The weeks leading up to Christmas are a really special time to be in Europe. From the end of November traditional markets set up in many towns and cities, shops and streets are decorated with twinkling lights and the festive season really starts to come to life. The smells of cinnamon, ginger and roasting chestnuts permeate the air and glühwein (a spicy red wine served hot) becomes the drink of choice.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to spend four weeks in Europe in the lead up to Christmas and it was a magical experience. All those Christmas cards I’d received over the years with snowmen and wintery scenes, all those Carols about dreaming of a white Christmas, became a reality. It really was just like stepping into a storybook scene.
Europe's best Christmas markets and activities
Europe is famous for its Christmas markets (and I managed to visit a few) but to me it was the whole convivial atmosphere wherever we went that made it so memorable.
Cheerful vendors selling freshly cut pine trees for residents to erect in their homes, no expense spared in the decoration of shops - think Paris’s Galeries Lafeyette - locals gathering around wooden chalets in the town square to sip mulled wine and eat roasted chestnuts or gingerbread, and temporary ice skating rinks set up where young and old alike zoomed around on the ice.
And all this with a backdrop of falling snow. *Sigh*
It’s almost too beautiful to be true and something an Australian has to see to believe.
My ‘Christmas in Europe’ actually finished just before the big day itself as we returned home to celebrate with family in Australia but I’d love to return one day and wake up on Christmas morning to a snowy scene outside my window.
If you, too, would like to experience a white Christmas, or pre-Christmas, in Europe, following are just some of the towns and cities that really do Christmas in style.
Christmas markets in Germany
Germans really know how to celebrate Christmas and the first-ever Christmas market, known as Striezelmarkt, was held in Dresden way back in 1434. Most other towns have also embraced Christmas in a big way with popular markets in cities like Cologne, Hamburg and Munich.
Dortmund’s market is one of the country’s largest and boasts a 45 metre high Christmas tree adorned with 40,000 twinkling lights and 300 booths selling arts and crafts, toys and decorations, plus gluhwein, bratwurst and burnt almonds to tempt the taste buds.
Alternatively, the nostalgic Christmas market in the historic old town (Altstadt) of Hattingen attracts thousands of visitors each year with its Christmas parade and Mother Holle (from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale), who moves into the Alte Rathaus from 1 December onwards, making it snow by shaking her pillows.
Germany’s vibrant and industrial Ruhr region is a surprisingly atmospheric place to experience the Christmas markets. Starting in mid-November, slightly earlier than other Christmas markets, the cities of the Ruhr are illuminated in a festive blaze of lights, with wooden huts displaying exquisite arts and crafts and culinary temptations.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the self-appointed ‘capital of Christmas’. It’s home to a huge market each year and is the birthplace of the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas stores and the German Christmas Museum.
In Freiburg, the annual Christmas market hosts over 130 stalls. As well as traditional Christmas food and drinks, a feature of Freiburg‘s Christmas market is the huge range of handmade artistic products on offer. These include ceramics, designer candles, hand puppets, jewellery and Christmas decorations. In many cases it is possible to witness the creation of the finished products at first hand.
At St. Martins church on the Rathausplatz in Freiburg, visitors can see Edgar Spiegelhalter‘s life-sized wooden carvings depicting the nativity which are displayed in front of the church. There’s also an advent service every day at 5.30 pm.
Germany's Christmas markets usually start before the first weekend of Advent (around the end of November) and go on until around Christmas Eve but some do not finish until Epiphany on 6 January. Christmas markets in Germany's rural areas are no less attractive than those in larger towns and cities, though some only take place on weekends.
Further reading: Fun things to do in Germany at Christmas time
Christmas markets in Austria
There’s plenty of Christmas charm in Austria with its snowy mountain peaks creating the perfect backdrop. Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Linz and Graz all have markets in their Old Towns.
For something a little different I think it would be fun to visit Schonbrunn Palace’s Christmas and New Year market in Vienna for Christmas with a Baroque flavour. The market is visited by around 1 million people each year and hosts 80 stalls with exhibitors from Austria and neighbouring countries selling traditional handicrafts, Christmas decorations and more.
Not far from Salzburg, St. Nicola’s Church in Oberndorf is the birthplace of the famous Christmas carol, Silent Night. The carol was first sung at the church on Christmas Eve, 1818.
Today, visitors can hear the carol sung at 5pm on Christmas Eve in the original Silent Night Chapel, as well as visit the Silent Night Museum and Oberndorf’s pretty Christmas Market.
At Steyr, Christmas mail can be sent with a stamp from the Christmas Post Office. Over two million cards and letters are stamped each year and sent around the world. You can visit the post office from 1 December to 6 January.
Christmas markets in France
Paris turns on all her charm at Christmas time with a spectacular light display along the Champs Elysees. Numerous markets also sprout up around the city, including one stretching along the Champs Elysees.
A not-to-be-missed address is the famous Galeries Lafayette department store which each year erects a HUGE and beautifully adorned Christmas tree and gorgeous decorations inside the store.
See what other Christmas events are happening in Paris here
Away from the capital you’ll find an abundance of markets in cities including Amiens, Chartres, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Montpellier and Nice, and if you’re travelling with children (or are just young at heart), Disneyland Paris is decked out with all things Christmassy from early November through until early January.
The cities and towns of the Alsace region (now part of Grand-Est) feature heavily in lists of France’s best Christmas markets. Strasbourg, Colmar and Mulhouse all host magical markets that attract thousands of visitors each year.
Strasbourg’s Christmas market claims to be one of the largest in Europe (and one of the oldest, dating back to 1570) with over 300 stalls spread out over 11 different parts of the city. Read more about it by clicking here.
Northern cities, like Lille, Reims, Arras and Rouen all get in the festive spirit, too, with their own Christmas markets.
In Bayeux, a spectacular light show takes place in the Cathedral as projections of the Bayeux Tapestry are illuminated on display screens specially set up inside the Cathedral. The show is free and runs from 2 December to 6 January. (Get opening times here.)
In the south of the country, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Carcassonne and Marseille are just some of the cities that hold Christmas markets and events.
Further reading: 5 reasons to visit Paris at Christmas
Christmas markets in Italy
Traditional wooden market huts line the streets of some of Italy’s largest cities each Christmas, too. Bolzano, Merano, Florence, Turin and Verona are just some of the places you can browse and buy handmade objects and regional specialities.
My husband has quite a few relatives that live near Bolzano and this is one Italian market I hope to visit one day having been told by many people that it's one of the best.
With its Austrian heritage, the south Tyrol region is home to Italy’s best Christmas markets. Bolzano-Bozen, along with Merano-Meran, Vipiteno-Sterzing and Bressanone-Brixen all have fine examples and Christmas festivities also take place in many of the surrounding alpine villages.
Faedo, in Trentino, is home to Italy’s largest living nativity scene with 80 life-size statues depicting the daily activities of a farming community from times past. A procession of players, shepherds and animals follows the Three Kings through town, signing traditional Christmas songs along the way.
Milan doesn’t miss out on Christmas festivities, either. The annual Christmas market takes place outside Castello Sforzesco where you can purchase everything from local treats like panettone (Italian Christmas cake) to handmade goods.
A huge Christmas tree takes pride of place in Piazza Duomo, whilst Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Castello Sforzesco are adorned with decorations.
In the Umbrian town of Albero di Gubbio, the hillside of Ingino Mount is decorated with over 250 lights in the shape of a giant Christmas tree. Extending over 750 metres up the hillside, the world’s largest Christmas tree is illuminated from early December until early January each year.
Many of Florence’s main monuments and squares are also illuminated during the festive season with special lighting effects and installations. The city also holds a traditional German Christmas market in piazza Santa Croce where you can taste Tuscan produce as well as beer, mulled wine and food from all over Europe.
Also in Tuscany, towns including Siena and Montepulciano hold Christmas markets, whilst the Villa la Versiliana a Marina di Pietrasanta (near Lucca) transforms into the World of Santa from November 18 to January 1. With an elves market, wooden and papier-mache toy workshops, Santa’s sleigh and other delights, World of Santa offers something for everyone.
In Italy’s south, many of the hamlets and villages of Puglia become home to living nativity scenes. At Canosa di Puglia, a small country church is brought to life with 300 characters, reminiscent of a little Bethlehem, whilst another living nativity scene can be found amid the rocky landscapes of Crispiano.
Christmas markets in Czech Republic
There’s perhaps no prettier setting for a Christmas market than in Prague. The Czech capital is home to numerous Christmas markets but the largest and most popular one takes place on Old Town Square.
Mulled wine, sugar-coated roasted nuts, sweet-smelling trdelnik (pastry) and bratwurst are just some of the treats available.
The Prague Christmas Market also features a display of traditional arts and crafts, such as sword making.
Christmas markets in Switzerland
Switzerland, one of my favourite European countries, also has a long Christmas market tradition but wherever you travel in Switzerland during the festive season you’re sure to find a Swiss Christmas market.
The major cities all host markets, with one of the best at Montreux on Lake Geneva. Whilst in Montreux, why not catch the cogwheel train to Rochers-de-Naye where you can visit the home of Santa Claus? (Limited opening dates apply.)
A medieval Christmas market is also held at Chillon Castle, also on Lake Geneva.
Basel hosts Switzerland’s largest Christmas market and taking pride of place is a Christmas tree decorated with one of Johann Wanner’s famous Christmas ornaments.
It’s worth visiting the Johann Wanner Christmas House to admire more of these beautiful Christmas decorations.
In Zurich, a must-see is the singing Christmas tree at Werdmühleplatz. Choir members stand on vertical rows, creating the shape of a Christmas tree, and sing carols to the watching crowd.
A snow-capped Chapel Bridge at Lucerne makes a unique backdrop for that city's market and wandering the narrow streets of the Old Town is almost a surreal experience.
Further reading: Where to spend Christmas in Switzerland
Christmas markets in Slovakia
The Slovakian capital of Bratislava really comes to life at Christmas time. Traditional red and white stalls line Main Square and various other locations in the city where shoppers browse and catch up with friends with the atmospheric sound of music in the background.
Typically Slovak delicacies like lokshe, potato pancakes, poppy seed strudel, chestnut puree and mulled wine can all be enjoyed.
Ice skating rinks can be found on Hviezdoslavovo Square and Primatial Square. What better way is there to immerse yourself in the Christmas spirit than to skate beside the market stalls with the aromas of cinnamon tickling your nostrils?
The Bratislava Christmas market is held from around 24 November to 22 December each year.
Christmas markets in Finland (and the Santa Claus Village)
The Helsinki Christmas market, held in Senate Square, is Finland’s oldest and largest open-air Christmas market. Held annually from 2 to 22 December, the market is the place to shop for gifts, meet up with friends, indulge in some festive treats and listen to carol singers.
Numerous other Christmas markets are held in Helsinki, including the TRE market inside the World Trade Centre where around 150 small local producers sell everything from jewellery to cosmetics, paper products and more.
Turku, Tampere and Oulu are other Finnish cities that hold Christmas markets.
One destination extremely popular with children is Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland, the home of Santa Claus Village.
Thousands of visitors flock to the village each year to meet Santa and visit the North Pole Post Office. Santas Claus Village also has a number of shops and there is also the opportunity to enjoy reindeer rides and excursions to the forest of the elves.
Next door to the Village, SantaPark is the first amusement park in the world dedicated to Santa Claus and features lots of fun rides for the whole family to enjoy.
Make your Christmas visit to Santa Claus Village complete by staying at Santa's Hotel Santa Claus. Click here to check current prices.
Christmas markets in the UK
The UK embraces the Christmas spirit, too, with over 70 markets around the country. If you’re in London why not try ice-skating at Hyde Park for the annual Winter Wonderland festival, or if you’re a chocoholic like me, a visit to the Christmas Chocolate Festival at Islington’s Business Design Centre sounds like fun.
As well as giant Christmas trees around the city, London also hosts a huge choice of Christmas shows and pantomimes. There are seven of Santa's grottos to visit including one at London Zoo and another at Legoland in Windsor, just a short distance from London.
Outside the capital, cities like Bath, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester are just some of those that hold Christmas markets where you can get in the festive spirit.
Still can't decide which Christmas market to visit?
If you really can’t decide which Christmas market/s to visit, the answer might be to book one of the many European Christmas markets river cruises that operate at this time of year.
Most cruise along the Rhine, Main or Danube and include plenty of stops at Europe’s pretty riverside towns so you can savour the atmosphere of a traditional European Christmas market with the locals.
Handy tips for visiting Europe's Christmas markets
Whilst markets in larger cities and towns are usually held daily, in some smaller villages they only take place on weekends. You'll usually find the market in the centre of town or by the railway station, and whilst they attract tourists from far and wide, they are also a real gathering place for locals to socialise and shop.
The Christmas market is where you can stock up on all your Christmas needs. You'll find everything from candles to Christmas trees and decorations, sweets, biscuits, baking tins and toys. Over time, each market develops a character of its own, influenced by its setting, regional traditions or particular specialities. One of the most popular stands is always the 'gluhwein' stand where shoppers can buy cups of hot, mulled wine to stave off the winter chill.
Twinkling fairy lights and beautifully decorated Christmas trees adorn town centres around this time of year and many Catholic churches are decorated with beautiful Nativity scenes. The whole atmosphere of the market is one of celebration.
Other European Christmas Market resources:
There are some gorgeous photos of Europe's Christmas markets on Pinterest - you can check out the ones I've pinned here.
You can find a list of Christmas markets in the UK and Europe on this website and read about A Luxury Travel Blog's choice of Europe's best Christmas Markets.
To start planning your own Christmas holiday in Europe, browse Holidays to Europe's list of white Christmas holiday specialists.
| Read all my articles about Christmas in Europe by clicking the image below.