If enduring another commercialized Christmas with endless ads for pricey cars, jewelry and high-tech toys isn’t the kind of holiday you’d like to enjoy this year, consider heading to a beautiful European destination that hosts a traditional Christmas market. It’s like traveling to an old fashioned Christmas, with charming nativity scenes, the sweet songs of choirs and the aromas of hot spiced cider and roasted chestnuts wafting through the air. Of course, you can also shop for a perfect, unique gift for that special someone on your list too. These are the top Christmas Markets in Europe worth planning an entire vacation around.
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One of the best places to spend Christmas in Germany, Dresden is home to the largest number of Christmas markets in the country’s eastern region. It can also boast the title of being the oldest seasonal event in the entire country, with the Striezel Christmas Market dating all the way back to 1434. Located on the Altmarkt Square in the historical city center, it’s surrounded by various themed Christmas Markets that stretch all the way to the main railway station and the Albertplatz. Some of the best handcrafted items Germany has to offer can be found here, including pottery from Lusatia, gingerbread from Pulsnitz, blown glass from Lauscha, wooden crafts from the Ore Mountains and much more.
Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps is the ultimate Christmas town as a winter wonderland that’s sure to melt the heart of any Scrooge. Against the backdrop of soaring, snow-covered mountains, Alstadt, or Old Town, is an especially romantic spot lined with medieval houses. Its Christmas Market is renowned as one of the most beautiful locations in the entire Alpine region. Its stalls are filled with gingerbread, delicate ornaments of hand blown glass, candles, wooden toys, delectable pastries and lots of handmade arts and crafts. The historic area is the ideal venue for taking a stroll to enjoy the festive sights or meeting up with friends over mulled wine. End your evening under the magnificent Christmas tree in front of the Golden Roof, with the sounds of trumpeters filling the crisp air.
One of the world’s most magical Christmas towns, Strasbourg has lots of Old World charm all year long, but during Advent, it becomes even more magical. The capital of Alsace is filled with cobbled streets that are decked out with angels, stars and snowflakes, while half-timbered houses don massive red-and-white hearts. It was in 1570 that this city that’s been acclaimed as having the very best Christmas Market in all of Europe, held its first Christmas Market known as Christkindelsmarik. Since then, Strasbourg has continued its tradition of a traditional, authentic Christmas. Even the towering fir tree on Place Kleber is a 400-year-old custom. Explore the 11 different “villages,” and be sure to sample the biscuits known as “bredele” which come in all shapes and flavors, from praline and hazelnut to orange, coconut, cinnamon and walnut. You might even bring them back home and hang them on your own tree.
Hamburg features a variety of different Christmas markets, all offering something for just about every taste. Kids love visiting Spielzeuggasse, the Toy Street, filled with fun items from across the globe, while traditionalists will especially appreciate the Hamburg Town Hall Christmas Market, located just outside the city’s grandiose town hall. It’s filled with hand-crafted Christmas decorations from the Erzgebirge region as well as pottery made by artists from the Lausitz region. There are bakers from Aachen and woodcarvers from Tyrol, while silversmiths and a host of other artisans and craftsmen from across Germany that make for an incredibly enticing atmosphere. A special highlight the whole family is sure to enjoy is the Christmas parades, complete with Santa and his reindeer, which takes place on the four Saturdays before Christmas.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is renowned for its gorgeous gothic architecture and unique folkloric traditions. And, during the holiday season, it’s truly unlike any other city on the planet. The Christmas markets feature beautifully decorated wooden huts filled with festive treats that include everything from carved wooden toys, garnet jewelry and Bohemian crystal to traditional straw and maize decorations as well as a wealth of gourmet delicacies. Dine on spit-roasted hams, klobasa and trdelnik, a traditional hot sugar-coated pastry. In the Old Town Square, you’ll find a stable, complete with goats, donkeys and sheep set around a traditional nativity as well as a host of sparkling holiday lights and music. While you’re here, be sure to stop in for a concert at one of the city’s churches, like St. George’s Basilica or St. Clement’s Cathedral.
You can even visit a German Christmas Market in England by heading to Birmingham. The Frankfurt Christmas Market is the largest of its kind in Britain and the largest German Market in Europe outside of Germany itself. It boasts an array of German delicacies as well as an ice skating rink. Its stalls sell everything from pretzels, bratwurst and schnitzels to mulled cider, gluhwein, Weissbier and hot chocolate. There is a vast array of locally-crafted items like organic soaps, decorative ironwork, toys, wood carvings and musical instruments as well as ethnic handicrafts imported from across the globe. If you like chocolate, while you’re here be sure to visit Cadbury World where you can learn about how this popular confectionery is made, play in chocolate rain and even dive into a bowl of Cadbury milk.
Winter Wonders is a festival that stretches throughout the city center and features a Ferris wheel illuminated with 18,000 lights, a 200-foot-long ice rink, nostalgic roundabouts for the little ones, concerts and marching bands, over 240 vendors and more. Each of the market stalls is a little wooden-roofed hut that sells mainly arts and crafts or food and drink, all with a pan-European flavor. By the time you reach place Ste-Catherine and the quays beyond, you’ll be nice and warmed up, and in the heart of the festivities.
One of Europe’s most picturesque cities, renowned for its medieval hilltop castle and cultural festivals, Edinburgh provides an especially magical backdrop for the holidays. Edinburgh’s Christmas offers the chance to enjoy panoramic views of the capital from atop its Big Wheel, take a spin on a charming carousel and more. The Ice Rink in Princes Street Gardens is popular with kids as well as adults – rent of pair of skates and glide across the ice while taking in the glittering lights of the city. Its festive markets are located in the city center, including the European Market with its unique gifts and goods, traditional crafts, food and beverage at the Scottish Market and even a Children’s Market, part of Santa Land in Princes Street Gardens.
Bologna is home to one of the oldest Christmas markets in Italy. When you’re greeted here, it will be with “Buon Natale,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” The markets are in two locations, with Fiera di Natale spread alongside the 12th-century San Pietro Cathedral, while the smaller Antica Fiera di Santa Lucia is centered on the cloister of the Santa Maria dei Servi church. Gastronomy is the focus here, particularly torrone, which is a festive nougat made of almonds and honey, as well as mouth-watering marzipan and citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate. The city also has a tradition of making unique figures for nativity scenes, including a character known as “the Wonder,” a woman standing in awe at the infant Christ.
Stockholm’s Old Town Christmas Market has its origins in the medieval markets, with the very first Christmas market on Stortorget Square in Old Stockholm held nearly 500 years ago in 1523. Experience an authentic Swedish Christmas and enjoy all sorts of unique specialties, including smoked reindeer and elk meat, handmade knitted caps, Swedish treats, a range of handicrafts and decorative arts, including items made only in Sweden like pottery, glass and jewelry, as well as mulled wine to help you battle winter’s chill. With a dusting of snow, walking into Stockholm looks and feels as if you’ve walked right into a Christmas card.
The Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt dates back more than three centuries, as one of Germany’s most famous and beloved pre-Christmas jamborees. Advent Stuttgart transforms into a dazzling Christmas city. In the car-free, old heart of the city, the air is filled with the aromas of spiced wine and boughs of fresh pine. From the Schlossplatz to the Marktplatz, the lively stalls hug the cobbled streets, all decked out with brilliant ornaments and shimmering lights competing for the coveted title of “best decorated.” Highlights include real horsehair brushes, felted slippers, knitted hats and artisanal fruit brandies. The illuminations are truly second to none, while the festive concerts of seasonal tunes in the Renaissance courtyard of the Old Palace and “Winterland” on Palace Square combine to make for an enchanting Christmas atmosphere.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast offers a host of year-round attractions, including one of the most fascinating museums in the world, Titanic Belfast, Belfast Castle, “Game of Thrones” filming sites and more. It also puts on a fabulous Christmas market each year. It not only brings the chance for kids to meet Santa, but it features a post box for children to send their letters to Mr. Claus himself – and every child who writes one will receive a reply from the North Pole too. You’ll also find an excellent range of authentic continental food, clothing, arts, crafts, holiday decorations and more from across Europe and beyond. Some of the most popular items include crystals, hand-painted pottery, hats and gloves, essential oils, wooden toys and Christmas ornaments.
Vienna offers the chance for a delightful old-fashioned Christmas with the smell of gluhwein in the air, glittering holiday decorations that cover magnificent imperial architecture and outdoor Christkindlmarkts. The city’s Christmas-market tradition dates back to the 13th century, with over 150 stalls filling the Rathausplatz in front of City Hall offering puppets, leather clothing, wool hats, wooden houses and more. Christmas Village Belvedere Palace offers a Baroque atmosphere, held in front of the world-famous palace, one of the city’s most beautiful sights. Here, you’ll find festively decorated stalls with traditional handcrafted items, special culinary delights and elaborate Christmas decorations.
Glasgow’s traditional Christmas market is held in St. Enoch Square, featuring traders from around the world. You’ll find a wide array of products and flavors as a truly global affair traditional to their origin countries, including as far away as Russia, Lapland and Ecuador as well as Italy, France, Germany and Spain. Visitors can also tuck into a warming mulled wine at the Gluhwein House, or even dine on wild boar and crocodile. In addition to the Gluhwein, you can sample some of the best Bavarian beers at the Bavarian bar.
The Hungarian capital not only offers plenty of charm with an abundance of cultural influences that have affected the city throughout its long history, but visitors will discover wooden pavilions in St. Stephen’s Square and Vorosmarty that are loaded with piles of sweet Hungarian pastries as well as handmade chocolates and honey cakes, traditional fur hats and gloves, “good luck” garden pixies and pressed-flower jewelry. If you’d like to take a customized iron candelabra home, you can commission one made right on the spot. In addition to those delectable pastries, you can dine on toki pompos, a Hungarian-style pizza with cream, bacon and onion, and sip Hungarian sparkling wine.
Medieval Bruges is stunning all year round, but it truly comes alive in winter, with its center transformed into a Christmas parade that partially slides onto its large ice rink. The festive holiday season also features the Bruges Christmas Market, known as one of the most vibrant and picturesque in Belgium. Its main stalls are found in Market Square, overlooked by the 13th-century belfry, and in Simon Stevinplein. Here you can buy the country’s famous Belgian chocolates, wooden toys, leather goods, handmade jewelry, hats and scarves. Be sure to try a chocolate Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas) figure, honey waffle biscuits and one of the local brews.
The Christmas Market in the beautiful Arctic Circle city of Trondheim takes place at the market square in December every year. You’ll find traditional Sami avvos (teepee-style tents), clusters of wooden chalets, wool sweaters, hand-woven scarves, ceramic wine goblets and all sorts of handicrafts and holiday fare. There are also Christmas trees, a theater, an outdoor auction and a tent where folk tales are told. Horse-and-sleigh rides add to its charms. Just a few of the culinary delights include waffles with sour cream and blueberries and mooseburgers. To warm up, sip mulled wine around an open fire in the café.
There are a number of Christmas markets in Madrid, and alleyways are decked out with dazzling lights and ornaments throughout the city, offering an especially festive atmosphere. Madrid’s largest square, the Plaza Mayor, hosts an especially stunning Christmas market from about the end of November through December each year. The square is filled with a diverse array of stalls that offer everything from organic foods and artisan products to decorations, Christmas trees, candles and jewelry. It also features a classic carousel and elaborate Spanish nativity sets.
Though it’s often overlooked, Lithuania’s capital city really goes all out for the holidays, holding one of the most lavish Christmas Markets in Europe. It transforms the Vilnius Television tower into a 550-foot-high Christmas tree complete with thousands of sparkling lights, while markets can be found in City Hall Square, old Cathedral Square and Bernardinai Gardens. Stalls sell cakes and pastries, including ragoulis and poppy-seed cakes as well as traditional Lithuanian handcrafted goods. Carousels and games can be found in Bernardinai Gardens, while the City Hall Square market features its International Christmas Charity Fair, where sweets and souvenirs made by wives of foreign diplomats and ambassadors are sold. If winter’s chill gets to you, buy a pair of gloves and a new warm hat – and, don’t forget the mulled wine.
The Emerald Isle’s longest-running Christmas market can be found in Galway. The Galway Continental Christmas Market features traders from Ireland and across Europe, selling a host of festive fare, crafts, Christmas gifts and more. Market-goers can also enjoy a wealth of live entertainment while staying warm with hot chocolate or its new Winter Warmer Whiskey – a hot whiskey that’s perfect for fighting off winter’s chill. There are free Santa hats and candy canes, while kids have the opportunity to meet Santa and attend fun workshops too.