Is there anything that invokes the Christmas spirit more than the twinkling lights and wooden huts of a traditional Christmas market? Okay, there are plenty of things (actual Christmas, for a start), but the markets that fill up the town and city centres of continental Europe throughout December are definitely a signifier that Santa is on his way.
The markets originated from the German-speaking world, and the mixture of glistening lights, traditional food and festive cheer is a staple from Tallinn all the way down to Zagreb, and everywhere in between. Our guides cover many of the finest Christmas markets on the continent, and here are a baker’s dozen of the best!
Christmas Markets in Zurich
In recent years Christmas markets and special Christmas events have popped up all over the city of Zurich. They don’t have a tradition going back centuries like in Germany, but nevertheless they have some charm and atmosphere. All of them are outdoors – except the big Christkindlimarkt in the hall of the main train station.
You’ll find a range of items from colourful scarves to wood carvings, sweet delicacies and bits and pieces from around the world. At all the markets you can get glühwein, hot mulled red wine that keeps you warm even if a cold December wind is blowing. And of course there are food stands offering raclette, melted cheese on bread, and other delights.
Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market
London might get all the attention, but those in the know head to Birmingham for their English Christmas market excitement. Well, technically England, but the heritage and culture of Germany shine through the streets of Brum during the festive season. Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market is the largest authentic German market found outside of Germany and Austria, and Birmingham’s city centre becomes a blur of bratwurst, Brezel, and glühwein throughout December. It can be a little jarring hearing German traditions parroted in the famous Brummie accent, but there is something delightfully endearing about it.
Seville Christmas Markets
Christmas markets are generally associated with the chilly cities of Central and Eastern Europe, but shimmering lights and wooden stalls certainly aren’t confined to the meat of the continent. Besides, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the magic of a Christmas market without wearing five layers of clothing, a hat and a scarf? Lovingly known as the “Frying Pan of Europe,” Seville holds its own Christmas markets throughout December, with festive motifs lit up all around the city and little stalls serving the delicious delicacies that Andalusia is famous for. The annual light show in Plaza de San Francisco is one of the continent’s finest and might have you considering making warmer Christmases a tradition from now on.
Oslo Christmas Market
Norway is just about as north as Europe gets, and the country has many brilliant Christmas markets ready to entertain and enrapture visitors. Oslo is the beating heart of it all, a city that well and truly embraces the festive season with traditional stalls, skating rinks and Ferris wheels. Oslo Christmas Market is also a great place to try gløgg, the Scandinavian version of glühwein and objectively a brilliant word. Head to Bygdøy in the west of Oslo for something special, as the markets there take visitors on a Christmas journey through different eras and periods. Don’t forget to wrap up, of course.
Advent in Zagreb
You don’t get voted ‘Best Christmas Market’ on multiple occasions without at least being deserving of some serious acknowledgment. That honour belongs to the Croatian capital, and it is easy to see why Zagreb has swept the presumably-mythical ‘Christmas Market Oscars’ for several years. The ice park on King Tomislav Square is deserving of every ‘magical’ adjective thrown its way, and the various advent and nativity scenes take some beating.
Cardiff Christmas Market
The Welsh are a creative bunch, so it is no shock to see art take pride of place at the capital’s Christmas markets. Cardiff has carved out a pretty nifty reputation as one of the best shopping cities in Britain, with many major retailers and independent shops practically sharing a bed in the city centre. The camaraderie is ramped up in December, although, again, that could be the mulled wine. Cardiff likes a drink, to say the least, and the markets are accentuated with a conveyor belt of old pubs and sophisticated bars, ready to provide shelter from the cold and (inevitable) rain. Maybe these taverns inspire much of the creativity, as the stalls of Cardiff’s Christmas market are packed with the works of local artists and innovators. The food is fantastic, too, if you need more convincing.
From one of the best to one of the oldest, Vienna has held some form of festive market in its city centre since 1298, a full 694 years before In Your Pocket first published a guide. The Austrian capital is an enchanting city even on its worst days, and it is fair to say that ‘worst’ is not a word that comes to mind when describing the modern Christmas Market. Vienna’s City Hall is a romantic setting as you could hope to find for some festive cheer.
Prague Christmas Market
Speaking of romance, the Czech capital is accurately considered to be one of the most romantic cities on the continent. The festive season takes over the majority of the squares of Prague, and the atmosphere in the city is clearly focused on the cheer to come as opposed to short-term enjoyment. Prague is the place to go to be enveloped in the entire festive season. And then of course there’s the famous Christmas carp of Czechia to admire!
Christmas in Tallinn
Surely one of the northernmost Christmas markets on the planet, the history of yuletide cheer in Tallinn goes way back to 1441, the year in which the first evergreen conifer was erected in the town, one of the earliest examples of what we now know and love as the Christmas tree. It was set on fire all those years ago, but you’ll have to make do with snow and lights in the 21st century.
Festive December in Ljubljana
From an adorable capital in the north to one a little further south, Ljubljana’s Festive December has its sights set firmly on the future as opposed to the past. The city’s main square may well be the only festive market on the planet to feature neon sperm, and no that is not a joke. Somehow, it works.
The idea of the Christmas market originated in the Germanic world, so we would be remiss to wax lyrical about yuletide celebrations without dipping into modern day Deutschland. There are almost a hundred markets in and around the capital so there is plenty of choice, but the one at Gendarmenmarkt may take the prize for the finest. A newspaper referred to it as the ‘Mercedes S-Class’ of Christmas markets. High praise indeed.
Orthodox Xmas in Belgrade
Okay, Christmas might come a couple of weeks later in Serbia (Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7), but Belgrade isn’t exactly shy about celebrating. The Serbian capital is one of the most exciting cities on the planet, and it jumps feet first into the Christmas spirit with dazzling lights and all the gluttony that festive markets demand. Knez Mihailova is given over to Yuletide celebrations, and Republic Square shines even brighter as the epicentre of activity in the heart of town.
Christmas in Krakow
Krakow and Christmas (Krakmas? Chriskow?) go together like heat and beer, unless you aren’t a fan of such things of course. Gingerbread houses, candy canes and the jingling of sleigh bells mesh with one of Europe’s finest city squares to create an unforgettable festive experience, although that depends on your ability to keep stock of your ‘grzane piwo’ (hot beer) intake.
Belfast Christmas Market
The Belfast Christmas Continental Market was formerly one of our most popular cover models, and this year it once again returns to the sparkly grounds of Belfast City Hall with its festive array of ostrich burgers, craft brews, handmade gifts and Santa’s Grotto. Sure you couldn’t beat it with a big stick.
Riga’s Christmas Market
Although Christmas markets are a relatively new concept in Riga, Latvia’s capital now has three of them. The most charming and authentic is located in the shadow of Riga Cathedral in the old town and not only provides dozens of stalls selling local crafts, gingerbread cookies and mulled wine but also sports a post office, so you can send old fashioned postcards to your friends, a cat hotel, which is as odd as it sounds, a stage for live bands and even a small petting zoo filled with sheep.
Hungarian Christmas in Budapest
The snow is falling in Budapest this year, something we haven’t seen for a while. Thus, the wooden stalls and fir trees of the Christmas markets will look as picturesque as can be. There are two main Christmas markets, with smaller concerns dotted around the city. The work of genuine craftspeople is showcased at these markets, and at either market you can take a break from retail therapy to load up on Hungarian delicacies such as Kürtőskalács – the stacked “chimney cake”. To really warm the blood, a shot of Pálinka (Hungarian schnapps) or mulled wine seldom goes amiss.
Gdansk’s Christmas Market
The Gdansk Christmas market’s biggest pull is its location set on the cobbled square of the Coal Market in the shadow of some of the city’s most picturesque buildings – the Prison Tower and the Armoury. When the whole place is lit up it’s a truly wonderful sight and we can only hope for a bit of December snowfall to really give it that Christmasy feel.
Christmas in Vilnius
And last but not least, there’s the capital of Lithuania and the birthplace of everyone’s favourite publishers of locally produced travel guides, ie In Your Pocket, that’s right: Vilnius! It’s five unforgettable weeks of winter holidays, where the variety of festivities and pleasant Christmas surprises in the capital make Vilnius the true Christmas capital.