Regional delicacies, handcrafted goods and lashings of tradition combine for Christmas cheer in Switzerland. By Tatyana Leonov.
As delicate snowflakes float down from the sky, a group of twinkly-eyed children look up. A young boy wearing a puffy jacket takes off his gloves and tries to catch the flakes, his fingers failing to grasp the tiny specks of snow. He laughs as his friends, all decked out in warm coats, hats and gloves, join in the attempt too.
A few metres away, their parents stand by a traditional wooden-roofed market stall, sipping on glühwein (mulled wine). Some watch the children and laugh; others are deep in conversation while a few women stroll away from the group to peruse the wares on offer in the sprawling market. The sweet aroma of glühwein and roasting chestnuts drifts through the cold night air, and in the distance, a children’s choir singing Christmas hymns can be heard.
Christmas in Switzerland is truly magical – and the Christmas markets are where the fairy tale starts. Peppered all over the country, there are plenty of markets to discover, from the very big to the very small. They all share the same basic premise – Christmas-themed paraphernalia for sale, delicious local food to devour, speciality refreshments like bratwurst and glühwein to sample, and plenty of events to keep kids and adults entertained.
Historically, the markets date back to the Middle Ages and are held throughout Advent, with most opening in late November and staying open until Christmas Eve (some stay open a few days after Christmas). The month leading up to Christmas isn’t just about markets though; they’re about celebrating the festivities in assorted ways. Visitors will find plenty of Christmas-themed displays, imitation St Nicholas strolling through snow-dusted streets, picturesque ice rinks, street parades, pop-up cheese fondue huts and more. This special period is a time when residents and travellers alike can indulge in an enchanted European winter.
Of course, Christmas markets offer the ultimate winter fantasy; the principal ones are found in Basel, Bern, Lucerne and Zürich.
Located at the frontier between France and Germany, and tapping directly into the Rhine, Basel is one of Switzerland’s most beautiful cities. The architecture is reminiscent of a fairy tale on any day – add the atmosphere that comes with a Christmas market and snowfall (the city is usually snow-clad by early December) and it’s a truly mesmerising location.
There are two main markets in Basel – at Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz – that are considered the prettiest by many. The historic Barfüsserplatz is home to Christmas Street, where 100 brightly illuminated pine trees flank more than 140 vendors.
The Christmas market on Münsterplatz is famous for many reasons: It’s located in Basel’s most famous square against the backdrop of the prized cathedral. It’s also home to a brilliantly bedecked Christmas tree, which Johann Wanner, the world’s biggest producer The market by the Singing Christmas Tree in Zürich has a unique and fun to watch singing children Christmas tree Hundreds of fairy lights adorn the streets of Zürich’s old town during the festive period of handmade Christmas ornaments, decorates each year.
In 2013, Lonely Planet listed Bern as one of the top 10 European destinations to visit, and come wintertime the city feels even somehow more enchanted, with charming cobbled streets and historic limestone buildings. Fittingly, the Christmas markets are set against the backdrop of the 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage old town.
The two biggest markets are quite different in what they offer. At the Münsterplatz market, the vendors Insider tip: sell arts and crafts paraphernalia, with the usual festive suspects as well as handcrafted gifts, hand-sewn quilts and cardigans, while the Waisenhausplatz market is prominently a food and drinks service. Two popular dishes to try are berner platte (pork ribs, beef tongue, smoked bacon and sausage simmered in broth and served over sauerkraut and beans) and berner rösti (shredded potatoes pan-fried with bacon, onions and butter).
The Lake Lucerne region in the heart of the Alps is particularly beautiful in winter. Lucerne is known as the City of Lights – and it amazes during Advent when it presents itself in an illumination of glittering Christmas sparkles.
The markets peppered throughout the picturesque city offer visitors the chance to immerse themselves in a winter fairy tale. A major market is located on Franziskanerplatz in front of the St. Maria Church. Here, around 70 vendors sell local delicacies, handmade goods, woolens, confectionery and a variety of tempting treats from their charming wooden huts. The centrepiece is a fountain adorned with a huge wreath surrounded by candles and lights. Sometimes choirs or bands play on the fountain steps, adding to the cheerful ambience.
Another market is found inside the main railway station hall with around 50 stalls to explore. And the traditional Christkindlimarkt on Mount Pilatus towers over the city at 2,132 metres above sea level, offering stunning vistas to take in between sipping hot chocolate and shopping for colourful bric-a-brac.
Switzerland’s most populated city is home to one of Europe’s biggest indoor Christmas markets, located at the main train station. The market houses over 160 wooden chalets with vendors selling everything from handcrafted wooden toys and beautiful decorations to vegetarian Indian food and knitted clothing. The highlight is the extravagant 15-metre-tall Christmas tree. Lavishly decorated with 5,000 Swarovski crystals, it’s continuously encircled by awed sightseers trying to capture the entire tree in one snap.
A tree of a different variety is located at the Christmas Market by the Singing Christmas Tree in Werdmühleplatz. This interestingly quirky tree has no shimmering crystals beautifying it – instead it comes with little singing children. The red-and-green-donned youngsters clamber into their spots inside the custom-built tree and sing carols in the evenings – a must-visit and one of Switzerland’s most unique Christmas experiences.
Other great Christmas markets to visit:
1) Framed by Lake Geneva and the Alps, the Christmas market of Montreux features 150 decorated and illuminated chalets with vendors peddling regional temptations.
2) Nestled in the mountains that cluster at the foot of Lake Zürich, Einsiedeln feels like a completely different destination. The picturesque town has over 130 stalls that line the main street and the abbey square, making it one of the largest markets in the country.
3) Bremgarten is a little town steeped in history. It’s a little off the beaten track, and consequently the markets here are mainly visited by Swiss nationals, which makes for an authentic Christmas market experience.