If you happen to think that the North Pole is the most festive destination on earth come Christmas time, you might need to reconsider your position. To find yourself in the heart of Christmas cheer, you really need to head a little further south—down to Germany to the wondrous Christmas wonderland known as Dresden.
Dresden is an ancient city with a rich and conflicted history. Controversially levelled in the closing days of the Second World War, it has been spectacularly revived in recent decades after years of post war decay and neglect under Communist rule. Its original icons, the Katholische Hofkirche, Dresdener Frauenkirche and Semper Oper have been restored to their original Renaissance and Baroque splendour, and the grimness that swept through it decades ago has transformed too, expressed most potently each December with an abundance of joyfulness and festive cheer. A major tourist point all year round, it really is throughout the German Christmas season—Weinachten—that Dresden shines its brightest, becoming one immensely enchanting Christmas wonderland.
Christmas markets line the markeplatzes, with the smell of roasted chestnuts hot gluhwein and sounds of Christmas carols filtering through the streets. At the centre of it all, lays one of the Germany’s (and Europe’s) most celebrated Christmas traditions—and time tested institution, the ‘Striezelmarkt’.
Striezelmarkt at Altmarkt Square: the main event
While Dresden is rife with Christmas markets throughout December, it is the Striezelmarkt that takes the cake—literally. ‘Striezel’ refers to the Christmas fruitcake once sold at the market stalls centuries ago, still sold today as the popular local delicacy, ‘stollen’, or ‘Christollen’. Today, amongst the market’s many festivities is the procession of a four tonne stollen cake, wheeled through town into Altmarkt square where it is dutifully cut up and distributed to the festive masses. They’ve had some time to get the method right too—with the first recorded event dating back to 1434, this year marks the 580th annual Striezelmarkt, making it by far the oldest Christmas market in recorded history!
As well as the ‘big stollen’, a monumental 14-metre Christmas pyramid can be found in the centre of the action, and all month long, it really is a righteously festive scene. Stalls and booths offer glorious hot mugs of aromatic gluhwein from steaming vats, with delicious roasted meats, cheeses and sausages—truly a gourmand’s dream! Ferris wheels and rides are a kids favourite (adults too, after a few gluhweins) and at night, under a light fall of snow, the market kicks into full gear, fantastically lit with Christmas lights, carollers singing and young and old being entertained with nativity plays and live performances from Santa (der Weinachstmann). After a single day at the Striezelmarkt, you’ll be convinced that Dresden is the sort of place where every Christmas fantasy can and probably will come true.
It might be the most famous, oldest and most frequented market in town, but it’s certainly not alone—if you happen to be spending a little extra time in Dresden, the Striezelmarkt is one amongst many fine festive alternatives:
The Prager Straße Market
At the southern entry to the city, centred along Dresden’s most well known shopping strip, the Prager Straße ‘Winterlights of Dresden’ market offers a slightly less congested market setting than the Striezelmarkt, with ample stalls and merriment, gluhwein and delicious food options, and the showpiece at the center of it: a 15 metre high, majestically lit Christmas tree.
The Frauenkirche Market
For a more traditional take on the busy festive Christmas market, the Frauenkirche Market offers Christmas pundits a range of art and crafts, including glassware and pottery, lace from the Vogtland region, as well as an eight-meter-tall pyramid replete with handmade wooden figurines.
Royal Palace Market
Not free to the public, this market is a truly exclusive affair. For a 3 Euro entry fee, guests can explore this delightfully ‘renaissance’ market setup—a very traditional atmosphere with jugglers and jesters, craftspeople offering their wares and some unique gastronomic delicacies that you’ll only find here behind the walls of the Dresden Royal Palace. Offering giant wooden washtubs for people to enjoy a hot bath in the freezing cold, this is possibly the most exceptional, and memorable Christmas market experience in the whole city.
The Augustus Market
Holding the title of Dresden’s second largest Christmas market, decadent and delightful stalls can be found the whole way down Hauptstraße from the Golden Rider statue to the Jorge Gomondai Square. Offering a more multi-cultural experience, with foods and delicacies as wide-reaching as Mexican Empanadas, Danish Glögg, Swedish Julskinha and Finnish Piparkakut—not to mention a white-golden illuminated pagoda, hot fires and seating tents (and the requisite gluhwein stands!) the Augustus Market is a more relaxed, charming alternative to the busy Striezelmarket.
With new and revamped markets and festive points of interest popping up each year, there’s so much to witness in this fabulous city throughout December, Romantic, engaging and aesthetically stunning, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more magical setting to spend your festive nights this Christmastime than delightful Dresden.
Written by and photos by Cam Hassard for EuropeUpClose.com