There is nothing that puts me in the mood for the holidays more than European Christmas markets.
They have been held in cities and villages around Europe for over four hundred years, and are the perfect antidote to a cold and dark December day.
Around Europe, public squares are lined with row after row of market stalls, people shopping, eating and fighting the cold with cups of mulled wine and apple cider. What’s best is that these markets don’t last for a day, or a weekend, or even a week. Instead, we’re talking over a month of daily Christmas celebrations.
While there are a myriad of Christmas markets around Europe, a handful rise to the top. These special few are worth a weekend getaway (or a few!) from late November through December.
Best European Christmas Markets: London
Winter Wonderland (mid Nov-early Jan)
Every November, a huge section of London’s Hyde Park is converted into a oasis of Christmas spirit. Winter Wonderland includes dozens of rides, for both kids and adults, from spinning teacups to rollercoasters. In addition to the amusement park, there is a Bavarian Village, packed with stands grilling sausages and flowing beer. The Angel’s Christmas Market has all of the holiday trinkets you could ever need, and the street food section has a wide range of good eats.
Unexpected Alternative: Winterville (late Nov-late Dec)
Set up in Victoria Park, in the heart of hipster East London, Winterville is the smaller cousin to Winter Wonderland. There are still rides and fun for all ages, but there are more funky cocktail tents, craft beer bars, a crazy golf course, and stalls hawking vintage clothing. Please note that this annual festival is taking a break in 2016 to reorganize (boo!), but is coming back bigger and crazier than ever in 2017.
Best European Christmas Markets: Traditional
Vienna, Austria (mid-Nov-Dec 24th)
The iconic image of Vienna’s Rathaus, all lit up for the holiday season, is exactly what I think of when I imagine the perfect European Christmas market. The unmistakeable smell of roasting chestnuts, entire rows of stalls selling Christmas decorations including dried citrus and cinnamon wreaths that permeate the air…it’s everything you could ever want from a Christmas market.
Unexpected Alternative: Bratislava, Slovakia (mid Nov-late Dec)
Just an hour by train from Vienna, Bratislava’s festivities are set in the medieval Old Town section of the city, a cozy location protected from the elements of a cold winter. The picturesque neighborhood hosts the annual Christmas market, and while still lively, this market isn’t nearly as swamped as its neighbor, Vienna. Almost one hundred stalls set up each year, and unsurprisingly, the market specializes in Slovak crafts and local specialities like potato pancakes, grilled sausages, and honey wine.
Best European Christmas Markets: Food and Drink
Stuttgart, Germany (late Nov-Dec 23rd)
Stuttgart’s Christmas Market dates back to the 17th century and is visited by almost 3.5 million people each year, making it one of the busiest markets in all of Europe. There are almost 300 stalls in the center of the city, selling nutcrackers, ornaments, and other holiday gifts. Of course, the food is hard to miss, as the whole city smells of cinnamon and spice. There are lots of sweet treats, like gingerbread, waffles, and fruitcake, but it’s hard to look past the tempting bratwurst, spätzle, and sheep’s milk cheese. All washed down with glühwein, the hot, mulled red wine that is practically required drinking at any Christmas market!
Unexpected Alternative: Strasbourg, France (late Nov-late Dec)
Amazingly, the oldest European Christmas market is in Strasbourg, dating back to 1570. This city, right on the German border of France in Alsace, does not hold back: there are over 500 events planned throughout the city each year during the Christmas season. The Alsatians know how to eat well too, so you can drink Lait de Poule, eggnog spiked with brandy, while eating local escargot, foie gras, munster cheese, or giant pretzels. If you crave something sweet, you won’t be disappointed with Kouglof, a sweet, buttery roll filled with raisins and nuts, that is particularly tasty when dunked in hot chocolate.
Best European Christmas Markets: Decoration and Lights
Copenhagen (mid-Nov-late Dec)
Danes may be known for their understated design sensibilities, but during the annual Christmas market at the the legendary Tivoli Gardens, more is definitely more. The centrally-located amusement park is awash in lights and holiday decoration, all arranged by one of the head designers at Tiffany and Co. You can enjoy freshly made apples pancakes while marveling at the nightly light display. Closer to Christmas, they also hold fireworks shows, taking the celebrations to a whole new level.
Unexpected Alternative: Brussels (late Nov-early Jan)
A relative newcomer to the party, Brussels starting hosting a Christmas market in 2002. Winter Plet (“Pleasures of Winter”) has over two hundred stalls, and thanks to the city’s designation as de facto capital of the European Union, the fair highlights goods from around the continent. Of course, they don’t skip the Belgian classics, like chocolate, waffles, mussels, and frites. Each night, the festivities come to life with a daily light and sound show at the Grand Palace, which you can watch from the sparkling ferris wheel, or the illuminated public skating rink.
This post on the best European Christmas markets was inspired by this article on dealchecker. Check it out!