Have you always wanted to go see the Christmas Markets in Europe? If so, you should book your vacation sooner than later. Whether it’s by river cruise, booking a tour or doing it on your own, making plans at least a year in advance is imperative because these have become so popular.
These markets are absolutely magical and one of the most festive ways to get into the spirit of the season! With all the Christmas lights, the smell of the hot spiced wine & kinderpunsch wafting through the air mixed with roasting sausages and nuts, ornately decorated stalls nestled together in historic city squares selling handmade items, hand painted glass ornaments, seasonal food, and all-around yuletide cheer, you’re sure to feel like you are walking through a Christmas painting.
Here’s an ultimate guide for the best Christmas markets to visit in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and beyond.
What to expect
Europe’s Christmas markets are steeped in history. The first market was said to be held in Vienna, Austria dating back to 1296, but the first “winter market” was in Munich, Germany in 1310. The first “official” market was Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt in 1434. Christmas markets are also known as Christkindlmarkt, Christkindlesmarkt, Christkindlmarket, Christkindlimarkt, and Weihnachtsmarkt and take place during the start of Advent. Each market has it’s own traditions, decorations, and food. Germany’s markets tend to be more traditional while Austria’s tend to be a bit more elaborate. Most markets end just before Christmas, but in towns such as Speyer, Germany they prolong the celebration. You’ll see lovely stalls (or chalets) selling handcrafted ornaments and crafts, local food, and hot, mulled wine & cider called glühwein or vin chaud. For those who prefer not to drink alcohol, they also have kinderpunsch which is a warm, spiced apple juice.
Avoid the crowds: Europeans take Christmas markets very seriously. Avoid crowds and lines by going during the day, or opt for going during the week, Mondays or Tuesdays are best.
Good things to know
Many of the stalls selling glühwein (and some food) will have something called a “pfand”. This is extra money that you’ll pay for the cup, usually a few euros. Once done with your drink you can keep the cup (usually they are a great souvenir as they say the location and date) or return it to get your money back. In Germany and Austria the cup is traditionally a mug, a lot of vendors will have different ones. In France, you’re more likely to see reusable plastic cups and for the most part, they will be a set of uniform options throughout the market.
Bring cash because most sellers will only take cash at a Christmas market. If you’re in a bind, some of the more up to date vendors will take contactless payment but don’t plan on this being an option. The winter markets can be cold, and have inclement weather, so make sure to bring warm clothings. Rechargeable hand warmers are also a great way to stay toast, although with all the hot beverages you’re unlikely to need them haha.
You’ll most likely be on your feet to peruse the stalls so wear comfortable shoes. Even when eating all the delicious food you’ll likely be standing at tables rather than sitting so having good footwear is imperative!
Christmas Market River Cruises
Imagine sailing down one of Europe’s iconic rivers as picturesque villages, castles and landscapes pass you by, all while twinkling lights from nearby Christmas markets dance on the water. While this might sound like a fairytale, it can be a reality on a Christmas market river cruise.
From late November through December every year, most river cruise companies with Europe-based ships take excited passengers to idyllic towns to learn about Christmas traditions, shop at local Christmas markets and try tasty seasonal treats.
Included with the cost of the cruise are an excursion at each port, all of your meals and most drinks, free Wi-Fi, all onboard activities and port fees. Headsets are also included for excursions if you choose to go with the group for tours or you’re always welcome to go exploring off on your own. It’s a great way to travel from city to city, only having to unpack once and you never have to worry about where to eat. For most of the markets, a day is sufficient to explore and see the entire market. With a river cruise you’re able to pack more into your trip since transportation is taken care of while you sleep!
These river cruises only run seasonally while the markets are open, so they tend to book up quickly with passengers ranging from older adults to all types of families looking for a winter holiday filled with festive fun.
Seine River Cruise
France is known for some of the most photogenic Christmas markets in Europe. Christmas in the Seine Valley allows you to spend a few days in Paris before stepping onto the cruise ship and sailing to other beautiful towns.
Rouen, Vernon, Caudebec-En-Caux, Rouen, Les Andelys & Honfleur, are just a few of the cities you might visit on a River Cruise in the Seine Valley. A visit to the Christmas Markets in these cities is truly a journey through time and Christmas history. Wander streets that are perfumed with the scent of gingerbread, cloves, sugar cakes and ale, and filled with the sound of music. Drink in the spirit of the season as you experience the festive singing and dancing that are the heart of European culture. Feel the magic of twinkling Christmas lights as you browse unusual handmade tchotchkes, children’s toys and unique art. Explore baubles made by master glass blowers and find distinctive decorations that provide one-of-a-kind holiday gifts.
Rhine River Cruise
If you’d like to visit Christmas Markets throughout Switzerland, France and Germany & The Netherlands you’ll want to book a Rhine River Cruise. You may also visit Basel, Switzerland, Strasbourg, France, Rust, Germany, Mannheim, Germany, Rüdesheim, Germany, Cologne, Germany, Koblenz, Germany, Bonn, Germany, Amsterdam, Netherlands and/or Colmar, France, which is famous for its Christmas Markets and nearby Cheese Museum.
Cologne alone is fantastic and has about 9 Christmas Markets to see especially the Heinzel Winter Fairytale Market is one not to miss. It is one of the prettiest and most decorated markets and has an ice rink right in the center. The little wooden huts are adorned with creative gnomes and wooden carvings of characters from fairytales.
Danube River Cruise
The Nuremberg Christmas market in Germany is right in the central square of Old Town, known as the Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt and has been around for more than 400 years! If you can imagine, the Nuremberg Christmas markets draw more than two million visitors per year! This is where you can find figurines made out of prunes and delicious sausages served in a bun with yummy honey mustard!
Regensburg is the oldest city on the Danube, and you’ll find several markets in town. There’s even one that surrounds the 500-year-old Neupfarr Church.
Passau, Germany is another stop along the Danube and you can go there, or choose to take an excursion to Salzburg, Austria instead. Salzburg is a fairy-tale city high in the Austrian Alps, where of course Julie Andrews made it famous to Americans for its supreme location and told the world about how “the hills are alive with the Sounds of Music.” This is also Mozart’s birthplace. The Christmas markets allow for open-air strolling with seasonal crafts, tasty food and of course, the hot mulled wine and cider.
In 1294, Albrecht I, Duke of Austria and King of Germany gave the decree for a December market in Vienna. This market began in the middle ages! There are multiple markets in the elegant city of Vienna, but the Viennese Christmas Market located in front of City Hall is the highlight of the city and the oldest Christmas Market in the world.
Budapest is such an amazing city, that you will want to do the city tour before going to the market. The Christmas Markets in this city (and so many of the other cities) are within walking distance to where the River Cruise ships stop at the port, across from the Buda Castle. The atmosphere is lively and cheerful and the products offered are completely different than the other markets. The stalls also offer traditional sausages and goulash. One fantastic food is the traditional chimney bread. It is a dough that they wrap around a hot steel rod and cook over hot coals as they slowly turn it. Shopkeepers pull it out of the fire, roll it in either cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles and then wrap it up for you to eat. They are originally from Transylvania and known as the kürtöskalács – Hungarian yeast cakes.
Christmas Markets on your own
Most major European cities have Christmas markets, and they are all lovely, but here are some we would recommend:
Best Christmas Markets in Germany
The German Christmas markets are the original and the best. Since they date back to the 1300s, many of the German Christmas markets still celebrate traditions from the old days. You’ll find richly decorated Christmas stalls and traditional Christmas food like bratwurst and kartoffelpuffer. Most towns in Germany, including the smaller ones, will all offer a Weihnachtsmarkt, so you really can’t go wrong. But our suggestions for Christmas markets in Germany are: Heidelberg, Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber, Munich, Nuremberg, Esslingen and Dresden.
Nuremberg is steeped in tradition and you’ll find a huge market with lots to see, do, and eat. But if you’d like a little more laid-back choose Heidelberg. The markets are throughout the Haupstrasse (the long pedestrian street) and make it easier for crowds to ebb and flow through the street. You’ll find ornately decorated stalls, roasting meats, and a car-free street to skip along from market to market. It exudes a small town and inviting feeling.
Munich started one of the first Christmas markets, so it’s a shame not to go here. They go out of their way to decorate and even have themed markets, such as their “pink” Christmas market. Bavaria tends to do things just a little bit differently and Munich really takes Christmas up a notch.
Esslingen is a two-in-one Christmas market. They have over 80 stalls in their traditional Christmas market, truly an amazing experience on its own. The showstopper, however, is their medieval Christmas market. One step you’re in a Christmas wonderland, and the next you’re in the middle ages. Vendors don period appropriate costumes. There are themed activities such as archery, ax-throwing and catapults. They even have their own style of Christmas mugs that fit the general aura of the market. The vendors really go all in, it’s like stepping back in time.
Best Christmas Markets in France
Going to France is like stepping into a Currier and Ives print. The perfectly placed real-life gingerbread houses surrounded with Christmas stalls, music, and sweet-smelling pastries are a feast for the senses. Three of the most beautiful Christmas markets are in Strasbourg, Colmar and Mulhouse in the Alsace region.
Strasbourg’s Christmas markets are sprinkled throughout the city and each one is prettier than the next. The decor is over-the-top but so much fun. The background of the overpowering Notre Dame cathedral makes a grand statement over the square. But the real highlight is the 30 meter tall Christmas tree! They call Strasbourg the Capital of Christmas and it always proves its point as the best place to spend the holidays.
If you think the decorations in Strasbourg were elaborate, wait until you get to Colmar. Every building seems to be adorned with lights, ornaments, and even teddy bears! Everywhere you turn is a half-timbered landscape of uneven, multicolored houses. It truly looks more like a doll’s playhouse.
In Mulhouse they specialize in fabric, each year they choose a Christmas fabric and decorate everything with it. They wrap their buildings with it, use it as lantern covers, ornaments etc. There are some very unique gifts utilizing the fabric that can’t be found anywhere else
Best Christmas Markets in Switzerland
The perfect place for a winter wonderland is definitely in Switzerland. You’ll find ski chalets nestled next to Christmas markets and, of course, the lovely alps. You’ll delight in artisan goods and some treats that are sure to become your favorite. The best markets are in Basel, Bern, Lucerne, and Zurich. After traveling through France it’s very easy to get to Switzerland. The distance from Colmar to Basel is about an hour and a half by car.
Basel is a pretty city overlooking the water and multiple Christmas markets throughout the large squares. The decor here is vibrant and lovely and the markets are all within walking distance from one another.
Lucerne is situated on a lake and you’ll find extravagant displays and some of the best cheeses in the world. All the shops and stores are decked out for the holidays with blankets and sheepskin stools.
Best Christmas Markets in Austria
Austria has many lovely Christmas markets and small towns. You’ll find them in Salzburg, Ellmau, Graz, and Kitzbuhel, but the best is in Vienna. The Vienna Christmas markets are one of the most famous and popular in all of Europe. It’s no surprise why: the elegant chandeliers light up the streets and paint a picture of rich opulence. The markets in Austria have a great combination of traditional and modern refinement.
In Vienna there are multiple markets throughout the city but the ones we recommend are Rathaus, St. Stephen’s Square, Maria-Therea Square, Schönbrunn Palace, Belvedere, and Altes AKH. Take a ride on the Ringstrasse on Tram 1 to map out everywhere you’d like to stop. You’ll find that the buildings serve as incredible backdrops for the Christmas decor. At Rathaus (City Hall) there’s a huge, lit tree, an ice skating rink, and even a stage for live music and performances. Don’t forget to go inside the Rathaus for a beautiful view.
Food to try at Christmas Markets
Schokokuss – the best way to describe this dessert is to take marshmallow fluff, then cover it with chocolate, and eat a dozen. Really, these are inexpensive and are so light and fluffy.
Bratwurst – Authentic German food is bratwurst and Rostbratwurst roasting continually. Each Christmas market does it a bit differently so try one wherever you go. You can get it with bread and load it up with mustard and onions.
Kartoffellpuffer – Take potatoes, fry them. It sounds simple but they are absolutely divine. Usually served with applesauce (weird but good) or garlic sauce. Give these a try!
Gingerbread – Also known as Lebkucken, you’ll find both soft and hard gingerbread sold. They also like to sell it in heart shapes, wrapped in plastic, with words written on the cookie. If you like gingerbread, you’ll have to try one of these.
Crepes – If you’re in the mood for something sweet this is the perfect Christmas market food. Rolled up with Nutella, cinnamon, sugar, or honey, everyone loves this simple classic.
Frikadella – A favorite food at the Christmas markets are these hamburgers made with pork. Usually served with onions and mustard they make for the perfect hearty meal. Don’t forget to grab some fries with pommes frites!
Candied nuts – the perfect warm Christmas market treat to pop in your mouth as you walk from stall to stall. These fragrant nuts will make you whip your head around as you walk past! You can also try roasted chestnuts aka “maroni” if you’d like as well.
Germknödel – This popular round dumpling is a German classic and usually filled with jam and topped with vanilla cream sauce. It’s not overly sweet but a nice addition to your mulled wine or kinderpunsch.
Glühwein – Every Christmas market is not complete without glühwein! This hot, mulled wine made with spices will keep you warm inside as you drink this sweet liquid. Some markets also serve Feuerzangenbowle which is a mixture of punch and glühwein and topped with a rum-soaked sugar cube then set on fire. Go ahead, order two. If you don’t want alcohol, you can also order warm, delicious kinderpunsch!
Everyone deserves a winter wonderland break and Europe’s Christmas markets make for the perfect magical escape. Christmas markets in Europe will make some of the best unique memories to last a life-time. Message us today to get your Christmas Market Vacation for next Christmas season booked!