley – pommes d’amour (like toffee apples, but coloured red), nougat, vin chaud, gingerbread houses and warm galettes – while the nearby Maison du Vin offers tastings and sales of 70 local Loire Valley wines until 6:30pm most evenings. Better still, at a corner kiosk, you can get any purchased gift-wrapped in pretty paper.
Head to the Polish city of Torun if you want to get your Christmas market fix away from the crowds. Warm nippy hands around firepits, drink mulled wine spiked with warm honey, watch old movies in the Market Square and snap a photo with a life-size nutcracker. Food-wise you can indulge in everything from dried sausages to oscypek, a smoked sheep’s milk cheese that’s served warm with cranberry sauce.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the peppery gingerbread – Torun has been making it in traditional moulds since the 14th century. Buy beautiful, intricate examples of the craft, or simple heart-shaped gingerbread cookies filled with plum jam. You can even learn how to make your own during the Christmas period, at the Museum of Torun Gingerbread.
Words by Charlotte Morgan
Image credits: Getty Images