December is finally here and that can only mean one thing, Christmas markets! While we don't run any driving tours over this time, our team loves to pop into the markets whenever possible. With Christmas lights providing a festival glow to snow-capped Cathedrals and age-old architecture paired with the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine, there's a certain festive feeling that can't be replicated at any other time of year. Although we would bottle it if we could!
There's always the same question that comes up, however: what, or where, are the best Christmas markets in Europe? With so many to choose from, it's tough to know which ones are worth your time. Having spent a lot of time in Europe over December, we are fairly confident in our ability to point you in the right direction. So, without further ado, allow us to guide you.
Please note: if you're planning to travel to any of the following markets or cities, please ensure you are up to date with the latest Covid-19 updates as requirements for that area and event may vary. We also recommend checking online before attending as some markets may choose not to open this year.
Where are the best Christmas markets in Europe?
It would be remiss of us to say that there's one particular country or city that houses all of the best Christmas markets as it simply isn't true. What we will say is that several countries have become renowned for some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and some garnered their fame by being the first.
Let's begin our Christmas market journey at the beginning…
The year is 1298, the place is Vienna, Austria, and for the first recorded time in history, citizens were permitted to host a 'Krippenmarkt' (Nativity market) during Advent. Although we cannot attest first hand to what was bartered, traded or sold at the market, the history books lead us to believe that meat was the primary good.
Germany was next to follow the merry tradition a full century later in 1398, however, they favoured an open-air winter street market known as a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market). The countries' leading light was a small hilltop town in Saxony known as Bautzen.
Centuries later, Martin Luther King, a German Protestant reformer, bolstered the already increasing popularity of Christmas markets by advocating that the birthday of Christ made more sense for gift-giving than other saints days. It was then, in the 16th century, that the tradition of gift exchange was born. The offerings at markets also transitioned from meats to everyday purchases and evolved into the type of goods and chattels we know today; seasonal treats, crafts, decorations as well as sumptuous fare such as mulled wine, mince pies and fruit cakes.
Over time, certain countries have developed a certain Christmas market prowess and represent almost all of the stellar choices we plan to present you with.
Image: Arthur Edelmans / Unsplash
Cologne Christmas market, Germany
Following the long-established tradition of having Christmas markets in front of churches and cathedrals to encourage parishioners to attend festive services. Cologne hosts its annual market in the spacious square overlooked by the Gothic architectural masterpiece of Cologne Cathedral. Set aglow by the lights below, this sensational World Heritage Site has a habit of stealing the show.
But onto the market itself! Famous for its impressive entertainment lineup, usually over a hundred strong, and covers Christmas swing music to gospel as well as a few other undisclosed acts to keep it interesting.
In-keeping with German tradition, keep an eye out for the glühwein (mulled wine), crafts and, of course, the interwoven lights that provide a warmth to the chilly winter night. Take a note from us - don't miss out on the food!
Christkindelsmärik, Strasbourg, France
Visiting France's longest standing market is akin to stepping into a fairytale. Strasbourg's picture-perfect wooden chalets, enchanting ice rink and Great Christmas Tree all add to the appeal that successfully entices thousands of people to attend each and every year. The Christkindesmärik promises charming nightly concerts, foie gras and a slightly unusual, but equally delicious, warm white white.
We recommend taking a short walk to Place Kléber to see the town's other claim to fame, the famous Great Christmas tree. Standing at an astounding 30 metres tall and weighing around eight tonnes, it's nothing if not impressive! Every year, it takes around 120 man hours to prepare the tree for its festive locale. Even more impressive is the time and skill it must take to string seven kilometres of lights through its branches!
Image: Daily Sabah
Basel Christmas Market, Switzerland
Basel presents not one but two parts to its Christmas market; Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. The former is home to a quaint, festive market of impeccably decorated stalls serving local seasonal treats such as genuine Basel Läckerli (a type of gingerbread), Swiss raclette, mulled wine and even specialty sausages. Not to worry though, throughout the 130 small wooden chalets, there is a wide variety of items perfect for gifting or even treating yourself. Take a moment to head to the front of the market and enjoy the view, you won't regret it.
Münsterplatz, on the other hand, is set at the foot of Basel Cathedral. Extra effort is taken each year to decorate what is widely considered the most beautiful square in the city. Strings of lights adorn the trees and weave their way through the branches of a magnificent Christmas tree. The square also plays host to several small stalls perfect to browse while drinking your mulled wine.
Christkindlesmarkt, Nuremberg, Germany
With its first written record of the Nuremberg market dating back to 1530 and the first concrete proof in 1628, it's fairly safe to say that it's one of Germany's oldest and most famous markets.
One of the main things that make it stand out is the Nüremberg Christkind. While some children believe in Father Christmas, the children here believe in a giving angel, Christkind. While she may have started as a fictional character, a person is now elected every two years to be the city's ambassador of Christmas. She makes appearances at special events and the market so keep an eye out!
If you're not a vegetarian, don't leave the market without trying a Nürnberger Rostbratwurst; these small, finger-sized sausages have garnered such a reputation that they have now been awarded a Protected Geographical Indication by the EU and can only be made within city limits and in accordance with a specific recipe. The Gingerbread and Elisenlebkuchen (a special Gingerbread with nuts) is also something to write home about! In short, the food is incredible and we recommend taking your time and trying everything you can.
Along with a variety of familiar festive favourites such as ornaments, trinkets, toys and treats, there are also some Nüremberg-specific souvenirs such as the Zwetschgenmännle dolls or 'Prune People' originally created in the 18th century - but you'll have to ask the tellar for the full, rich history!
Image: Christmas Markets In Europe
Salzburg Christmas market, Austria
With its first mention dating back to 1490, the Cathedral square is said to be the oldest market in Salzburg and has curated its Christmas market into what is known and loved today. Located at the foot of Hohensalzburg fortress and hugging the esteemed Salzburg Cathedral, its hilltop home sets the scene while the smell of baked apples, cinnamon and incense create a cosy atmosphere. Each year, 95 vendors are spread across six, colour-coded areas designed to make a visitors' browsing experience easy and enjoyable.
These are the sections you can look forward to so start planning where you're going first!
- Candles, incense, Christmas decorations and floral arrangements
- Food and drink
- Textiles and natural products
- Crafts and toys
- Sweets and coffee
- This & that, jewellery
Fun fact: did you know that Salzburg is said to be the birthplace of the most famous Christmas carol, 'Silent Night, Holy Night'?
Image: Visit Croatia
Esslingen medieval market and Christmas market, Germany
Esslingen's medieval market had to make the list due to its unique charm and esteemed festival accolades including "Best Christmas City" in 2018. Fun, medieval-themed carnival attractions and performances liven up the streets while vendors share their 'old-timey', themed wares such as potion bottles, drinking horns, and goblets to name a few. It has to be experienced to be described!
With half-timbered facades and fairytale-worthy streets, Esslingen provides the perfect backdrop for its medieval market. We recommend taking your time to really explore each vendor and the surrounding square, you never know what you might find!
Image: Outdoor Active
Nice Christmas market, France
Come one, come all to Le Village de Noël in Nice. Its alpine village theme paints a postcard-worthy picture. 60 beautiful chalets covered in lights host all of the vendors for the market while an ice rink and ferris wheel provide alternative entertainment. What could be more romantic than skating amidst a sea of twinkling lights followed by a warming glass of mulled wine?
Don't miss out on the tasting areas and make sure to explore the cheese stalls, they are most definitely worth it!
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, Nice remains fairly mild over December and does not typically experience rainfall or snow at this time of year.
Image: Go South France
Berlin Christmas markets, Germany
Berlin has several incredible Christmas markets, which made it almost impossible to choose...so we didn't! These are a few favourites, visit one of them, visit all of them, each one is worth it.
For the first time, Spandau will host its market in the Zitadell Spandau. The fortress will transform into a Christmas wonderland with ample stalls and renaissance fare including food, wine, gift ideas and an array of arts and crafts.
Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market may have the finest location of all the Berlin markets between the Französischer Dom and Deutscher Dom. Its claim to fame is having the best atmosphere of all the markets in Berlin as well as the most handmade and craft wares; from belt makers and wood carvers to painters and photographers. The culinary scene is also worth exploring with German staples, unique snacks and gourmet menus all of which can be enjoyed while watching the planned entertainment.
Finally, take a trip back in time to the Berlin Town Hall. The Old Berlin setting and traditional stalls accompanied by historically-themed street artists with organ grinders set the stage for a glimpse at life 100 years ago. Other highlights include a large ice rink set around the Neptune Fountain, a Christmassy carousel and a snow-tipped forest with an enchanted feel.
Tallinn Christmas market, Estonia
Claiming the title of Best Christmas Market in 2019 according to European Best Destinations, it's no surprise that Estonia has made it onto our list. Despite its size, Estonia's Christmas spirit more than makes up for it. A magnificent Christmas tree is displayed in front of the town hall every year, as it has been since 1441, making it the one in European history.
Not only does its tree have appeal but Father Christmas makes an appearance at the Tallinn market in a reindeer-drawn sleigh - what could be better? Top off the experience by trying the local black pudding and sour cabbage (don't knock it until you try it!).
Image: Christmas Markets In Europe
Amiens Christmas market, France
Have you ever tried mulled beer? No? Well, this is your chance! If that really doesn't sound up your alley, not to worry, there's also mulled wine available as well as endless tasty treats including waffles, cheese, and a tantalising tartiflette - perhaps not before a visit to the ice rink or ferris wheel, however!
Once you've experienced all the sights, sounds and smells of the market, make your way to the Notre-Dame d'Amiens for a one-of-a-kind light display. Emblematic scenes set to music will play out upon the Gothic architecture and create a sensory journey like no other.
Vienna Christmas market, Austria
Embrace the spirit of the season with Vienna's crowning Christmas market, the Viennese Dream. Under the watchful eye of Town Hall, the square at its feet slowly emerges as a magical marketplace fit with its very own Christmas tree and choirs singing carols. Town Hall's impressive facade is aglow from top to toe and provides a spectacular backdrop and glow to the festivities below.
A large archway, or Ringstrasse, provides an unforgettable entrance experience through archways of Advent candles, baubles and countless lights all fit for a fairytale. Once inside, make the most of the local cuisine on offer!
Image: Christmas Markets In Europe
Whether this December leads, the Christmas spirit is never too far behind. We've talked about the top rated Christmas markets and included a few of our favourites but sometimes bigger isn't always better and there are hundreds of small markets that make for a merry old time. While our tours and team take a well-deserved break, we'll be dropping in to as many markets as we can - who knows, we may even see you there!
If waiting for next year feels like too long, our team is still online and ready to handle any and all enquiries, contact us if you're ready to plan 2022's adventures.