Written by Elizabeth A. Haas
This past Saturday evening, the mayor of Prague lit the Christmas tree in Old Town, officially commencing the holiday season. We didn´t actually see the tree get its blaze on—we were too busy being helplessly trapped inside a throng of annoyed people on one of those tiny side streets off the square (I refer to them as the clogged arteries of Prague). We tried various points of entry, but none of them worked, and attempts to elbow our way closer to the spectacle were met with screams of “For Chrissake, haven´t you ever seen a Christmas tree before?” My winter coat was twice ashed on, my foot smashed with a stiletto, and I thought my boyfriend was going to drop-kick a Russian tourist (if indeed there had been enough space to accommodate dropping or kicking). Welcome to Christmas in Prague! But I was determined to marvel at the lights, nibble on roasted chestnuts, and browse the market stalls, many of which were opening that very day. After a good 45 minutes spent maneuvering my way into the square, and braving nearly 12,000 people, that´s exactly what I did.
Perhaps that makes me a major fruitcake, but I really enjoy this time of the year in my adopted city. Christmas just wouldn´t be Christmas in Prague without the 80-some holiday markets (Vánoční trh) that set up shop all over town beginning in early December. Most markets are open daily from 09:00-19:00, with longer hours on the weekends. These markets don´t offer anything that you can´t find year-round in Prague, and you´re likely to see the same goods throughout—wooden toys, scarves and hats, ornaments, and the like. But a few of the vendors hawk original wares, (everything from sculptures made from tools to jewelry to super-fuzzy slippers) brought in from far-flung regions of the Czech lands. There aren´t many substantial gifts to be found, but certainly Prague´s markets are the perfect place to stock up on stocking stuffers. These are some of the most popular markets in Prague and a few off-the-beaten-path gems. Don´t be afraid to bargain—and do enjoy this most wonderful time of the year!
Biggest and brightest: The Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square markets are the most frequented ones in town. Shoppers milling around the ancient architecture of Old Town Square will find plenty to eat (sausages and sweets) and drink (honeyed mead, hot rum and wine), a live petting zoo/nativity scene, entertainment (concerts and short plays), a small shelter devoted to children´s activities, and of course, the glorious tree. The Wenceslas Square market—it´s located in the lower part of the square—offers more of the same in less-traditional surrounds with stores like H&M and Marks&Spencer lighting the way for holiday shoppers. The focal point of this market is usually a big, gaudy, artificial tree with blue lights, but this year someone has chosen to go with a more traditional, subdued one. Too bad! Best buy: I bought a wooden sword and shield for my nephew at the Wenceslas Square market for 200 CZK.
Smaller, but central: Havel Market (Havelské tržiště) is one of Prague´s oldest marketplaces, established in 1232. Here you´ll find everything from Christmas baubles, jewelry, and handbags to classic Czech spa wafers and produce. It´s located between Old Town and Wenceslas Square. The market at Náměstí Republiky is near the Kotva department store (there is usually a stall selling kid´s books in English here); there´s another one on nearby Celnice Street with a nice selection of candles, ceramics, and traditional Czech wares. Best buy: Find children´s books in English at the market´s near Kotva; pretty scarves at Havel Market for less than 90 CZK; the best selection of spa wafers.
Away from the fanfare: We like the Christmas market on Náměstí Míru in quiet Prague 2. Here in front of the magnificent neo-Gothic Church of St.Ludmila, you´ll experience a festive mood that´s similar to that of the Old Town market, without the merry masses. Locals shop here for tin soldiers, books, gingerbread, and other yuletide goodies. The market at Betlémské náměstí is tiny, but classical music trilling from the sound system, cheap mead, and wooden tables and benches encourage lingering. You´ll find nary a tourist here! Cross the Charles Bridge to Malostranské náměstí where you´ll discover vendors hawking the standard merch, but some of the stalls here are organized by non-profit organizations. The market at nearby Kampa Park serves up hot chestnuts and mead and artsy-crafty gifts at decent prices. Best buy: Lavea bath-and-body products at Náměstí Míru: handmade, prettily packaged lotions and soaps laced with herbs, flowers, and fruit.
Worth the trip The mega-market at Holešovice Exhibition Grounds (Výstaviště Holešovice) in Prague 7 is divided by shopping theme: classical Christmas, gifts and decorations, Christmas beer markets, pottery and craftsmanship.Take Metro Line C to Nádraží Holešovice and tram 5, 12, 14, 15, or 17. Best buy: Considered by many to be the grandaddy of all markets, you can´t go wrong with a trip to Holešovice. The Christmas beer market is a good bet, but be forewarned that it doesn´t usually open until later in the month. You can also expect food tastings, an enormous gingerbread castle, and quality products from smiths, carpenters, and potters.