The first time I visited a Christmas Market in Europe, it wasn’t the lights, the decorations, or even the food that caught my attention; it was the people. As I observed the socializing, eating, and drinking, there was a casualness to what I was witnessing that was unfamiliar to my holiday experiences back home in America.

A few days before the Christmas holiday, there seemed to be no stress about shopping, wrapping gifts, or preparing perfect meals. Bundled up, but not bothered by the crisp winter air, with a warm drink in hand, every person I encountered seemed full of holiday spirit and happy to spend the evening enjoying the company of others. I thought to myself, this is Christmas.

Christmas Markets are a traditional part of the European holiday culture with some cities dating back to the mid 16th century. While Germany is probably the most well-known for these holiday events, all it took was one visit to the markets in Vienna, Austria to make these markets my favorite.

There are as many as twelve markets around the city, a number that varies from year-to-year. Large markets have upwards of 150 booths and stay open mid-November through December. Others are open only a few days right around the holiday. The markets are filled with authentic gifts, traditional foods, and warm winter drinks, yet each one has a unique flare whether due to its location or the vendors and their holiday offerings.

I’ve been to Vienna during the summer several times when farmers markets and outdoor beer gardens are hard to pass up, but a visit during December had been high on my list for years. So my husband and I grabbed our cold-weather gear and headed off to Vienna for four days, which allowed us to see six of the markets open during the third week of December.

To say that planning a strategy for market visits is overwhelming to visitors is an understatement. Guides in English are easily found online, but navigating the opening and closing dates can quickly turn fun travel research into a headache. Despite our checklists and spreadsheets, we learned that the best approach is to simply pick a few markets you know you want to visit, grab your coat and an appetite, and be prepared to wander. It’s something that is easy to do in Vienna with the city’s public transportation system and pedestrian-friendly attitude.

I tend to travel for food culture, so experiencing traditional foods such as piping hot spätzle (small dumplings), lebkuchen (gingerbread), and maroni (roasted chestnuts) were priorities. Snacking on these classics while surrounded by happy people, twinkling lights, and a crisp air that sent steam drifting from my warm bowl of dumplings, filled me with a festive spirit unlike any other experience.

The warm mulled wine, called glühwein, is a familiar holiday beverage. Many cultures have their own version and it’s a favorite at Christmas Markets around the world. What sets Vienna apart is the punsch (punch). It’s a warm spiked drink, most often containing rum. I counted more than 30 varieties on the menus of the markets we visited. Apple, orange, amaretto, ginger, cherry, chocolate, and vanilla barely scratch the surface. There was also plenty of Kinder Punsch (a non-alcoholic version) for the kids.

At the markets, purchasing a warm drink requires a small deposit for the mug. Each market has a unique mug with an artistic recreation of the space, the name, and location. If you return the mug, you’ll receive a refund for your deposit. Visitors, and mug enthusiasts like me, have the option of forgoing that deposit and taking the mug home as a souvenir.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite market in a city with so many holiday offerings, but there are three markets that stood out to me. At these markets I found the spectacular views, foods, and artisan crafts that made the most memorable impact as a traveler new to celebrating the holidays in Europe.

Vienna Christmas Market at the Rathausplatz

Vienna’s Rathaus (city hall) is an impressive Neo-Gothic structure that towers over an inviting park. It is a sight to see any time of year, but when set behind glowing holiday lights, it is breathtaking. Visit during the day, but be sure to return at night. This is where I found most of my favorite classic foods including that käsespätzl (dumplings with cheese), pretzels, and apple strudel.

Christmas Village on Maria-Theresien-Platz

A short walk from the Rathaus, the market at Maria Theresa Square is one we stumbled upon by accident. Once there, it is difficult to miss as it was the most crowded of the markets we visited. That aside, it deserves a stroll at dusk when the dark wooden booths light up with twinkling stars against the backdrop of historic art museums. This is the market where I felt the strongest presence of artisan crafts from ceramics to dried citrus and spices arranged into festive holiday decorations. You will also find some more indulgent beverages from punch with chocolate and whipped cream to other versions with apple and whiskey.

Cultural and Christmas Market & New Year’s Market at Schönbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn Palace sits among a dramatic landscape of fountains, sculptures, and stunning gardens. Named a UNESCO World Cultural Site in 1996, it served as an imperial summer home for royalty. I didn’t believe that a visit in the winter could hold a candle to the vibrant colors seen here in the summer, but the warmth and comfort of the market booths scattered around the front entrance proved me wrong.

Here, I discovered some of the most beautiful, intricately decorated gingerbread of any market I’ve visited. With the false expectation that a flawless lace pattern of icing over a cookie must be done by a machine, I quickly learned that this form of art is all handmade.

Vienna’s Christmas Markets are rooted in the past with no signs of going anywhere in the future. Lucky us, because when I am in need of a true dose of Christmas spirit, it is comforting to know that they are there waiting for me and for anyone who wants to celebrate the beauty and camaraderie of the season.

You can learn more about the Christmas Markets and schedules each year by visiting:  www.wien.info/en.