As a proud 90’s kid who grew up only on PBS shows, I remember when the Rick Steves Christmas Markets episode first aired (don’t judge, I still watch it every December). Since that time, it has been a dream to travel to the European markets and experience them for myself. My wish came true this year and I had the trip of a lifetime. I’m definitely no expert, but I did learn how to experience the best of the markets. Here’s a few tips if you’re thinking of visiting the European Christmas markets on a jolly holiday adventure.
1. Use cash - if you’re heading to the European Christmas Markets with the intention of simply enjoying the sights and tasting a few yummy things, you won’t need more than 25 Euros. Most small trinket items are under 10 Euros and the food is generally inexpensive. If you’re buying speciality artisan items or intend to make larger purchases, most stands will take Visa or MasterCard. Just plan on having cash on hand as it makes the entire process easier when you stumble upon snacks or those fun small items, like ornaments or small wood carvings.
2. Taste the mulled wine - one of my favorite things about the Markets is the amazing smell and taste of mulled wine. Most markets use red wine as a base, adding cinnamon and other spices in a giant pot together. We tried the wine at every market we visited! Word to the wise, though - wine is served mostly in ceramic mugs with the name of the city and Christmas market on it. The price of the mug is included in the price of mulled wine. Bring the mug back to the stand and you can get a bit of your money back from your purchase. If not, take it home as a souvenir. We loved collecting Christmas market mugs along the way.
3. Look for the local stands - once you’ve done two or more markets, you begin to see repeat items and stands. Not that these stands should be avoided all together, but keep an eye out for the local stands. For example, we found a great artisan stand at the market in Vienna. The stand was full of beautiful linocut prints, many folk inspired and Christmas related. I bought two pieces here and didn’t see any stands that even resembled this in any other market. This was one of my favorite takeaways from the whole trip.
4. Ask if they’re handcrafted - Some stands cary items from the country you’re currently visiting, but could still be manufactured items. For me, I want souvenirs that are genuine to the city or region I am visiting and not a generic product I could find in the country’s airport when I leave. Ask the vendor if the item is handcrafted or made in the local region. When I visited Durstein, I bought a few bottles of Schnapps from a small shop, but asked the shop owner first about the product. Her brother in law made the Schnapps locally. This gave me complete affirmation in my purchase and makes the product even more special for me personally.
Likewise, in the Budapest and Vienna markets, there’s a variety of decorative dried fruits that smell AMAZING. I so wish I could have purchased a few of these, but was unsure how to pack them. Next time!
5. Don’t feel pressure to buy the first time - like I mentioned above, unless you find a unique artisan shop, you will most likely will see repeat products and stands. So if you missed buying something at one of these stands, the next market you visit will probably have identical or at least similar items.
6. Try a local favorite - People watch and see what the locals are eating. You can’t go wrong with trying something new, like Kürtőskalács in the Budapest market.
For friends who have visited the Christmas markets in Europe, which is your favorite and why? I’d love to hear your thoughts!