From traditional festive decorations to hand-crafted wooden toys and interesting home design objects, Europe's Christmas markets are a great place for truly original gifts that you will not find in traditional shopping centers during the holiday season. Here are the best ones:
Best for: crafted gifts
The biggest Christmas market in Italy has barely changed since it was set up nearly 30 years ago in Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol. One may feel the wonderful authentic atmosphere of the city there. The strict rules state that the 80-odd stallholders in Piazza Walther are only allowed to sell items that are made locally: beautifully crafted wooden toys (the region has a history of woodworking), straw stars for the top of the Christmas tree, musical instruments, spiced cakes and decorative candles. There is also an indoor space where craftsmen can be seen at work, as well as a puppet theater that entertains the youngest.
Best for: the festive mood in the city
From the concerts of the brass orchestras, which take place at one of the most beautiful balconies in the city, to the ice rink at King Tomislav Square, the Croatian capital is an endless feast during the Christmas holidays. In the wooden huts scattered along the streets, one may find anything from knit scarves and gloves to sweet almonds and Christmas tree decorations. Do not miss the Zrinjevac Park, where you will find more craftsmanship and taste the traditional specialties in Zagreb.
TIVOLI GARDENS, Copenhagen
Best for: Danish decorations
Historic Amusement Park Tivoli Gardens turns into a winter Wonderland around Christmas, with more than half a million shimmering lights, holiday tunes from the Tivoli Youth Guard band, and Scandinavian-style wooden huts that are part of the Christmas village market. Plus, the Trainsbury Station theme, which debuted last year, is being expanded with two steam engines, an old station building where you can sample aebleskiver (apple dumplings) and glögg (mulled wine), and stalls in the wagons that sell typically Danish decorative ornaments, such as the ever-popular pixie.
WIENACHTSDORF, Zurich, Switzerland
Best for: local brands
There are several Christmas markets scattered around Zurich, but this one is the nicest, located right in front of the Opera House. The village huts might look traditional, but for many vendors - who usually change every week - the accent is on modern design. So, one day you may come up with wonderful designs of the local brand DillySocks and leather backpacks from the Swiss brand Schreif, and the next - with functional household equipment from Fabrikat. It is worthwhile to taste the local food at Chalet Fondue (pre-booking mandatory) as well as the ice rink which makes for a fun shopping respite.
Best for: beautifully decorated stands
Germany’s oldest market is spread across four squares in Stuttgart’s car-free city centre, but the majority of stalls are in Marktplatz, in front of a stage where choirs and music groups from the region belt out carols. Wooden huts are arranged by section, so household goods are next to crafts, with food on the outer edge; for antiques and curiosities, make a beeline for Karlsplatz. Each year a prize is awarded to the most beautiful stall, so all the retailers make a real effort, layering fairy lights, pine garlands and toy decoration.
VIENNA CHRISTMAS WORLD, Austria
Best for: the authentic Christmas atmosphere
A candlelit archway in City Hall Square marks the entrance to Vienna’s largest Christmas market. The trees are illuminated, there’s live music by a brass band, which is a real pleasure for all visitors. About 150 stands sell decorations and ornaments, including hard-to-resist snow globes with landmarks from Vienna. From the handmade toys you can find textile angels and wooden dolls. There are interesting local dishes and mulled wine. You can dropp the kids off inside City Hall, where they can have a go at making Christmas-themed biscuits, or take them to the neighbouring park for a spin round the ice rink.
GREAT SQUARE, Stockholm, Sweden
Best for: handmade Christmas gifts
This historic market is organized on Stortorget's main square in the Old Town, just behind the Royal Palace. The red wooden huts are located around the Christmas tree in the center of the square. There are the works of local authors and craftsmen who make traditional handmade Christmas toys such as straw gnomes that are so popular in Sweden, angels and hand-painted glass ornaments. There are also beautiful ceramics, spices, aromatic soaps and children's clothes - all simply great ideas for interesting Christmas presents.