Our lead up to Christmas saw us visiting four different cities, in four different countries, each renowned for their Christmas markets: Budapest, Hungary; Nuremberg, Germany; Krakow, Poland; and Tallinn, Estonia… hearing “Merry Christmas” in four languages.
Part 1: Budapest, Hungary – “Boldog Karácsonyt!”
We had previously visited Budapest in July 2017, and had quite a lot of Forint left over. That was one of the reasons we decided to go back to Budapest during this trip – to use up our foreign money stash. We also thought it might be a different experience in the winter. When booking our airbnb, a fireplace was a welcomed idea (instead of the AC that we needed during our last visit), and we enjoyed cosy nights next to our fire. There was also a Christmas tree stall directly outside our apartment, so each time we went out we were met with that delicious fresh pine scent!
Our first adventure was across Margaret Bridge and a quick wander around Margaret Island. We were pretty excited to visit the fountain on the island – as this was our highlight during our last visit; the fountain puts on a magical display every 30 minutes. We soon found out that our magical fountain closes during the winter months… something we noticed recently during our trip to other European cities, if you are a lover of water fountains make sure you travel in the summer months. Nevertheless, we had nice weather during our walk around Margaret Island and the Bridge.
Next, we headed over to Buda side, eventually winding our way up to Fisherman’s Bastion to take in the views across to Pest side of town. More-or-less retracing our steps from our last visit. We couldn’t help notice the city is much busier for tourism in December.
We walked along the Danube river as the light began to fade, watching the Budapest night lights turn on.
The next morning, we treated ourselves to a morning in the baths. We chose the Palatinus Strand Baths on Margaret Island. These baths are far less popular with tourists and at 9am on a Sunday we were there with only a handful of other patrons (many seemed to be locals too). We spent most of our morning in the outdoor pool. The 38-degree water temperature and 6-degree air temperature created a steam curtain making it feel like we had the pool to ourselves.
Feeling warmed and relaxed we enjoyed the rest of our day on the Pest side. We started with a stroll along the Danube.
Before long, we found the Budapest Christmas Markets! These markets not only had a great collection of crafts and ornaments, but the food stalls were amazing. There were several pockets of markets around the town, we started in the main, ‘Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival’ and then wandered around the smaller markets too, finishing at the markets directly in front of the Basilica which had a small ice-skating rink for children.
After a few hours in the busy markets, we started walking back to our apartment. We were near our favourite building in Budapest, the Hungarian Parliament Building, when the sun began setting. We were able to admire the red skies above the towers of Fisherman’s Bastion and then the many Christmas lights on display around the parliament building (including the city tram).
For our last day in Budapest, we walked to City Park. Here we came across the large ice-skating rink. We watched the talented skaters for a while before opting for a more relaxing activity… we enjoyed an afternoon in the busy Széchenyi Thermal Baths. We had also visited here in 2017, but decided the baths of Budapest were much more appropriate in the cold winter!
Part 2: Nuremberg, Germany – “Fröhliche Weihnachten!”
We decided to visit Nuremberg solely on its reputation for its Christmas Market. So, on our first morning we set out on foot from our airbnb in the direction of the markets; which was more or less following the river. This was a lovely walk, with many parks and numerous bridges to cross along the way (causing us to zig-zag our way along the river).
When we finally caught up with a crowd of people, we knew we were close to the markets. The Nuremberg Christmas Market really did live up to its reputation. We had a fun morning shopping for eclectic Christmas ornaments whilst taking in the market vibes.
Later we wandered through downtown Nuremberg, which was less busy (compared to the markets). We came across a manger with real donkeys and camels, then the Pope was standing outside a nearby shop and we found very weird statues in a water fountain (of course sans water).
In the afternoon we walked around the moat of old town. Eventually we found our way up to the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg. It was late in the day, so we didn’t pay to go inside. Instead we walked around the exterior and enjoyed the views over the city.
We ventured back into the Christmas market to enjoy the night time atmosphere. It was far busier at night, but we found a quiet balcony to enjoy our Glühwein while watching the busy market stalls below.
For our last day in Nuremberg we walked the remainder of the moat and wandered through the medieval shopping area.
In the afternoon we followed the river away from the busy centre. It didn’t take long before we were walking through some neat wetlands and then we came to a large beach area. We’re sure it would be popular in summer, but there weren’t many people there during our visit. The sun did come out and we soaked up the sunshine.
Suddenly, a large swan swam over, walked out of the water and had a stand-off with us. Kadin held his ground, playing chicken with the swan, and eventually won…
We walked back to our airbnb, once again following the scenic river. Our hosts took us out for more Glühwein in the evening and shared many stories of Nuremberg (as well as fond memories of their travels to NZ and Australia in the early 90’s).
Part 3: Krakow, Poland – “Wesołych Świąt!”
Warning: This next part contains Holocaust material during our visit to Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
This was our second visit to Poland, having travelled there in 2017 for a friend’s wedding. However, this was our first time in Krakow. There was quite a bit of maintenance happening around the city which disrupted some of the train lines. We were lucky enough to just get on board the airport train to the city before it departed, and once in the city it was easy enough to walk.
We enjoyed a morning wandering around the Wawel Castle and taking in the views of Krakow.
Next, we went to the Vistula River below, enjoying a stop at the famous Krakow dragon. The dragon breathes fire every five minutes!
We strolled into town, the streets were very festive looking, and we quickly located the Krakow Christmas Markets…
There was lots of action in the town square. Every hour, after the clock tower bells chime, a bugle player belts out a tune from the tower too! We happened to be under the tower as all of this unfolded.
Then suddenly, several colourful characters came down the street and began performing catchy songs in the square.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, a large parade came marching down the street too…
Krakow has an annual Nativity scene competition… we located a few of the past winners during our walk around town…
We had an early start the next morning as we embarked on a full day guided tour to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. During our 1.5 hour drive to Auschwitz we watched a film on the TV on our bus, which gave an intensive overview of the history of Auschwitz – it was very graphic showing original footage of the concentration camps and accounts from the few survivors. By the time we reached the location we were both feeling sickened. Nevertheless, we were soon entering Auschwitz I; the first concentration camp. It was a numbing feeling walking through the iron gate with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ inscribed above, a German phrase our guide informed us means: ‘Work sets you free,’ which unfortunately was a lie for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners that were killed by the poor living conditions, hard labour and punishment in the camp. Throughout our tour around Auschwitz I, we went inside several of the buildings, (including one of the gas chambers), where we learnt about the horrific events that took place in the camp.
We then drove to the larger camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The large gate became the symbol of the Holocaust and is known as ‘the gate of death.’ Inside the camp were four gas chambers, which the Nazis destroyed towards the end of the war. This was a very sad place to visit, and no matter how many movies or books you see, it isn’t until you stand in the grounds that you can start to feel the weight of this horrific history.
We boarded the bus and drove for over an hour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. One of the world’s oldest salt mines (operated from the 13th Century until 2007) and now a popular tourist spot. By the time we arrived, daylight was already fading and it was getting very cold. Luckily, the mine is a constant 15-degrees all year round. We had a short wait outside for our guides, but there were some pretty Christmas lights turning on to keep us entertained.
Soon we were descending 380 steps … it was a dizzying staircase! Our guide showed us around a labyrinth of tunnels, teaching us the history and process of the salt mining along the way and stopping to admire many salt statues.
One of the highlights was of course the Chapel of St. Kinga, located 101 meters underground. We were impressed by the large scale of this church as well as the intricate salt chandeliers, carved last supper portrait and stunning nativity scene.
Last, we visited the underground lake (saltier than the Dead Sea) before exiting via the elevator. Of course, Kadin couldn’t resist licking the walls (included for free in our entry ticket)… apparently it was very salty!
We resurfaced and temporarily lost our tour guide – but thanks to google maps we found our way back to our bus. When we got back to Krakow, we went for a quick walk through town to enjoy the Christmas markets by night.
Part 4: Tallinn, Estonia – “Häid Jõule”
Our plane to Tallinn on December 23rd was surprisingly empty for being only days away from Christmas. We chose to travel to Tallinn, Estonia, because it had a higher chance of having a ‘White Christmas’ with a relatively affordable price compared to other recommended places (i.e. Switzerland and Nordic countries). Russia was another great option but due to Visa requirements it wasn’t possible for us (without flying back to New Zealand first) – so we’ll have to save that one for another trip! Tallinn has also been voted 2019’s Best Christmas Market.
Our airbnb was located on the edge of the old town, in a historic Estonian wooden apartment building. We were able to call this our home for a 5-night stay (one of the longest we’ve stayed in one place for the year).
We spent Christmas Eve at the Tallinn Christmas Market, starting early to beat the crowds. We split up for a while with a set budget to play ‘Secret Santa’… it’s a bit hard to achieve Christmas shopping when we’ve been together almost 24/7 (for a year!) and we also have limited extra space in our backpacks for additional purchases. But we decided, since it’s almost the end of our trip and it’s Christmas… we should have something small to open on the day. We ended up getting even more into the spirit when we came across some stalls selling Christmas tree branches for a couple of euros!
Outside the Christmas market, we wandered around the old town streets until we started to feel cold.
We spent the afternoon relaxing in our airbnb and preparing for Christmas Day. We had collected enough Christmas ornaments over the past couple of weeks from the different markets to decorate our branch. We’d stocked up on groceries but couldn’t find caster sugar for our traditional dessert (a true NZ icon: The Pavlova), but Kadin worked out he could crush ordinary sugar until it resembled the finer grains that were needed. Our apartment also had a home theatre projector, so we were able to watch Netflix on the big screen – including the Fireplace episodes for a festive feel.
We enjoyed a sleep in on Christmas morning. Then we unwrapped our gifts – Kadin bought me a new beanie and I got him a Santa hat to match his new look (young Santa). We both got a few more Christmas decorations and treats. After a relaxed Christmas morning, and catching up with our families on the phone, we went for a walk around the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive a ‘White Christmas,’ even though it felt cold enough to be snowing…
After our mini-adventure outside, we came back to our apartment, warmed up in front of our real fireplace, and enjoyed our Christmas feast!
The next morning, while we were enjoying the left-over pav for breakfast (a Boxing day tradition), we suddenly realised that our Christmas wish had arrived… just a day late! It was snowing!!! We quickly headed outside and ventured towards the hill for the best views of Tallinn.
Here we also came to the iconic, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which looked even more dramatic with a fresh dusting of snow.
The snow really started to come down quite heavily during our visit. So, we had some fun playing in the white fluffy stuff (so different to our usual Boxing Days – mostly spent at the beach under our hot summer sun). The snow made the city look more like the postcards…
Next, we headed back down the hill and decided to walk along the historic town walls. It cost 2 euro each and we were able to climb up the 800-year-old towers too.
For our last day in Tallinn we caught the tram to Kadriog Park. It was a pretty cold day due to the wind, so we didn’t walk around the whole park. We enjoyed a visit around the palace and part of the woodlands.
On the way back to our apartment we stopped by a couple of op-shops. We had some fun playing dress-ups. The real fur coats, hats and leather jackets were super warm (and not overly-expensive). Next time we travel to Europe for a winter, a visit to an op-shop at the start of the trip would be a good idea, but we couldn’t really justify the purchase when we were about to start our journey back into summer.
Almost time to come home… a couple more stops on the way.
Have fun at work!