Celebrate the season with friends, and perhaps get some shopping in at three area Christmas markets. Besides Prague; Vienna and Dresden offer nearby opportunities to experience some Christmas cheer, along with some fun holiday food. If you are in it for the shopping, go early; for the atmosphere, wait till the sun goes down, warm yourself with a hot drink and absorb the magical mood.
Prague´s markets are a fun place to go with friends, drink some mulled wine and enjoy the Christmas-y atmosphere. Indulging in copious amounts of food stand food is something you´ll only do this time of year. Trdlo, langoše, roasted nuts, klobása, perník and svařák – sometimes the smells just can´t be ignored. And if you are lucky, you´ll even find something to buy. Many of the stalls are given over to souvenirs, tablecloths and crystal, just like you find in nearly every shop in the city center, which can be a disappointment for those looking for something different or artisan. The two largest markets are located on Old Town Square and at the Můstek end of Wenceslas Square. Both will have stages set up for holiday entertainment like cultural programs and Christmas carolers. The Old Town market opens on November 27 with the official lightening of the Christmas tree at 6pm. Arrive early if you want to get a good viewing spot; this is an extremely popular event. TheWenceslas Square market opens November 29 and both run through January 2. Opening times: Monday-Friday: 9am-7pm and Saturday-Sunday: 9am-8pm. The food stands are usually open later.
Moving over to Náměstí Republiky, the Christmas market there is open from November 25-December 24. This is a smaller market, with many of the same offerings as the big two; however, they will supposedly offer new stalls to reflect the spirit of the season. Heading out to Náměstí Míru, you´ll get the second most picturesque market, along with a wider variety of vendors. Run by a different company than the Old Town ones, you´ll find items like all-natural soaps, handmade jewelry and other goods often sold by the creators. This is the earliest opening market; dates are November 20-December 24. Another reason to hit this market is that organizers reserve a couple stalls for non-profit organizations to sell items to raise funds.
Now in its second year, there´s a tiny market at Palackého Náměstí (November 27-December 24) and a larger one out at Jiřího z Poděbrad, which, like Náměstí Míru, offers a bit more originality. It runs November 23-December 24. And finally, for those who are used to heading out to their farmer´s market, Prague 10 will switch the stalls over to Christmas goods from December 7-23, daily from 10am-7pm at Kubánské náměstí.
Dresden is a lovely train trip and its Christmas market can easily be done in a day. Much larger than in Prague, it is unfortunately still a bit commercialized, however the amount of wooden items is quite impressive, and many of them really are works of art.
Called Striezelmarkt, it is Germany´s oldest market, dating back to 1434. It´s most famous for their Christmas cake called Christstollen. Located in the city center, you are in the shadow of the re-built Frauenkirche. The rows of booths are well-laid out and the aisles are wide, but peak times can see you craning your neck to see what´s on offer. The market´s most popular gifts are Christmas pyramids and candleholders made in the nearby Erzgebirge Mountains, textiles, lace products and blown glass tree decorations. For a true novelty, pick up a ‘Pflaumentoffel,´ a chimney sweep made of dried plums. Two other reasons to hit Dresden would be to check out the world´s largest Christmas pyramid as well as the world´s largest nutcracker. Contain yourself. The Dresden market runs from November 26-December 24 and is open Sunday-Thursday 10am-8pm and Friday and Saturday 10am-9pm. December 24 they close at 2pm. Two special events will be happening: on December 4 you can attend the Stollen Festival in which traditionally a massive stollen cake is paraded through the city to the market, and the Pyramid Festival on December 11.
Bus: By bus, it takes between 2-2 ½ hours to get to Dresden. Busses leave from Florenc and there are more than five a day. Tickets are around 700 CZK return
Train: Trains leave from the main train station and take about 3 ½ hours. There are about four direct trains, and a couple indirect daily. Tickets are about 1200 CZK return
Car: A car ride to Dresden will take less than 2 hours. Head out of Prague on D8/E55. Once you enter Germany, take the A17 and follow the signs for B170/Dresden. Information on where to park can be found here.
Another Dresden note: While the city seems to be under permanent construction (especially the center around the Frauenkirche), the work there has been finished, and much of the scaffolding is gone. You may also want to take advantage of other, indoor shopping opportunities while in Germany. Dresden´s main shopping areas are on Prager Strasse, Altmarkt and Wilsdruffer Strasse. If you arrive by train, there´s a big pedestrian area lined with shops as you head from the station towards the city center. This is Prager Strasse and its one of the most popular shopping areas in town. There´s also the Altmarkt Gallery, located on Altmarket Square while Wilsdruffer Strasse is a more traditional shopping street.
For the mother lode of all Christmas markets, head to Vienna. Spend at least a weekend – there are enough markets hereto probably keep you shopping for a week. First, let´s discuss the food. Some of it will be similar to what´s you´ve eaten in the Prague markets, but their mulled wine is definitely better. Lebkuchen (gingerbread), gebrannte Mandeln (toasted almonds), Waffeln (waffles), Maroni (sweet chestnuts), Bratkartoffel (baked potatoes), Bratwurst (fried sausages) plus Glühwein (mulled wine) and various kinds of Punsch (Swedish liqueur) will intrigue your taste buds.
What I believe to be the best market in Vienna is the one located at Schönbrunn Castle. Besides the magnificent setting, complete with beautiful Christmas tree, the stalls here are filled with authentic goods, often sold by the artists themselves. Lots of beautiful glass, jewelry and art makes this practically a gallery stroll. There´s about 60 stalls here along with a stage for holiday entertainment. The market is open November 20 – December 26, daily from 10am-9pm.
The biggest and probably the most popular Vienna market is located at Rathausplatz in front of the Town Hall. The setting is beautiful, and the trees surrounding the market proper are strung with Christmas lights. A ton of booths, but some do lean towards the tacky souvenir side; which I didn´t find very often in Vienna. Open November 13-December 24, daily from 10am-10pm, this is also a great market to visit with children. There´s a Christmas workshop set up in which little hands can get busy making Christmas gifts for mom and dad. Shopping-wise, you´ll find lots of blown glass and wooden ornaments.
For a historically picturesque market, head to Spittelberg. Winding through the narrow streets, sprinkled with cafes and shops, the market offers a superb atmosphere, which unfortunately can fill up quickly. The cultural and high-quality of the art and crafts on offer also set it apart from the more commercial markets. Its opening hours are shorter – November 16-December 23, daily from 2pm-9pm. If you are going to shop, get there early; if you are going for atmosphere, wait until after dark.
Located in one of the city´s most beautiful squares, the Freyung market offers exquisite craftwork, a cultural program, and organic items like meats and cheeses – non-Christmas times the area is home to a popular organic market. The market is open daily from 10am-9pm and runs November 19-December 23. Since Freyung is pretty small, combine it with a visit to its more artsy market neighbor located at Am Hof. This market focuses on contemporary artwork and handcrafted goods like candles, ceramics and pottery, knitwear, jewelry, metal objects and wood carvings. The market runs November 12-December 23, daily from 10am-9pm.
Another biggie is the market at Maria Theresien-Platz, located near major museums and right off the Ringstrasse. Its so-called Christmas Village offers a host of shopping and culinary delights and is open from November 17-December 23, daily from 11am-10pm.
In front of Karlskirche, there´s a traditional and interesting market which focuses on handicrafts made by local artists plus demonstrations of leather work, glassblowing, etc. The market is run by a local arts association and in order to sell there, the vendor must have made the goods themselves and be approved by a jury. It´s open from November 19-December 23, daily from noon-8pm. Heading over to Belvedere Castle; you´ll find the newest addition to Vienna´s Christmas market scene. Not located in the center, but a variety of handicrafts are available, in a lovely setting. Open from November 19-December 23, daily from 11am-9pm.
Bus: A direct bus to Vienna is rare, at least one change is usually required in Brno and the trip can take 5-6 hours. Busses normally leave from Florenc and a ticket costs about 700 CZK return.
Train: There are a couple direct trains a day, leaving from the main station and taking a little under five hours to reach Vienna. Tickets cost about 1500 CZK return.
Car: Driving will take a bit over four hours and you´ll take the D1/E50/E65 to Brno, and then once through Brno follow the signs for the D2E65 toward Bratislava then Route 55 to Vienna. Information on where to park can be found here.
This holiday season expand your Christmas cultural experiences, and your waistline, by discovering three of central Europe´s more interesting Christmas markets. Whether you choose to stick close to home, view a mammoth cake in Dresden or experience Austrian artisanship up close, use the holiday season as an excuse to explore some seasonal excitement.