The festive season in Europe is all about leaning into the mid-winter experience – the twinkle of fairy lights in the trees, the aroma of roasted nuts and mulled wine, and of course, the magic of a festive market. From Cologne to Zagreb, this is our pick of Europe’s best Christmas markets:
Enchanting at any time of year, Prague becomes even more spectacular in December when its annual Christmas markets commence, bringing a festive mood to the city with brightly decorated wooden huts selling everything from embroidered lace and handmade ceramics to puppets and dolls in traditional Czech costume. Among the most popular evening locations are the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, and there’s also a daytime market at Prague Castle. In addition to the array of handicrafts and stocking fillers on offer, the markets are a great place to fill your belly on traditional Czech Christmas fare, from barbecued sausages to sweet or savoury dumplings, and a rich fish soup made from carp, vegetables, cream and brandy. Be sure to sample the trdelník – a doughnut-like delicacy that’s wrapped around a stick, baked on an open fire and then smothered in a mix of crushed walnuts and sugar. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you may like to join the hundreds of Prague locals who enjoy a mid-winter dip in the Vltava River on Boxing Day!
The Austrian capital’s biggest and most popular Christmas market is the Christkindlmarkt, located in Vienna’s Rathausplatz square and centred around a huge, illuminated Christmas tree. In recent years, sustainability has been a key part of the market, with stalls required to meet strict criteria – as a result, you’ll find a huge selection of incredible artisan handicrafts on offer, from snuggly hats made from upcycled materials to handmade glass ornaments. Protect yourself from the chilly night air and get into the holiday season with a warming cup of Christmas punch (with or without alcohol) and venture into the neighbouring Rathauspark, where the festive mood continues with a wonderland of Christmas lights, old fashioned carousel and ferris wheel rides and even an illuminated ice-skating rink.
The self-styled “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg has been fine-tuning its Christkindelsmärik for more than four hundred years. As the oldest Christmas market in France (not to mention one of the oldest in Europe), they have the festive spirit down to a fine art. The historic centre of the city is the Grande Île, a UNESCO World Heritage site which in December becomes the heart of its Christmas celebration. A towering, illuminated fir tree provides a focal point as you browse the 300-plus wooden chalets that are spread around the city’s many squares, sampling traditional bredle Christmas biscuits and warming your hands on a cup of mulled wine. Strasbourg is also the ideal starting point from explore the Alsace Wine Route, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year – a 170-kilometre journey that winds through spectacular Alsatian countryside and charming wine-growing villages such as Eguisheim and Kaysersberg.
In the month leading up to Christmas, Salzburg turns up the festive atmosphere with a collection of Christmas markets taking over its city squares, overlooked by pastel-coloured palaces and ideally dusted with a sprinkling of snow. In the heart of the Old Town, the twin domes of Salzburg Cathedral overlook the squares of Domplatz and Residenzplatz, which together make up one of the oldest and most beautiful Christmas markets in Europe. Choose a handcrafted ceramic angel to take home for your own Christmas tree, nibble on freshly toasted almonds and baked apples and listen to the choral singers performing on the steps of the cathedral. Hellbrunn Palace is a must for kids, where another wonderful Christmas market awaits: they can join a fairytale treasure hunt, ride a Christmas train or simply enjoy the magical setting among illuminated fountains and secret garden paths.
The city’s oldest Christmas market is held in Senate Square, in front of the city’s 19th-century Cathedral. The St Lucia procession is an important component of Finnish Christmas celebrations, and the crowning of the cathedral’s St Lucia on 13th December adds a layer of tradition and ceremony to an already festive setting. This is further enhanced by daily visits from Santa Claus himself, free rides on an antique carousel for the kids, and more than a hundred stalls offering gifts, handicrafts and ingredients for your classic Finnish Christmas dinner. Leading away from the square, Helsinki’s official “Christmas Street,” Aleksanterinkatu, is a pedestrian- and tram-only stretch of retail paradise that’s decorated with twinkling fairy lights and lined with cosy restaurants and shops including iconic 1930s department store, Stockmann, where you can pick up a few last-minute gifts or simply admire the themed window decorations.
A fun ride aboard Cologne’s Christmas Market Express train through the decorated streets of Cologne’s Old Town is a great way to experience Christmas in this city, and its hop-on, hop-off tickets make it easy to explore four of the best Cologne Christmas markets. Each of these markets features a different theme, with beautifully decorated stalls to match. You’ll find an incredible array of high-quality gifts, decorations and delicious culinary delights to get you in the festive mood for enjoying Cologne’s many other Christmas events and attractions. A visit to Cologne Zoo’s Christmas Garden is a must: a two-kilometre walk through the grounds of the zoo, illuminated by a glittering array of ornate, glowing Christmas decorations.
Already one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the town square and surrounding streets of Bruges transforms into a Christmas wonderland from the end of November. Indulge in festive Belgian treats such as speculoos (a spiced shortbread biscuit) and homemade chocolates while soaking up the atmosphere of the Bruges Afterglow festival, which consists of two Christmas markets connected by hundreds of illuminated Christmas trees and thousands of fairy lights that create a sparkling setting that’s one of the most magical you’ll find anywhere in the world. Among the attractions along this trail of light is the iconic Minnewater (Lake of Love), where you can practise your pirouette on a floating artificial ice rink, then watch the experts while enjoying a warming, hot drink, spiced with classic Christmas flavours like cinnamon sticks and star anise, at the Vorst (Frost) Winter Bar.
Take a walk through the Upper and Lower Towns of Croatia’s capital city, through parks and squares along a trail of light, to experience some of the most magical Christmas moments of Zagreb Advent, including a selection of wonderful markets. The main markets are in Ban Josipa Jelačića Square and King Tomislav Square: they have been voted Europe’s best Christmas markets multiple times, thanks to the collection of traditional market stalls offering hand-carved wooden toys, ceramics, and candles. You’ll also enjoy Christmas concerts across the city and a live nativity scene in front of the city’s Cathedral. Be sure to pick up some Licitar, the heart-shaped, hand-painted red gingerbread cookies that are often used as Christmas ornaments in Croatian homes, and sample the seemingly endless selection of pork sausages, baked pastries, and warming Rakija (a type of brandy) – all essential elements of a very sretan Božić (merry Christmas) in Croatia.
Are you dreaming of a white Christmas in Europe? For more ideas and inspiration on experiencing Europe’s most magical Christmas markets, talk to your personal travel manager.