Most people visit Europe in the spring or summer. Of course, these are great times of year to see such a magical and historical place. But may I suggest to you a unique alternative?
Come in December, when the weather is at it’s coldest and the people are their warmest. When the cobblestone streets are strung with lights and the ancient buildings are trimmed with garland. Imagine your most magical place for the holidays – a winter wonderland, if you will. You will be sure to find something that fits your image here in Europe. There are amazing markets and festivals across the continent. Some countries boast cities that are particularly renowned for their holiday cheer. Finland, Germany and Austria are at the top of the list. Denmark and Switzerland are there as well. And of course, our personal favorite place to be for Christmas is right here in Italy. Before you plan your next Christmas vacation, add Europe into the running.
“Boy, Clark – I think we should go to Europe next year”
We had been toying with the idea of visiting another country to experience some of the large and festive Christmas markets (two of the top cities in the running were Cologne, Germany and Lapland, Finland). As we did more and more research, we kept noticing many towns in Italy topping the lists. We decided to stay close to home and shop in a language we know (well, sort of). Jen came across this article describing some of the best Christmas towns in the Trentino Alto-Adige region of Italy. One look at the photos of each town and I was sold. Beyond that, I was eager to explore this region of Italy for it’s unique wines and always breathtaking Dolomiti mountains. So I went to work on google maps and figured out that we could comfortably see five cities (with a bonus sixth on the return) over a period of three days. We would visit Vipiteno, Bressanone, Brunico, Bolzano and Merano with another full day reserved for the region’s capital city, Trento.
When I plotted our course, I literally sketched a rough map on a piece of scratch paper and realized that four of the five towns made a diamond shape. The fifth was sort of floating off to the right side, but for creative purposes – we’ll just stick to the “Five Diamond Christmas Tour”. It has a better ring than “Four Points & That Other One Tour”.
“Sounds great, dad – lets GO!”
We carefully chose our hotel, located just outside of Bolzano. What I didn’t pay much attention to was the name of the actual town, Soprabolzano (literally meaning, above Bolzano). ABOVE Bolzano it was. Our hotel sat roughly 4,100 ft above the town, which gave us two options. Drive up the winding and perilous mountain road or take the 15,000 ft cable car (gondola) ride. I opted to drive, even when the snow fell and the tailgaters lined up behind me.
The view from the road leading to our hotel
We were surprised to learn from Franco and Claudia (Jen’s aunt and uncle) that the area of Italy we were visiting was more Austrian than Italian. They couldn’t have been more correct. We definitely felt as though we were in Austria (which feels just like you’re in Germany). The houses are constructed with charming German architecture (picture gingerbread houses). The food served in the restaurants is German (picture sausages and sauerkraut). The people even spoke German instead of Italian! It was strange to experience, because we were in Italy – but it was also nice because it felt like a more unique “vacation” away from our normal lives. Funny, we were nervous to order pasta for the first time in Italy because we felt like it would be ordering pasta in Germany (something you would never do).
VIPITENO (Sterzing – German)
On the first day of our “Christmas Tour” we drove from our home directly to the northernmost town, Vipiteno. We arrived after lunch and took our time strolling through the market and the charming streets. We were eager to see the setting sun because we knew that meant the Christmas lights would soon be ablaze. We stopped for a vin brulé to warm up and sit for a bit. As opposed to going inside the restaurant, we instead opted to sit outside under the blankets they provided for their guests. It was cozy, fun and comforting. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from Vipiteno because we had one more stop on the schedule.
Julia is excited as we enter the market
Jen and Julia hugging
One of the stands, selling a variety of Christmas ornaments
Some beautiful ornaments
Julia sizes up a Befana (Italy’s Christmas Witch)
The charming town square
Another stand selling local specialties
More Christmas stands
My favorite little girl
The lights got a little brighter as it got a little darker
The main street was stunning with a beautiful mountainous backdrop
The main piazza
We stopped to warm up and enjoy some vin brulé
Julia warms her hands on mom’s cup
The sun officially sets
Vipiteno at night
The main square at night
Vipiteno was simply beautiful
I almost scratched Bressanone from the list – originally, I didn’t think I could fit all five towns and this was the one that I felt could be sacrificed. We were VERY glad that we kept it in the itinerary. This was arguably one of our favorite towns. We didn’t realize that it is the third largest and and oldest town in the province. Bressanone is absolutely full of charm. Beyond all the Christmas festivities, we enjoyed just walking around the city itself, although most everything had closed by the time we finished dinner.
One street leading to the main piazza
The market in the main piazza
The booths were different than the previous town
Julia rode the carousel in front of the main church
The most crowded and popular stands were always the ones selling vin brulè – they had an outdoor “bar” vibe
SAN CANDIDO (Innichen)
Did you catch it? San Candido was not listed as one of the five towns above. Franco and Claudia suggested that we add it to the voyage – they described the town as “piccolo ma bello” (small but beautiful). It was only a half an hour away and snuggled tightly in the Dolomites, so it was a no-brainer for me. They didn’t have nearly the amount of Christmas decorations as the originally planned towns, but it truly was “small but beautiful”. Plus, there are only a handful of towns in the world that are nestled in the Dolomite mountains, so it was certainly worth the extra drive.
Julia and I enter the charming town of San Candido
Our first snow of the season
Julia remembered how much she loved to eat it
Main street in the town
Jen and Julia in the main piazza
“Hey guys, wait for me!”
A small river runs through town
The Dolomites surround the town
Another town we passed on the way out
Our second stop of the second day was Brunico. We strolled through the markets and then through the city streets. It was a beautiful town, but the markets were small in comparison to the other towns – so we didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time here.
The market surrounded the outer wall of the main city street
They had some great stands with local food and crafts
As usual, the busiest stands were the ones serving the drinks
I just loved this outdoor sports store’s display
Jen and Julia in the center of Brunico
We didn’t think that anything could top Bressanone, which we had seen the night before. We were wrong. We arrived in Bolzano after nightfall and our eyes opened wide as we walked into the center square. Of all the towns, this one had the biggest Christmas market by far. They had the most decorations. They had the best rides for kids (a toy train that Julia loved riding). In conclusion, one could say they had the most charm. Beyond the markets, we loved losing ourselves in the city streets, taking in the restaurants and the shops. We had a wonderful dinner and walked some more. It was the perfect end to a fun-filled day.
The markets and main church of Bolzano
Julia goes for a train ride on Santa’s sleigh
For a kid that’s always happy, I’ve never seen her this tickled
We stopped for a little vin brulé
Looks like the Russian hockey team also wanted a little vin brulé to warm up
They had a secret Christmas garden off the main piazza
Family photo in the garden
Vendors and crowds flanked the garden made out of Christmas trees, lights and ornaments
Julia floats through the trees
We just loved the garden
Big ornaments on this street were a nice surprise from the lights that are usually strung across
Angels glide across the rooftops
Sadly, our final day was marred by a heavy rain. Our final two stops, Merano and then Trento (two of the places we were most excited about) were unfortunately, scratched from our trip. We didn’t think it would be nearly as much fun to walk around in the rain. If you do decide to take my “Five Diamond Christmas Tour” – do as I say, not as I do. Stick to my original itinerary (Vipiteno, Bressanone, Brunico, Bolzano,Merano and then Trento) and be sure to check the weather forecast!