Holiday markets in Prague, Vienna and Dresden serve up the best of the season’s spirit.
Ambling through a European Christmas market while sipping a mug of piping-hot mulled wine is one of the great joys of the season. Typically taking over the main squares in front of the cathedrals, these beautiful and festive outdoor markets are replete with handmade ornaments, local crafts and indulgent holiday treats such as marzipan, lebkuchen (gingerbread) and germknödel (jam-filled dumplings topped with vanilla sauce). In addition to simple mulled wine, some markets also present feuerzangenbowle, a delicious and dramatic punch prepared by flambéing a rum-soaked sugar cone over a steaming pot of spiced wine.
Nürnberg’s legendary Christkindlesmarkt is the largest (and most crowded), but the markets in Munich, Strasbourg, Cologne and numerous other cities are just as delightful. Germany is the heartland of these markets, and almost every town worth its Platz has at least a handful of decorated wooden huts selling savory sausages and irresistible handmade toys on the square. But it’s just as easy, and much more interesting, to experience the market traditions of charming cities in three different countries. The Andrew Harper Travel Office has put together what we think is an ideal Christmas market itinerary, allowing you and your family to make the most of Europe’s most festive season.
Fly into one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, Dresden. Like many former East German cities, Dresden languished under communism, with many key landmarks left to molder as bombed-out shells. After German reunification, Dresden embarked on a massive reconstruction program, rebuilding major palaces and churches and requiring new construction to conform to the 17th- and 18th-century architectural styles for which Dresden was famous. The results have been staggeringly successful, but this remarkable renaissance has largely escaped the notice of foreign tourists.
Visit the old section of the Green Vault, a mind-boggling display of gems, ivory and precious metals worked into fabulously intricate jewelry, sculptures and objets d’art housed in an opulently restored palace. (Ask your travel consultant to reserve your tickets when you make your hotel booking.) Lunch in a vaulted beer hall, and see the celebrated baroque Frauenkirche, the interior of which resembles a giant pastel Fabergé egg. As the sun begins to set, head to the nearby Christmas market, festooned with garlands and twinkling lights.
Tour the world-class Zwinger Museum, housed in another elegant palace; visit the new section of the Green Vault, or just wander the old quarter doing a little shopping. Lunch at the Christmas market, and perhaps take in a performance this evening at the famous Semper Opera. Alternatively, dine in style in one of Dresden’s two Michelin-starred restaurants.
Prague is just a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away from Dresden, and it boasts its own festive Christmas market. The Old Town Square is transformed into a cheery holiday village, watched over by rows of colorful baroque buildings, the astronomical clock and the enigmatic spires of Tyn Church.
Use these days to explore one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, taking time both with a local guide and on your own. In addition to seeing major sights such as Prague Castle and Wenceslas Square, we can arrange a tour of the magnificent art-nouveau Municipal House and a private visit of the Strahov Monastery Library, which is usually off-limits to the public. Enjoy a performance at the Estates Theater, where Mozart premiered “Don Giovanni”, and dine on upscale renditions of 19th-century Czech recipes at La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoisie.
Take the train from Prague directly to elegant Vienna. It’s worth splurging a little here and booking a suite, so that you can have your very own Christmas tree in your living room. Beneath the soaring gothic spires of the city hall, Vienna’s picturesque market rings with the sounds of the waltz and the laughter of ice skaters.
There are few sights as romantic as this former imperial capital glittering with newly fallen snow. See the exquisite Belvedere Palace, home to several Klimt and Schiele masterpieces, the Kunst Haus Wien, a colorfully undulating museum housing the joyous watercolors of Hundertwasser, and the grand Kunsthistorisches Museum, notable for its wonderful collection of charming Bruegel paintings. The warren of lanes in the old quarter beckons with innumerable shops and gracious cafés. And don’t miss Schloss Schönbrunn, a sprawling palace rivaling Versailles, rising like a fairytale in the snow. Its Café Restaurant Residenz serves perhaps the best apple strudel in the world.
After an unrestrained breakfast of gloriously decadent Viennese pastries and perfect coffee, transfer to the airport and fly home.