This holiday season is in flux because of the pandemic, but that shouldn’t stop us from at least thinking about some of our favorite activities. (And wherever and whenever you are traveling, be aware of specific requirements including proof of vaccination, closures or reduced operating hours, mask policies.)
Let’s take a vicarious visit to a few European cities and holiday traditions which include shopping, beauty, food and drink. Keep them in mind, perhaps for next season, when you can hopefully enjoy the pleasures in-person.
You can sample many of the best in riverside towns throughout Europe, cruising to another Christmas market each day. Many lines offer these increasingly popular cruises. Or travel to a favorite city that celebrates the holidays big time, and stay for a while.
In Paris, blue lights line the Champs Elysee, Christmas trees are decorated around the city, and roasted chestnuts, hot wine and slabs of nut-filled nougat are purveyed in market stalls. Music is a big part of the celebration, and I remember one holiday season where I listened to a free concert every night in churches and cathedrals throughout the city; including, with bittersweet memory, Notre Dame.
I lived in London for a year, and the things I loved most about the holidays were the stalls, the lights lining Harrods department store, and the pantomime shows — filled with songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing. Pantomimes employ gender-crossing actors and combine topical humor with a stories based on fairy tales, fables or folk tales. I joined the audience, singing along and shouting out phrases to the performers.
Vienna’s first Christmas Market was held in 1298 and today offers more than 20 events. Prague’s Old Town and Wenceslas markets are filled with Gothic architecture and mulled wine stalls. Try the barbecued pork; or trdelník, a hot, rolled pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.
Strasbourg, in eastern France, had its first Christmas Market in 1570. Place Kleber is the site of the Great Christmas Tree, and among narrow alleyways and beautiful squares are 300 stalls, and lots of Alsatian wine. Strasbourg is just across the border from Germany, so you get a two-cultures-in-one experience.
Basel is Switzerland’s most beautiful and largest Christmas city. Lighted pine trees line the streets, and in the Old Town, a Christmas market is on one of the most beautiful squares. (And by the way, Art Basel in Miami has become a holiday market tradition as well — for fine arts among the palm trees and beaches, along with cool parties and beautiful people from around the world.)
At Krakow Poland’s Christmas market in the city’s huge main square, hand-painted baubles are a local specialty, as are spiced nuts and boiled candies.
In addition to Estonian Christmas dishes like black pudding and sour cabbage (better than it sounds), Tallinn’s market also has a Santa who arrives by reindeer-pulled sleigh. One of the first Christmas trees ever displayed in Europe was in front of the town hall in 1441, and it’s been a tradition since.
With its timbered houses and canal-lined streets, Colmar France on the border of Germany is charming year-round. But with twinkling lights, an ice skating rink, and an early-1900’s carousel, it’s one of the loveliest Christmas destinations in all of Europe.
At the unique Helsinki market, you can play bingo for a vegan ham or watch a holiday outfit contest for dogs,. Choirs sing Christmas carols, and you can relax in the wood-heated unisex sauna, smack in the middle of the market in Senate Square.
More traditional, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is decked out in more than 500,000 fairy lights. Danish treats including pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar.
England’s second city, Birmingham, boasts “the largest authentic German Christmas Market outside of Germany or Austria.” Held in Victoria Square, over 80 stalls sell everything from jewelry to handmade toys. Chris, the singing moose, hangs out at the market’s Council House entrance.
The annual Christmas Market in Florence, Italy is in the spectacular Piazza Santa Croce. With the Franciscan Basilica providing a backdrop for the 50 stalls, head to Piazza del Duomo for the nativity scene and Christmas tree.
Wherever you celebrate, happy, healthy holidays. Here’s to a coming year of more travel opportunities!
To hear more about markets and other winter festivals, go to Episode 43 of my award-winning travel podcast Places I Remember with Lea Lane, and follow wherever you get podcasts.