The day is the last Monday before Christmas. The year is 1434. The place is Dresden. Friedrich the II reigns as Elector of Saxony.
Why are we sharing these bits of information from a time long past? Because something truly special happened on this day. At the city’s Altmarkt square, Europe’s first Christmas market was held. Meant to be a central place for Dresden’s residents to purchase meat and other goodies for the Christmas feast, this market is the genesis point for one of the best experiences to have each December. Since 1434, much has changed about Dresden. But one thing remains constant: the city’s dedication to holiday markets that offer locals and visitors alike memories that persist for a lifetime.
Today, Dresden’s market is home to some 240 stands that are present for most of the four weeks of Advent. The best way to begin a market experience is to take your beverage of choice. Given how likely it is that the weather will be cold, we suggest one of the following: mulled wine, hot apple cider, or hot coco. Whatever you choose, it will steam up fragrantly and warm your fingers as you cup it. Next, stroll over to the Christmas pyramid, which stands fourteen meters tall. On each tier of the pyramid, you will see a Christmas scene: perhaps elves making gifts, or Santa filling his sack, or musicians playing festive tunes. Next, make your way to the stands with holiday goods. First off, consider the (smaller) Christmas pyramids, which spin using a genius system of rising heat from candles and fan blades above the top tier. Other goods to consider are the hand-made ornaments, especially the traditionally Dresden ones with mining symbols and religious elements. Other traditional items include schwibbogen (literally meaning arch) which are Christmas themed, made from wood, and often represent the light of the season. Finally, nutcrackers and räuchermann (smoking men) are wonderful—and often handmade—reminders of a lovely Christmas at the oldest market in Europe. After all the shopping, you will probably have an appetite! Consider local favorites like pulsnitzer (gingerbread), pflaumentoffel (sweets which translate literally to plum devils), and any number of roasted meats.
Now let’s travel west to the city of Metz in France, where another wonderful Christmas market is held each year. One of the wonderful things about holiday markets in France is that they combine ambiance and cheer with the country’s long and famous history of top gastronomy. Unlike in Germany, people in France often eat oysters and other seafood during Christmas, which can be found at markets like the one in Metz. This market is also known for having a wonderful selection of regional specialties like cured meats, handmade preserves using local fruit from the summer months, Moselle AOC wines, delectable Christmas cakes, and unique regional beers. But that’s not all! Some twenty craftsmen and local farmers also have stands at the market to sell items you can only find in the region, such as glass art, plum-scented candles, handmade soaps, and the famous Meisenthal Christmas ornaments. After you’ve had your fill of Christmas goodies and hot wine, make your way to the open-air ice-skating rink at Place de la République to glide over fresh ice in the cold air. End your evening strolling through the old town to admire the Christmas lights. The cathedral, visible from a distance glowing gold and beautiful, might just be the centerpiece of your stroll.
Now, for a southern detour! When you think of Italy, freezing Christmas temperatures might not come to mind first. Yet this country has been celebrating the holiday with beauty, grace, and excellent food for centuries. Trento, in the north of the country, holds one of the most gorgeous Christmas markets, and better still, it is still “hidden” compared to markets in Germany or Austria, which means it’s highly authentic. Trento is a stunning city, with a picturesque central square and old buildings with orange tiled roofs radiating outwards. Though snow rarely falls in Trento, the lovely Dolomites visible around the city are often capped with powder. The market consists of more than ninety stalls across two central squares: Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti. Given the alpine setting, the stalls are made in charming wooden designs and sell products and delicacies deeply tied to the region and its history—particularly its connection with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Are you most drawn by food? Then the Piazza Fiera is for you. As the main gastronomical hub, it offers a totally unique selection of foods like cakes, local cheese, cured meats, and many delicious drinks—both alcoholic and alcohol-free—for you to discover. Our suggestion: spend the day exploring Trento and then, around 18h, make your way to the market, as this is when it truly comes alive. What’s more, walking around the whole day will build up the appetite you need to truly enjoy this Christmas market and all the delights it has to offer.