While the celebrated Christmas markets in Germany, Poland and Switzerland always crowd up for the holiday season, there are other well-established European markets slightly further off the beaten track that offer thinner crowds and beautiful locally made products.
Eastern Europe in particular is a great place to check out the growing markets – try those in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – while farther in the west of the continent, the funky holiday Christmas stirred up in Amsterdam each year is not to be missed.
Nestled in the snowy enclave of Dome Square of Riga, Latvia, the two-month-long Christmas Market pays homage to the place where the world’s first Christmas tree was decorated! It was apparently adorned with flowers to honour the birth of Christ. Today, as we know, the practice has evolved and spread to all corners of the world. Still approximately 350,000 people visit the Riga market each year.
In addition to Christmas trees, visitors can peruse a variety of handmade wooden toys and woollen sweaters, sample freshly made gingerbread and sauerkraut (not together!) and, of course, imbibe some of Riga’s famous piping-hot mulled wine.
Be sure to book a hotel in Riga for the night of December 22, when the famous winter solstice celebration marks the decoration of the central Christmas tree in Riga and the lighting of the Yule log to burn away the sins of the previous year.
WHEN: The Christmas Market in Riga is usually from around the last week in November through the first week in January, and opens daily at 10am.
Vilnius’ Christmas Market is a newcomer to the Eastern Europe festival scene, but has quickly grown to rival its bigger brothers in Prague and Poland.
Music is the highlight of this celebration, with music halls and cafes enlivened by classical concerts and carols. Vilnius’ surrounding Old Town is set aglow with soft twinkling lights and rollicks with events in the city’s 50 churches.
WHEN: The Christmas Market in Vilnius takes place on Odminiu Square and runs from mid-December through early January with nightly fireworks displays and singing in the streets.
It should come as no surprise that Amsterdam is home to not one, but 26 Christmas markets! One of the more unusual of the bunch, though, is the Funky Christmas market, where craft stalls offer a variety of aromatic and handmade crafts. The Winterland Christmas market is much more traditional, complete with an ice-skating rink, snowmen and too-numerous-to-count Christmas trees between stalls of hot cocoa and mulled wine.
While choosing a hotel in Amsterdam can be a bit dizzying, all markets in the city are as unique as the districts in which they are held. The Flower District’s market, for example, is filled with the fragrance of pine and mistletoe.
Not to be missed is the mid-November Saint Nicholas Parade and the Christmas tree at Dam Square.
WHEN: The Amsterdam holiday markets are generally held throughout the month of December.
In Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, the Christmas Market is legendary, hailed as one of the 10 best Christmas markets in Europe. It regularly draws tens of thousands of visitors to this picturesque town that, with its usually timely blanket of snow, resembles a picture-perfect Christmas card.
Although the temperature at Christmas in Estonia is customarily well below zero, it doesn’t stop revellers from bundling up and taking in the lights and wooden stalls of felted hats and holiday wreathes made from the finest artisans from all over the world. Also not to missed is the fairytale-like Christmas Village, where children can feed and pet rabbits and lambs, while dancers from Estonia’s ethnic groups take the stage. Kids also love to mail a handmade Christmas card home from the aptly named Reindeer Express located in Santa’s Cabin.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without the food and Tallinn doesn’t disappoint. Wooden barrels are filled with mulled wine and long platters display spiced gingerbread, blood sausage, cookies and marzipan, while locally made honey and piping hot soups abound.
WHEN: The Tallinn Christmas market is held on Rotermann Square (not Town Hall Square) from the end of November until early January, every day between 10am and 7pm