From Bavaria to Bath: Your Guide to European Christmas Markets

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From Bavaria to Bath: Your Guide to European Christmas Markets

You don’t have to celebrate Christmas to enjoy a good Christmas market. The best ones sidestep the religious aspects entirely, opting instead for a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of holiday tropes: twee handicrafts, towering coniferous trees, string lights, crushed velvet, traditional music, stick-to-your-ribs fare, and hot alcoholic drinks in a cold public square. It's as though someone brought The Night Before Christmas to life in the most fever-dream way possible.

You can find fantastic Christmas markets all over the world. Chicago hosts an impressive one; Hong Kong boasts a beautiful take on the tradition; Toronto puts its historic Distillery District to use for another fantastic option. However, for the crème de la crème of Christmas markets, you need to go to the source: Europe.

It isn’t a fair fight. Europe has had hundreds of years of practice perfecting the winter market. (Germany’s markets, generally agreed to be the first, kicked off in the 1300s). And in those seven centuries, cities across the continent have engaged in a one-up competition for who can deliver the biggest, brightest, most raucous holiday festivals.

What Makes the Perfect Christmas Market?

We’re about to bombard you with options. That said, you can cut through the noise and guide your decision-making process by emphasizing your personal criteria. Here are a few of our criteria (in no particular order). Choose the points that best align with your tastes to find the right place for your holiday merry-making.

  • It has to be big: We don’t want small-time markets with a handful of stalls; we want sprawling wonderlands built right into the center of a city. Size doesn’t always matter, but in this case: size equals excitement.
  • It should be a blend of commercial and non-commercial experiences: Our main gripe with some North American Christmas markets is they’re too heavily weighted toward commercialism; you pay a ticket for entry, then the entire experience is basically chain stores masquerading as bespoke stalls. We want a mixture. Mom-and-pop stalls are obviously the backbone of many European holiday markets, but we should also see free public spaces, sculptures, food and beverage purveyors, entertainment, etc. Oh, and it should not cost you a price of admission.
  • The surrounding city is a destination in its own right: We’re flying halfway around the world. We want some intrigue and interest aside from the Christmas Market. That said, we tend to favor markets in cities we like to visit.
  • The food and drink scene should be on point: At their best, European Christmas markets are a party, complete with great food and drinks. Regional variations abound – from the bratwursts and Gluweins (mulled wines) of Germany to the goulash and schnapps of Hungary. However, two things remain consistent: comfort and conviviality.

As mentioned, this is our checklist for the ideal European Christmas market. Weight the list however you like, and feel free to include criteria of your own (either privately or down in that comments section).

When to Go?

Christmas markets in Europe kick off around mid-November, and dismantle their stores at the beginning of January. In theory, that’s your window for enjoying these pop-up wonderlands.

That said, we prefer going on the earlier side for a couple of reasons. First, flights are remarkably cheaper in mid-November than any of the weeks orbiting December 25th. In some cases, it’s a markup of 300% to fly to these markets in peak December. Second, we like the vibe in November a little better. Having just opened, the markets attract lots of local attention, benefiting from the year’s first “holiday buzz.” That excitement dissipates slightly as December wears on, but – truthfully – markets remain magical the entire time.

What to Pack

Winter in Europe is its own beast, requiring a shrewd packing plan and high-performance clothing. We recommend (as we typically do) that you pack light, which will allow you to remain agile and free to explore beyond the market – without feeling bogged down by luggage.

Packing light in the brisk European winter means reaching for versatile merino wool clothing. Merino wool is insulating enough to form protective base and middle layers against low temperatures. Still, it’s breathable enough that you can wander all day through the labyrinthine rows of stalls without feeling swampy or sweaty. Finally – and this is a biggie for light-packers – Merino wool is antibacterial, meaning one or two of a single garment (even underwear!) will last you a couple of weeks on the road. Check out our base layers like underwear, shirts and socks. And double up the performance with middle-layer all-stars like our travel hoodie for men or women's quarter zip sweatshirt.

In addition to warm clothes, consider packing the follow for your holiday market adventure:

  • Cash: While card readers are becoming more popular, cash reins kings at many markets. Buy some Euros (or Krona, Pounds, etc.) before disembarking.
  • Comfortable walking shoes: Some of these markets sprawl. You’ll easily hit your 10,000 steps in a day, so it’s best to pack a pair of durable, comfortable walking shoes.
  • A day bag/extra bag: For many people, the point of a European Christmas market is shopping. That said, consider packing a day bag for your excursions that you can then tuck neatly into your luggage (this time filled with bring-home goodies) for the flight home.
  • Accessories: Especially for the northern cities, pack mitts, a scarf and a merino beanie. You can tuck these into your coat pockets for the long-haul flights to save space in your luggage. (We’re big advocates of the “wear your winter clothes on the airplane” hack!).
  • Chapstick, sunscreen and other protective items: Remember, these markets are outside in the open air. You might be spending six, seven hours in the elements per day. It’s best to pack protective items like lip balm, moisturizer and sunscreen.

Naturally, all the everyday packing items apply too – toiletries, documents, etc. If you’re traveling outside the Eurozone, you might also need to research visas in advance.

Now that we have our general information squared away, we can turn to the main event: our list of the finest Christmas markets on the continent. Nearly every city has its own spin on the event, so this was a challenging list to whittle. Still, we believe we’ve compiled a compelling cross-section of the festive-est hotspots.

Credit: rawpixel.com Via Freepik

The Classic Experience: Christmas Markets in Central Europe

We begin our list in Central Europe: the birthplace of the Christmas market. According to the Smithsonian’s “A Brief History of Christmas Markets,” the tradition traces its origins to the Medieval German-speak region, when local dukes sanctioned weeks-long winter festivals leading to the Christian holiday season. It was a regional phenomenon, with every major city vying for the most lavish festivities.

Before long, the tradition spread to German-speak regions outside Germany, like Switzerland and France. Here, we offer five cities in Central Europe that we believe typify that centuries-old tradition:

  • Nuremberg: One of the oldest “Christkindlesmarkts,” Nuremberg’s is also one of the biggest. It’s a vast network of stalls, food purveyors, drinking hubs, kids’ rides and more, flanked on all sides by historic buildings. Come for the impressive display, stay for the grilled “Nuremberger sausages.”
  • Cologne: Recently, Lonely Planet pitted Cologne and Nuremberg against one another in a battle of the German Christmas markets. We aren’t taking sides. Cologne’s market features similar stalls and activities, open-fire cooking and mulled wine stations. Additionally, it’s a beautiful city to spend a vacation in, with several landmark sights (the Cologne Cathedral, e.g.) and modern elements.
  • Vienna: Vienna’s Christmas market is a cavalcade of lights, arches and staggering architecture. Constructed at the foot of the historic Rathaus (literally “town hall”), this is one of the more impressive visual spectacles. Vienna also gains an edge because it’s a brilliant destination in its own right.
  • Strasbourg: Straddling the German border, the French city of Strasbourg draws the best of both worlds. If you like your Christmas markets with a side of French cuisine, this is the one for you. We even saw multiple foie gras stalls last time we were there.
  • Basel: If you’re heading for a ski trip to the Swiss Alps, here’s your chance to incorporate an impressive Christmas Market. Basel’s market isn’t as big as the previous four, but there’s still plenty to do, buy, see, eat and drink.

We’ve omitted several worthy markets for the sake of time. Truthfully, you could throw a dart at a map of Central Europe, travel there, and reliably have a blast at their Christmas market.

Whimsy without Breaking the Bank: Eastern Europe

As mentioned, the Christkindlesmarkt – or Christmas Market, as it’s anglicized – was a German invention, spreading slowly to the rest of Europe. It makes sense, then, that several of that country’s eastern neighbors adopted the tradition early.

If you're looking for all the whimsy of a Central European market but want to stretch your dollar further, consider Eastern Europe. Here are a few of our favorite markets on the right side of the map:

  • Budapest: The Hungarian capital throws a Christmas market to rival any in Central Europe – or the world, for that matter. The scenery is pure festive excess. The cuisine is decidedly Hungarian (yes, there’s usually rooster testicle stew on offer). And the setting among Vörösmarty Square is dramatic. Forbes named it the world’s best market last year.
  • Prague: Prague’s Christmas market didn’t even have to try. Tourists were going to flock to Czechia’s capital regardless. It’s a cherry on top, then, that Prague throws a beautiful celebration in its Old Town Square – AKA Wenceslas Square, like the titular “Old King” of Christmas carol fame.
  • Krakow: Poland also boasts fantastic markets in Warsaw and Gdansk, but we’ll give it to Krakow this time. The cultural capital of Poland, Krakow is home to stunning architecture and deep cultural practices. But it also knows how to throw a great party.
  • Sibiu: We take you now to the historic center of Sibiu – in the heart of Transylvania, Romania. This city hosts a lively market in partnership with the Austrian embassy, which features a skating rink, amusement park, typical Romanian and Austrian fare and stalls galore. As a bonus: Romania is widely regarded as one of cheapest countries to visit in Europe.

Again, whittling this list down was no mean feat. If you’re heading Northeast to the Baltics, Tallinn in Estonia has a terrific market. And if you’re stomping through the Southeastern Balkans, check out Zagreb’s market in Croatia.

Credit: zurijeta Via Freepik

A White Christmas (Maybe): Northern Europe

If you’re looking for a white Christmas (market), your best bet is to head north where the temperature drops. Before you travel, check out our resource on packing for winter travel, and grab a comfy pair of our merino wool sweatpants for the long journey.

On that note, we trace the Germanic influence of Christmas markets toward the Northern parts of the continent. Some neighboring countries, like Belgium and Denmark, immediately got the memo – throwing centuries-old festivities rooted in unique traditions. Others, like the UK’s, are a recent phenomenon – with German-format markets appearing as late as the 1980s. We include a mix here:  

  • Brussels: Belgium’s capital throws a fragmented celebration throughout its city centre, but the largest market is around Grand-Place. You’ll typically find a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, various bars, several vendor stalls, and countless places to find the country’s trademark frites and chocolates.
  • Gothenburg: Of all the cities in this grouping, Sweden’s Gothenburg is most likely to get snow. Gothenburg hosts several markets throughout the city. Head to Haga for the classic German-format market, or detour to the majestic Tjolöholm Castle for a “ripped-straight-out-of-Frozen” kind of experience.
  • Bath: England has bigger markets than Bath’s. It has more popular ones, too. But you can’t deny the charm and ambience of Bath’s Georgian architecture and world-famous abbey, each lending a distinctive authority to the Somerset celebrations.
  • Edinburgh: No stranger to festivals and public markets, Edinburgh is maybe the ideal UK city to host a Christmas market. And it delivers. The celebrations kick off with the lighting of Edinburgh Castle high atop Castlehill, beaming holiday colors that shine over the market below. And it ends with – get this – a giant disco party on December 30th. Only in Scotland.
Let us know in the comments below if you have any hot (cold?) tips for the best European Christmas markets. Wherever your feet touch down this holiday season, we hope you stay comfortable, warm and happy.

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