Snow is falling, lights are twinkling, bells are ringing and that means it’s time to go shopping! There are few moments more magical than going to a Christmas market in Switzerland. It is just like stepping into a Christmas card, albeit it one that comes complete with the most wonderful smells.
The heady aroma of mulled wine draws you ever nearer to the steaming vat of warm spiced nectar, only for you to get distracted by the plump sausages on the grill or the yeasty temptation of a doughy bretzel. And that’s before you even get close to the caramelised almonds and sweet Lebkuchen. Throw in the pretty backdrop of wooden huts, a Christmas tree decorated to within an inch of its life and a high chance of snow (this is Switzerland after all), and you have the recipe for a perfect Christmas market.
Almost every town in Switzerland has one at this time of year but they are generally modest affairs, certainly not only the huge scale of Strasbourg or Cologne. But that means no pressing crowds and a more intimate atmosphere, where you can enjoy a relaxed mug of Glühwein (the German for mulled wine, which literally translates as ‘glow wine’).
Some Swiss Christmas markets sport a very traditional name: Christkindlimarkt, or literally ‘the Christ-child market’. In Switzerland, as in much of central Europe, it is not Santa Claus or Father Christmas that delivers the presents on Christmas Eve but the Christkind, or Christ-child. He sometimes is actually the infant Jesus, sometimes just a cherubic little angel. Either way he is the one who secretly decorates the tree in Swiss homes and brings the children presents, which are traditionally opened on the evening of Christmas Eve, not on the Day itself.
Here is our pick of the best Christmas markets in Switzerland, all offering a similar variety of hand-crafted gifts, edible delicacies, local specialties and kitschy things you didn’t know you needed. And often a sprinkling of snow for a finishing touch.
If the weather outside is frightful, then Europe’s largest indoor Christmas market is the ideal escape from the elements. It sits under the cavernous roof of Zurich’s main train station, a beautiful sandstone edifice built in 1871, and its centrepiece is always a giant Christmas tree decorated with 7,000 Swarovski crystals. Note that it does get very busy after work as commuters stop for a glass of punch before heading home; either join in the fun or come at a different time to avoid the crush. www.zuerich.com/christkindlimarkt
One of the biggest markets in Switzerland and perhaps one of the prettiest, with 150 stalls decorated and illuminated with a very Gallic sense of chic. It stretches along the shore of Lake Geneva so is perfect for an evening stroll or sitting beside the water with a mug of mulled wine. Or even indulging in some hot cheese fondue, that typical Swiss winter comfort food. Just don’t go on the Ferris wheel straight afterwards. www.montreuxnoel.com
Christmas market booth, Basel
It’s perhaps not too surprising that Basel has one of the best-known markets in Switzerland, given that the city shares a border with two countries renowned for their own festive fairs: France and Germany. Basel’s market is large but split between two sites, Münsterplatz in the shadow of the cathedral and Barfüsserplatz in the heart of the city centre. Both are delightful with a real festive atmosphere. www.basel.com
St Gallen © SwissImage.ch/Andreas Gerth
If you want your Christmas shopping to have a truly magnificent setting, then head to St Gallen in eastern Switzerland. At the centre of the historic old town is the beautiful abbey with its graceful twin spires and sumptuous interior, and right beside that is the small but sweet Christmas market. It really is a Christmas card come to life.
Münsterplatz, Bern © Swiss Image.ch/Christof Schuerpf
The Swiss capital is not the largest city in Switzerland, so it’s fitting that its Christmas market is also not big and brash. So Bern makes up for that by having two markets. The main one fills the central square, Waisenhausplatz, with good cheer and colourful stalls. But for something a bit special follow the locals to the smaller market in Münsterplatz, right in front of the cathedral. This is where artists and craftsmen sell their creations, and the best place to find that unique present. www.bern.com/bern-christmas-markets
One point to remember is that all these Christmas markets are usually open on Sundays, even when all the normal shops are shut.
Other articles you may enjoy: