Each holiday season, Americans see tempting pictures of Europe’s famous Christmas markets where stalls decorated with twinkling lights overflow with unique gift choices and delectable food. There’s debate about which market is the oldest, but Dresden, Germany’s Striezelmarkt claims its origin goes way back to 1434.
Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to Europe to enjoy this holiday experience: America has plenty of holiday markets that put unique spins on tradition, delivering terrific food and shopping along with plenty of fun.
1. Downtown Holiday Market, Washington, D.C., Nov. 22 - Dec. 23, 2019
The nation’s capital shines during the holidays, and the Downtown Holiday Market is a reminder that Washington, D.C., is a city of people and neighborhoods and not just the center of our nation’s government. The market focuses on local and regional crafts as well as items imported from around the globe, making it perfect for finding one-of-a-kind holiday gifts. Its cheerful, white-draped booths are set up in downtown Penn Quarter on the sidewalk in front of the building shared by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
The market will host more than 150 vendors, but many sellers don’t come every day. Vendors range from painters and photographers to jewelry makers and craftspeople that sell everything from ceramics to wooden items. Clothing and textiles are popular, and some vendors display international wares sourced from South America, Europe and Africa. Live music provides a backdrop for browsing, with different bands each day playing genres such as jazz, blues, folk rock and world music, along with holiday classics. Favorite market snacks include tasty doughnuts, empanadas and churros. Penn Quarter and nearby Chinatown offer restaurants for when you need a meal, or drop into one of the nearby museums (they’re free to enter) to warm up.
Plan your trip: Destination DC
Driving distances: 1 hour from Baltimore, Maryland and Fredericksburg, Virginia | 2.5 hours from Charlottesville, Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | 3.5 hours from Norfolk, Virginia | 4 hours from New York, New York
2. Christkindlmarket Chicago, Nov. 15 - Dec. 24, 2019
Photo ©Eric James Walsh and courtesy of Christkindlmarket Chicago
In the Loop’s Daley Plaza, known for its iconic Picasso sculpture, wooden booths with colorful red-and-white-striped roofs mark the arrival of Christkindlmarket Chicago. A seasonal favorite since 1996, this German-style outpost modeled on Nuremberg’s famous market is one of the biggest traditional Christmas markets beyond Europe. Locals and visitors alike appreciate the market’s traditional style and high-quality shopping. More than half of the vendors come from Germany, offering nutcrackers, beer steins, handcrafted holiday ornaments, wooden specialties, jewelry and more.
Outdoor holiday shopping requires food and entertainment, and the market has abundant options. Stall vendors tempt with treats such as savory wursts, and German beer and Glühwein (a classic hot, spiced wine, served here in a sought-after souvenir mug) keep adults warm. There’s more food in the Grand Timber House and the Festival Tent, including schnitzel, sausages and potato pancakes. The busy entertainment schedule has weekend appearances by the popular Alpine Brass Band, featuring seasonal German music. Also anticipated are visits by the Christkind, the traditional bringer of Christmas gifts, who wears a crown and dresses in white and gold robes. She represents a tradition that goes back to the 16th century. A daily highlight is the opening of a door of the oversized Advent Calendar, and the Kinder Club has fun activities for younger children.
Note that Christkindlmarket opened another location in suburban Naperville in 2016.
Plan your trip: Choose Chicago, Illinois Office of Tourism
Driving distances: 90 minutes from Rockford, Illinois | 2 hours from Champaign, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin | 3 hours from Springfield, Illinois and Fort Wayne, Indiana | 4 hours from Toledo, Ohio | 4.5 hours from Detroit, Michigan
3. Great Dickens Christmas Fair, San Francisco, Nov. 23 - Dec. 22, 2019
Photo courtesy of Rich Yee and the Great Dickens Christmas Fair
If the idea of spending the holidays in Victorian Britain appeals to you, consider a visit to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, where a bit of time travel takes you to a holiday market in the streets of Charles Dickens’ London. In operation since 1970, the fair includes costumed shopkeepers, a wealth of period entertainment and appearances by beloved characters from Dickens’ novels such as Scrooge and the Cratchits. The indoor exhibition halls of the Cow Palace, just south of San Francisco in Daly City, hold the festivities. This year’s dates are weekends from Nov. 23 through Dec. 22, plus the Friday after Thanksgiving. Tickets, which include all shows and entertainment, cost $14 (children) to $32 (adults), but check the website for discounts. Children under 5 are free.
The fair’s atmospheric “London” streets have abundant shopping and food options. More than 100 shops display goods from handmade Christmas ornaments to soaps and scents as well as pewter items, jewelry, pottery and accessories. Some vendors echo the period theme, selling Victorian-style hats and clothing. Multiple entertainment venues present choices from Punch and Judy puppet shows to theatrical performances. Father Christmas sits by carolers, and children can have their photo taken with him. Street food from roasted chestnuts to popcorn fuels the fun, and four pubs and a bar dish up fish and chips, meat pies, tea and scones. Consider dressing in costume yourself to get in the Victorian holiday spirit: The fair encourages it.
Driving distances: 45 minutes from San Jose, California | 1 hour from Santa Cruz, California | 2 hours from Sacramento, California | 3 hours from Fresno, California | 3.5 hours from Reno, Nevada | 4.5 hours from Bakersfield, California