I’ve been saving up this post because I thought, for sure, we’d visit dozens of markets and I wanted to review them all. The universe, Covid, and some European governments had other plans. Instead of dozens, we made it to four: Aachen (Germany), Brugges (Belgium), Maastricht (Netherlands), and funny enough, Valencia (Spain) where we stumbled upon one on accident. While they are all different, there are some staples that make a Christmas market a Christmas market: gluhwein and hot chocolate, chocolates and cheeses for sale, usually some sausages, small gift vendors, and usually some festive lights. They are generally open air, though some have a bit more structure like roofs over the small vendor booths, or even large clear “bubbles” for a bar area. Some are in a small, specific area (Valencia’s was the smallest we saw) and some take up various places all over the city, like Brugge.
Christmas Markets open at various times. Some start in late November, some in December. Some close just before Christmas and some stay open until the New Year.
In Aachen, a 30 minute drive from Maastricht, we went on a “school night,” in an effort to go with less crowds. The Aachen market opens around mid November and lasts (usually) until the 23rd or so of December. This was our very first experience, and while it was calmer than most at that time, it was fun to feel like we had the place nearly to ourselves. Here, Josh and I tried our first gluhweins – we tried both white and red versions. We let the boys have cotton candy. Caleb also bought his Secret Sinterklaas gift here (a small cat carved out of snowflake obsidian) for his classmate. We bought some traditional candies and also some Aachener Dom liqueur. This market was a little quieter than some we later visited but was really picturesque and felt perfect for finding some Christmas spirit. For me it is the most traditional feeling market.
Maastricht’s market opens December 1st and goes, usually until the 31st. We were so excited to check out our local Christmas market and thank goodness we went the day we did. We had plans to go again during our Christmas break, but by then the city was shut down. We checked out this market right after school one day with Melissa and had just over 1.5 hrs to see it before the 5pm city-wide closure took effect. The boys were mesmerized by the large ferris wheel so, of course we had to take them on that. There’s also an ice skating rink, which we didn’t get the chance to try out. We did get to try some treats like waffles, a fresh off the griddle stroopwaffle, and, yes, gluhwein.
For the Brugges Christmas Markt we rented a car and drove a couple of hours to Belgium. It is open from late November until the 9th of January, which is quite late! Originally the weekend we visited this one, we were supposed to go to Trier, Germany with Melissa and Flo and stay with his family, but the uptick in Covid cases, especially among the Dutch, and the ever changing requirements for going out in Germany caused us to change plans. Josh, always ready to find a plan B, picked Brugges and we piled in a rented car for a day trip to Belgium. Whereas Aachen and Maastricht were specific to one area of the city, the Brugges market seemed to envelope a large part of the city, with two main “kerstmarkts” in two main areas of the city, and included a self guided light show “tour”. Brugges was the busiest of all the markets we attended. Covid vaccine passes and masks were required, but that did not seem to stop the vibe. There was a lot of music, so many lights, an ice skating rink, and soooo many vendor booths of almost anything you could think of. We had a good early dinner there and everyone was happy with their food (hot dogs, bratwursts, and chicken pita). It was also pretty chilly so we let the boys enjoy some hot chocolate drinks and, of course, Josh and I sampled some gluhwein. Luckily, we got there fairly early (I think most people come out when it is really dark so the lights are cooler), and I’d say it got a little too crowded for us in some parts. By this time, the boys did not have so much desire to keep walking around the city so we slowly started making our way to the car.
Our last market, which we didn’t even mean to visit, was Valencia, Spain. We stumbled upon this in the huge plaza of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias . We got there right as it opened, so Mikella and I took a look around. There was quite a bit of jewelry, cheeses, meats, and small gifts. It was the smallest of all the ones we visited; Mikella said that normally it is bigger, but there was a Papa Noel there to take photos with people. AND, they had gluhwein! (Are you sensing a trend?)
As a recap, for us Aachen had the best gluhwein and classiest scenery. Maastricht had the best views of the beautiful city holiday lights from the ferris wheel and the best company with Melissa. Brugges wins for best holiday vibe and city lights. Valencia wins for most random and unexpected location.