Cruising Europe's Christmas Markets

Spirited offerings at the Rüdesheim Christmas Market.
Spirited offerings at the Rüdesheim Christmas Market.
Cruise along the Rhine or Danube in December, and the shore-excursion lineup is bound to feature a Christmas market or three.

The open-air spaces have been holiday-season staples since the fourteenth century, when German towns established the first ones in honor of Advent. Across the continent today, Christmas lights blanket town squares; tents, chalets, and wooden pavilions brim with gifts; and mulled wine flows like the river each city overlooks. Here are a few to explore. Bring your appetite – and maybe an extra suitcase.

Cologne, Germany

Cologne lauds the season with an impressive seven Christmas markets. The four most popular – Cathedral, Angel’s, Old, and Harbour – are centered around downtown. Hop on the Christmas Market Express, an old-fashioned trolley that weaves through the city, stopping at all four. Cathedral is home to the city’s tallest Christmas tree (82 feet), and Harbour is the place to go for Flammlachs (fresh grilled salmon), but the highlight is Angel’s – the city’s oldest holiday market – where artisans sell crafts inside twinkling chalets and “angels” dressed in white wander through the crowd, tossing glitter in the air and posing for photos with awestruck children.
Buy This: A Weihnachtspyramide, or German Christmas pyramid. The carousel-style candleholder, found in stalls throughout the market, is decorated with Nativity scenes and characters from German folklore. 

Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany

The Rüdesheim Christmas Market brings international flair to the western German town, with 118 stalls that showcase holiday crafts and traditions from Germany and 15 other countries. Swing by the Hungary stall for langos (deep-fried flatbread), or buy handmade clothing from Mongolia and Australia. Over on Drosselgasse, one of Rüdesheim am Rhein’s tavern-lined, cobblestoned lanes, parents sip glühwein (mulled wine) while kids explore the petting zoo and Europe’s largest Nativity scene – the life-size display covers more than 1,000 square feet. For aerial views of the winter wonderland, hop the Rüdesheim cable car for the annual
“silent ride” over the market.
Try This: A mug of Rüdesheimer Kaffee, topped with whipped cream and spiked with a splash of flambéed Asbach Uralt brandy. It’s available at stalls across the market. 

The Cathedral Market’s illuminated scene in Cologne.
The Cathedral Market’s illuminated scene in Cologne.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik (the Market of the Infant Jesus) dates to 1570, when preacher Johannes Flinner set up stalls in front of the Strasbourg Cathedral for vendors to sell saddles, gingerbread, Christmas trees, and other wares. Now the entire city feels like it’s in on the tradition, and Strasbourg calls itself the “Capital of Christmas.” Christkindelsmärik, the main market, still stands in front of the cathedral, but several others are spread throughout the city, including the Market of Christmas Treats in front of Palais Rohan, and the Sharing Village on place Kléber, where visitors can learn about, and lend support to, local nonprofit organizations. 
Buy This: Limited-edition handblown glass Christmas ornaments made in nearby Meisenthal each year – find them in the Christkindelsmärik.

Colmar, France

Colmar may be smaller than Strasbourg, but that doesn’t mean its residents skimp on Christmas celebrations. This cozy Alsatian town hosts a handful of markets, each set in its own fairytale-like village and all walking distance apart. Stroll from place des Dominicains – backdropped by the Gothic-style Dominican Church – to place Jeanne-d’Arc, sampling traditional Alsatian treats such as kouglof (a semisweet Bundt cake with raisins and almonds) along the way. Stop in at the indoor, arts-and-crafts-focused Koïfhus Market before taking a spin on the carousel at the Children’s Christmas Market at Little Venice. 
Buy This: A handmade miniature wooden train set from local artist Bernard Aubry, found at his stall in the Marché de Noël. 

Speculaas (biscuits) from Cologne’s Cathedral Market.
Speculaas (biscuits) from Cologne’s Cathedral Market.

Basel, Switzerland

While it’s revered for its annual art festival, Basel throws a party at Christmastime too. Since 1978, the city’s pedestrian-friendly Old Town has filled with festive decorations and wooden chalets in Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. Stock up on handpainted glass ornaments (Swiss artist Johann Wanner’s are the ones to find), and when it’s time to refuel, grab some Basler Leckerli (gingerbread). Across the Rhine on Claraplatz – a 15-minute walk from the city center – a smaller and newer market skews more culinary than crafty, with stalls serving grilled sausage, waffles, glühwein, and more.  
Try This: Raclette, a hearty dish of melted cheese served with potatoes, charcuterie, and vegetables.  
 

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