Enjoy festive food, dazzling decorations and live entertainment at one of Europe’s most enchanting Christmas markets
Prague at any time of the year is a seductive, dreamy city that oozes old-world charm. Medieval churches, Renaissance palaces, hidden gardens and cobbled squares sit below a hilltop castle as the meandering Vltava River winds its way beneath the scenic Charles Bridge.
If the scene is not romantic enough for you, try visiting in December. As the holiday season approaches and the ground starts to twinkle with frost, the fairytale vibe gets cranked up to 11. At the heart of the festive atmosphere are Prague’s Christmas markets – more magical than a Harry Potter convention at Disneyland.
Rows of colorful wooden huts strung with lights, huge decorated fir trees and fragrant food stalls can be found in every Prague quarter in the run-up to Christmas, but the biggest and most famous market is in the Old Town Square, or Staroměstské náměstí. Like a medieval movie set, the Old Town Square is an architectural showcase of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles and home to some of the city’s most iconic sights, including the Old Town Hall Tower, Astronomical Clock, Týn Church and Kinský Palace.
“The historical atmosphere makes the Old Town Square market unique,” says Hana Tietze from events organiser Taiko. “The opening ceremony (at 5 p.m. on 28 November) is one of the highlights – it’s when we turn on the Christmas tree lights.” The so-called Tree of Republic is a towering 22 metres high, draped in sparkling illuminations that can be admired from a special viewing platform. Surrounding the tree are the charming market stalls, brimming with traditional toys, handcrafted ornaments, bobbin lace and Bohemian crystal, as well as endless charms and trinkets for adorning your own tree back home.
“I just can’t resist those Christmas decorations,” says Caroline Johnson from London. “I love the wooden ornaments, especially the marionette puppets. And I also picked up some wonderful Christmas potpourri.” This traditional Czech purpura is made of a blend of seasonal herbs and spices like cloves, pine and orange, and can be burned in a ceramic lamp to intensify the fragrance. More festive aromas can be found at stalls selling scented candles, handmade soaps and even Frankincense.
Caroline visited last year’s markets with her son and daughter, making the most of the family-friendly activities on offer. The authentic nativity scene in Old Town Square has painted figures in a wooden stable, while the petting zoo allows kids to feed and stroke donkeys, sheep, goats and even a llama. “And being there on the day that St Nicholas came out was something else,” she says. ‘My kids didn’t know whether to be thrilled or terrified!’
Depending on your perspective, the 5 December tradition of Mikuláš – when groups of three characters dressed as St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), a devil and an angel roam the streets asking children if they have been naughty or nice – can be a traumatic trial or a thoroughly entertaining way of keeping your children in check. Children who (claim to) have been good will recite a short poem or song in the hope of being rewarded with small gifts or sweets. Those deemed to have been bad will receive potatoes or coal and the threat of being thrown in the devil’s sack and sent to hell.
“It’s all great fun, though,’ says Caroline, reassuringly. ‘There were lots of squealing but also some very enthusiastic singing. My kids were just gazing in wonder.”
If the experience hasn’t put you off your food, it’s time to indulge in another Christmas market rite of passage – sampling the gastronomic delights. Those with a savoury tongue will gravitate towards huge hams roasting on spits and barbecued sausage with sauerkraut, while anyone with a sweet tooth is well catered for – honeyed gingerbread characters, vánocvka (a braided pastry studded with raisins), and vosí hnízda or ‘wasp nests’ (nutty cookies with rum). And don’t leave without trying trdelník, the bracelet-like sugarcoated pastry cooked over hot coals.
Old Town Square is not the only place to indulge in Christmas market mania. Smaller markets can be found at the nearby Náměstí Republiky, flanked by the Art Nouveau Municipal House and the Gothic Powder Tower, and at the more intimate Náměstí Míru, home to the neo-Gothic Church of St Ludmila. The market at Wenceslas Square – moments away from Na Příkopě, Prague’s world-class shopping boulevard – is another not to be missed. With its own 10-metre-tall Christmas tree and ubiquitous wooden huts decorated with garlands and lights, this is also where you’ll find ticket agencies with special offers for classical concerts, opera or ballet.
Christmas concerts are staged at Klementinum near the Old Town Square throughout December, and at St Salvator Church near the Charles Bridge, while the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker will be showing on 3 December at the majestic Prague National Theatre. Smaller events take place at more intimate venues all over Prague, and throughout the Christmas markets you’ll find entertainment and performances at every turn.
“We saw demonstrations of woodcarving and glass-making, impromptu street magic demonstrations, live jazz bands and all sorts!” says Caroline Johnson. “And the kids especially loved the school choirs.” In the Old Town Square, a stage is erected every year where local and international choirs perform Christmas concerts and short plays in the open. Children travel from all over the Czech Republic to take part, dressing up in traditional costumes and singing carols.
As the sun begins to set, and your heart is warmed by the festive voices, the fairytale feeling really kicks in. “It’s extra special to take a walk late at night,” says Hana Tietze. “The stalls and refreshments are open until midnight and that’s when the Prague magic is at its best.”