Now is a wonderful time to visit the holiday markets in Europe. Beautifully lit and filled with people in high spirits, the markets, so much a part of the European holiday season, are essentially a continuous block party that lasts into the evening, filled with shopping, food, drinks and holiday merriment. It’s also a great time to explore some of Europe’s finest hotels and cafes.
This is an important time to visit Paris, too, to show our support for the people despite the news that filling our screens about protests, terrorists and other horrors. Remember Berlin? Brussels? London? Life moves on — let’s show our support and our lack of fear.
Vienna maintains its position as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. In addition to the its special art exhibitions and musical performances featured throughout the year, the city gives you a choice of 21 small to large Advent markets around the city center and off the Ringstrasse. Across from Stephansplatz and near the Austrian National Library, you’ll find two charming markets, each filled with booths of beautiful snow globes (they originated in Austria) and other crafts, as well as Glühwein (spiced red wine), mini donuts, and other goodies. The best, however, is the market on Rathausplatz against the backdrop of City Hall by the Rathaus, which extends for rows and rows with booths and booths and booths of treats. Be sure to try a palatschinke (a rolled up pancake) to go with your Glühwein (you pay a deposit and you can keep the ceramic mug), the perfect snack combo to enjoy as you stroll along with the crowds. Here, too, is Vienna’s tallest Christmas tree, standing about 30 meters high. The kids will love the carousel and reindeer train, not to mention the ice skating rink. If you’re sightseeing in other parts of the city, Belvedere Palace and Schonbrunn also have their own colorful Christmas markets with lots of holiday cheer. Need another break? There’s nothing like a Sacher torte at the acclaimed Cafe Sacher Wien on Philharmoniker Str.
Where to Stay: The best, in my opinion, is the newly refurbished Hotel Imperial on the Ringstrasse. In a great location to experience Vienna’s sites, the hotel is five-star when it comes to service, accommodations (gorgeous, gorgeous rooms), and dining and beverage. You’ll pay for the privilege of staying here, but it’s worth every euro. And if you’re a music fan, you’ll love that the hotel sits right next to the Wiener Musikverein where the Vienna Philharmonic play. Also appealing is that the Haus der Musik, an interactive museum explaining music from classical to contemporary, is only a five-minute walk. Book well ahead if you’re interested in experiencing a performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir or if you’d like to see the famous Vienna Lippizaner Stallions. Refresh at the Hotel Imperial’s beautiful Cafe Imperial Wien or in the cushy lounge, where their Opera cake is a worthy contender as the city’s best pastry indulgence.
Salzburg has some of Austria’s most festive Christmas markets.The Salzburger Christkindlmarkt on and around Cathedral Square and Residenzplatz Square is the oldest and largest in Salzburg. You’ll hear traces of Mozart tunes along with Christmas carols as you stroll among the booths. Did you know that the Christmas carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night” was written here? Look upward towards illuminated Hohensalzburg Fortress and walk the festively lit lanes and city square — there’s no way not to be taken in by the Christmas feeling in this “City of Mozart.” The holiday festivities also include folk songs, an exhibition of mangers, and a procession of Perchten, a pagan-inspired group wearing frightening masks. The city’s tour guides are among the most knowledgeable on the continent, and this year you can sign up for a walking tour of Christkindlmarkt and the city. Tours leave from the Christmas tree in front of the Residenz daily.
Where to Stay: Just a short walk from the Christmas market, The Hotel Goldener Hirsch is a 15th-century gem with the conveniences of the 21st century. Located on the pedestrian-friendly street where you’ll find the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Mozarts Geburtshaus), the hotel embodies service, quirkiness and charm. Staircases lead to various wings and corridors filled with antiques and artifacts, a breakfast room that’s as charming as its staff, and a cozy dining room and bar. A view from your room will remind you why Salzburg is continually ranked one of Europe’s best small cities. If you need a pick-me-up, grab a Bosna, a local form of hot dog, at the Balkan Grill in the alley next door.
Munich, not surprisingly, is filled with Christmas markets, a serious tradition throughout Germany. From the expansive winter market at Munich Airport to the impressive market in the city center that stretches to the Altes Rathaus, the city is a Christmas postcard. You’ll want to start at the airport market where you can skate, try the German version of curling, and enjoy the onsite biergarden, a welcome respite from shopping the stalls of handicrafts and local treats. A short train ride brings you to the center of Munich and the city’s most famous winter market where the entire Marienplatz is filled with booths selling everything Christmas from hand-painted glass baubles to clothing and treats like stollen. Just a few steps away in Neuhauser Strasse, you’ll find Germany’s largest manger market with authentic Nativity scenes. For a lively twist on the traditional Christkindlmarkt, head to Wintertollwood with its program of concerts, and vendors selling quirky crafts and ethnic foods.
Where to Stay: The perfect choice in pedestrian-friendly Munich is the tradition-filled Bayerische Hof. Notable for its unique styling, sleek or traditional accommodations including a rooftop penthouse, varied dining options, and five-star service, the hotel has been attracting guests of note since 1841. Fans of Michael Jackson will recall this grande dame as his hotel of choice in the city — they pay homage to him daily at an unofficial shrine erected in front of the hotel. Breakfast at the Bayerische Hof is a dream with an extravagant buffet set against a backdrop of the skyline of the city. Indulge yourself in one of the few remaining Trader Vic’s, a kitschy, delicious throwback to the 50s when Polynesian-style dining was the epitome of glam and fun. A fine-dining restaurant and a traditional German cellar room complete the culinary choices, and a late-night piano bar and club with live music and dancing is a must-visit if only to see the rows of liquor lockers afforded to VIPs. A favorite among locals and visitors alike, Falks Bar sits at the top of the lobby-lounge in the Hall of Mirrors, the only part of the hotel rescued from the ruins of World War II — it’s perfect for a warm-up cocktail, tea or coffee after strolling the markets. From the hotel, it’s an easy walk to the city’s acclaimed Opera House (Bayerishe Staatsoper) and culinary mecca Dallmayr with its crave-worthy food displays and tempting cafe.
Berlin has no shortage of Christmas market with two, in particular, worth noting. Close to the S-Bahn, the U-Bahn and the designer shopping area of Mitte, the smallish one near Hackescher Market is a great place to get your feet wet when it comes to navigating a Christmas market. It’s personal, manageable, and not overrun with people. Ready for more? Walk to the larger Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt. Your first stop can be a food break where you’ll feast on currywurst, strudel and Glühwein, all under a covered tent. You’ll also get a ceramic mug to take home (your deposit covers that). Since the market is set right in front of the Konzerthaus, there’s lively music on-stage to keep your mood festive while you walk among the booths. Enjoy the crystal, holiday clothing, and merriment as you dance your way to the tunes of a traditional band.
Where to Stay: The elegant five-star Adlon Kempinski next to the Brandenburg Gate and minutes from Groser Tiergarten (public park) defines service and luxury. The magnificent Champagne and caviar breakfast is second to none and enjoying tea is the lobby is almost a religious experience. From here it’s an easy walk to the museums along Unter den Linden and to Leipziger Platz where you can visit the Spy Museum Berlin as well. Trendy, design-oriented Mitte is a little further away. For a strudel and coffee warm-up, try nearby Cafe Einstein.
In Paris, the Christmas market stalls formerly along the Champs-Elysee on the Right Bank have been moved due to an ongoing dispute with the vendor and the city. Now you’ll find the markets near the Jardins des Tuileries and the Louvre, near the Eiffel Tower at Champs des Mars, at La Defense and a brand-new one outside of City Hall (Hotel de Ville). In addition to food vendors hawking beer tastings, oysters, hot wine, and sausages, you’ll find a skating rink, and great arts and crafts. After shopping the stalls, if you’re timing is good, you’ll be able to duck into the Palais Royal or the Louvre to take advantage of the museums’ fabulous exhibits at a time when crowds are at their lowest.
Where to Stay: After munching on holiday treats, explore the lively Left Bank filled with its many restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. The cozy and charming Hotel le Senat at the corner of the Luxembourg Gardens is a great choice. Its breakfast room and lobby are intimate, and you can get a room with a balcony that overlooks the roofs of the city. Caring service by staff members, an uber-comfortable bed, and thoughtful touches like an honor bar and late-morning breakfast set-up in the lobby complete the experience.The hotel offers a winning location a short walk from Saint Germain des Pres, literary landmarks like Café Deux Magots and Café de Flor, and high-end shops like Moncler. Feel like a crepe? Try tiny La Creperie du Clown on Rue des Canettes.
Budapest offers a chance to experience a lovely Christmas market indoors, out of the cold. At the five-star Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, the hotel’s Christmas market includes cheery red-and-white striped booths filled with the likes of local porcelain and crystal, Hungarian chimney cakes and more. Set in the lobby of the palace hotel, the market welcomes you at the door with a holiday drink cart that doles out hot mulled wine, apple cider, chocolate, coffee and tea. If you’re still hungry after your shopping, you can walk to the end of the hall and enjoy the hotel’s acclaimed afternoon tea, done with panache on china made expressly for the Gresham Palace. Or, plan ahead, and reserve at the elegant Gresham Restaurant which offers modern takes on Hungarian and international cuisine. If you’re still eager to do a walkabout, outdoor Christmas markets are held at Vörösmarty Square and St. Stephen’s Basilica, a short stroll from the hotel.
Where to Stay: In addition to offering some of the most beautiful accommodations in Budapest, along with top-rated service and dining, the elegant Four Seasons Gresham Palace is located in the best location in Vienna, just across from the lovely Chain Bridge connecting Buda (and its castle district) and Pest (where the hotel is located). You’ll also be near the pedestrian walking area of shops and wine bars, which leads to the massive Central Market Hall and the waterfront. (Don’t miss taking a night cruise on the Legenda to see the dramatic cityscape lit up along the Danube River.) From the hotel, it’s an easy walk to the Jewish Quarter, the fascinating ruin bars, and Andrassy Avenue, the city’s monumental shopping boulevard. A quick taxi ride away, the famous New York Café in the stunning Boscolo Budapest Hotel is a wonderful choice for a meal any time of the day, or for live piano music to accompany a pastry and coffee.
The Old Town in Prague is home to an elaborate Christmas market that attracts visitors from both sides of the Charles Bridge. In Old Town Square near the astronomical clock at City Hall and the city’s official Christmas tree, you’ll see booth after enticing booth filled with Bohemian crystal, scarves and gloves, and handcrafted toys. Stop a moment and indulge in one of the Czech Republic’s traditional trdelnik, a churro-like creation that will warm you against the wind coming off the river. It goes especially well with a cup of mulled wine (spiced red wine). Or, grab a traditional pilsner to help you soak up the lively holiday spirit. The Christmas market here and the one at the bottom of Wenceslas Square stay open past New Year’s so you can shop without hurry. There’s are also smaller markets at Prague Castle, too, in the courtyard of St. George’s Basilica, at Republic Square and on Kampa Island.
Where to Stay: The Mandarin Oriental in the historic Mala Strana quarter (lesser town) of Prague is the perfect place to escape the crowds and regroup. The atmospheric setting of this five-star hotel, built in a former Dominican monastery with vaulted ceilings, is quiet and pampering, with each room a different configuration. Food and drink are superb, as is the service. The Mandarin Spa, built in a former Renaissance chapel, defines luxury. From the hotel, you can stroll to the constantly repainted John Lennon peace wall which attracts hippies and rock ‘n rollers of all ages. Also nearby in Kampa Park is the eerie babies monument, a sort of aliens-meet-Jeff Koons sculpture installation set by the river. If this kind of art doesn’t strike your fancy, you can walk up historic Nerudova Street, with its creative house markers and lovely Le Chocolat Cafe, to Prague Castle and enjoy some of the city’s most amazing views. For a fabulous meal, take a five-minute walk from the Mandarin to the charming boutique Aria Hotel, where every floor is themed to a different type of music. Coda Restaurant, just off the lobby, offers two indulgent tasting menus: one a Czech version and the other a more eclectic selection of five-star cuisine from talented chef David Sasek.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
All Photos: Meryl Pearlstein