It’s that time of the year once again when Christmas markets start popping up all around Europe. They’ve already started here in Budapest but most open this weekend with the start of Advent.
For most people the Christmas markets are a time to catch up with friends over mulled wine (glühwein in German, forró bor in Hungarian, grzane wino in Polish) and sausages/bratwurst. Some go to shop for Christmas decorations and gifts. Others go for the food and atmosphere. Either way it’s a fun European tradition and one of my favourite things to do in Central Europe, the home of the best Christmas markets.
If you’re looking for a little Christmas market inspiration or are searching for a smaller, more intimate Christmas market then this guide is for you. I’ve listed the highlights and specialties of each market along with tips on what to look out for, market dates and where to stay.
I’ll start with my favourite Christmas market; Dresden. The skyline and Old Town are so beautiful it’s hard to resist at any time of the year let alone at Christmas when the whole city is lit up each evening. You can find all the usual Christmassy trinkets, a children’s playground, mulled wine, hot cider and some of the best Christmas food of any market.
The Strietzelmarkt is one of the more diverse food markets with snacks and meals from around the world. Langos from Hungary, paella from Spain, poffertjes from the Netherlands and delicious Turkish fladenbrot as well as local specialities like rahmklecks.
Along with the main market there are a number of smaller markets set up in the city’s squares both in the Altstadt and the Neustadt. The medieval market in front of the Frauenkirche is one of the quieter and more unique Christmas markets.
Dresden Christmas Market dates: 28th November – 24th December 2018 and 27th November – 24th December 2019
Reason to visit: Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt is the oldest Christmas market in Germany and one of the more affordable Christmas destinations in Germany.
Specialities: Dresden rahmklecks, fladenbrot and baked apples.
Tips: As one of the most popular Christmas markets in Europe, avoid the weekends when the streets are packed and the city is fully booked with tourists.
Where to Stay: QF Hotel
Dresden’s biggest Christmas rival is Nuremberg. They’ve fought hard for the title of biggest/best/oldest Christmas market and while some things are debatable, Nuremberg definitely takes the biggest Christmas market prize.
While the main market is so large it could be a little overwhelming at times, it’s worth it for the quality and diversity of what you’ll find there. The locals love their market, it’s not just for tourists, and they even have a Christmas market angel making the occasional appearance.
Nuremberg has strict regulations related to the market which means there are only traditional wooden stalls and locally made handicrafts. Even the famous Nuremberg sausages are protected under German law! There is a separate children’s market and an international market with food and handicrafts from around the world.
Nuremberg Christmas Market dates: 30th November – 24th December 2018
Reason to visit: It’s the largest Christmas market in Europe and the most famous.
Specialities: Nuremberg sausage, gingerbread and the prune people.
Tips: Be prepared to sip your mulled wine with thousands of other people but if you love traditional Christmas markets this is probably the one to choose.
Event programme: Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt
Where to Stay: NH City Hotel
Vorosmarty Square hosts Budapest’s main Christmas market but there are many others dotted around the city. A medieval style market is located in front of St Stephen’s Basilica and the Vajdahunyad Castle Christmas market at City Park has a huge ice rink. Budapest at Christmas is all about the stunning locations, amazing Hungarian and international cuisine, and quality, authentic wooden handcrafts. Although not Christmassy, you could pick up a classic Hungarian invention, the Rubik’s Cube.
Budapest Christmas Market dates: 9th November 2018 – 1st January 2019
Reason to visit: It’s the most beautiful city in all of Central Europe. And I’m not just saying that because I live here.
Specialities: Kürtöskalács (kurtosh kalach – chimney cake), langos with sour cream and cheese, hot palinka, hot chocolate punch, goulash soup in bread.
Tips: Visit after Christmas if you want to avoid the crowds and instead experience the New Year celebrations.
Recommended tour: Budapest Sights and Christmas Markets
Where to Stay: Aria Hotel
I always think of Germany when I think of Christmas markets but Poland shouldn’t be overlooked. Krakow’s Christmas market has been running for centuries and has a traditional but fun atmosphere. The main market takes place in the central square, Rynek Glowny, right alongside the famous Cloth Hall. Krakow is a popular summer destination but it’s becoming more well known as a great weekend destination during the Christmas and New Year period. It’s a fun, young city, with so much history, great nightlife and a laid back cafe culture.
Krakow Christmas Market dates: 30th November – 26th December 2018
Reason to visit: It’s a cool city with a younger crowd than in Germany and Austria, it’s more affordable, there’s a good chance of a white Christmas and… vodka.
Specialities: Oscypek smoked cheese from Zakopane served with cranberry preserve. Pretty crystal baubles. Sweet vodka based hot drinks.
Tips: If you have time take a day trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Auschwitz or to the mountains at Zakopane.
Recommended tour: Christmas Mulled Wine and Polish Food Tastings
Where to Stay: Metropolitan Boutique Hotel
Vienna has some of the top Christmas markets in Europe and this is a great choice of destination if you’re a first-timer to the Christmas markets. Vienna has a mix of popular, historic, traditional markets and smaller, local, more intimate markets. There’s the hugely popular Vienna Town Hall market (at Rathausplatz) which has everything you could want including an old style carousel. There are the stunning locations of the markets at Schoenbrunn Palace and Belvedere Palace. Am Hof and Karlskirche markets are also popular but smaller or visit the old Viennese market on Freyung for the most traditional of markets.
Vienna’s markets have all the classics like mulled wine, gingerbread and hot chestnuts plus fairy floss, pony rides and culinary gifts. It’s one of the great Christmas markets of Europe.
Vienna Christmas Market dates: 16th November – 26th December 2018
Reason to visit: Visit for the great variety of markets and the imperial Schoenbrunn Palace Christmas market.
Specialities: Mulled wine, gingerbread and pony rides!
Tips: Try to stay somewhere central so you can easily head out for a late night mulled wine.
Where to Stay: 25hours Hotel Museum Quarter
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is definitely not underrated as a winter destination. It’s one of the most popular destinations for Christmas and New Year. It’s stunningly beautiful in winter, even if that occasionally means grey skies. If you haven’t been to Prague think of rows of historic bridges crossing a wide, winding river, with colourful baroque buildings, gothic churches and the biggest castle district in the world.
It’s kinda awesome.
Christmas in Prague means plenty of Czech specialities like Bohemian crystal, glasswork, blacksmith’s wares and a surprising number of scented candles. Food is high on the agenda with all the usual Christmas market suspects plus local blood sausages, gingerbread, grog (hot rum) and trdelnik (like those in Hungary and Transylvania).
Prague has two main markets, the largest is in the Old Town Square and the slightly smaller market occupying Wenceslas Square. The biggest problem is getting from one to the other which usually means crossing the always packed but beautiful Charles Bridge. Both markets are absolutely worth visiting.
Prague Christmas Market dates: 20th November 2018 – 6th January 2019
Reason to visit: The romantic market square location and because… Prague.
Specialities: Bohemian crystal, grog and trdelnik topped with sugar and cinnamon.
Tips: Take the side streets when going between the two markets to avoid the tourist hell that is the main thoroughfare.
Recommended tour: 2 hour Christmas market tour including Czech specialities.
Where to Stay: Aria Hotel
Munich is one of the most festive destinations in Europe. Almost every neighbourhood has a Christmas market in almost every square. Of course the most popular and largest is at Marienplatz, the city’s main square. Located in front of the stunning Town Hall it’s a gorgeous setting albeit ridiculously overcrowded at times. For a break from the crowds try the medieval market at Wittelsbacherplatz or the cosy market at Odeonsplatz. For an alternative take on a winter market visit the Tollwood Winterfestival at Theresienwiese or experience a Pink Christmas at Stephansplatz.
Munich Christmas Market dates: 27th November – 24th December 2019. Tollwood runs until New Year’s Eve.
Reason to visit: For the sheer number of Christmas markets plus the Tollwood Winter Festival.
Specialities: You can find pretty much everything in Munich!
Tips: Each market is unique, try to visit as many as possible.
Recommended tour: Munich Christmas Market Tour
Where to Stay: Louis Hotel
To be fair, it’s been a while since I’ve been to Zurich but what I remember most are the high end shops, famous chocolatiers and the stunning lakeside location. Those reasons alone are enough to visit but with the addition of the pretty Christmas lights and snow capped mountains in the distance, it’s hard to resist. Of course, Switzerland being Switzerland it’s on the pricey side.
Zurich Christmas Market dates: 22nd November – 24th December 2019
Reason to visit: There’s a great chance of a white Christmas and… chocolate.
Specialities: Um… chocolate
Tips: Eat all the chocolate.
Where to Stay: 25hours Hotel Zurich West or read my guide to the best hotels in Zurich’s city centre.
Another classic, traditional Christmas market, Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt takes place at Cathedral Square with Hohensalzburg Fortress looming above. It’s one of the more charming Christmas markets in Europe, more intimate than Vienna’s main market yet equally popular. You can hear Mozart in the streets and be pulled in to the cute Christmas huts by the scent of spicy mulled wine. I hate to say it but I’d even suggest Salzburg as a romantic Christmas holiday destination!
Salzburg Christmas Market dates: 22nd November – 26th December 2018
Reason to visit: The atmospheric location, Mozart and as it’s the home of the Christmas song ‘Silent Night’.
Specialities: Salzburg pastries, sacher torte, spicy hot punch and gingerbread.
Tips: See a classical music concert followed by mulled wine at the Christmas market huts. Don’t skip the smaller market in front of Mirabell Palace.
Recommended tour: Village Market Tour or Horse Drawn Sleigh Ride
Where to Stay: Arthotel Blaue Gans
Ljubljana’s Christmas market might be small but it’s one of the prettiest in Europe. Eat and drink at the main market in Preseren Square and shop at the stalls which line the Ljubljanica River. The centre of the old town is completely lit up in the weeks leading up to Christmas from Ljubljana Castle on top of the hill down to the famous Triple Bridge and city squares.
Ljubljana Christmas Market dates: 30th November 2018 – 2nd January 2019
Reason to visit: A pretty riverside location, laid back vibe and fewer crowds.
Specialities: Honey and schnapps.
Tips: If it’s snowing take the time to get out of Ljubljana and visit Lake Bled, one of the most naturally beautiful locations in Central Europe.
Recommended tour: Ljubljana City and Christmas Market Tour
Where to Stay: Hotel Cubo
That takes care of my top 10 Christmas markets. After that, you might consider smaller and more unique markets or those in more ‘off the beaten path’ destinations.
Wroclaw is such a wonderful location and so underrated as a destination, both at Christmas time and otherwise. The Christmas Fair is not small but it’s far less crowded than other Polish cities Krakow and Warsaw. The atmosphere is considerably more intimate than oftentimes overwhelming German markets Nuremberg and Munich. You’ll also find some of the friendliest people at the Polish markets and delicious international cuisine.
Wroclaw Christmas Market dates: 23rd November – 31st December 2018
Reason to visit: Wroclaw market is held in its stunning centre square, one of the most beautiful in Europe.
Specialities: International specialities like Transylvanian Kürtöskalács, Lithuanian sausages, Swiss chocolate workshop (tools made of chocolate) and Dutch waffles.
Tips: You could create a mini Christmas market tour including nearby Prague and Dresden.
Where to Stay: Puro Hotel
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
You cannot get a more romantic/fairytale/postcard perfect Christmas market destination than Cesky Krumlov. You’ll find perfectly restored cobblestone streets and baroque houses, some of the best food in the Czech Republic and a cute little Christmas market.
Cesky Krumlov Christmas Market dates: 30th November 2018 – 6th January 2019
Reason to visit: A Christmas market in the ultimate fairytale town.
Specialities: Gourmet Czech cuisine.
Tips: Visit on a day trip from Prague or spend the night to avoid the crowds.
Where to Stay: Krumlovsky Mlyn
Bratislava is a small and often overlooked capital, especially now that fewer low-cost airlines are flying there from London. But the city is compact and cute. It has character, delicious food and plenty of hipster cafes. The historic centre is lit up with Christmas lights and the markets feature regional Slovak food and producers and traditional Christmas music.
Bratislava Christmas Market dates: 16th November – 22nd December 2018
Reason to visit: Bratislava is an easy day trip from Vienna or a stop on the way from Prague to Budapest.
Specialities: Pancakes, Slovakian mulled wine.
Tips: The pedestrian street in front of the Slovak National Theatre holds one of the longest Christmas markets.
Where to Stay: Loft Hotel
Easily the most ‘off the beaten path’ of all the Christmas markets mentioned here. The reason I mention it as Szeged is an amazingly beautiful city for lovers of architecture, specifically Art Nouveau architecture. There is a huge Christmas market in front of the cathedral and a small tree lined market in Szechenyi Square.
Szeged Christmas Market dates: 24th November – 24th December 2018
Reason to visit: It’s a completely different destination for most people but a gorgeous location with lovely people.
Specialities: Langos, Kürtöskalács, goulash and all kinds of paprika.
Tips: Take a walk along the (mostly likely) snow covered banks of the Tisza River.
Where to Stay: Tiszavirág Hotel
Innsbruck is enclosed on all sides by mountains. It’s stunning. The emerald green River Inn runs through the centre of the Old Town which is covered with lights for the Advent period. 70 stalls serve all kinds of traditional food and sell typically Austrian wooden toys and decorations. Innsbruck is a fantastic alternative to busy Vienna and Salzburg.
Innsbruck Christmas Market dates: 15th November 2018 – 6th January 2019
Reason to visit: There’s a very good chance of a white Christmas as Innsbruck is surrounded by mountains.
Specialities: Christmas stollen (cake), kiachl sweet or savoury doughnuts, fruit bread.
Tips: Take the opportunity to go skiing down the city slopes.
Where to Stay: Hotel Maximilian
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
I do love Germany’s famous Christmas markets but smaller markets have such a different feel about them. They’re more intimate, you have time to chat with the stall holders, you won’t be shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. That’s not to say Rothenburg and other smaller Christmas markets are quiet. There will still be loads of people around in the evenings and on weekends. But you can easily skip the crowds by avoiding peak times.
The real benefit of the Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the adorable medieval location within the city walls.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber Christmas Market dates: 30th November – 23rd December 2019
Reason to visit: For the quintessentially German small town Christmas market.
Specialities: Rothenburg snowball, grilled sausages, roast chestnuts.
Tips: Check out the view from the Town Hall Tower until 8pm every Friday and Saturday.
Where to Stay: Hotel Herrnschloesschen
Hallstatt is unique as their Christmas market only runs for one day, on the 8th December. It’s a day of celebration and entertainment plus a chance to try local specialties including Austrian Christmas cookies and spicy smoked lake fish. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see Hallstatt under a blanket of snow and at its most beautiful.
Hallstatt Christmas Market dates: 8th December 2018
Reason to visit: The Christmas market is set in a UNESCO listed heritage site.
Specialities: Christmas cookies and smoked Hallstatt Lake fish.
Tips: Book well in advance as there is limited accommodation in Hallstatt. The Christmas market only runs for one day but you might want to stay longer to appreciate the town with fewer tourists around.
Where to Stay: Hallstatt Hideaway
Heidelberg is the classic German fairytale city. It has the riverside location, historic bridge, city gates and a hilltop castle. At Christmas, the old town squares fill with people drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate and snacking on bratwurst and Christmas cake. There’s a lot going on for a small city with much of its lively atmosphere thanks to its large student population and international visitors.
Heidelberg Christmas Market dates: 26th November – 22nd December 2018
Reason to visit: Heidelberg market is more intimate than Germany’s big Christmas markets.
Specialities: Roasted nuts sold at traditional wooden stalls.
Tips: Go skating at Heidelberg’s famous open-air ice skating rink.
Where to Stay: Hip Hotel
These are the best and most famous Christmas markets in Central Europe and a few you might not have considered before. Let me know if I missed anywhere you’d recommend.