Best European Christmas Markets

 
7 July 2022

The festive season in the northern hemisphere is synonymous with amazing Christmas markets spread all over Europe.  While the winter weather may not be to everyone’s taste, a cup of hot chocolate (or something a little “stronger”) to keep out the winter chill certainly makes up for it.  In a northern winter you get the chance to experience what it’s like to rug up, wrap your hands around a mug of mulled wine, coffee or hot chocolate and listen to the singing of carols or watching Christmas plays. Yuletide markets are indeed a very special part of your full-on winter Christmas experience because they are a famous, traditional, historical slice of Europe with seasonal treats, ornaments and plenty of cheer and goodwill on offer.

Europe has so many epic Christmas markets everywhere that deciding on the ones you should travel to can be a huge challenge for tourists.  There are just so many from which you can choose: which has the greatest variety of stalls, the best food and drinks, most interesting attractions, the best tree and the most spectacular decorations?  The choice is bewildering …

We at Flight Centre have compiled a list of boundless Christmas markets that we consider worth exploring while wrapping yourself up in the cheer, bonhomie and generally great experience these markets have to offer while enjoying them with all the unique local touches each of these cities’ markets adds. 

We have listed below the countries (in alphabetical order) that have over the years gained international recognition for hosting their Christmas markets (some countries certainly host many, many more than just one such market) and give some insight as to what each provides.

Austria - SalzburgAustria - ViennaCzech Republic
DenmarkEngland - LondonEngland - Manchester
EstoniaFinlandFrance
GermanyHungarySwitzerland

Salzburg, Austria

Outside the Salzburg Cathedral is the Christkindlmarkt.  It has over 100 stalls and much like in Vienna, the Salzburg Christmas market tickles your taste buds with varieties and flavours of gluhwein and punch. Boozy options aside, there are plenty of other ways to make your taste buds stand to attention because there are stalls with umpteen different chocolates and cakes on display that are sure to make you come back for more.  But there are also all the ornaments and souvenirs you could wish for also, from bells and Christmas wreaths to little animal figures made from just about everything.

It’s not only market stalls that make up the Salzburg Christmas market, but also Krampus parades, singing choirs and the reading of Christmas stories to kids.  And Salzburg doesn’t just host Christmas markets in its Old Town; markets are spread across the city from Hohensalzburg Fortress to Hellbrunn Castle.

Vienna, Austria

The Austrian capital really makes an effort with Christmas and the results are there for all to see. Throughout Vienna’s city centre, grand Christmas lights add additional splendour to the city’s imperial architecture and the promise of mulled wine and giant jam-filled donuts.  Across Vienna you’ll find countless Christmas markets, from grand ones like those on the grounds of Schönbrunn and Belvedere palaces, to small local ones in the outer districts. Surely the largest Vienna Christmas market though is the Rathaus Christkindlmarkt outside Vienna’s elegant City Hall. Sprawling out over the park in front of the Rathaus, ice skating tracks and light displays surround great long rows of market stalls.  Here you can find anything and everything that make up a Viennese Christmas.  Gifts, souvenirs and ornaments in all shapes and sizes are available, from shiny tree baubles to snow globes and wood or ceramic handcrafts.

But the best thing about any Vienna Christmas market is the promise of scrumptious food washed down with gluhwein, which is hot mulled wine, and punsch, a mix of wine, fruit juices and spices. If you’re after something stronger, go for the turbo punsch, which is punsch with a dash of a spirit like rum or schnapps.  On the food front, there’s the famous bauernkrapfen - oversized donuts, the equally famous käsespätzle - Moorish cheese pasta, and of course pretzels and bratwurst.

Then there is the Viennese Dream market which has a space dedicated for children to engage in a range of festive activities, such as making cookies and candles.  Inside, you can also listen to carols sung by international choirs.

Prague, Czech Republic 

In late November, the Old Town Square Christmas tree lights are switched on for the first time, signalling the official opening of the Christmas market and marking the beginning of the festive season in that country.

The main two Christmas markets of Prague are in the city’s Old Town Square and its long Wenceslas Square.  Up at Prague Castle the Christmas market there begins a week earlier.  The variety of alcoholic drinks available shouldn’t be a surprise because the Czechs are known to enjoy their booze. Along with hot mulled wine (a staple of Europe’s Christmas markets), you’ll also find mead, punch and grog, which is a concoction of rum, lemon, sugar and hot water. Perhaps even try medovina, a hot honey wine.  In addition, you’ll find a variety of stalls selling traditional Eastern European food, including prazska sunka (roast ham), sausages, pancakes and trdelník (chimney cakes) and sweets. 

As for entertainment, the Prague Christmas markets in the Old Town Square include a small petting zoo with various farm animals which keep the kids happy while there are also are also folk groups and school choirs that perform on the main stage, completing the festive atmosphere.

Copenhagen, Denmark

If you love Christmas lights, it doesn’t get better than a visit to the Tivoli Gardens amusement park in Copenhagen at Christmas.  Throughout the gardens there are dazzling light displays while in addition Tivoli is also famous for its rides, theatre performances, a huge decorated Christmas tree and countless food and drink and craft stalls.

While you have to pay to enter Tivoli Gardens there are other - free - Christmas markets around Copenhagen which include one at the iconic and colourful Nyhavn harbour, one at Freetown Christiania and another at Kongens Nytorv square in Copenhagen’s Old Town.

No matter which Copenhagen Christmas market you choose to visit, there will always be plenty of Danish food and drinks for you to try. The Danes, as do most Christmas markets, have their own warm mulled wine (gløgg).  Delicious Danish hot chocolate is on the menu for non-alcohol-drinkers and goes down perfectly with æbleskiver, which is best described as a ball-shaped, fluffy pancake. Another great Danish food choice available at Christmastime is flæskesteg sandwiches, which are filled with delicious roast pork.

London, England

The iconic Leicester Square has hosted festive markets and entertainment since 1670! It is still a mecca for all things Christmas. It doesn’t cost anything but tired feet after wandering around the stalls, but if you want to see a show inside the spiegeltent you’ll need to purchase a ticket. The kids can visit Santa’s Grotto where they visit Father Christmas and listen while he reads a festive fairytale, but you’ll also have to buy a ticket to enter the grotto. 

Manchester, UK

Manchester’s Christmas markets began in 1999 and have since boomed in size and popularity.  Centred on Albert Square, the Christmas markets of Manchester are big with market stalls overflowing into nearby lanes. For hops aficionados there is a double-storey German beer house on site so why go to Germany when you can have the beer and festive spirit brought to you?  Visitors can take a break from shopping and tasting the international food on offer by skating for a while on the market’s ice rink.  Other markets worth a visit can be found throughout Manchester’s city centre.

Tallinn, Estonia

Although modern markets in Tallinn have only been going on since the last couple of decades, the tradition of raising a Christmas tree in Town Hall Square dates way back to 1441.  The beautifully illuminated tree is raised right in the centre of the central Old Town square and is surrounded by market stalls and glittering fairy lights. 

The square also has a stage where performances of song and folk dancing reflect traditional elements of Estonian culture.  This perfectly preserved walled old town feels like it has leapt out the pages of a fairy-tale and at Christmastime gleaming white snow adds to its fairy-tale-like appearance. The Tallinn Christmas market is not as big as some other markets out there, however, it is rich in intimacy and abounds with atmosphere.

Adults can enjoy themselves with a cup of hot mulled wine, a handful of Estonian gingerbread while the smell of blood sausage and sauerkraut are bound to do get their mouths watering.  There are also plenty of locally made handcrafts to choose from.  Children are well catered for too.  They can ride on carousels and enjoy other activities for the younger set and on entering his cottage can even meet Santa himself.

Helsinki, Finland

Finland’s most popular Christmas market, the Helsinki Christmas Market has more than 100 stalls and fills Senate Square, the oldest part of central Helsinki.  With the 19th-century Helsinki Cathedral towering above the square, the market is the perfect place for some festive shopping and doing some sightseeing at the same time.  As a bonus, children can ride an old-fashioned merry-go-round for free. 

Strasbourg, France

The Strasbourg Christmas markets are without doubt the place to be.  Nestled on the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg is widely regarded to be one of Europe’s best places to visit in the winter and around Christmas.  This part of France is one you might not have contemplated visiting before, but the Strasbourg Christmas markets are a very good reason to add this city to your travel itinerary.

The Strasbourg Christmas markets (known as Marché de Noël) are massive when compared to some other European markets, with over 300 stalls spread throughout the city’s historical centre.  Interestingly, there are even themed markets depending on which part of the city you’re visiting, such as “Magical Christmas”, “Alternative Christmas” and “Secret Christmas”.  If you’re after the main market though, head to Place Kleber where you’ll find an enormous 30-metre high Christmas tree taking centre stage.

The Strasbourg markets place an emphasis on the regional traditions of Alsace, making it a distinctly local experience, so jumping from one market to the next gives you the opportunity to enjoy all the city’s magical illuminations that decorate streets, houses and churches alike.

There is plenty of food and drinks on sale and naturally, you’ll find hot mulled wine where here it is known as vin chaud.  But you can also find special beers that have been especially brewed for the Christmas season.  Another taste experience awaiting you is the local spicy treat known as Alsatian biscuits, bredele.

Berlin, Germany

There are often between 60 and 80 separate markets scattered throughout the German capital.  Let’s begin with the Berliner Weinachtszeit market situated behind Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz with itsWinterwelt.  The former features a massive ice skating rink and ferris wheel, while the latter has a huge luge that is big enough for people to actually ride down!  The market at Potsdamer Platz is also popular because it starts in early November, weeks before most other German markets do.

Then there is the more traditional Weihnachtszauber am Gendarmenmarkt.  It’s at this market where you can find all sorts of handcrafted gifts and souvenirs.  Furthermore, this market plays host to daily Christmas plays. No matter which Berlin markets you find yourself at, there’s certain foods you should keep an eye out for.

There’s the delicious schmalzkuchen (mini doughnuts) and lebkuchen (gingerbread) and more international fare like gulash and hot chips.  All of this can be easily accompanied by a nice warm cup of gluhwein or, even in winter, crisp, cold draught beer.

Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg’s markets are widely considered to be one of the best Christmas markets in Europe, if not the most famous.  This medieval city in Bavaria hosts the popular Christmas market which dates way back to the 1500’s.

What makes this market somewhat unique is the figure known as Christkind.  She is a local icon, played by a young local woman dressed like an angel with golden wings and wearing a crown, symbolizing the spirit of the Christkindlemarkt.  Here, the Christkind is the one who gives kids their presents and is the figure for which the market is actually named.

The 100 or so market stalls sell a wide variety of handicrafts from across the globe.  The most curious gifts, ornaments and souvenirs though are all local creations, whether it’s the delightfully silly prune-men - handmade figures crafted from dried prunes and figs, or the special local ornament, the “Rauschgoldengel”, a gold foil angel that resembles the Christkind.

Food and drink abound. Nuremberg sausages served on a bread roll are a “must have” and followed by traditional gingerbread (lebkuchen) makes for a great snack while exploring the stalls. Wash it all down afterwards with a nice warm mug of punch or gluhwein.

Budapest, Hungary

The two best known Christmas markets of Budapest are found in Vorosmarty and St. Stephen’s Squares.  

The Vorosmarty Square markets are Budapest’s oldest and most famous.  Much newer are the markets outside the St. Stephen’s Basilica, which since 2011 have captivated locals and tourists alike with the its ice skating rink and Hungarian folk art.

What is really special about Budapest’s Christmas markets is that care and pride is taken in traditional handcrafts like glass-blowing, candle-making, leatherwork and traditional Hungarian embroidery. Tasty goodies on offer are chimney cakes a.k.a. cinnamon pastries (kurtoskalacs) and snacks like langos - which is fried dough with cheese and other things on top - as well as other hot foods like dumplings (dodolle) and sausages.

Basel, Switzerland 

The Swiss town of Basel is an ideal location for a festive market.  Considered as one of the biggest in Switzerland, the Basel Christmas market is located in the Old Town of the city in the areas of Munsterplatz and Barfusserplatz.  

There are more than 160 traders and artisans who set up stalls for the market. After you’ve bought a few trinkets, handcrafts and souvenirs, sink your teeth into a genuine Basel lackerli (gingerbread biscuit) or Swiss raclette (melted cheese) which is usually accompanied by potatoes, pickles and cured meat.

So if you are indeed fortunate to be in one of the above countries during November and December why not treat yourself to a visit of one of these amazing Christmas markets.  You might come away from it with an emptier wallet but on the other hand your body will certainly be filled with great food and drink and you will take home memories that will last a lifetime.