The aroma of mulled wine, gingersnaps, and roasting chestnuts draws shoppers to Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremburg, Germany. But you don’t have to hop the pond to savor that kind of Christmas market — you’ll find similar treats in Chicago and across the U.S.
Outdoor markets have become an annual tradition stateside, with handmade goods that make a refreshing alternative to the holiday big-box shopping craze. “A Christmas market is by nature more personal and social — a unique experience indeed,” notes Karlfried Bergner, minister of communications and culture at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.
At New York’s Union Square Holiday Market, a dedicated “Little Brooklyn” section highlights the borough’s finest, including DIY beer-making kits from Brooklyn Brew Shop, bow ties from Dap Kitsch, and Natural OliveWood’s bread bowls and cutting boards.
European markets date back to the Middle Ages around the observance of Lent. Children were presented with Holy Christkind, an angel clad in white who came bearing gifts as the patron of Christmas markets —and unlikely predecessor to modern-day Kris Kringle.
While Santa does make appearances at some of our favorite American Christmas markets, you’ll find a whole lot more to keep you jolly this shopping season.
Union Square Holiday Market, New York City
Roughly 1 million shoppers — New Yorkers and visitors alike — browse annually at this market, a Union Square staple since 1994. More than 150 vendors sell artisanal foods, holiday ornaments, handmade jewelry, and children’s toys under iconic red and white tents. urbanspacenyc.com
Downtown Holiday Market, Washington, D.C.
From ice cream made with liquid nitrogen to piping-hot donuts, this annual market goes beyond European food traditions, taking the kind of worldly approach you’d expect in D.C. Located on F Street in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, this festive market counts more than 150 artists and crafters selling handmade goods like pottery, paintings, photo prints, and textiles. downtownholidaymarket.com
What to Try: Spice up your Christmas outing with a savory Peruvian-style empanada from Alexa’s, and finish it off with hot cinnamon-dusted, cream-filled churros.
Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem, Pa.
Christened “Bethlehem” on Christmas Eve 1741, this tradition-steeped town holds one of the most authentic Christmas markets, featuring artisans and glassblowers making glass ornaments on site. Beyond sweet-smelling candied almonds, you’ll also find home-style kettle corn, stuffed pretzels, dipped fruits like caramel apples, and a slew of barbecue options. In addition to sitting on Santa’s knee for the quintessential photo op, kids can also share breakfast with St. Nick. artsquest.org/christkindlmarkt
What to Try: Blowing your own intricately decorated glass ornaments to hang on your Christmas tree.
Weißwurst, Frankfurter, Nürnberg, Thüringer, Landjäger, and currywurst: just a few sausages among the 70-plus types of food you can sample at this Christmas market. And they aren’t the only authentic German items for sale. Cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest region, lace from Plauen, glass ornaments from Lauschaer, and wood carvings from the Erzgebirge are examples cited by Maren Biester, vice president of German American Services, Inc., which has organized the market for roughly two decades. christkindlmarket.com
What to Buy: Christkindlmarket Chicago’s Annual Mug, which bears the current year and a special design, cup color, and shape.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, San Francisco
Journey back in time to Victorian London at this fair, where more than 120,000 square feet of space is converted into a miniature London Town with winding lanes, actors dressed in silk brocades, vests, and top hats, street vendors hawking roasted chestnuts, and lamplit shops selling pewter jewelry and Christmas ornaments. dickensfair.com
Selling Point: Inspired by A Christmas Carol and other notable works by the 19th-century English writer Charles Dickens, the fair immerses you in his books and stories brought to life through characters like Ebenezer Scrooge, theater plays, and other staged activities. Tickets provide access to all entertainment. Check out the fair’s stage schedule for showtimes.
Georgetown Christmas Market, Colo.
Donning sparkling lights and decorative greenery, historic Georgetown has been running its Christmas market for more than 50 years, with carolers in Victorian costumes, horse-drawn wagon rides, pre-Christmas appearances by St. Nicholas, and a Nordic-inspired Saint Lucia Children’s Procession. Alongside roasted chestnuts and mulled wine, you’ll find locally produced Colorado wine and Victorian antiques for sale. historicgeorgetown.org
Selling Pint: The Christmas Market Crawl held every Saturday during the market’s run. This festive take on a pub crawl will have you sampling traditional wassail, glühwein, local wines, and other hot drinks from various vendors.
Arlington Christkindl Market, Texas
The Christkindl spirit heads south to Arlington, Texas, where vendors sell Austrian and Polish pottery, handmade soaps, and winter clothes made from alpaca wool. The market’s puppet theater variety show features a magical toy shop where the toys come to life, acrobatic elves, a dancing snowman, and a teddy bear juggling candy canes. arlingtonchristkindl.com
Selling Point: Kid-focused activities like a Bavarian-themed petting zoo, vibrant lantern parades, a marionette stage theater, Santa’s Haus, and a free puppet-building workshop.
Christmas Village in Philadelphia
Transforming Philadelphia’s LOVE Park into a vibrant market with thousands of twinkling lights, the Christmas Village showcases 60-plus vendors selling seasonal gifts alongside edible classics like waffles and bratwurst — washed down with mulled wine, of course. “We really follow the authentic German approach,” says Thomas Bauer, the market’s director. “We partner with the City of Nuremberg and even bring the Nuremberg Christkind to our market.” philachristmas.com
What to Buy: A German pickle ornament for your Christmas tree. “This is a popular tradition all kids will love: the first kid to find the pickle on your tree gets an extra treat,” explains Bauer.
Denver Christkindl Market
Wooden Santas, amber jewelry, and lacquer boxes from Ukraine; German beer steins; silk scarves from Kyrgyzstan; and pottery from Poland are just a few handcrafted items you’ll find at Denver’s German-inspired Christkindl Market. denverchristkindlmarket.com
What to Try: Order a Wiener schnitzel from Austrian chef Walter Neuhold’s Styria food stall, grab a German beer, and head over to the miniature tented beer garden, where performers in lederhosen, dirndls, and Tyrolean hats with white feathers will keep you entertained.
Winter Village at Bryant Park, New York City
Located in midtown New York in the shadow of the Empire State Building, the Winter Village offers everything from winter apparel and jewelry to decorations and seasonal foods in more than 125 boutique shops dotting Bryant Park’s tree-lined paths. wintervillage.org
Selling Point: A central ice-skating rink offers free admission (though rental skates will cost you) and special skating shows, transforming the park into a winter wonderland.
More From Travel + Leisure:
- Best places to spend Christmas
- Best holiday cruise vacations
- Best travel gifts 2013
- World's strangest new year traditions