The annual adage has it that there’s no place like home for the holidays, but these charming European Christmas markets may have you checking your holiday travel list and thinking twice before you start singing “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
Europe’s traditional Christmas markets present nothing short of a veritable embarrassment of riches. As they say in parts of the continent, you may find yourself confronted with die Qual der Wahl, “the agony of choice,” when trying to decide which ones to tackle.
While you really can’t go wrong planning a visit to any of the traditional Christmas markets across the continent, there are a clutch of magical Yuletide offerings that outshine the others. So bundle up the whole family; grab a mug of hot, mulled Glühwein; and let the season’s festive gemütlichkeit — that’s “cheer” to English speakers! — work its magic.
Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, Prague
Prague’s traditional Yuletide market on the Old Town Square, smack in the middle of town, is just one in a magnificent constellation of markets within easy walking distance of each other, one of which magically appears on none other than Wenceslas Square each year in one of the most architecturally dazzling cities of Eastern Europe.
Amid the gorgeous amber jewelry and Bohemian crystal Christmas tree ornaments scattered throughout the markets, you’ll find plenty of traditional mulled wine on offer, but you’d do well to opt for a piping-hot mug of local mead to wash down the traditional — and ubiquitous — Prague ham and gingerbread treats.
Hamburg’s famous Weihnachtsmarkt fills the city’s central Rathausplatz every November with delightful, carefully crafted wares created by the city’s local craftsmen alongside all the usual enticing suspects, such as handmade ornaments and over-the-top confections and baked goods.
Also not to be missed — and perhaps, in fact, impossible to miss — is the charmingly wacky fliegende Weihnachtsmann (flying Santa Claus), who sweeps across the historical market three times daily .
Vörösmarty Square, Budapest
Each year, Budapest transforms its already stunning, cobblestone Vörösmarty Square into one of the most extravagant Christmas spectacles in Europe. The crown jewel here is the square’s famous Gerbeaud Café, which morphs into a massive Advent calendar, with a new window opening each evening at 5 p.m. to reveal festive paintings and other goodies celebrating the season of seasons.
Come for the spectacle, stay for the hot waffles, sweet cinnamon-flavored bread called kürtoskalács, piping-hot rooster testicle stew, forralt bor (mulled wine) and traditional Hungarian crafts — each of which is strictly overseen by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists to ensure authenticity and fair prices.
A Christmas light show set against St. Stephan’s Basilica tops it all off, complete with a 3D production that brings the already vividly lighted architecture to life.
Vienna’s famous Christkindlmarkt appears each November in front of the city’s impressive Gothic Rathaus (city hall) with more than 150 chalet-style huts that fill the city with the scent of cinnamon, hot roasted chestnuts and traditional spiced (and spiked) punch.
The city has been putting on similar Yuletide festivals since the late 1200s, so they know a thing or two about what it takes to put on a Christmas spectacle and offer everything from carriage rides and ice skating to concerts and bonfires.
Berlin’s famous Weihnachtsmärkte transform the city into nostalgic Christmas wonderlands, while also paying homage to the city’s contemporary arts and cultural scene. At markets across Berlin, revelers will find traditional baked goods to be washed down with mead and Glühwein, alongside a heady dose of local, handmade goods and choral concerts, as well as impromptu discos and street parties favored by locals.
If you like your holiday markets with a majestic backdrop, wade through a cluster of some 250 stalls at Charlottenburg Palace. Later, head to Winter World at Potsdamer Platz, which transforms into alpine resort, complete with log cabins, ice rink and a toboggan run.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more breathtaking setting for a Christmas market than in Zurich’s Old Town, which goes all out each year to transform into a winter wonderland. You’d do well to save your holiday shopping for this corner of Europe, where charming local boutiques and luxury shops make for delightful window shopping.
Zurich’s famous Christkindlimarkt, housed in the city’s main train station, boasts the largest indoor Christmas market in all of Europe, with every bit of the same festive feeling as outdoor markets — without the frostbite.
Plaisirs d’Hiver Festival, Brussels
Brussels is little late to the game when it comes to giving the rest of Europe a run for its Christmas-market money. But since the early aughts, the Belgian capital has significantly upped its game with its delightful Plaisirs d’Hiver festival, a meshing of traditions, regional food specialties and crafts from across the European Union.
Wander through impressive markets that span the Place Sainte Catherine and the city’s Bourse (Stock Exchange); then spill over into the Grand Place, where a nightly light and sound spectacle truly dazzles.
The Traditional Christmas Market, Warsaw
Poland’s capital transforms into a veritable winter fairytale land during the holiday season, taking the cake in terms of breadth and atmosphere among Christmas markets across Europe.
The city’s traditional Christmas Market has something for everyone, including an impressive display of work by contemporary artists, seasonal games and amusement rides, festive light displays and concerts, as well as a wide array of traditional Polish crafts, customs and cuisine—the latter of which promises just about every kind of pierogi you can imagine.
After warming up with a piping cup of cocoa or mulled wine head over to the PGE Narodowy Stadium, where you can find a wonderland of winter sport opportunities, including bumper car and curling tracks, a massive iceberg you can slide down in a dingy, and an iceskating rink, which transforms into a lively disco-on-ice on Saturday nights.
In such an atmosphere even the Grinches in your cohort will find it difficult not to say, “Wesołych Świąt!” (“Merry Christmas!”)