Uncover some of Europe's best Christmas markets
July 31, 2019
Christmas markets signal the beginning of Advent with wooden chalets clustered together to sell local handicrafts, mulled wine, and holiday cheer. Dating back centuries, the tradition comes from winter markets of the Late Middle Ages across the German-speaking part of Europe and other parts of the former Holy Roman Empire, including what's eastern France and Switzerland today.
Winter markets took place over the course of several days, instead of week, letting residents stock up on baskets, wood carvings, seasonal food, and other supplies for the looming cold months. Dresden's market may be the oldest in Germany, with the first event approved by Frederick II, Elector of Saxony, in 1434. Eventually these seasonal markets turned their focus on Christmas celebrations, as known today. Here are some of the best Christmas markets in Europe for a holiday treat.
Here are some of our favorite ones for this year (also featured in our Christmas Markets Journey), and some equally impressive ones we are looking at for our 2020 edition
Stuttgart’s Christmas market is one of Germany’s oldest, largest and prettiest ones. Approximately 290 wooden huts shed "Christmassy" flair, and market stall owners give it everything when decorating the roofs with opulent winter landscapes, lights and ornaments. Foodies are in for a treat or two – local specialties include anise biscuits and fruitcake. A day of yummy snacks, jingling music and festive decorations will help set the mood for the Advent season.
Stuttgart’s neighboring town of Ludwigsburg is also worth a visit. The grand Baroque palace from the early 18th century would be reason enough, but during the Advent season, the city celebrates with a themed Christmas market. A puppet theater, musical clocks and antique Christmas tree ornaments set the tone, and vendors feed the guests with traditional foods, including freshly baked gingerbread.
The Christmas market in Esslingen throws you back to the Medieval Ages with a varied and fun program. Glass blowers, dyers and blacksmiths dressed in authentic garments sell their craftsmanship, and gleemen and fire-eaters perform for the crowd.
In Southern Germany, Nuremberg Christmas Market builds upon more than 400 years of tradition and surrounds the Gothic, 14th-century Church of Our Lady soaring over the main square. Getting to indulge in different foods and drinks is definitely one of the best reasons to visit Christmas markets and Nuremberg’s is no exception. While the traditional gingerbread known as lebkuchen sure is addictive, who can say no to sausages when in Germany? Here you’ll find Nuremberg sausages, three small sausages served in a bread roll that are sure to help fill you up. Then you can wash it all down with a nice warm mug of punch or gluhwein.
Besides keeping you warm and full, the 100 or so market stalls also sell a wide variety of handicrafts from across the globe. The most curious gifts, ornaments and souvenirs though are all local creations, whether it’s the delightfully silly prune-men – handmade figures crafted from dried prunes and figs, or the special local ornament, the “Rauschgoldengel”, a gold foil angel that resembles the Christkind. This is one market that is hard to walk away from empty handed.
With over 100 stalls stationed outside the Salzburg Cathedral, the Salzburg Christkindlmarkt is appreciated by locals and tourists alike. It’s likely that the atmosphere has something to do with it, thanks to snow drifting in off the Alps just over the horizon. Bright, cheerful Christmas lights and the radiating heat from roasting chestnuts do the job in combating the bitter winter weather.
Much like in Vienna, the Salzburg Christmas markets will spoil you with varieties and flavors of gluhwein and punch, making you go back again and again to try all the different flavors. But for those who aren’t looking to drink, there are plenty of other ways to spoil yourself. There are stalls with umpteen different chocolates and cakes on display that are sure to satisfy a sweet tooth. But there are also all the ornaments and souvenirs to be had too, from bells and wreaths to little animal figures made from just about everything.
It’s not only market stalls that make up the Salzburg Christmas market, but also Krampus parades, singing choirs and the reading of Christmas stories to kids. And Salzburg doesn’t just host Christmas markets in its Old Town, but they’re spread across the city from up in Hohensalzburg Fortress to out at Hellbrunn Castle.
Prague, Czech Republic
What’s better than visiting one of Europe’s grandest cities? How about seeing that city glowing with festive spirit. And make no mistake, Prague, which is normally a remarkably grand city, takes things up a notch when Christmas rolls around. The Czech capital is known for being a place of good fun and that’s just amplified with the lead up to Christmas.
Prague is a somewhat spread out city with interesting districts on both sides of the Vltava River, so it makes sense that it’s also home to quite a few Christmas markets. That being said, the main two Christmas markets of Prague are found by the city’s Old Town with the central Old Town Square and the great long Wenceslas Square
The Czech people are famously the world’s biggest drinkers, so the great number of options for alcoholic drinks shouldn’t be a surprise. Along with hot mulled wine, a staple of Europe’s Christmas markets, you’ll also find mead, punch and grog, a concoction of rum, lemon, sugar and hot water. While there are plenty of foods to soak up the alcohol like sausages, pancakes and trdelník chimney cakes, perhaps the most popular is the simple ham on a spit.
Come Christmastime in France you may be thinking of cities like Paris and Lyon, but it turns out that the Strasbourg Christmas markets are the place to be. Nestled by the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg is widely regarded to be one of Europe’s best places to visit in the winter and around Christmas. It may not be a part of France that you have considered visiting before, but the festive season will have you looking at it in a whole new light.
For starters, the Strasbourg Christmas markets known as Marché de Noël are simply massive, with over 300 wooden stalls spread throughout the city’s historical center. There are even themed markets depending on which part of the city you’re visiting, such as “Magical Christmas”, “Alternative Christmas” and “Secret Christmas”. Generally though, the Strasbourg markets place an emphasis on the regional traditions of Alsace, making it a distinctly local experience. Besides seeing the different market themes, jumping from one market to the next allows you the chance to enjoy all the city’s magical illuminations that decorate streets, houses and churches alike.
In recent years, one central European city has soared up the ranks of the best Christmas markets in Europe – Budapest. The Hungarian capital city has really come into its own as a major tourist destination the last few years, surely in no small part thanks to its Christmas celebrations. It’s easy to see the appeal of spending your days in Budapest sightseeing and soaking in the famous thermal baths and then your nights eating and drinking under Christmas lights.
And there is one thing that’s really special about Budapest’s Christmas markets: Real care is taken in making traditional handcrafts like glass-blowing, candle-making and leatherwork, as well as traditional Hungarian embroidery. It should become clear that here in Budapest, genuine traditional goods are emphasized over mass-commercial products because they celebrate and showcase Hungarian traditions. You’ll want to save space in your travel luggage for these souvenirs, that’s for sure.