Emily, one of our Customized Tour Consultants, shares where to find the best souvenirs at the Christmas markets in Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
Knowing that I had signed up for a Christmas markets tour, I showed up to Budapest with an extra duffel bag tucked away in my suitcase. I anticipated filling it with gifts for loved ones and maybe the odd treat for myself. Little did I know, I would return with the bag stuffed with enough ornaments to decorate my first Christmas tree, and about twice as many gifts as my family was used to getting from me. Christmas was very good to them this year!
What were the best finds at the markets, you might ask?
This might sound a bit weird, since most of the ornaments we are accustomed to putting on our trees are of the plastic or glass variety, but I found many in Budapest whose principle ingredients were various spices like cinnamon or cloves. I picked up an angel that was holding dried cinnamon sticks, and a small wreath made up of various dried fruits, leaves, and spices.
Okay, this one didn’t make it back in my suitcase. One of best features of every Christmas market, and, trust me, I was sure to visit at least a dozen, was the mulled wine! It was the perfect way to warm up after a couple of hours of shopping.
Every market had a good number of food and beverage stalls mixed in, selling everything from bratwurst to glühwein (that’s mulled wine in German). When purchasing glühwein, you have the option of paying a little extra to keep the decorative mug in which it comes or returning it after for a refund of your deposit. The mugs are colorfully decorated, if a little kitschy, and make a great bonus gift!
Ornaments in Szentendre
Some of my favorite ornaments were picked up on a stop en route to Vienna from Budapest. I had spent nearly all of my forints, fully expecting to not spend much at yet another Hungarian Christmas market, especially on our way to Vienna, where the euro would be key. Was I wrong! This small artists’ village is packed with charm and plenty of shops, from small stands selling the most beautifully crafted balls to traditional hand-printed and dyed clothing, called kékfestö. There were also non-holiday options, in case you were getting tired of yet another Santa Claus.
You’ll have to take video if you plan on “gifting” this to loved ones back home, but one of the most delightful surprises at the Christmas markets for me was how they transformed at night. In Budapest, for example, there is an animated light show on the façade of St. Stephen’s Basilica, complete with a full nativity scene, snowscapes and towers of presents. In Vienna, the main market at Rathausplatz transforms into a twinkling wonderland at night, when trees strung with strands of Santa Claus, snowmen, and stars light up. I made a special point this trip to revisit places I had seen during the daytime to get a glimpse of them at night.
I remember the excitement that hit me when my parents would bring home the Advent calendar each December 1st growing up. Much to my amusement, Europe took it to the next level at the markets, with their Advent calendars varying from door-length cloth and felt hangings to intricate wooden contraptions into which parents could place a different sweet or trinket for each day. I had to fight the urge to bring some home for my niece and nephew, given that they had already been spoiled rotten with the different toys and books I had picked up along the way and their aunt only had so much room in her extra bag.
Now this list is by no means inclusive of everything you could find at the markets. Each city, each neighborhood, each stall had tons and tons of variety. I found myself buying multiple ornaments from a lot of the stands simply because I had not yet seen a hand-sewn nativity, that particular style of ornamental ball, that type of wooden this or metal that.
Aside from the shopping (and, boy, did I do plenty!) there was something simply magical about being in Europe around the holidays. Nearly every street was hung with lights, the smell of cinnamon followed me everywhere, and the Christmas decorations gave already impressive places like Schönbrunn Palace, the Hungarian Parliament and St. Vitus Cathedral that much more awe-inspiring. In Budapest, even the trolley cars where lit up!
I arrived home after nine days of pure Christmas joy with more holiday spirit than ever, and, as some of the ladies on my trip would agree, I couldn’t wait to sign up for my next set of markets!
Have you ever explored Europe’s Christmas markets? What souvenirs did you bring home?