Over the last several years I’ve made it a point to be in Europe a week or two before Christmas. It originally started as a way to tick off an item that had long been on my travel bucket list, to see the famous Christmas markets in Europe for myself. But after that first year returning quickly became a tradition for me, one I’ve faithfully kept up ever since. What has changed though are the places I visit and even how I get around. Whether trekking by train on my own or taking a Viking River Christmas Market Cruise, I’ve had the great fortune to visit nearly every corner of Europe around the holidays. I’ve learned a lot from those trips, but more importantly I’ve noticed the sometimes dramatic differences between how some countries, regions and even cities celebrate the holidays. No two experiences have been the same and as I prepare to leave once again for my annual holiday trek around Europe, I thought I’d share some of my favorite moments over the years and why I think it’s important for everyone to visit the Christmas markets in Europe at least once in their lives.
The granddaddy of all German Christmas markets, I’ve been fortunate to visit this famous market not once, but twice. Given the size of the market, it’s important to be strategic otherwise it’s easy to lose track of time. In my case that meant local delicacies I can only find in Nuremberg. Every German city, town and village has a variation of sausage and my own personal favorite is found in Nuremberg. Small sausages grilled to perfection and then served three to a bun make for a manageable but delicious snack or meal. Another snack that varies around Germany are Lebkuchen, sort of like gingerbread cookies but not really. Once again, Nuremberg is home to my personal favorite version of this holiday treat and not only did I eat a few that afternoon, but I made sure to stock up for the entire Christmas season. The Nuremberg Christmas market is famous for a reason, it’s enormous and fun, but that fame also means it gets very busy. Prepare yourself for mega-crowds, but happy ones, all out and about excited to enjoy the holiday.
The Viennese embrace the Christmas season in a way few other cities manage. There are dozens of Christmas markets all over the city, and the major shopping districts are lit up at night in a dazzling array of special displays and lights. The major market in Vienna though is located at the massive Rathaus. When I visited, the trees surrounding the market were festooned with hundreds of lighted displays, a real life advent calendar all leading to the market itself. One of the busiest in Europe, this market had a nice mix of food and gifts, with lots of delicious pastries made only during the Christmas holidays. While the gifts were ok, the food was the clear winner at this market and my personal favorites were the freshly made desserts, everything from fudges and brownies to special apple doughnuts.
This large city in the heart of Alsace was a great introduction not only to this fascinating region, but also to French Christmas market traditions. The Alsace region has a troubled history, ping-ponging between French and German possession over the years, you’ll find a strong influence from both cultures all around town. This unique background necessarily affects the food and in the markets I discovered everything from foie gras sandwiches to traditional beignets. There’s not just one Christmas market in Strasbourg though, there are many strewn all around, which makes an exploration of the downtown area fun and filled with yuletide surprises almost anywhere you go. Every region has their own culinary specialties and while Strasbourg has many, it’s well known for its collective love of pretzels. You’ll find them in every size and shape and even lunch versions, topped with far-too-generous amounts of cheese.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Although I’d visited this picturesque town before, it was in the spring and I was excited to revisit this medieval town in what must be its best season, Christmas. Known as the best-preserved medieval town in Germany, the half-timbered buildings and the small, centuries old streets in Rothenburg seem perfectly made for the holiday season. After just a few minutes I knew that my hunch was right, and Rothenburg was one of my favorite stops on the Viking River cruise. There are several, small markets around town, with the main market held in the center square immediately in front of city hall. Even though it was freezing outside, I climbed to the top of town hall tower for what I already knew were incredible views. It was amazing to see how different the city looks in spring versus winter, no less beautiful, just different. Rothenburg is also home to one of the largest, and most famous, Christmas stores in Germany, so if shopping is your thing then you’re in luck. For my money though, spending some time walking around, eating at a few of the stalls and stopping to people watch is the best way to visit this always gorgeous town.
The very first Christmas market in Europe I ever visited, the Winter Wonders Festival in Brussels will always have a special place in my heart not only for that reason, but because it’s just so much fun. This large festival consumes much of the city center, tents and stalls flowing out into side streets and public spaces along the way. At the heart of the experience is the Grand Place, where a massive Christmas tree takes center place and for the last several years, a special light show is held every night. Strolling along the always-busy stalls of the festival, you’ll find everything here from traditional foods and drinks to more modern fare. It’s also just a lot of fun, with kids ice-skating and adults sitting close by, listening to local musicians liven up the evenings.
Like most large cities, Budapest has several Christmas markets but the centrally located one in Vörösmarty Square is the largest and most well known. In comparison with other markets, I was most surprised to see such a wide variety of savory food options. Stalls offered everything from traditional goulash to sausages and even strange concoctions involving rooster parts. When it comes to dessert though there’s only one real option – the so-called chimney cake. Originally from Transylvania, the kürtöskalács – Hungarian specialty yeast cakes – are cooked on a spit over red hot coals and then doused in icing to give it a unique but delicious taste. Served up in still steaming towers of cakey brilliance, there’s nothing better on a cold December night.
I’ve been to Paris twice around the holidays and each time was as special as I had hoped it would be. No surprise, given the incredible size of the city there are many markets around town but my favorite is one that appears to have disappeared. When I first visited the Parisian Christmas markets in 2013, there was one immediately in front of the Eiffel Tower at the Place de la Trocadero. The Trocadero has long been one of my favorite spots in Paris and add in the special magic that only a chilly-weather Christmas market can provide and the experience was one of the best of the trip. When I returned in 2016 though I was saddened to learn that the market no longer is held there, although there are naturally many more around town. No matter which one you patronize, be sure to experience the food, music and good cheer that is Paris at Christmastime.
One of Germany’s great university towns, the Christmas markets here are well integrated into the main shopping district and are so festive you can even see them from the castle ruins that loom high over the city. In addition to the normal fare, it was also here where I found the best pastries on the trip. One stand had freshly baked donuts that were regional favorites, but which reminded me of a very sweet (and delicious) version of the American cruller. The same shop also carried smaller fried dough puffs, doused with powdered sugar and served up in a small cone. The week before Christmas, Heidelberg was one of the busiest markets I visited, but also one of the most fun.
Prague, Czech Republic
In the few weeks before Christmas, Prague somehow elevates itself into a holiday experience the likes of which I had never before witnessed. I’ve visited many Christmas markets around Europe and without a doubt, not only does Prague embrace the season more so than most others, but it’s a lot more fun to visit as well. The focal point of Christmas festivities in Prague is at the Old Town Square, where most of the most popular sites in the city are found. The massive market takes place every year in front of the massive church Our Lady before Týn and Old Town Hall. It’s large, it gets busy but it’s also a lot of fun. Having spent (and enjoyed) a week beforehand touring Germany, it was nice to see some different foods and drinks offered, along with entertainment and gifts. It reminded me of why I love visiting a variety of European countries around Christmas and the overall effect was nothing short of transformative. The best way to get an idea of the enormity of the central Christmas market is to visit the top of the Old Town Hall Tower, an easy to visit site with views you have to see to believe.