Monday, December 17, 2012

The best Christmas markets in Europe

December is a great time to visit Europe for two reasons.  First, it's not as heavily touristed as in the summer.  Second, the Christmas markets are open, so there is even more to do and see on your trip.  While most Christmas markets are recognisably similar--selling mulled wine, sausages, and baubles from wooden stalls set up in a common location--they are not all created equally.  Some cities' are very nice while others' are very disappointing.  If you're wanting to plan a trip to Western/Central Europe around the Christmas markets but don't know where to go, look no further than this post.

The Big Ones: These are the cities with the biggest and most touted markets in Europe.

1) Strasbourg

The self-labeled Capitol of Christmas has a reputation continent-wide for having the best Christmas markets.  They're spread throughout the city center, which for the most part keeps crowds from congregating in the same small area.  The stalls sell things of a higher quality than that which is usually found in Europe's Christmas markets, making them perfect for doing some shopping.

The city is gorgeous and worth visiting on its own, but its reputation draws a lot of European tourists around Christmastime.  You will be fighting crowds wherever you go.  It's worth bearing in mind that you probably won't be able to get into the Cathedral without standing in line or be able to walk into a restaurant in the heart of the city without a reservation.

2) Vienna

This is hands down the perfect choice if you have small children.  The first floor of city hall is opened up as a Children's Christmas workshop where kids can participate in all sorts of Christmas related crafts.  When last I was there the crafts consisted of several stations offering things along the lines of ornament and cookie decoration and coloring.  I can't think of anything better to do on a vacation with little kids than have someone else put the legwork into and clean up after crafts so you don't have to.

The adult offerings of Vienna's markets are pretty good as well.  Just in front of the Children's Christmas workshop is one of the biggest markets in the city where you can follow more adult-related pursuits.  Don't forget that Vienna is one of Europe's cultural capitals and is home to centuries worth of history to explore.  Warm up from the markets in any of of the countless museums, palaces, and cafes that permeate the city.

3) Cologne

Cologne is one of the main stops on most of the Rhein Christmas market river cruises.  It is a big tourist destination and as such it gets incredibly crowded.  But the crowds flock there for a reason.  Cologne has six different markets, each the size of the entirety of certain other cities' Christmas markets.  Even without the presence of crowds you could easily take an entire a day to visit all of the markets.  They are spread out but not too far for walking.  The regional food specialty to be enjoyed here is reibekuchen--a fried potato and onion pancake that makes me completely forget that I generally don't enjoy deep-fried foods.

Not as celebrated but worth visiting

4) Prague

Prague is a city that gets a lot of tourists, but its Christmas markets aren't as celebrated as those in Vienna, Strasbourg, or Cologne.  Because of this the city tends not to draw in tourists specifically for the Christmas markets.  The streets surrounding the Old Town and Wenceslas Square don't get to be as crushingly packed as they do in the spring and summer.  December is actually the perfect time to visit.

Like most of the cities on this list, Prague has multiple markets spread throughout the town.  Having lived there might make me biased, but just because it's not the city that first pops to mind when you think of Christmas markets doesn't mean its markets aren't worth visiting.  In addition to mulled wine, grog, and sausages, look for a special Czech cinnamon and sugar pastry called trdlo that is wrapped around a tube and baked over an open flame.

5) Montreux

Located opposite lac Léman from Geneva, Montreux is also home to lovely Christmas markets.  There is a medieval market in the castle and something referred to as Santa's workshop up the mountain from the city, but the main market runs the length of the city's lakefront.  There you can enjoy boar that's been roast on a spit and/or bubbling cheese fondue with your vin chaud.

To be completely honest, the midevil market isn't that great, but the chateau its located within is beautifully well preserved and a must visit if you're in the area.  Montreux is a great base from which to explore both the German and French speaking regions of Switzerland.  Plus, if you're there in December for the markets there are bound to be ski slopes open somewhere within an hour or two's radius of the city.      

6) Trier

What can be said about Trier's Christmas markets can be said about a lot of cities along the Rhein and Mosel rivers.  They're not nearly as vast as those in some of the other cities on this list, but they are very well done.  I chose Trier instead of other cities of about the same size because it is perfect if you're looking to combine tourism with Christmas markets.  Trier is an old Roman city and its one of the few places in Europe where you can mix Christmas markets with visiting an amphitheatre or touring the only still-existing Roman city gate north of the Alps.

So, there you have six very good places to visit if are looking to sample Europe's Christmas markets.  Since I haven't visited every market on the continent, this list is far from exhaustive.  What have I missed? Feel free to add other great Christmas markets in the comments section.


  1. Love Vienna and Prague's, I have heard Tallinn's is small but cute. I can't wait to take the kids to the bigger ones!

    1. I need to get to the Baltic States. I'd love to check out Tallinn's Christmas market, but moreso the city itself. I've been dying to get there since seeing your pictures way back when.

    2. I love vienna and prague. IMO these are best two cities in the world.

  2. This is something I would love to experience one day. I've only visited Europe once in the winter but it was post-Christmas :( Pittsburgh began its own Christmas Markt this year (and my hometown of Philly has had one now for a couple of years too). It's cute, lovely wares being sold and the strudel is quite good too although I'm pretty sure nothing compares to those found in the Old World :) One day...

    1. The real question is whether or not they will sell you mulled alcohol. That is the true test of a Christmas market. :)

  3. This is high on my to do list, but seeing we have family spread everywhere but Europe we haven't managed to squeeze it in yet - might be good for a family Christmas meet up holiday?

    1. That sounds like a brilliant idea and I'm not sure how they could argue with it.

  4. Vienna is pretty and so is the other 'big' one in Nuremburg but I find the smaller ones to be more relaxing and enjoyable (less tourists). I just love standing at a christmas market with a glass of mulled wine... especially when it is snowing

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  17. Lots of good reasons to visit during the season. I think everyone likes receiving gifts from overseas. During a time like Christmas, they can seem even more special.

  18. Munich has very nice christmas markets too. Please include Munich in your list.

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