Do you smell that? It's hot spiced wine wafting through the air mixed with roasting sausages and nuts. It's Christmas in Europe which means one of the most festive ways to get into the spirit of the season: Christmas Markets! Ornately decorated stalls nestled together in city squares selling hand painted glass ornaments, seasonal food, and all-around yuletide cheer. Growing up in America (Texas to be exact) I never experienced the magic that is Christmas in Europe.
Now that I've had the pleasure of going to some of the best markets across Europe I'm creating my ultimate guide to the European Christmas Markets! I made it my mission to visit some of the best in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and beyond. I've got you covered for your ultimate guide for the best Christmas markets in Europe.
*Completely updated for 2019!
When it comes to Christmas I always feel like a kid again. But Europe seems to add an extra touch of magic. Walking into the markets is just an overwhelming sense of fun, friends, and happiness. For this itinerary I'm breaking down the best Christmas markets in Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and beyond. I've also got a breakdown of what to buy, eat, and I'm showing you a typical route in order to get the most out of your time!
Ultimate Guide for The Best Christmas Markets in Europe
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 called glühwein.
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 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.
Bring cash, most sellers will only take cash at a Christmas market. The winter markets can be cold, so make sure to bring something warm and comfortable shoes. You'll most likely be on your feet to peruse the stalls.
Most major European cities have Christmas markets, and they are all lovely. But, I have been to dozens so I'm pulling out the best Christmas markets to get the “real” experience along with an itinerary to help you on your way.
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. I suggest starting your journey in Germany. My suggestions for Christmas markets in Germany are: Heidelberg, Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber, Munich, Nuremberg and Dresden. Most towns in Germany, including the smaller ones, will all offer a Weihnachtsmarkt, so you really can't go wrong!
Nuremburg is steeped in tradition and you'll find a huge market with lots to see, do, and eat. But my favorite is the more laid-back 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.
Munich from above, image via Happy to Wander!
Christmas Market Dates in Germany: Heidelberg – November 27 December 22, Munich – November 27 – December 24
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. The most beautiful Christmas markets are in Strasbourg and Colmar 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.
Christmas Market Dates in France: November 24 through December 30
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 of my favorite treats. 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.
My favorite market in Switzerland is not too far from Basel in Lucerne, Switzerland. Situated on the lake, 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.
Christmas Market Dates in Switzerland: Lucerne – December 1-20, Basel – November 23 – December 23
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. I find the markets in Austria to be lovely, romantic, and a great combination of traditional and modern refinement.
Best Christmas Markets in Vienna
There are multiple markets throughout the city but my favorites 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 every where 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.
Don't miss St. Stephen's and the magnificent church. You really can't miss it, the steeple is that high. Take a walk along Kärtnerstrasse to see the incredible chandeliers. Check out the Altes AKH to see the University campus transformed into Christmas wonderland. The museum quarter already boasts lovely architecture but it packs an added punch with the market in Maria-Theresa-Platz. This is also a good place to stop and have a traditional strudel.
For an over-the-top market have one outside a palace! Two opportunities for this at Schloss Belvedere and Schönbrunn. Both are beautiful and the palaces only add to the ambiance.
Christmas Market Dates in Austria: Vienna – Late November – December 23
Your European Christmas Market Route
Fly into Germany – I suggest Frankfurt. This is a major airport hub and makes it easy to go to your next destination. From here, you can take a train or a car (I find cars are easiest and make it so you can stop off at any time). From here, take a train or car to Heidelberg, Germany. This is a typical Christmas market and will put you right in the spirit. Next, we're heading to France! Strasbourg is only about an hour and a half away from Heidelberg. After you get your fill of Glühwein our next stop is still in Alsace: Colmar, France. An actual gingerbread town, it's one of the cutest places I've ever stepped foot in!
After France we'll cross another border and head into Switzerland. Here we'll go to Basel then Bern and if time permits we'll go to Lucerne and back north to Zurich. This itinerary is perfect if you have 5-7 days. Have more time, or just want to see more? Keep on going! From here you can go back into Germany for Munich's markets or go straight over to Austria. If you're driving, stop off in Salzburg. But since this is a long journey, I suggest flying to Vienna. Next you can either head to Prague (my personal favorite) or east to Budapest.
Pictured: Prague's Christmas Market in Old Town Square
Other great spots for Christmas are London, Nuremberg, Dresden, Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels, Budapest, and Zagreb.
What to eat at Christmas Markets
Schokokuss – the best way to describe this dessert is to take marshmallow fluff, then cover it chocolate, and eat a dozen. Really, these are inexpensive and are so light and fluffy. I get one almost every time I go to a Christmas market.
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 I always load up on 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. I can't say these are very tasty, but they are pretty!
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, anyone can get their fill from this simple classic.
Frikadella – One of my favorite foods 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 or pommes frites!
Candied nuts – the perfect warm Christmas market treat to pop in your mouth as you amble 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.
Glühwein – You cannot go to the Christmas market without glühwein! I'm totally addicted to this hot, mulled wine made with spices. It 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're alcohol free you can also order kinderpunsch!
What to buy at the Christmas Markets
Everything sheepskin is for sale – gloves, hats, rugs and more.
Keep your glühwein cup as a fun souvenir. If you want to keep with the alcohol trend, many stalls offer liqueurs in pretty bottles that are an excellent gift.
Most markets have their own traditions and things for sale. For example, in Nuremberg they sell dolls made of dates! Most items for sale at Christmas markets are handmade and high quality. You won't necessarily find the cheapest items but you will find something special that will last.
Everyone deserves a winter wonderland break and Europe's Christmas markets make for the perfect magical escape. Christmas markets in Europe are some of the best memories of my life, and I'm already counting down the dates until next year!
Need more Christmas markets? Check out even more posts!
Here's a handy infographic and brief look at the best of Christmas markets in Europe: