Like Santa Claus, the European tradition of Christmas markets has been spreading its way around the world and the U.S.
You'll still find many of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany, and they usually have "Christkindl" in the name to honor the Christmas spirit who brings gifts on Dec. 24 each year. Curiously, the Chirstmas spirit is reflected in the image of an angelic young girl—quite unlike the bearded "Santa Claus" character popularized in U.S. culture.
With vendor stalls full of charming homemade gifts, holiday decorations and seasonal food, the markets have been a winter gathering place in Europe for hundreds of years. They began as a way for people to come together and support the artisans, artists, farmers and crafters from the local area, and today the most traditional markets still are a place for business and familial meetings to celebrate Christmas traditions while wrapped up in the warm glow of a public market. More than just stalls and booths, the markets have become month-long events; on stages and in performance areas, children and adults perform music, shows and dances to celebrate the Christmas season.
To start your tour of this classic wintertime travel tradition, we picked eight great Christmas markets from Germany to Chicago.
When: Nov. 21-Dec. 30
Where: Baden-baden, Germany
The Details: Baden-Baden might be the classic German Christmas market experience. There are more than 100 stalls filled with gifts made locally and regionally. You can watch live performances given on the open-air Himmelsbuhne—“Sky Stage”—or even gather near the bleeting sheep and goats in the live nativity. The highlight for familes? That would have to be St. Nicholas. He arrives via hot air-balloon and floats down into the festival so that the Christkindl spirit can deliver presents to children.
Basel Christmas Market
When: Nov. 24–Dec. 23
Where: Basel, Switzerland
The Details: In the shadow of a giant Christmas tree and flanked by the Rhine River, the Basel Christmas Market has been called the largest Christmas market in Switzerland. Some 180 artisans and tradesmen pack the market with gifts and goods. Culinary offerings include treats such as Basel Lackerli—a Swiss gingerbread—Swiss raclette, gluhwein and waffles.
When: Nov. 18-Dec. 24
Where: Daley Plaza on the Chicago Loop, or Oakbrook Center in Village Green
The Details: The Christkindlmarket in Chicago is one of the biggest—and some say most authentic—Christmas markets in the U.S. The event is paired with the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, serving as the city's way of honoring Chicago’s German and Polish community heritage. You'll find a lineup of performances and events (like an alpine brass band or a lantern parade for the kids) plus nearly 60 food and gift vendors, plus regular visits from the Christkindl spirit. Can't get to the Daley Plaza Christkindlmarket? Try the Oakbrook market in Chicago's suburbs.
When: Dec. 2-Jan. 1
Where: Masstricht, the Netherlands
The Details: Skaters rejoice at Maastricht's 8,600-square-foot ice rink that coats the city center for Magical Maastricht, the city's annual Christmas market. The month-long event includes vendors with more than 10,000 Christmas gifts and items for sale in the Castle Miracles. There will be an opulent display of more than 60,000 lights to open the festival, a Ferris wheel and more interactive elements at the largest Christmas market in the Netherlands.
Strasbourg Christmas Market
When: Strasbourg, France
Where: Nov. 25-Dec. 24
The Details: Strasbourg's Christmas market lays claim to be the oldest such market, with a history dating back to 1570. Here's what we know for sure: you'll find almost 300 chalets in 11 groupings around the city, but the event revolves around the 90-foot-tall Christmas tree in the center of town. For a little fun, try out the 3,000-square-foot ice rink or head to Place Saint Thomas, the festival's designated childrens' village where entertainment and activities are held throughout the month of December.
Christmas in Tivoli Gardens
Where: Cophenhagen, Denmark
When: Nov. 19-Dec. 31
The Details: Tivoli Gardens is one of the world's oldest theme parks and one of the most famous. Allegedly, Walt Disney visited Tivoli and was so inspired by the magical atmosphere that he went home to create Disney World. There will be 60 vendors set up for Christmas in Tivoli Gardens, in addition to a 100-member choir presentation, music performances and traditional Christmas foods.
Union Square Holiday Market
Where: New York City, New York
When: Nov. 17-Dec. 24
The Details: One of the most beloved holiday events in New York City is taking over Union Square with its iconic red-and-white-striped tents. Throngs of artisans, crafters and gourmet shopping stops return to the square this year to offer warm treats—think hot pretzels and gourmet hot chocolate—as well as a hands-on crafting area for children, a brainchild of the UrbanSpace and Children's Museum of the Arts.
Trier Weihnachts Markt
Where: Trier, Germany
When: Nov. 21-Dec.22
The Details: Trier is said to be the oldest city in Germany and one of the oldest Christmas markets in the country, too. The celebrations will begin with an official ceremony involving the mayor of Trier and Germany's Mulled Wine Queen—or "Glühwein"—coronated on opening day and visiting the market several times in the month-long celebration. You'll find almost 100 vendors, many housed in particularly cozy wooden houses as their shop fronts. Queue up for specialties such as potato pancakes, German sausages, local teas and—of course— a mug of Glühwein.