Christmas week and the beginning of January mark the end of shopping frenzy for the holidays. But it’s also a fabulous time to use shopping as an excuse to visit some of the most beautiful cities in Europe and discover their cold-weather attractions. Magically lit and filled with people in high spirits, Christmas markets, so much a part of the European holiday season, are at the forefront with shopping, food, drinks and holiday merriment. You can also leverage your shopping needs into a reason to explore some of Europe’s top hotels and cafes.
Vienna maintains its position as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. In addition to the special art exhibitions and musical performances featured throughout the year, the city gives you a choice of more than a dozen Christmas markets around the city center and along the Ringstrasse. Across from Stephansplatz and near the Austrian National Library, you’ll find charming “boutique” 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 largest market, however, is the market on Rathausplatz against the backdrop of Rathaus (City Hall), which extends for rows and rows with booths and booths and booths of treats. Beat the cold with a sweet palatschinke (a rolled-up pancake) to go with your warm, spiced Glühwein (you pay a deposit and you can keep the ceramic mug), the perfect snack combo to enjoy as you meander 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 Schönbrunn Palace 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 Café Sacher Wien at the stately Hotel Sacher.
Where to Stay: The best, in my opinion, is the super-luxe 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. You can soak up the 1863 atmosphere in the lounge where a pianist entertains nightly. 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 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. Add some extra time to visit the birth home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a must for any classical music fan.
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 made with grilled pork bratwurst and onions, at the Balkan Grill Walter in the alley next door. To satisfy a sweet tooth, Mozartkugeln, chocolate balls filled with pistachio marzipan and nougat, can be purchased at many of the city’s souvenir shops.
Munich, not surprisingly, is filled with Christmas markets, a festive expression of the season throughout Germany. From the expansive Christmas and 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 covered airport market where you can skate, stock up on holiday gifts from the stalls of handicrafts and local treats, and enjoy the onsite biergarden. A short train ride brings you to the center of Munich and the city’s most famous winter market where the entire Marienplatz (St. Mary’s Square) 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 like kletzbrot, a bread with nuts, fruit and honey; and fatschnkindtl, a pastry shaped like the baby Jesus in the manger.
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, variety of 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 the singer’s hotel of choice in the city — they still pay homage to him 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. The Michelin-starred Atelier 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, Falk’s 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 shopping the markets. But, if you’re not afraid of the cold, the seasonal Polar Bar is the place to be – you can even stay toasty warm in an igloo set outside on the terrace.
From the hotel, it’s an easy walk to the city’s acclaimed Opera House (Bayerische Staatsoper) and culinary mecca Dallmayr (Delicatessen) with its crave-worthy food displays and tempting cafe. Of note, you can also buy many treats to take home from the Dallmayr shop and bistro at Munich Airport’s Terminal 2.
Berlin has no shortage of Christmas markets with more than 70 to choose from. Two, in particular, are worth noting as you choose which venues to visit. 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 city’s most famous Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt. Your first stop can be a food break where you’ll fortify 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 the market. Enjoy the crystal, holiday clothing, and merriment as you dance your way to the tunes of a traditional band. Other markets to consider are the Lucia Christmas Market in Kulturbrauerei Berlin in the Prenzlauer Berg district where lots of family-friendly programs keep the little ones occupied in between shopping, and the romantic market and booths at Charlottenburg Palace, the former residence of Queen Sophie Charlotte.
Where to Stay: The elegant five-star Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate and minutes from the Grosser Tiergarten park defines service and luxury. The hotel’s magnificent Champagne and caviar breakfast is second to none and tea in 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 and Potsdamer Platz, the site of yet another Christmas market. Trendy, design-oriented Mitte is a little further away. For a strudel and coffee warm-up, try nearby Cafe Einstein.
In Paris, the city’s Christmas markets seem to change from year to year. This year, the Christmas market stalls formerly along the Champs-Elysées can now be found near the Jardins des Tuileries and the Louvre, near the Eiffel Tower at Champs des Mars, and with one of the largest assemblages at La Defense in the city’s business district. In addition to food vendors hawking beer tastings, oysters, hot wine and sausages, you’ll find a skating rink along with great arts and crafts. For something a bit different, there’s also an Alsatian Christmas market at Gare de l’Est where you can enjoy gourmet Alsatian treats like potato pancakes, choucroute, Munster cheese and traditional kougelhopf cake plus Christmas market staples like mulled wine and gingerbread.
Where to Stay: After munching on holiday goodies, take the metro to the Palais Royal or the Louvre to take advantage of the museums’ fabulous exhibits at a time when crowds are at their lowest. You can rest after that at the newly refreshed Hotel Le Meurice, offering a five-star palace and spa experience within walking distance of the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. If you’d prefer a location that’s more bohemian, choose instead to explore the lively Left Bank with its many restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. The cozy and charming Hotel le Senat at the corner of the Luxembourg Gardens has an intimate breakfast room and lobby, and you can get a room with a balcony that overlooks the roofs of the city. Caring service by staff members, an über-comfortable bed, and thoughtful touches like an honor bar and late-morning breakfast set-up in the lobby add to the appeal. The hotel offers a winning location a short walk from Saint Germain des Près with its literary landmarks Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore where you can refuel and recharge while you people-watch. Feel like a crêpe? Try tiny La Crêperie Du Clown on Rue des Canettes.
Budapest provides a chance to experience two lovely Christmas markets at two central locations within walking distance of each other. The Christmas Market on Vörösmarty Square is the city’s oldest. There you’ll enjoy shopping the many handicrafts stalls, munching on Hungarian pastries and listening to daily concerts. The second market, by the Basilica on St. Stephen’s Square, adds to the festivities with a Christmas laser projection and small ice skating rink. Both markets are close to the city’s pedestrian walking area and the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest where you can warm up with the Herend afternoon tea in the cupola under historic Peacock Passage.
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 Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest is superbly situated 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. If you prefer a stay at a smaller hotel, the whimsical, music-themed Aria Hotel Budapest sits adjacent to St. Stephen’s Basilica, convenient to the Christmas markets and pedestrian streets. A short taxi ride away and dating from 1894, the stunning New York Palace Hotel has gorgeous accommodations and the famous New York Cafe for a meal any time of the day or 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 spiced mulled wine or a frothy hot chocolate. Or, grab a traditional pilsner to help you soak up the lively holiday spirit. Each day features entertainment with a program including children’s concerts, folk music, jazz and Christmas carols. 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 are also smaller markets at Republic Square, Prague Castle at St. George’s Square and at the stable yard, as well as at Peace Square in front of the Church of St. Ludmila where a decorated tree with a hand-painted nativity scene sets the holiday tone.
Where to Stay: The Mandarin Oriental in the historic Malá 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, set in what was previously a Renaissance chapel, defines luxury. From the hotel, you can stroll to the constantly repainted John Lennon Wall which attracts hippies and rock ‘n rollers of all ages to add messages of peace and love. Nearby in Kampa Park is David Cerny’s eerie Crawling Babies monument, a sort of aliens-meet-Jeff Koons sculpture installation set by the river and a symbol of the Communist era. If this kind of art doesn’t strike your fancy, you can walk up historic Nerudova Street, with its creative house markers 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 Prague, where every floor is themed to a specific style of music or a particular artist or composer. 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.