When most people are getting into pumpkin spice mode, I’m already dreaming of sipping hot cocoa heaped high with mountains of Chantilly cream at a magical Christmas market. Since launching my blog, I have been on a mission to visit all of the major European Christmas markets. It’s a daunting task and I probably went overboard at the beginning by trying to visit markets in four cities over a long holiday weekend. Thankfully, high-speed train networks in Central Europe connect some of the most popular Christmas market destinations.
1) COLOGNE, GERMANY
German Christmas markets are considered among the best in Europe and Cologne boasts arguably the best one in all of Germany. In fact, there are seven different Christmas markets within the city. At the heart of the celebration is the market located at the imposing gothic Cologne Cathedral. Here you can warm up with some mulled wine and find vendors selling everything from handmade German wooden toys to ceramics, and sweet treats. The nearby Neumarkt Christmas Market is ironically the oldest of Cologne’s Christmas markets. It is famous for the “Angels” who dress up and spread Christmas cheer.
The city also boasts a gay and lesbian Christmas market called “Christmas Avenue.” My opinion on Cologne is also swayed by its Lindt Chocolate Museum, located on the Rheinau harbor near the old town. Several small Christmas stalls flank the entrance, but inside you can sign up for courses and chocolate tastings. I highly recommend indulging in one the decadent cakes and mint flavored hot chocolate on offer at the museum’s Grand Cafe.
Market Dates: November 26 – December 23 and more information.
2) BRUGES, BELGIUM
Bruges is pretty magical any time of year, but the medieval city is all decked out in sparkles for the holidays. To add to the attractions of its Christmas markets, Belgian railways usually runs a Christmas shopping promotion for free day trips on the weekends in December – allowing you to save your Euros for splurges at the markets. During the holidays, Bruges city center is transformed into a winter wonderland with a massive ice rink. The Belfry of Bruges, a landmark that will be familiar to fans of the movie In Bruges, serves as the backdrop for the main market.
When in Bruges, leave some time to stroll along the cozy cobblestone alleyways and take a boat tour of the picturesque canals. Definitely stop by the Chocolate Line, honored as the number one chocolate in the world! For a unique take on Belgian waffles, head to Gofrebe, a shop that is gaining notice for its artisanal waffles on a stick. The waffles are hand dipped in your choice of melted chocolate and toppings—my favorite is dark chocolate covered in speculoos.
Market Dates: November 23 to January 1 and more information.
3) VIENNA, AUSTRIA
The Habsburg splendor of Vienna only gets better at Christmas. There are over 25 Christmas markets to explore in the city. The most popular are the ones located next to historic landmarks such as the Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace or the Christmas and New Year’s Market at the Schönbrunn Palace.
You’ll find festive market stalls serving up handcrafted gifts as well as freshly baked traditional Christmas cookies such as vanillekipferl (Austrian crescent-shaped cookies flavored with almonds and vanilla). You can also try your hand at crafting your own gifts at the market by the City Hall, which offers up Christmas cookie baking and candle making sessions. Of course, Vienna is renowned for its classical music and you’ll be treated to the melodious Christmas carols of visiting international choirs.
Market Dates: Dates vary, but the markets generally run from November 17 to December 26. More information can be found here.
4) PARIS, FRANCE
The City of Lights always puts on a great show for Christmas. Paris illuminations start mid-November and include lavish decorations along the Champs Elysee and other famous landmarks. Growing up, I always admired Macy’s holiday window displays in New York City. The Christmas displays at Galleries Lafayette and Printemps bring me home.
The largest Christmas market in the Paris region is held at La Defense (located at the end of Metro Line 1) with over 250 stalls spread over 10,000 square meters. Kids love seeing Pere Noel (Santa Claus) and the arctic-themed ice skating rink. The Christmas markets at the Champs-Elysee are coming back in 2018 after being shuttered last year, but they will be moved to the nearby Tuileries garden next to the Louvre. The Notre Dame cathedral Christmas market and the market at Quai Branly next to the Eiffel tower also make for the perfect Christmas postcard.
Market Dates: Late November to January 1 and more information.
5) AACHEN, GERMANY
Charlemagne’s cathedral, the first UNESCO World Heritage site awarded in Germany, serves as a backdrop for Aachen’s famous Christmas market. There are over 100 stalls catering to locals and tourists alike. Try out the Aachener Printen, a type of gingerbread cookie, being served piping hot from the oven.
Make sure to plan some time exploring the cathedral if you are interested in European history. The cathedral (also referred to as the Aix-La-Chapelle cathedral in French and English), is one of the oldest in Europe and is a marvel of geometric design. Until 1531, it served as the site of coronations for German royalty. To recover from Christmas shopping and exploring Aachen’s historic sites, head off to relax at one of its beautiful hot springs or thermal spas.
Market Dates: November 23 to December 23 and more information.
6) FLORENCE, ITALY
Christmas is one of the best times to visit Florence as the crowds tend to thin out. The main Christmas market is held at the Piazza Santa Croce. It mimics traditional German Christmas markets and you will find a good selection of ornaments, candles, clothing, as well as food and wine from the Tuscany region.
Every year on December 8, a large Christmas tree is set up at the Piazza del Duomo. Here you can also check out a life-sized nativity scene with statues made of terracotta. Both the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene are up until January 6 (Epiphany day).
Remember to bring your camera to capture the F-Light festival that runs throughout the city during this period. The best part of the light show is usually at the city’s famed Ponte Vecchio bridge. If you happen to be in Florence during Epiphany you can also check out the “Cavalcade of the Magi”, a parade that reenacts the journey of the Magi.
Market Dates: Early December to January 1, but check for updated information.
7) STRASBOURG, FRANCE
Any serious European Christmas market tour must begin with Strasbourg, which holds the title of the oldest Christmas market in France. Located in the Germanic-influenced Alsace region, these markets have a long history dating back to 1527. There are several Christmas markets centered near the Grand Ile, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You can begin at the largest market at Place Broglie, the Christkindelsmärik. The market at Place de la Cathedrale offers a beautiful backdrop and wooden chalets selling handicrafts and trinkets. Next, head over to Place Kléber to check out the beautifully decorated Christmas tree.
Market Dates: November 30 to December 30 and more information.
8) PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
If you are going to celebrate the festive season by visiting Christmas markets, you can’t do much better than Prague, located in the heart of Bohemia. The main markets are held at the Old Town Square and at Wenceslas Square, named after the Good King Wenceslas who also has a Christmas Carol named after him.
There are smaller markets held at the nearby Republic Square, at Havel’s Market, and at the fairytale Prague Castle. You can sample the Czech pilsners at the markets and have a trdelnik (a traditionally Slovakian dish of spiraled dough coated in sugar and cinnamon) to go along with it.
Market Dates: December 1 to January 6 and more information.
9) VERONA, ITALY
Fair Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, is the perfect Christmas getaway for lovers. The city is transformed with a dazzling display of Christmas decorations starting at the historic Arena of Verona and spreads throughout the town via Piazza Bra. The main market encompasses the Piazza dei Signori, the Old Market Courtyard, and the Tribunal Courtyard. The markets are modeled on the German ones in Nuremberg and there are many different stalls serving everything from sausages to gingerbread.
There is a beautiful Christmas tree in the square along with many renditions of Christmas carols to set the mood. The annual running of the Santas in mid-December attracts thousands of visitors. Shakespeare lovers should include a short visit to the much Instagrammed Juliet’s House for a photo on Juliet’s balcony. Verona also has some of the best high-end shopping anywhere in Italy.
Market Dates: November 11 to January 7 and more information.
10) BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
Despite being a late entrant to the European Christmas market scene, Brussels now hosts the largest Christmas markets in Belgium. The main event, called Winter Wonders, takes place around the old town landmarks of Grand Place, the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie (ice rink), the Place Sainte-Catherine, and the Marche aux Poissons. The 1.5 mile Winter Wonders route is lined with 270 wood chalets and a Ferris wheel catering to adults and children alike. The Christmas light and sound show at the Grand Place is a major draw.
Market Dates: November 30 to January 6 and more information.
11) LUXEMBOURG CITY, LUXEMBOURG
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg puts on a fabulous “Winterlights” festival featuring a light show and free holiday concerts. Walking around the compact historic city center is stress-free making it very manageable to visit all of the Christmas markets in a day.
Place de la Constitution overlooking the Adolphe Bridge hosts more than 60 wooden stalls selling Christmas trinkets, food, and mulled wine. I am partial to the traditional gromperekichelcher potato pancakes. Visit Place d’Armes for handmade decorations, clothing, and accessories. The Niklosmaart is a market for St. Nicholas Day and Advent at Place de Paris.
Market Dates: November 22 to December 24 and more information.
12) VENICE, ITALY
The city of Casanova is a majestic sight at Christmas. The main Christmas market is held at the Campo Santo Stefano and unlike other traditional Christmas markets, it features locally produced Italian food and crafts. You will find Christmas ornaments and decorations crafted from the world-famous Murano glass, traditional carnival masks, ceramics, and jewelry.
The selection of locally produced foods includes specialty pasta and gourmet treats such as truffle-infused olive oil. The air is filled with the scent of roasted chestnuts – popular throughout Italy in the winter. For a magical panoramic view over St. Mark’s square and the island, take the elevator up to the top of the clock tower, right before sunset for 12 euros.
Market Dates: Generally throughout December and more information.
I’m still plotting out my plans for Christmas 2018 but hope to get further afield to visit some Scandinavian markets and maybe chase the northern lights. There is also a lot of buzz about the Christmas markets in Zagreb. I hope this article got you in the Christmas spirit!
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit a Christmas market. If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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