After a gorgeous summer and a stunning burst of color in the fall, Aspen starts to slow down. It’s at this time when travel seems to be on everyone’s agenda.
For those who feel they missed the season for travel to Europe–think again. If you are like me, I have always planned my vacations to Europe when the weather is warm, June through September. However, during last year’s off-season (specifically November), I took off on a lengthy European visit. For so many reasons, it was just as, or even more incredible than summer in Europe. This was due to a number of reasons: fewer tourists, restaurant reservations being easier to get, hotels having ample availability as well as off-season rates, locals being super friendly and more patient than in summer, and great pricing on flights.
However, by far the best part about traveling to Europe during both Aspen’s off-season and Europe’s off-season were the Christmas markets. City after city, I made it a point to visit all the incredible open-air holiday markets.
I started in Cologne, Germany, and happened to luck out by arriving on the opening day of Karneval (Carnival), which always kicks off eleven minutes passed 11 a.m. on the 11th of November.
Cologne at Karneval reminded me of an Aspen Highlands closing party combined with a wild day at Cloud 9 (minus the Veuve). Everyone is in costumes with music, dancing, and drinking everywhere. Plus, the best beer I have ever tasted was being poured to anyone who held out a mug. Sheer craziness!
In the center of Cologne, not as tall, but almost as famous as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, stands the largest Christmas tree in the Rhine region. Surrounding the tree in every direction of the city are 200-plus vendor stalls, all selling traditional yuletide wares. In addition to the parades, shopping, drinking, and taking in the festive décor, the people-watching will hold your interest and your gaze for quite a while. It was some of the best I have ever seen—and I have seen quite a lot!
The next city to mention from my Christmas market tour is Strasbourg, France. This city in the Alsace region has spent centuries dancing on either side of the French/German border. Strasbourg holds the title for the oldest (445 years and counting) and best Christmas market in all of France. The Petite France neighborhood is one of the quaintest I have ever seen and ends right where the markets begin.
The markets are incredibly charming and romantic, oh so French, and won my vote for the best in storefront holiday décor.
The town is complete with roaming carolers, an ice rink, and everywhere you turn—my favorite—glühwein, or hot mulled wine, served in boot-shaped mugs. Plan to feast on all the edible specialties, including roasted chestnuts, crêpes, and flammekeuche, or tarte flambée, a wood-fired regional specialty similar to a pizza but with very local ingredients. Trust me, you will not go hungry or be bored.
Look for stuffed white storks—the city mascot and symbol of good luck.
Next I visited the darling teeny Alsatian town of Riquewihr, tucked against the rolling foothills of the local wine-growing region and known for its pristinely preserved historical architecture. And then I couldn’t resist popping over to Switzerland to visit Basel and Zurich. (For those who are anxious to hit the slopes by summer’s end, you can get a head start as the lifts are open in Zermatt by mid-November.)
From Zurich, I flew over to Aberdeen, Scotland; the flight was inexpensive due once again to it being off-season. After a few days checking out the castles in Aberdeen, three girlfriends and I drove a few hours to Edinburgh to spend Thanksgiving and check out this UK city’s ultra-famous Christmas market.
For twenty years, in the heart of Edinburgh, the city’s Christmas market has been held in an incredibly picturesque setting. The main area is set up in a huge square. From any location, if you just look up, the spectacular Edinburgh Castle sits high above you. This city’s Christmas market is truly a winter showcase of some of the best crafts and gastronomic food and drink that Scotland has to offer. Plus, a gigantic Christmas ferris wheel stands right in the middle of it all. Quite a spectacular sight! When you get tired of all the shopping, get lost in the many tiny cobblestone streets as they play host to smaller and more intimately sized stalls.
Other than the obvious Edinburgh Castle, a few more must-see or must-do experiences include: a drink at The Dome Bar, dinner at The Witchery, and a stroll down the Street of Light for an impressive light show.
Between the festiveness, the weather—usually cold but not freezing yet—and discounted travel deals, think about a European Christmas market vacation for an off-season get away. It will help pass the time and before you know it, you will be back on Ajax Mountain, dining at Cache Cache, dancing at Bootsy’s, and drinking tequila at Jimmy’s!