Sure, you’ve been to Europe – but have you been to Europe during the holiday season?
Western Europe in December looks like a snow globe exploded, sprinkling everything in glitter and fairy dust. Between the gorgeous street decorations, the crazy cute kiosks selling all manner of holiday baubles, and the stupid hot German and Austrian residents who look like they just fell off an Armani runway, it’s like you’ve died and gone to Christmas heaven. (I have one friend who took as many pictures of the men as he did the sights. “They’re atmosphere!” he yelled. “One is atmosphere,” I replied. “Ten is a restraining order.”)
Have I convinced you yet? Good. So, whether you’re taking Brand g’s 2019 Christmas Markets river cruise on the Danube, or just going on your own, here are some tips for making the most of this totally unique experience.
- Dress for weather changes.
Because you’re in the middle of a continent, and because we’re all enjoying some delightful climate change these days, the weather can shift frequently. It may be 50 one day and 30 the next. The winter weather does have its advantages: there are about 1/10 the tourists of summer, which, if you’ve ever stood in line at a major European attraction in July, is a big, fat Christmas gift in itself. And because the residents and tourists alike tend to dress up more in winter, you won’t see guys standing in Schonbrunn Palace wearing basketball shorts and Nike shower sandals. Praise the baby Jesus.
[Vienna Opera House – photo by Alessia Cocconi]
- Bring better clothes.
You don’t have to wear a tux to the Vienna Opera House (even though many rich residents will), but a sport jacket – or at least a nice sweater, preferably one without bedazzled reindeer – will come in handy for many Christmas season events. Generally, just dress a little better than you would for a summer trip.
- Don’t buy from the first vendor.
The Christmas Markets are collections of wooden kiosks set in squares or along spectacular boulevards, selling all types of holiday decorations and gifts. But many will be selling similar items. So, don’t buy from the first vendor whose wares you like. Stroll the market. Kiosks located at the entrances pay for that positioning and thus have higher prices. After all, people are impulse buyers and tend to snatch the fist cute thing that comes along (much like many of us did with boyfriends in our 20’s).
- Take in special holiday concerts and seasonal performances.
There are many special concerts during the holiday season, like classical Christmas music, along with performance venues whose season only runs from late fall to early spring and thus can’t be enjoyed during a summer trip. For some, classical music might be something akin to being hit repeatedly in the head with a brick, but seeing it with holiday staging and costumes makes it feel incredibly festive and fun, and really makes for a memorable evening. (And most of these shows are only 60-90 minutes long.) As for limited-schedule venues, a good example is Vienna’s famed Spanish Riding School, where the Lippizaner stallions perform, and whose performances often run during the holiday period.
- Try the holiday specialties.
The Christmas pastries, gluhwein (pronounced “glue-vine” – warm wine mulled with spices) and thick, creamy hot chocolate are not only festive, they’re essential. What Christmas Market shopping experience would be complete without at least one of these? You can always do that cleanse when you get home. Or never.
- Book award seats or cheap business class bargains.
Trying to book “saver” award seats to Europe in summer – especially in business or first class – can be like trying to find the lost continent of Atlantis. But if you’re traveling between Thanksgiving and Christmas – a time of lower air travel – seats are much more plentiful.
As are business class bargains. If you can wait it out, many airlines put biz class on sale in early November for travel during the business travel lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So, step into your luxurious pod seat and smile faux-sympathetically at those trudging back to the cargo hold.
An added bonus: planes are not filled with screaming children in early December.
So, the only hell on wheels you’ll experience is your partner.