Christmas is one of those rare holidays universally recognized for its cheer and charm. As Mariah Carey's melodic "All I Want for Christmas Is You" sets the festive tone in the background, a scene of hot chocolate, presents, twinkling lights, and cozy movies is carefully crafted. Personally, my go-to films are "Home Alone" and the first three "Harry Potter" movies, which I religiously watch on every flight home.
Regardless of real-life feasibility, what matters is the magical picture that globalization, media, and the yearly onslaught of Netflix and Hallmark movies continue to sell us. When it comes to Europe, the first thing that comes to mind is Christmas Markets. Renowned and hailed to be some of the best travel experiences, come November end, each city reinvents itself in lights, and Christmas spirit to win over even the grouchiest Scrooge. I also think the experience is made novel from the fact that I grew up in Mumbai, India which experiences a minimum temperature of roughly 70-degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s in a lucky winter. And while I absolutely love the heat, it kind of does away with the traditional winter holiday. To also help matters, the last time I properly celebrated Christmas was at age 10, as an ardent believer in the magical existence of Santa Claus. This winter in Europe brought back much of that charm and wonder.
With massive Christmas trees, lights adorning cobbled streets, reimagined nativity scenes, and interactive light shows, the charm of Christmas markets is undeniable. Officially setting up in the second week of November, these markets share similarities – desserts, candy, artisanal crafts, jewelry, handmade wares, and, my personal favorite, warm festive drinks.
I'm not a fan of freezing temperatures, but there's nothing like a warm cup of hot chocolate or spiced mulled red wine to make it all feel better. While the offerings are endless, I’ll always go for the classics—hot chocolate and deliciously spiced mulled red wine- the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg boiling wafting from huge steaming pots very reminiscent of a magical potion. It is only about a million times better than eggnog. There are undoubtedly a wide variety of lists, settling on Austria, Germany, Prague, and Belgium to be ranked the best. And while I didn’t manage to get to the most famous ones, I'll share my thoughts on the ones I visited.
There are three main markets, with a smattering of smaller ones scattered across the city—Plaza de España, Sol, Colon, and Torreleon. While being the central square, the market close to sol is a tad bit lack luster, with only nativity figurines and children’s toys. But the one at Plaza de España is magical if only for the classic wooden houses, wonderful décor, and of course an ice skating rink! Okay, I was mostly sold with just the ice skating rink. And while I watched this being constructed for the entirety of November, I only managed to visit the last week of my stay in Madrid. After a rather rough midterms and finals week, I celebrated with a visit on a last outing with my friends from my residence hall. You can book your 30-minute slots online and rent skates once you get there. The rink is fairly big, and actually was completely packed when we went. While it was my just my second time skating, the ice skates had very little grip, and of course loud Christmas jingles played on, it was quite a wonderful time. In terms of actual trinkets, there weren’t many tempting ones, but it did house a wonderful tea pop up. I think it was some of the best Oolong and gooey, chewy mochi I’ve ever had. Another quirky hijink (And this one really did take me by surprise) is the animatronics show at El Corte Ingles (probably one of the biggest departmental stores and store chains across Spain). There’s hordes of people (mostly families) gathered every evening, to watch the little robotic puppets on the roof come to life and sing Spanish Christmas tunes, with onlookers joining in. The robots are vintage in their design, kind of illustrations, less computer 3-D animation. It’s only a tad bit disturbing to watch.
The market at the Tuileries garden, being the biggest in the city, is a winter wonderland. It's a food heaven with a dedicated sector for desserts, and the market offers a variety of rides. The trinkets are cute, and the market is conveniently located next to the Louvre.
Brussels in my head, is already a pretty magical place. From the time I visited when I was twelve, I was in love with the little city, most especially because the ancient quarter and old town very nearly resemble a holiday village, with waffles and chocolate shops down every alley . The lights show at Grand Place every half hour is particularly spectacular, creating a Disneyesque atmosphere. The stunning gothic architecture, towering Christmas tree, and whimsical buildings contribute to the magical experience.
Lisbon was quite surprising considering I didn’t originally anticipate visiting the Christmas markets. But our Airbnb happened to be right next to one, and so we had to go. While the market itself was fairly standard, and nothing too extraordinary. The city did have some of the best decorations.
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My name is Eeshta Bhatt and I'm originally from Mumbai, India. An avid reader, writer, and dancer; you are most likely to find me sipping coffee with a fantasy fiction novel, watching a murder mystery or charting out new runnining trails.