Experiencing Europe at Christmas
Charley and I just returned from a month in Europe, arriving home late on Christmas Eve. For our first 15 days in Europe we researched and planned our new “European Christmas Experience” tour. We spent five nights each in Salzburg, Austria; Munich, Germany; and Colmar in Alsace, France. These will be the bases for the new 12-night tour we’ll offer in 2017.
For the last part of our trip, we stayed in our little second home in the village of Bonnieux in the Luberon region of Provence. We really enjoy the holiday season in Provence and the celebrations with our friends there. I’ve posted before about some Christmas traditions in Provence, so in this post I’ll focus on what travelers can expect in Salzburg, Munich and Alsace at this time of year and a preview of our 2017 tour.
We’ve been in Europe ten times in the month of December… we love it! This time of year in Europe is incredibly special, drawing on strong regional traditions. Creative decorations and colorful lights enhance the charm of medieval buildings. There’s a fairy-tale magic, evoking the Christmas of your dreams.
Christmas markets are a centuries-old tradition and are found across Europe in cities, towns, and villages. Some markets last more than a month and some just a weekend. Special events and entertainment are also offered. The markets draw locals, visitors from the region, and international tourists.
What can you expect at a European Christmas market? The major Christmas markets are typically outdoors and feature booths or chalets selling a wide variety of merchandise including holiday ornaments and decorations, nativity scenes, toys, gifts, handicrafts, takeaway food, and of course hot mulled wine (“glühwein” in German or “vin chaud” in French). There may be music and other entertainment, and games and special activities for children. Some markets feature only products made by local artisans. And there are even “theme” markets, such as medieval markets.
We decided to focus our Christmas trip on three areas we know well, in three different countries and in three different kinds of home bases: in a large city (Munich), a small city (Salzburg), and a large town (Colmar). Each area offers a different environment and holiday experience.
Our family spent two Christmases in Salzburg (in 1999 and 2003), and Charley and I have also hosted two Salzkammergut Experience weeks in the nearby countryside. We were excited to make another winter trip to this beautiful city, nestled on either side of the Salzach River and surrounded by mountains. The baroque architecture, the impressive Hohensalzburg fortress on its hilltop, the many church towers, and the winding streets and narrow passageways add to the magical atmosphere.
Salzburg is idyllic at any time of year, but especially at Christmas. There are six Christkindlmarkts in the city, the largest spilling over two big squares around the Dom (cathedral). There is even a Christmas museum that explains the Christmas traditions and exhibits a big collection of historic Christmas items.
Salzburg has a strong musical heritage… after all, it’s the city of Mozart. We enjoyed two classical concerts during our stay, an experience we always pursue when we’re here.
I was born in Munich, and though I don’t have any memories of the city from my earliest days, this was my eighth trip back to this wonderful city. Munich’s tradition of Christmas markets has developed over hundreds of years. This year the city hosted seven different markets; we went to four, including the medieval market on the Wittlesbacherplatz. The most important Christmas market fills the Marienplatz, the big square in front of the city hall, and extends several blocks down the pedestrian street. The centerpiece is the 85-foot high Christmas tree, decorated with 3,000 lights. There are hundreds of colorful stands. (The glühwein stands were especially popular!)
We also enjoyed spending time at the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s open-air food market, near the Marienplatz. It’s kind of a combination farmer’s market and gourmet food market with over 140 stands and shops. There’s even an Eataly nearby now. This isn’t an official Christmas market, but the many florist stands were all selling Christmas greenery, so there was definitely a festive atmosphere!
One day we took a train to the Bavarian Alps and visited the picturesque village of Mittenwald and the busier town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. We’ve stayed several times in this area and really enjoyed our day back in the Alps. We especially like the elaborately-painted houses, a technique called “luftlmalerei.”
The Alsace Experience is our newest Experience week, and we’ve spent almost seven weeks there over past 18 months. For our Christmas trip we decided to stay right in Colmar, a town of 68,000 people and the capital of the Alsatian wine region. We loved being in Colmar at this time of year!
There are five Christmas markets in various parts of the medieval town, and storefronts and houses are beautifully decorated and illuminated after dark. The Petite Venise area on the canals of the river Lauch is especially magical.
Strasbourg is an easy 33 minute train trip from Colmar, and we spent a day there to enjoy its famous Christmas markets. There are eleven Christmas markets on Strasbourg’s Grande Île (the historic center), and we managed to visit all of them! I loved the elaborate decorations on so many of the stores and restaurants, usually on the 1st and 2nd floors. After dark, the lights in Strasbourg are incredible!
We also spent a day in the Alsatian countryside to visit local friends and the small villages we love so much. With its blend of French and German culture, Alsace may offer the quintessential Christmas experience… the architecture, decor, colors, and cuisine create a perfect setting for the holiday celebrations.
Plans for our 2017 Christmas Tour
Our European Christmas Experience trip will include much more than just markets and holiday traditions. We’ll also experience the richness of the culture, history, and cuisine in each of these unique areas.
We’ll explore each area with the help of outstanding local guides, visit world-class museums (with options based on personal interests), and of course enjoy the best of local cuisine. In Salzburg we’ll enjoy a Mozart dinner concert in a historic venue. In Munich we’re planning a cooking class. In Colmar, we’ll visit a family-owned winery for a wine tasting. Our stay in Colmar will also include a day in Strasbourg, which offers perhaps the most famous Christmas markets in Europe. In each area we’ll also take a day trip to the countryside to enjoy the smaller villages. And as on all of our trips, there will be a few surprises along the way!
The details of our 2017 European Christmas Experience tour will be announced in a few weeks, including the dates, itinerary, accommodations, and prices… more photos too! We’ll offer two 12-day tours in 2017. We’re thrilled to be returning for the holiday season next year and to offer travelers this very special experience involving three of our favorite areas of Europe. If you’re not already on our mailing list, be sure to sign up here to receive the announcement. We’d love to have you join us.
Best wishes for this holiday season and for the new year! Here’s to health, happiness, and memorable travel experiences in 2017!
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy has personally hosted over 130 Experience groups. She hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, the Cotswolds, and Normandy. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host The Cornwall Experience and our Christmas trips with Kathy every year.
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30+ years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait…..:)