Everywhere It's Christmas

From Frankfurt to Budapest to Montreal, we visit some of the world’s most enchanting Christmas festivals.

WORDS Gerald Tan
November / December 2019
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Holiday market in Frankfurt's old town. / Getty Images

The holidays speak to each of us uniquely. Whether conjuring childhood memories and time-honored traditions or sparking a quest for new adventures, this time of year can trigger the senses in rather personal ways. For me, it is olfaction that goes into happiness overdrive, for I adore the myriad scents of the season. Yes, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but also fresh fir, oven-warm gingerbread cookies, frankincense potpourri, overnight snow, a crackling fire. Such festive redolence is a hallmark of Christmas markets—part craft fair, part gastronomic paradise. I have spent entire vacations at these venues, soaking in the smells and discovering delicacies that turn into lifelong obsessions. Enjoy some holiday magic in these cities that take their Christmas markets seriously—and do them fabulously.


Holiday market in Frankfurt's old town. Getty Images
Frankfurt, Germany

Take your pick of any German metropolis and you’re assured a plenitude of Christmas markets. Often anchoring these fairy-tale-like spaces are a giant tree and larger-than-life replica of the seasonal decoration Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramid), a spinning carousel motored by the heat of a burning candle. For tradition and grandeur, Frankfurt offers a market dating back to 1393, appropriately set in Römerberg, in the quaint old town. Seasonal victuals include stollen, Germany’s classic fruitcake cloaked in powdered sugar, and the cold-combatting spiced mulled wine known as glühwein, served in steins that can be conveniently purchased as mementos. And don’t miss the Frankfurt triumvirate of miniature marzipan-laced candy figures named Brenten, Bethmännchen and Quetschemännchen.

Budapest, Hungary

While German markets tend to end a day or two before Christmas, Hungary stretches the celebration all the way to New Year’s. In Budapest, much of the action centers around two nearby locations, Vörösmarty Square and St. Stephen’s Square outside the Basilica. The capital city’s passion for street food translates into enticing options verging on the overwhelming. It’s impossible to avoid kürtöskalács, sweet-yeasted chimney cakes baked in a charcoal spit—they’re terrific dusted with sugar, cinnamon, cocoa or chopped nuts. When the temperatures drop (and drop they will), lángos are a comforting antidote. The deep-fried bread is traditionally smothered in sour cream and then sprinkled with grated cheese, but many modern iterations treat it like a pizza base, offering toppings limited only by one’s imagination.

Prague

Prague’s yuletide markets are distinguished by the unmistakable aroma of sizzling meat. The highly prized boneless Prague ham, or Pražská Šunka, is cooked in open rotisseries, beckoning the hungry from blocks away. Equally inviting is klobásy, the Czech answer to Central Europe’s love for grilled sausages. Unapologetically unctuous, juicy and fragrant, they range from pikantní (spicy) and jelito (blood sausage) to the internationally inspired bavorské (Bavarian-style bratwurst) and mad’arské (a drier Hungarian style). To wash them all down, try the honey-based wine medovina or grog, a rum-based toddy. And for gifting ideas, nothing says Christmas love more than lebkuchenherzen, giant heart-shaped gingerbread cookies omnipresent in Prague’s Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square markets.


Snow-globe vendor at the City Hall market in Vienna.
Vienna

The Krippenmarkt dates back to 1298, the year Albert I of Hapsburg became king and allowed citizens of Vienna to hold a December Market. More than seven centuries later, the tradition lives on, as public squares in the Austrian capital transform into a warren of wooden chalets hawking tinsel-laced mirth. The backdrops to these bazaars are nothing less than majestic: Belvedere Palace, Schönbrunn Palace and the imposing neo-Gothic City Hall, to name a few. And the local specialties on tap will satiate all manner of appetites. My top three comprise a beef and potato hash called Bauerngröstl; the ubiquitous dessert Kaiserschmarrn, named in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who loved the fluffy shredded pancake; and Vanillekipferl, crescent-shaped nut cookies that inevitably leave their telltale trail of powdered sugar.

Montreal

This Quebec city is a taste of Europe in North America. With its French-speaking population and blend of architectural styles, Montreal has long held unique cultural and visual appeal. Tourism dips in the colder months, but those willing to brave the Canadian winter are richly rewarded, particularly in the weeks counting down to Christmas. The city pulsates with a series of markets and festivals, including a Santa Claus parade, offering artisanal crafts and cuisine. There is no better time to sample the umami party known as poutine, a heart-thumping, passion-igniting marriage of French fries and cheese curds smothered in gravy. Another Quebecois staple is the spiced holiday meat pie tourtière. Chutney is a typical accompaniment, though the pies can easily be dressed up in that most Canadian of treats: maple syrup.

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