As the remnants of Christmas are starting to fade away — Christmas lights returned to boxes in attics, spruce trees slumped sadly on front stoops, wrapping paper in the clearance aisle — I figured it’s as good a time as any to share my regaling tale of visiting 3 Christmas markets in 3 days. For those who don’t live in a cute European town, a Christmas market is an annual outdoor excursion typically open from late November/early December until Christmas day. Christmas markets vary in shape and size, but they tend to have several commonalities: rows of wooden stalls (chalets) in an open public square, rosy-cheeked vendors, artisanal gifts, and delicious seasonal food and drink. My first stop was the Marché de Noël in my college town, Reims, France. This was followed by a two-day solo trip to Freiburg, Germany and Strasbourg, France. What follows is my review of these three markets and the towns where they’re situated. I’m hoping to keep the Christmas spirit alive just a little bit longer, even though its already mid-January. Or maybe I’m just getting an 11-month head start on the Christmas season this year.
When the Reims Christmas market first opened last year, I was mesmerized by the lights and the energy of the season. If I were to describe Reims to someone who had never visited, “quiet” would definitely be near the top of my list of adjectives. I’ve grown to love my mid-sized French town, but party people we are not. Therefore, I was shocked when I walked by our Cathedral and saw a massive line of people waiting to enter the large square in front. The 2017 market was even grander than that of the year prior, with the addition of a ferris wheel on Place d’Erlon (the main street of “downtown” Reims). During December, I made at least five stops to the market, and every time I was equally amazed. The best time to go is between 12pm and 4pm to avoid long lines, and to maximize your experience I’d recommend sharing some churros and a glass of vin chaud (hot wine) with your friends.
My experience in Freiburg was slightly tainted, as I had a 5,000 word essay due the night I stayed there, and I wrote basically the entire thing in a span of 24 hours. That being said, between stops on my tour of every Starbucks Freiburg had to offer, I took several hour-long breaks to explore the city. What I discovered was a very walkable, photographable town that would appeal to a wide array of visitors. I saw historic insignias set in cobblestone laid in front of designer clothing stores, but somehow these two images didn’t clash. Ironically, on the day I visited “the sunniest town in Germany” had nonstop rain, but I felt that the overcast skies just added to the town’s sense of hominess. The Christmas market itself was of comparable size to that of Reims, just with more handmade crafts and hotdogs.
Heading into Strasbourg during the Christmas season, I had high expectations, as they dub themselves “The capital of Christmas,” with an office of tourism to prove it. Unlike in Reims and Freiburg, there isn’t one centralized Christmas market in Strasbourg, but a series of Christmas markets. They are all situated on an island, the Grand Île, and everyone must go through security on one of several bridges before crossing over to the island. There are signs to guide you to the various markets, but I rather enjoyed wandering along and happening upon a market around seemingly every corner. My favorite market was situated in a section called “La Petite France,” depicted in the center picture above. Even more than the markets, I fell in love with the architecture, the geometric wooden designs on the face of every building amping up the cuteness factor of the town tenfold. A must-try in this Alsatian town is flammekueche (or tarte flambée), the regional version of a thin-crust pizza. I ordered one nature (with bacon, onions, and cream), but they come with all sorts of toppings. Pure deliciousness.
In conclusion, I’d say that if you’re looking to get the most expansive Christmas market experience, with the street music, the mulled wine, the homemade ornaments, etc, it’s probably best to head to the Capital of Christmas itself, Strasbourg. That said, I still found Reims and Freiburg to be more representative of the average European Christmas market, a seasonal affair with local flair. There are so many more markets that I didn’t get to see, but I’m sure I’ll come back to Europe for more Christmas spirit at some point in the future. If you have a favorite Christmas market or town holiday tradition, please share in the comments below!