From the legend of St. Nicholas to the iconic decorated tree, modern traditions of Christmas were born in Europe. While Americans might associate winter splendor with Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, the National Christmas Tree at the White House or the holiday decorations of San Francisco’s Union Square, the true origins and inspiration of this festive season can only be discovered in the Old Country.
With traditions and cuisines varying from one country to the next, the Christmas season is also an unusually opportune time to get a real sense of local culture. One of the best ways to enjoy the season is a visit to one of many Christmas markets that pop up across the continent during the Advent season. Dating back to the 13th Century, these markets are sprawling assemblages of wooden stalls that dominate Europe’s town squares. Peddling classic Christmas décor along with delicious holiday snacks, this is a tradition not to be missed.
Yet with so many world-class destinations and so much Christmas spirit going on across the continent, it’d be near impossible to cover all of the great holiday options. So, as there are three wise men in the Christmas tradition, let’s look at a very special three European Christmas destinations. Think of them as our Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh of the European holiday season:
Copenhagen. Decked in massive evergreen wreaths and bold crimson ribbons, Copenhagen’s elegant castles and medieval waterfronts seem practically designed for Christmas. A stroll along the pubs and shops of Nyhavn, one of the town’s historical port districts, will excite the senses with its many offerings of holiday cuisine. Beer lovers will want to try the Tuborg Julebryg, a rich, hearty Christmas brew only available from fun filled J-Day (the first Friday of November) through the holiday season. Also be sure to sample the Glögg, a high octane mulled wine, spiked with brandy and adorned with raisins and almonds. Recipes differ from pub to pub, so pace yourself and enjoy the diversity. And for those wishing to avoid the alcohol, keep a watch for the many cakes and pastries made with marzipan, a decadently nutty holiday sweet.
The star attraction of Copenhagen’s winter wonderland is the Christmas market at Tivoli Gardens. This city-center amusement park is home to swings and carousels and hosts a classic market with special offerings for children, including mechanical elves preparing holiday gifts. A second market also worth a visit springs up in Copenhagen’s Christiania district. And for the grand finale, take a short train ride up coast to Helsingor for a visit to Kronborg Castle, the historical home of Hamlet. Bonfires and evergreen garlands drape this awe-inspiring edifice on the sea. Horse-drawn carriage rides are available to tour the grounds, and indoor attractions include a Christmas workshop, the singing of Danish Christmas carols and unique gift-shopping in the elegant Kronborg Galleries. To give your trip a tone of luxury, stay at the Hotel D’Angleterre Copenhagen. Or, if on a budget, the Hotel Ansgar is a lovely traditional hotel (read – very small rooms) near Tivoli Gardens.
London. What could be more Christmas-y than spending the holidays in the land of Dickens himself? All the sights and sounds of the historical metropolis become even more memorable bedazzled for the holiday season. Skip the normal high end shopping and head over to the Traditional Christmas Market at South Bank Centre for seasonal treats and handmade holiday gifts. And later in the evening, don’t miss hearing Christmas carols at St. Paul Cathedral’s midnight mass. If you’re hoping to avoid being Scrooge this year, take the kids ice skating at Somerset House, followed by one of the city’s entertaining pantomime shows, found all over town during the Christmas season. On the big day, treat yourself to a traditional British Christmas dinner. You’ll dine on items like roasted turkey and potatoes, cranberry stuffing and, of course, Christmas pudding – a rich fruity dessert served with brandy butter. Many fine restaurants, from the Orrery to Butler’s Wharf House are open for business and feature these traditional offerings. Or spice things up with an Indian twist to Christmas dinner at The Cinnamon Club. For an unforgettable holiday, book your stay at One Aldwych, the Covent Garden Hotel or the chic new Ampersand in South Ken.
Cologne.You might think that a German city decimated by World War II wouldn’t offer the same historical charm as some of Europe’s other offerings, but you’d be thinking wrong. With 7 distinct Christmas markets and 2 million annual visitors, Cologne brings holiday celebrations to epic proportions. Start at the immense maze of wooden stalls surrounding the Kölner Dom, the city’s spectacular landmark cathedral (miraculously spared in WWII) for the best in Christmas shopping. And at the nearby Alter Markt, kids of all ages can enjoy puppet shows and even a Santa’s grotto. With the lovely Rhine flowing through the heart of the city, you’ll want to take an afternoon river cruise, dining on hot waffles on a romantic saloon vessel such as the MS Stolzenfels. And if that’s not enough of the river for you, there’s even a floating Christmas market in the Old Quarter. Finally, just because it’s well-past Oktoberfest, doesn’t mean it’s too late to enjoy one of the city’s many beer halls. The Früh am Dom near the Kölner Dom is an excellent choice. Is this Christmas a romantic getaway? If so, Cologne’s Schlosshotel Lerbach is one of the most luxurious hotels in Germany.
Arlo Hemphill is travel writer, wilderness conservationist and one of our gogobot pro members. Frequent trips to Europe to attend environmental policy meetings have exposed him to the continent’s chillier seasons. Considered the off-season for many, Arlo loves Europe in winter – enjoying crowd-free museums, warm pubs and, of course, the Christmas festivities.