friends drinking hot chocolate in europe during festive season

Europe offers a variety of traditional and alternative festive experiences each year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

A Magical Guide to Traditional and Alternative Festive Experiences in Europe

The festive period is cherished for so many different reasons. Some people delight in the traditional food and drink, like mulled wine and stollen fruit bread, that are savored at this time of year. Others seek more novel experiences, from themed train journeys to one-of-a-kind markets.  

Whether you prefer a traditional or more alternative festive time, Europe offers a myriad of holiday activities for you to explore. As always, check for travel guidelines and closures before planning your trip. 

Festive Experiences in Germany 

Delight in Munich’s Traditional Christkindlmarkt 

german christmas pretzel
No trip to a German Christkindlmarkt would be complete without sampling a pretzel seasoned with salt and cinnamon. (Photo: Getty Images)

After a leisurely breakfast at Munich Marriott Hotel City West, make your way to the legendary Munich Christkindlmarkt, a Christmas market which dates all the way back to the 14th century and is the largest in Germany. It’s found in the heart of the city, at the Marienplatz, which is worth a visit for its stunning Gothic architecture alone.  

You can expect many traditional treats to get you in the festive mood, including glühwein (mulled wine) and gingery lebkuchen biscuits. 

Slide Down Berlin’s Sledding Hills  

Step out of the ordinary at Munich’s Tollwood Winter Festival where you can revel in live theatrical performance, music galore, organic delicacies and even a curling rink. Be sure to sample the festive feuerzangenbowle drink, whereby a rum-soaked sugar cube is set alight and drips into mulled wine beneath it. 

For something a bit more off the tourist trail in Berlin, you could join in with a very local activity by hitting one of the German capital’s sledding hills, before warming up in the sauna at JW Marriott Hotel Berlin

Visit Rothenburg’s Quirky Reiterlesmarkt 

For an alternative German festive experience, head off the beaten track to Rothenburg for its quirky Reiterlesmarkt, which honors the mystical figure Reiterle, meaning “little horseback rider.” Believed to be an ambassador from a different world, Reiterle’s origins are said to date all the way back to prehistoric times. 

Festive Experiences in the Czech Republic 

Go on a Christmas Market Adventure in Prague 

prague christmas market at st. nocholas church
A December visit to Prague’s impressive Church of St. Nicholas will get you in a festive mood. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Czech capital is bursting with Christmas markets, with some of the most impressive held at the Old Town Square, as well as at Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. A scenic walk from Prague Marriott Hotel over the river will take you to the stunning Prague Castle, which hosts its own spectacular Christmas market. 

Festive Czech foods to look out for include juicy roast pork, spiced gingerbread and local speciality pastry trdelník — cylindrical dough cooked over fire then topped off with sugar and walnuts. For a traditional Czech meal, head over to Municipal House Beer Hall. 

Indulge in a Festive Feast Within a Former Augustinian Monastery 

An alternative gastronomic experience is offered by the expert chefs at Augustine, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Prague, set within a former Augustinian monastery. Opt for the tasting menu at Augustine Restaurant, featuring dishes that make seasonal ingredients shine. 

You might also pay a visit to Prague’s Gingerbread Museum, located just down the street from Augustine, a Luxury Collection Hotel. Here you can buy everything you need to transform your own kitchen back home into a gingerbread factory bursting with evocatively festive aromas. 

Festive Experiences in Hungary 

See Ballet at the Budapest Opera House  

couple at a christmas festival in europe
Doused in cinnamon and sugar, the pastry treat known as “chimney cake” is a classic Hungarian festive treat. (Photo: Getty Images)

“The Nutcracker” is a well-known festive ballet that is set on Christmas Eve, making it synonymous with the season. If you want to experience one of the best renditions of the ballet, head to the Budapest Opera House.  

You must also grab yourself a traditional chimney cake — a cylindrical pastry treat doused in cinnamon and sugar — before carrying on the cultured feeling with a night at the iconic Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, which goes above and beyond to make your festive period special.  

Take a Dip at the Iconic Szechenyi Baths 

In Budapest, warm up in an atmospheric outdoor spa at Szechenyi Baths, which opened to the public in 1913. It’s the largest medicinal thermal bath in Europe, and it’s typically open even on Christmas Day.  

You’ll also find a lively café here boasting local treats and delicacies, and you can even order a beer or wine to enjoy while sitting in the baths. Book a relaxing massage, or if you prefer something a little more involved, opt for a guided tour of the baths.  

End the night with a drink in SOCIETY25 bar at W Budapest or push the boat out with dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest. 

Festive Experiences in Italy 

Enjoy Towering Christmas Trees and Delicious Cake in Milan 

milan's cathedral during christmas
Milan’s Cathedral has stood the test of time through many winter seasons. (Photo: Getty Images)

You can’t help but feel festive standing under the elegant Christmas tree of Piazza del Duomo, with Milan Cathedral as a backdrop. You’re spoilt for choice for Christmas trees in Milan, with another impressive one gracing the chic shopping center Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a couple of minutes walk away.  

Sample some festive Italian treats at the city’s ancient Fiera Degli Oh Bej, Oh Bej street market, which promises the likes of castagnaccio chestnut cake and mulled wine aplenty in December. After a bustling day, slip away from the crowds to the contemporary haven that is The Westin Palace, Milan

In the Italian capital, make it a festive period to remember by booking into The St. Regis Rome, before attending one of the daily Masses inside St Peter’s Basilica itself — make sure you book a ticket in advance. Complement the experience with a Sicilian-influenced meal at W Rome’s Giano Restaurant. 

Enjoy a Very Special Festive Day Trip from Rome 

Step away from Rome’s festive tourist trail by visiting the city’s botanical gardens: the Orto Botanico di Roma in Trastevere. Here you can take a magical walk beneath the twinkling lights that bedeck the grounds at this time of year.  

If you’re travelling with children, you could head some 12 miles east of Rome to see Santa and his little helpers, along with other fairytale folk, at the ethereal Lunghezza Castle. 

Festive Experiences in Switzerland 

Stock Up on Gifts at Basel’s Barfüsserplatz Market 

christmas market, basel switzerland
Switzerland’s Christmas markets offer a range of irresistible treats. (Photo: Getty Images)

Switzerland is well known for its fine chocolatiers, practicians of a craft that’s been refined since the 19th century, so it’s a fine place to pick up exquisitely delicious festive gifts.  

From Basel Marriott Hotel, walk to Barfüsserplatz, in the idyllic old town, to explore over 155 cute wooden chalets selling artisan gifts, delicious street food such as waffles, moreish Swiss raclette, warming mulled wine and läckerli (the local version of gingerbread). 

Visit a Train Station Transformed as a Christmas Market in Zurich  

Switzerland offers the chance to visit a Christmas market, or Christkindlimarkt, in an unconventional location. At Zurich Main Station you’ll find row after row of festive items and also a tall, glistening Christmas tree.  

Treat yourself to a stay at Zurich Marriott Hotel, where you can enjoy a cocktail or rare whisky at the New York-inspired Lenox Bar

Festive Experiences in the United Kingdom 

See the English and Scottish Capitals at Their Seasonal Best 

London’s Kensington is particularly pretty during the festive period and London Marriott Hotel Kensington makes a great base for ice skating at ICE at Kensington Palace.  

Afterwards, walk it all off with a stroll around Kensington Gardens, or hit the shops — some of the most famous streets such as the King’s Road are within walking distance. You might head towards Knightsbridge for festive displays in iconic addresses such as Harrods. 

In Edinburgh, you can see the Scottish capital from up above on the Big Wheel in East Princes Street Gardens. You’ll enjoy a bird’s eye perspective of the historic Old Town, Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat, all sparkling with fairy lights.  

Afterwards, return to Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh for a relaxing spa experience. 

Wander Through Illuminated Gardens and a Safari Park 

Just east of Cambridge, Anglesey Abbey’s Winter Lights event offers an original take on the tradition of festive light displays. This sensory experience promises to tease out all the magic of the abbey’s gardens. 

Another quirky display is being held at Longleat wildlife and safari park, where the themed Festival of Light is filled with life-sized lanterns and depicts different scenes with lights.