Europe’s best Christmas markets: Swiss treats and crafts in Basel
BASEL, Switzerland – It is early evening in the Swiss city and its two Christmas markets are bathed in a golden glow. Thousands of sparkling lights cast a magical spell over the rustic stalls, as well as over the historic Old Town that extends beyond them.
Spread across two squares, Basel’s annual Christmas market – open from Nov. 22 to Dec 23 – is one of Switzerland’s largest and most picturesque. About 180 booths offer an array of things traditionally associated with this holiday, from exquisite hand-made ornaments to regional delicacies.
The bigger of the two markets is on Barfüsserplatz, which literally means “the barefoot square,” so named after the shoeless Franciscan priests who lived here in the Middle Ages. They built a convent in the 14th century, which still stands in the middle of the square. Barfüsserkirche (Church of the Barefooted) now houses one of Basel’s history museums. Its permanent exhibit includes pre-Reformation art, which is fitting, considering that Basel was one of the cradles of this religious movement that swept Europe in the 16th century.
The monks who founded Barfüsserkirche might have walked barefoot, but the shoppers at the Christmas market are bundled up, many drinking steaming cups of spiced wine to keep themselves warm on a chilly December day. There are also booths selling other hot and hearty fare, such as grilled sausages and the traditional melted cheese dish called raclette – this is, after all, Switzerland.
Another local specialty sold here is the genuine Basel Läckerli, a kind of gingerbread made of honey, hazelnuts, almonds, candied orange and lemon peel, as well as various spices.
Of course, there is no shortage of Christmas trinkets – delicate ornaments, beautifully carved wood figurines, ceramic decorations and various crafts, all hand-made by local artisans.
A short walk up a winding cobblestone street is Münsterplatz, the city’s second Christmas market. Münster means cathedral in German, and a magnificent red sandstone church, built between 1019 and 1500 in Romanesque and Gothic styles, towers not only over the square, but also over Basel’s landscape.
This market is smaller but just as lively, with special activities for children, like baking cookies, decorating gingerbread and making coins and other metal objects with a real blacksmith. There is also a jolly little train that ferries kids around the square.
Basel is unique in that it lies on the border with Germany and France. This is the place where Swiss, French and German cultures intersect, imparting a distinctly cosmopolitan ambiance to this city, the third-largest in Switzerland (after Zurich and Geneva).
Basel’s strategic location on the Rhine River means it is the only port in this landlocked Alpine country and an important transportation hub for Europe and beyond. Among the vestiges of this maritime past is Mittlere Brücke, one of five bridges spanning the river. Dating back to 1226, it is one of the oldest Rhine crossings between Lake Constance in northern Switzerland and the North Sea.
Another stunning Basel landmark is the City Hall. Constructed between the 16th and 19th centuries, the bright red building has a gold spire, carved arcades and colorful frescoes on the facades. During the Christmas season, visitors are invited to write down their dreams and hopes for the new year in the Wish Book placed at the entrance to the elaborate inner court.
The City Hall straddles the Marktplatz, which, as its name suggests, is the old trading hub and still hosts an outdoor produce market several times a week.
In fact, Marktplatz is a good starting point to explore Basel’s Old Town, a beautiful district with well-preserved buildings, secret nooks and crannies, winding alleyways and narrow cobblestone streets.
Just off the Marktplatz is Spalenberg, a pedestrian street filled with boutiques, gift shops and art galleries. In front of the building which houses the Gilgen bakery, a long line of people patiently waits to buy a delicious “Grättimaa,” a Santa Claus-shaped roll made from savory dough. Locals say that at Christmastime, it is not uncommon to spend 45 minutes in line for this typically Swiss holiday treat. But, they add, the wait is totally worth it.
Spalenberg leads to the 600-year-old Spalentor, a fortified city gate that used to serve as a merchandise supply route from the nearby Alsace area of France. Besides its impressive medieval architecture, the building also boasts the highest open-air toilet in Basel (an amenity which should probably not be used in winter).
Basel is also a vibrant cultural hub with 40 world-class museums and numerous art galleries, some of which hold special Christmas events: old and new tree decorations at the History Museum and a musical illumination show at the Culture Museum.
Basel is breathtaking at any time of the year, but it is most fairy tale-like when it blooms with sparkling lights and vibrant colors. This is, as the songs says, the most wonderful time of the year to be visiting this charming Swiss city on the Rhine.
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