My obsession with Christmas markets borders on craziness, but stops just shy of insanity. I just really, really like them! I like the atmosphere. I love the foods! I like the beverages. I like the time spent with friends. I like the decorations. I love the massively huge Christmas trees!
And so in 2015 and 2016 I have been to many, many European Christmas markets. In this post, I provide a little summary of what is so great about each one and what makes each one worth visiting! Which sounds the most enticing to you? Let me know in a comment below!
Nurnberg, Germany – During the Christmas season, Nurnberg celebrates like Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, with plenty of decorations, day drinking, and unhealthy food. I spent The 24th – 26th of December 2015 in this magical city and I think I would spend every Christmas there if I could. The city knows how to celebrate. The Christmas market in the main square is show-stopping gorgeous and smaller branches of stalls selling hot wine, roasted chestnuts, and Nuremberger sausages sprawl out throughout the historical center. There is a festive and friendly atmosphere in the city. If you want to make some new friends, visit the punchbowl “Feuerzangenbowle”, supposedly the world’s largest. On the evening of the 24th every large church in town offers Christmas services, which are absolutely beautiful. Although the service I attended was in German, I could identify some popular Christmas carols and understand the gist of the message about the nativity. Because the city caters towards visitors through the month of December, there are also several restaurants open for meals on Christmas Day. The entire city is surrounded by the historical town walls and at the old castle at the top of the hill is a giant Christmas tree with a fabulous view over the city. Running one lap around the walls is about 3 miles, the perfect amount to work up an appetite for local sausage and gluhwein. “Nurnberger frankfurt” are small but tasty and served three on one bun.
Dresden, Germany – because Dresden was heavily bombed during WWII, I definitely did not expect the historic center to look so picturesque. The city spent a large sum of money on rebuilding and renovating the downtown after the war. Now, Dresden offers more than four different Christmas markets in the city center. Even though the markets were quite crowded in the evening, there was still a magical quietness in the air. The smell of gingerbread spices and gluhwein fills your nose and the horse-drawn carriages snaking their way past the markets on the streets closed to cars add to the warm and cosy atmosphere. Everywhere you look, the markets provide postcard worthy photo ops.
Picturesque Dresden city center
Berlin, Germany – Although a cosmopolitan metropolis which could just as easily look like a Milan, Madrid, New York, or San Francisco during any other time of the year, Berlin puts on its best suit and tie for the Christmas season. The variety of Christmas markets to choose from is what really makes Berlin shine during the season. The modern market at Potsdamer Platz offers a giant area for children, compete with a large fake snow hill for kids to slide down. You can grab a schneeballen – a ball-shaped, sugary donut – here or head to the larger and more popular Gendarmenmarkt. Berlin’s monumental Konzerthaus, French Church, and German Church provide the perfect backdrop for the festivities here. The market at Schloss Charlottenburg is also extremely picturesque and more cozy than the others due to its location a bit further out from the center. However, my favorite market in Berlin was the small Lucia market at the Kulturbrauerei, which is said to have a Nordic feel. I found the best food, drinks, and atmosphere there. If you want to go ice skating, the large rink at the Alexanderplatz market under the city’s infamous TV tower is for you. Berlin’s many markets really do offer something for everyone.
Strasbourg, France – The city suitably calls itself the “Capitale de Noel”, and although the only time I’ve visited was during December, I can imagine that even without all of the lights, the city would still shine. The highlights include the Notre Dame de Strasbourg church, the Petit France neighborhood, and the Place Kleber main square. The Notre Dame provides a stunningly gorgeous backdrop for the arts and crafts, gluhwein, and other seasonal specialties. Just around the corner from the cathedral, near the canal, is the “delicacies market”. If I go back one day as a rich girl, I’ll buy some foie gras, a specialty at the market… but with individual portions costing more than 25 euros, it isn’t cheap. Instead, I enjoyed a unique twist of stollen baked into a bun, Strasberg’s version of a Christmas fruitcake, with lots of nuts and dried fruits baked in. The massive tree in the main square was also a major highlight, but more beautiful and unique than that were the “alleys of gold”, decorated with lights and beautiful displays in every store window. And my favorite Christmas market was in the Petit France neighborhood, as it had a less crowded and more local feel. At this market, I purchased a truffle mushroom quiche for dinner which was divine. I also sat in a cozy, warm cafe with a glass of Cotes de Rhone, people watching from my window perch and feeling happy to be enjoying the atmosphere, cuisine, and wine of France.
Budapest, Hungary – Otherwise overwhelmingly dark during the winter months (thanks to the fog off of the Danube and general lack of sunshine), Budapest dons a fancy dress and heels with an updo during the Christmas season. In fact, other than summer, December is my favorite month to be in this city. A variety of Christmas markets pop up all over town, from small, cozy markets in the suburbs, the the large, full scale operation in Vorosmarty Square. However, my favorite is located in the square in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where a huge Christmas tree is encircled by an ice skating rink and stalls selling sausages, grilled fish, mulled wine, beer, and palinka. The cathedral is illuminated with colored spotlights and the sound of frequent choir performances fills the air. Walking just a small distance to Erzsebet Square, the market there offers all sorts of sweets and pastries to delight children of any age. Another highlight in December is the lights strung the entire distance of Andrassy Avenue from Erzsebet Square to City Park. The Opera House is decked out in seasonal attire and offers several showings of the Nutcracker throughout the month.
Vienna, Austria – I only got to spend a couple of hours in Central Europe’s capital of Christmas, and I sincerely wish I could have stayed longer. Vienna is always elegant and loves to show off at any time of year, but at Christmas time the city seemed even more magical. Maybe the light, steady, snowfall that added a sparkle to the evening provided even more of a winter wonderland ambience to my visit. All of the main pedestrian walkways in the city center are decorated with lights – my favorite being the giant hanging light chandeliers. In the square around St. Stephen’s church, a small market is set up. The church provided a picture perfect backdrop, even with the colorful roof tiles covered by snow. The large Christmas market in front of the Rathaus is certainly the show stopper in Vienna. The backdrop couldn’t be any lovelier, and the entire square is decorated like the North Pole. But if these two main markets are crowded, there are also several other smaller markets spread out around the city to visit. I decided that returning to Vienna during December is high up on my travel bucket list.
Brno, Czech Republic – What I loved about visiting this city during December was the contagious energy and cheer radiating from the crowds of people downtown. One of the things I love about Christmas markets is that they provide a place for people to meet with friends and family after work in a great atmosphere. Brno is not a very touristy town, and most of the crowds at the Christmas markets were speaking Czech. In the spacious Freedom Square, the main stage provided musical entertainment throughout the weekend. The huge Christmas tree was decorated with giant light circles and underneath it was a carved wooden life size nativity scene. The kids love petting the goats there, on loan from the nearby zoo. The smaller Cabbage Market Square was a bit too crowded to really enjoy, although the surrounding historical buildings provided a pretty backdrop. The third market, albeit small, served an astonishing variety of warm wine, cider, and punch drinks. The Slovak punch with ginger and lemon was perfect to warm up on a cold evening. In Brno, the scent of chimney cakes baking over an open fire is what fills your nose and makes your mouth start to water.
Krakow, Poland – Krakow’s Rynek Glowny, or main square, is picture perfect any time of year. During dark evenings, the old fashioned street lights appear to glow and cast a magical aura over the space in between the market hall and St. Mary’s Basilica. Add about a hundred stalls selling locally crafted Christmas ornaments, warm soup, mulled wine, hot pierogis, thick scarves, comfy socks, and intricate candles. I really enjoyed a warm pumpkin soup and beef pierogies served with grilled onions, but I was really disappointed in the mulled wine. Almost every Christmas market has adopted the policy of serving mulled wine in ceramic keepsake mugs, and if not, then at least it is served in sturdy reusable plastic cups. Krakow is still using paper cups and Ryniec, the brand of hot wine available at the market, is not particularly flavorful. Also, I was disappointed in the overall lack of lights and decorations both in the square and throughout the city. The only other market near the city center is an overwhelmingly commercial shopping market outside of the Galleria Cracovia shopping mall and main train station. Although I love Krakow and highly recommend everyone to visit this picturesque and fascinating historical city, I would not make a point of returning during the Christmas market.
Coburg, Germany – This tiny town in Northern Bavaria has a tiny Christmas market which is cute and cozy. I enjoyed eating “Coburger frankfurter” which is a tasty long sausage on a small white roll. They also have their own special blend of delicious mulled wine to stay warm. Just off the main square, Teyler’s Bakery sells a delicious stollen – the German Christmas bread, made with candied orange peel, raisins, and almonds. When I first visited the market around 3pm, there wasn’t many people about. But around 5pm, the market started to get crowded with people meeting up after work, bringing along kids and dogs and standing at the wooden tables eating and drinking together. Although the market is small, it’s worth a stop if you’re in Bavaria at this time of year.
Bratislava, Slovakia – The historical center of Bratislava does a commendable job of putting up festive Christmas lights over the old cobblestoned streets. Additionally, the Slovaks really do know how to make a delicious and strong punch. What made this market difficult to navigate was the massive overcrowding on a Saturday afternoon. The tree is beautiful, the square is beautiful, the punch is delicious, but if I could make one suggestion it would be to put more stalls in the Promotion Square and extend the market to the front of the Old Market Hall so that it can be more spread out. Along the cities on the Danube, the more spread out and spacious markets in Vienna and Budapest’s city centers outdo Bratislava, although the punch in Bratislava outdoes the mulled wines of Vienna and Budapest. So if you drink enough punch, the crowds might start to bother you less, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy time with friends and family with the glow of the illuminated Bratislava castle perched on the hill above.
No matter where you choose to visit a Christmas market in Europe, you are in for a real treat.
The markets are a serious incentive to consider planning a Europe trip during December.
If you need helping a Christmas market itinerary for next year, take a look at my trip planning options or shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your travel plans.