There’s nothing quite like patrolling a town square stuffed with festive goodies on a crisp winter evening, preferably with an atmospheric dusting of snow. Here are our picks for Europe’s top offerings, from snowy Germanic chalets to the plazas of the Renaissance…
Named Lonely Planet’s best city for travel in 2019, it’s no surprise Copenhagen bursts with Scandi charm come Christmas time. One of the main inspirations for Disneyland, Tivoli Gardens attracts tourists all year round, and during the winter months, it transforms into one of the most effervescent Christmas markets on Earth. With three different lights shows, 500,000 fairy lights and a candlelit procession on St Lucia’s Day (Dec 13), the fairground rides and stalls are quite literally lit up like a Christmas tree.
The spiritual home of Christmas markets past and present, Berlin’s fairs and stalls seem to expand exponentially from city centre to suburbs. After the horrific terror attack on a market here in 2016, organisers have worked overtime year-on-year to restore festive feeling to a city that’s long been known for it. If we must pick one, we’ll pump for Gendarmenmarkt, a classical gem in the shadow of the Deutscher Dom, heavy with the smell of mulled wine. Expect to see more Germany in this list: The tradition began there in the late Middle Ages, and Germany isn’t about to let you forget it.
Usually visited in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, there’s something gratifyingly surreal about celebrating Christmas amid the cobbled piazzas and Renaissance facades of Florence. The main market sets up shop by the historic church of Santa Croce, with a host of traditional huts stocking snacks and handmade trinkets, but be sure to swing by the world-famous Duomo to catch the city’s brightly lit tree. If you needed any more proof of how dominant Germany is in the Christmas market genre, this Italian offering goes by the name Weihnachtsmarkt.
Rocking two illustrious markets a mere five minutes apart, festive Prague is stacked with a familiar assortment of kaleidoscopic lighting and miniature wooden chalets. Appropriately, Wenceslas Square hosts the headline act – expect spiced gingerbread, spit-roasted ham, and barbecued sausage – while the Old Town market mixes classic Gothic architecture with hot chocolate and spiced mulled wine. One of only a handful of markets open even on Christmas Day, remember to pack your woollies; wintertime Prague can be nippy, to say the least.
An absolute classic of the genre – if there’s one word to describe Vienna’s main market, it’s traditional. With more events than any one person could remember, let alone attend, first-time visitors should head to City Hall for the ‘Viennese’ market, complete with reindeer rides, nativity scenes and, of course, row upon row of wood-roofed stalls. Best in show is the enormous ice rink, which, in a rare departure from tradition, hosts the winter sport of curling.
A market unmatched for spectacle – 160 stalls with brightly-illuminated red roofs beneath the jagged spires of Cologne Cathedral – Cologne goes big on entertainment, with a vast programme of stage shows, covering everything from swing music to gospel. Though the main plaza will take up most of your time, 110 different nativity scenes are erected around the city, while local vendors appear around every corner. You can even hop on the specially-designated Christmas-Market-Express, and commute from square to square.
This up-and-coming destination boasts a market that’s already upped-and-come. The perfect place to embrace a different festive flavour, seasonal staples include blood pudding, and nicer-than-it sounds sour cabbage, the Estonian capital takes its market extremely seriously. Surrounded by the antique charms of Tallinn’s medieval city centre, Santa arrives in a sled pulled by real reindeer, and the stalls are packed with not-on-the-high-street arts and crafts. Locals are particularly proud of their tree – erected every year since 1441, it was probably the first Christmas tree ever.
If you’re going to call yourself the ‘Capital of Christmas’, you’d best be able to put your festive merry-making where your mouth is, and the Strasbourg market delivers in spades. Another non-German market with a very German name, the Christkindelsmarik has been spreading seasonal joy since 1570, with 10 different locations serving a population of only 277,000. The Christmas tree in Place Kleber is positively ginormous, while the main market sits in the shadow of Strasbourg Cathedral, once the world’s tallest building.
Steeped in history on all sides, Budapest’s top two markets, Vorosmarty and the Fair at the Basilica, set up shop just a couple of streets apart. The markets themselves aren’t old but with St. Stephen’s Basilica looming large and regular performances of traditional Hungarian dance, it’s easy to feel you’re celebrating Christmas in times gone by. Expect the illusion to be shattered by the free-to-use ice rink, and a 3D lights show that’s brand new for 2019.