Christmas the European way
Take a Christmas Markets tour to find seasonal spirit
Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American
Nobody does Christmas like Europe. I learned that just a couple weeks ago while taking a badly timed—but magical—tour of “Christmas Markets of Europe.” A number of companies offer these kinds of tours, with varying itineraries through northern Europe and even Scandinavia, but the one I took, offered by Trafalgar, started in Vienna, Austria, and finished up in Lucerne, Switzerland, by way of Salzburg, Austria; Munich and Oberammergau, Germany; Innsbruck, Austria; and Lichtenstein. In the end I chose this one because it was a good value, while also seeming the most classically “Christmassy.” I mean, what’s more Christmassy than the Alps?
(Technically, I suppose the Middle East is more Christmassy, but that’s a whole ’nother article.)
The phenomenon of the Christmas Market
The first thing that struck me on this tour was the most obvious—that while Christmas markets in Europe are widespread (Vienna has at least 20 this year!), to my knowledge we don’t have anything like this in the United States. Why is that?
I could, you know, do research, but instead I have a theory: our drinking laws are preventing them. See, one of the main aspects of every market we visited is the outdoor consumption of hot alcoholic beverages, like mulled wine (glühwein in German) or the ever-changing yet ubiquitous “punsch.” What turns a cold day or evening into a pleasant time to browse holiday wares and puts a person in the yuletide spirit? Punsch.
Punsch or glühwein are served in ceramic mugs, with each market having its own design, and when you buy your first serving you pay a deposit for the mug. When you’re finished, you can either turn it back in and reclaim a few euros, or you can keep it as a souvenir. If you want to keep it, you can even trade your sticky mug in for a clean one. I personally love everything about this tradition, from the public drinking to the sustainability of the reusable mugs. You can also order “kinderpunsch,” the kids’ version, if you just want something hot and sweet but non-alcoholic.
I didn’t spend much time at the Vienna Christkindlmarkt—the oldest and largest of the dozens now in that city—because of the abysmal weather we had. But it was long enough to be impressed. Sprawling in the park in front of the Rathus (city hall), which is itself such a wildly impressive gothic building as to be mistaken for a cathedral, this was perhaps the most festive of the markets we visited. It’s full of twinkling lights, fun holiday displays, a giant Advent wreath, and even an ice-skating track that winds through the park.
While in Vienna, be sure to eat some wienerschnitzel and take in some classical music. Our tour afforded us opportunities for both, though I suspect one could do better in each case on one’s own.
The market in Salzburg is smaller than the one in Vienna, but it makes up for it in ambiance. One can almost hear the von Trapp Family Singers throughout the charming town known worldwide as the setting for The Sound of Music.
We began our afternoon in Salzburg with a walking tour of the small city with a big music problem. A famous site there is the birthplace of Mozart, where our local guide told us the sad story of Wolfgang’s overlooked sister, Nannerl.
While here, be sure to sample at least one version of the local confection called Mozartkugels.
This was by far the largest of the markets we visited, stretching from Marienplatz, again outside an impressive gothic Rathus, up and down pedestrian-only shopping streets farther than we cared to amble.
The Rathus is famous for its glockenspiel, which tolls for almost 10 minutes each hour (imagine living near that!), and it’s worth stopping at least once to watch the dancers dance. And if you tire of all the shopping, you can always stop into one of Munich’s infamous beer halls, like the original Hofbräuhaus a few blocks east of Marienplatz.
There’s no Christmas market here (though there are two very extensive Christmas stores to visit, if you have not yet had your fill of shopping), but the town is beautiful, a real Bavarian treasure.
The town is famous for its performance each decade of a Passion Play, which in 2010 drew half a million visitors (difficult to imagine for such a tiny town!). In 1633, the town made a bargain with God, offering to perform the play every 10 years if the town was spared from the plague. It was. And the rest was history. If you want to see the play in 2020, you’d better start planning now.
Oberammergau is also famous for the frescoes on its buildings. Looking at these would be enough reason to visit the picturesque little place.
Of all our stops on this trip, Innsbruck was by far my favorite. You really can’t beat the fairy-tale perfection of the setting, ringed by Alpine peaks while strolling through its pedestrian-only old town with a mug of glühwein in your hand. The city knows it’s incredibly quaint, and has leaned into it with 3-D fairy tale characters mounted on every street corner.
Innsbruck, among other things, is known as the home of Swarovski crystals, and the market there features a tree made of thousands of them. Even it cannot compete with the natural backdrop of the Alps, though.
We didn’t actually get to experience the market in the tiny country of Lichtenstein, because it only operated on weekends! It looked like it would have a small ice-skating rink and a few stalls, mostly selling food. Probably not worth the trouble it would take to visit it.
The main attraction in Vaduz, from a tourist’s perspective, is getting one’s passport stamped. Because there’s no border control between either Switzerland or Austria, you must visit The Liechtenstein Center and pay for the privilege of the stamp. But how else will anyone know you’ve been Europe’s tiny totalitarian nation?
A close second to Innsbruck in terms of pure fantasy loveliness is Lucerne, Switzerland. It would be gorgeous anytime of year, with its old (rebuilt) covered bridge over the river Reuss—but it’s even lovelier with everything lit up in fairy lights. The market here is a windy, twisty, deceptive thing. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, there’s somehow more!
But it’s the town itself that enchants. Walk along the river and the lake. Visit the Lion monument carved into the cliff wall of a former sandstone quarry. Find yourself some fondue or raclettes (another way to enjoy melted Swiss cheese) and eat some incredible Swiss chocolate (it really is better over there!), but beware the cost of wine. For those of you who have traveled to Norway, it will seem familiar.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.