If all you want for Christmas is to travel and explore, be sure to check out these Christmas markets. I selected 10 of my favourites that have a good reputation, an exciting programme, and look as Christmassy as a Christmas market can be.
Most European Christmas markets have a number of things in common: mulled wine, gingerbread, handicrafts, ice rinks, reindeer, a cosy atmosphere, and happy people. I’m sure my selection won’t disappoint you, unless of course you’re someone who hates Christmas and hides in a room with earplugs to avoid any evil jingly sounds.
1. Strasbourg – the best of the best
November 24–December 30
Situated in eastern France, Strasbourg is the capital of Christmas. It has a long tradition of Christmas markets, the first dating back to 1570. It was selected as Europe’s best Christmas market two years in a row.
The city has 11 different sites for Christmas markets, which are connected by charming streets decorated with lights, wreaths, and baubles. There are carols being sung on the squares, the smell of cinnamon and other spices lingering in the air, and people searching for the best surprises for their loved ones.
Taste some of the sweets and doughnuts, and take a walk around the cathedral. You might just fall in love with the city.
Strasbourg is less than three hours by train from Paris, but if that seems a bit too far, Christmas in Paris is also wonderful with plenty of Christmas markets and decorated storefronts.
Photo credit: Chrissy Hunt
2. Outstanding Vienna
November 17–December 26
Vienna, the city of classical music, has an incredibly rich culture and is a perfect place to visit during the Christmas holidays. The festive season begins in mid-November and ends with a spectacular New Year’s concert by the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The beautiful Christmas market in the heart of the city puts everyone in a jolly mood with its mulled wine, handicrafts, glass decorations, and sweets such as lebkuchen (a thicker and softer version of gingerbread).
There are many Christmas markets around the city, but the ones on Stephansplatz and Karlsplatz are not to be missed. In 2014 Vienna also began hosting the Pink Christmas Market, which supports LGBT rights and is the third-largest Christmas market in the city.
Photo credit: Wien Tourismus
3. Dazzling Zurich
November 23–December 23
Do you think decorating a Christmas tree with thousands of Swarovski crystals is a pretty cool idea? If you do, then Zurich is the place to visit during Christmas because that’s exactly what they’ve done with their Christmas tree in front of the main train station. The tree isn’t the only thing to see of course, but it’s quite remarkable, so don’t miss it.
With wonderful markets at different locations throughout the city and the smell of Christmas in the air, the festive season is one of the best times to explore Zurich’s Old Town, sledge down Üetliberg, and go ice skating on the Dolder open-air rink. A thrilling experience is guaranteed.
Photo credit: nils.rohwer
4. The Christmas markets in Berlin
November 26–December 23
Christmas markets are often associated with Germany, and one of the most impressive ones takes place in Berlin. The city overflows with Christmas spirit and the locals certainly don’t hold back. Berlin becomes a maze of stalls, lights, and Christmas markets, and there’s also an extensive programme of entertaining shows and performances.
Look out for some local marzipan treats and traditional kale with sausage. Also, if you really enjoy meat dishes, see if you can eat one of those half-metre-long sausages at once. Now there’s a Christmas challenge for you. You can be sure you won’t leave hungry or disappointed.
Germany is the country with the most Christmas markets, so take a look at other locations, especially in the south.
Photo credit: Visit Berlin
5. Small and lovely Tallinn
November 17–January 6
Tallinn turns into a fairy tale during Christmas. Although the winters are different each year, all Estonians expect to have a white Christmas with snow-covered roofs, children building snowmen and having snowball fights on the streets, and the smell of cinnamon, glögi (mulled wine), and gingerbread in the air.
The Christmas market in the heart of the Old Town greets visitors with all sorts of sweets, loads of knitted handicrafts, and usually some reindeer. Also, Tallinn was the first city ever to have a public Christmas tree! Latvians make the same claim, but don’t believe them – apparently there was a huge misunderstanding.
Photo credit: Sergei Zjuganov
6. Buzzing Edinburgh
November 17–January 6
Edinburgh turns into a Christmas wonderland at the end of November when the whole city gets into the festive spirit. Add the Christmas festival to Edinburgh’s beauty and the result is close to what you’d imagine the city to look like in old Christmas tales.
In 2017 there will be two large Christmas markets: the Scottish Market and the European Market, selling everything from jewellery to Scottish craft beer. There will also be an ice rink, rides, Santa land, an ice wall, and a Christmas tree maze. Everyone should be able to find themselves a wee treat at this excellent festival!
Photo credit: Ewan McIntoch
7. Christmas lights in Prague
December 2–January 6
Prague is impressive even when it’s not decorated with lights, but if you happen to be there during the winter holidays, you’re lucky. Prague celebrates this wonderful time of year with big markets on the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, but there are also smaller ones dotted around the city.
The markets are good places to buy special gifts for your friends and family, and to taste local delicacies. The Czechs know how to make delicious barbecues, hams, pastries and, of course, beer. Wander around the city, check out Prague Castle, walk across the Charles Bridge, and simply enjoy.
Photo credit: Prague.eu
8. Double Christmas in Budapest
November 24–January 1
Christmas in Hungary starts early with Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6, and the festivities continue throughout the rest of the month. Budapest’s Christmas market strives to stay as authentic as possible, with lots to explore and traditional dishes to taste.
Make sure you try kürtőskalács – crispy rolls of pastry covered with sugar. They taste so good that instead of just having them as a holiday treat, Hungarians began eating them all year round. Well, we can’t really blame them.
Photo credit: Julie Ibragimova
9. Copenhagen Christmas in Tivoli
November 18–December 31
Looking for something even more exciting? The main Christmas market in Copenhagen takes place in Tivoli Gardens, which has 27 fun rides for kids and kids at heart. Tivoli is beautifully decorated with an insane number of ornaments, and lights that will almost blind you.
The smell of roasted pork and the excitement of both Christmas and the fun attractions will no doubt make your year. If you get cold, grab yourself some roasted almonds and a cup of hot chocolate.
Photo credit: Tivoli
10. Rovaniemi – Santa’s hometown
Rova-what? Rovaniemi is a city in northern Finland, the capital of Lapland and the official hometown of Santa Claus. If you ever wondered where Santa Claus lives (no, he doesn’t live in a Coca-Cola factory), you should visit Rovaniemi’s Santa Claus Village. The city is located so far north that a white Christmas is guaranteed, and it sometimes seems like Christmas never ends there.
Activities and attractions include reindeer sledding, husky rides, the Northern Lights, and the Santa Claus Village, to name just a few. The Santa Claus Village has various shops selling souvenirs, Arctic handicrafts, and local foods such as wild meat and cloudberry jam.
It’s not exactly what you’d expect from a traditional Christmas market, but as the average temperature in December is -12° C (the all-time low being -47° C), I think you’d prefer shops over a market in this weather. Also, be prepared for darkness as the city gets just two to three hours of sunlight per day in December.
Photo credit: Rovaniemi Tourism and Marketing Ltd
Of course there are many other Christmas markets that are equally as good or maybe even better. This is simply my selection of impressive and unique examples for everyone who considers this to be the best time of the year. Have a nice trip and Merry Christmas!
Opening photo credit: Tim Ellis