I’ve been making a list and checking it twice...and am ready to reveal which European Christmas markets made the naughty or nice list. This by no means is a conclusive list of markets throughout Europe, but it’s my thoughts on 20 markets spanning 8 European countries. So without further ado, here’s the breakdown by country:
Vienna - Best Christmas Market Setting and Best Market for a European Capital
For the European capital cities I have visited during the holidays, I have found most Christmas markets to be a combination of overcrowded, too touristy, and an overall disappointment. Vienna though stands out from this grouping. It is beautifully decorated and has the most regal, beautiful settings for some of its markets: not one, but two palaces. What’s better than getting to warm up and visit a palace, followed by a dose of Christmas cheer on its grounds?
Seefeld in Tirol - Most Similiar to "Whoville" and Best After a Day of Skiing
One isn't enticed to visit to Seefeld in Tirol based on the sole merits of its Christmas market. The market is a small set-up befitting of this quaint town in Austria. (Chances are you haven’t heard of it - it’s nearby Innsbruck.) Nonetheless Seefeld is a perfect spot to spend Christmas in my opinion, and the market provides a warm cup of glühwein after a day of ice skating or cross-country skiing. But the moment when it truly shines? After midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the nearby St. Oswald's church, the congregation pours out into the main square while being serenaded by a brass quartet playing from a balcony above. If only the Christmas tree were in the middle of the square, everyone might as well join hands and sing together, Whoville-style.
Bruges - Best for the Kids and Best for a Beer
Bruges is my favorite weekend trip from Paris. We realised that we’ve been going every 16 months since we moved to Paris, and we were becoming due for a trip in December. It’s an absolutely lovely medieval town, and I couldn’t wait to experience it decorated for Christmas.
In all honestly, the markets didn’t quite live up to my high expectations (although the town itself always charms me). But I did realize that Bruges may have a win-win market situation for adults and kids alike. Adults can choose from a nice selection of Belgian beer at the market, while kids can go ice skating in the center of Markt square. And at the other nearby Christmas market in Simon Stevinplein square, bumper cars and other carnival games amuse the children while parents peruse the stands.
Prague - Best Main Town Square
It’s no secret that Prague has a pretty face on a normal day, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it only gets more beautiful at Christmas time. It’s Old Town Square, Staroměstské náměstí, is my pick for the best atmospheric town square I have been to in Europe. Grab a Trdelník, a mug of mulled wine, and be dazzled by Prague.
Bristol - Least Crowded Christmas Market
I need to first disclose that I didn’t go to Bristol for its Christmas market - I went to visit a good friend and had a wonderful time. With that said, it seems I’m with the majority. Bristol is a great city but its Christmas market isn’t its selling point to travel there.
It’s not that they don’t make an effort. The town imports materials from Germany to create the market and even has a Bavarian band that performs from time to time. The part I appreciated the most though was browsing the stands selling local crafts and food items from Bristol. That cheddar cheese and cider sure were tempting!
Bath - Best Local Shopping
The Bristol Market may have been low-key and it seemed like its potential market-goers were all flocking to the neighboring town of Bath. This market was scenic as it spilled out around the Cathedral and continued on some of the narrow streets in the center of town. But the thing that stood out the most to me was all the locally made products on display. Similar to Bristol but on a much larger scale (with over 170 stands), this market offers lots of artisan products from Bath and the surrounding areas. The market’s website advertises that 60% of the goods are handmade within the UK. This is definitely the market to visit in England for shopping while supporting local artisans.
Paris - Best Proximity to the Eiffel Tower
I love Paris for many, many reasons, but its Christmas markets do not make the list. This isn’t to say that Paris isn’t pretty during Christmas time, because it is decorated festively. But on the merits of the markets alone, I have only been let down by the uninspiring and touristy stands. (Though if you have the urge to buy some Eiffel Tower keychains, you can surely find lots to choose from along the market on the Champs-Élysées.)
However, if you do want to give the Christmas markets a go in Paris, head over to the one at La Defense. There are 300 stands set-up and a decent selection of market food to make the excursion to the end of the line 1 Metro worth it.
Strasbourg - Best to Keep You Busy all Day and Most Decked-out Halls
If you are looking for a fantastic Christmas market in France, there is really one clear answer. Strasbourg doesn’t call itself the Capitale de Noël (Christmas Capital) for no reason. This town is the most decorated town I’ve ever seen for the holidays - you would think that Buddy the Elf was the lead designer in charge.
Not only has the whole town come together to deck their halls, but Strasbourg also gets my superlative of the best town to keep you busy all day with Christmas-related activities. Granted, I visited Strasbourg over a weekend when most markets have the majority of events scheduled, but the program in Strasbourg was the most extensive I’ve seen. We went to a few free concerts over one weekend, and when we weren’t listening to live music we had plenty of ground to cover to see all the markets around town. If you’re headed there this year, take a look at the schedule online and get ready to experience one of Europe’s most celebrated Christmas markets.
Nuremberg - Best Cookies
[Honorable Mention for its International Christmas Market]
Nuremberg hosts one of the oldest and most well-known Christmas markets in Germany. Which is a nice distinction to have, no doubt about it. But for me, the most notable thing about Nuremberg are the cookies that it produces during the holidays. Lebkuchen are a cookie made with spices that make it a close cousin of gingerbread. But unlike hard gingerbread, these cookies are chewy (which make them superior in my opinion) and are usually either covered in a white glaze or coated in chocolate.
Thankfully you can find these cookies throughout Germany in other markets, so if you can’t fit Nuremberg in your itinerary, still be on the look-out for them at other Christmas markets. You may just have a new favorite Christmas cookie!
Berlin - Most Eco-friendly and Most Crowded
In all fairness, I need to preface my comments on Berlin by saying that I only spent one night in town during the holidays (read what trumped the itinerary here), so the only market we had time to visit was at Charlottenburg Palace. It was frigid that night, and despite being packed wall-to-wall in a sea of people, the extra body heat didn’t warm us up any extra.
But the crowds aside, I do have to say I was impressed by how eco-friendly that market was. I’ve mentioned the concept of reusable mugs in my Christmas market how-to, but in case you missed it, here’s what I’ve noticed in Germany and Austria. Mulled wine and other hot beverages are served in mugs, which you put down a deposit on. You can choose to keep the mug as a souvenir, or return it to get the deposit back - in which case it will be washed and reused again at the market. Berlin took this a step further. When we were served our dinner of currywurst, we paid a deposit for the hard plastic plate and fork. I would think with the mass volume of people that the food vendors wouldn’t bother complicating things more by collecting plates and silverware too, but they did. And the environment thanks Berlin for that.
Dresden - Most Decorative Stands and Tallest Christmas Pyramid
[Honorable Mention for its International Christmas Market]
Christmas market protocol varies from town to town. Some have a standard stall that is uniformly decorated. Other places allow each individual stand to decorate as they wish. Dresden falls into the later category, and decorate to the nines they do! Dresden is full of lots of lights, elaborate displays, and even moving characters in the mix. Some Christmas markets have stands selling glühwein to-go. Dresden creates temporary walk-in bars at its Striezelmarkt.
Perhaps Dresden has had the most time to work out the kinks with its Christmas market. Its Striezelmarkt is known as the oldest Christmas market in Germany - and as Michael noted, it started when the earth was still flat (1434, before Columbus set sail for America). It also boasts the tallest Christmas pyramid, at 14 meters tall. The only thing I still think needs a bit of work is the famous dessert they are known for during the holidays, known as stollen. Though I suppose if this type of fruit cake has withstood the test of time like the market has, someone out there enjoys it!
Leipzig - Most Local and Best Market Food
It’s no news that Christmas markets attract many tourists. I’ve never been put off by other tourists or had disdain for fellow travelers - these markets are so magical and wonderful that I wish everyone could experience one. So when I name Leipzig as the “most local,” it’s not to indicate it as a preference, but merely an observation that it had the highest concentration of locals to tourists that I’ve seen, at least in Germany. Which gave me a fond memory of learning how to count in German a little - not much English spoken here!
The more powerful memory though is (can you guess) the food. The handbrot, or “Heurekaner” as the sign indicated, was so good that after its discovery it became every meal possible. The market opened a little late for breakfast but otherwise it would have been a consideration. Anyway, look at my Leipzig Christmas Market post if you care for more details beyond the “this is the best thing ever” summary version.
Stuttgart - Best Train Set-up
[Honorable Mention for its Decorative Stands]
Stuttgart is king of transportation-related amusements, which carries through to its Christmas market as well. Sound strange? Let me back up. One of the highlights of my time in Stuttgart last year was visiting its Mercedes-Benz Museum. Now, I can’t say that I am really into cars - let’s be honest, color is more important to me than the make or model. So when I say that I went to a car museum and it was legitimately cool and really well-done, I mean it. There also is the Porsche museum in town, though I didn’t get a chance to check that one out.
All this to say that back at the Christmas market, Stuttgart kept to its transportation-related fun with a giant toy train set that was big enough for kids (and even parents) to ride.It’s the only train of its scale I have seen at a Christmas market, so Stuttgart wins this category uncontested!
Cologne - Best Individual Market Theme and Best Mugs
[Honorable Mention for its Market Food]
Cologne’s Angel Market (Markt Der Engel) is the sweetest themed market I have seen! I loved the angel theme, and the classy white light decorations that adorned the area. And this market had its own special mugs decorated with angels instead of the standard Cologne mugs with the cathedral. So of course the ones from the Markt Der Engel were the ones I selected to keep for my Christmas market mug collection.
I also have to give a shout-out to the Markt Der Engel for having one of the best market food offerings. Although nothing can upstage the handbrot in Leipzig, this market had a salmon sandwich that was grilled on an open fire before one's eyes, and absolutely delicious. As usual, I was too greedy to pause and photograph the sandwich before I ate it, so you’ll just have to take my word on this one. Trust me, the wait in line is worth it.
Aachen - Best Day Trip from Cologne
Sorry for the cheap shot, but I was getting a little tired of sightseeing in Cologne so the motivation for a visit to Aachen was more to leave Cologne than to travel to Aachen’s Christmas market. It was a great day trip idea, I must add - the Cathedral of Aachen was well-worth the visit. If you need a little breather from the bustling market surrounding Cologne’s imposing cathedral, consider a side-trip here. Aachen has a beautiful cathedral as well, surrounded by a more low-key, less crowded Christmas market.
Munich - Best International Christmas Market
You may have noticed that a two other markets earned notable mentions for their International Christmas markets. Now it’s time to reveal the winner of this category - the Munich Tollwood Winter Festival. It is labeled as a “winter festival,” but I’m taking the liberty to call it what it is - a huge international Christmas market, bigger than any I have seen to date.
So what is Tollwood exactly? It is a big event under two tents as well as surrounding outdoor space, full of stands representing countries from all over the world. There’s plenty of shopping opportunities indoors (I personally couldn’t resist a beautiful scarf from India), and when you build up an appetite, there are food and drink options from all over the world. It is a welcome break from all the pork you’ve likely been eating at the German Christmas markets, plus since most of the festival takes place under a tent, it has the added benefit of providing warmth and shelter for a market meal. And if you can snag a chair and some table space, you can even get off your feet for a break!
Rothenburg ob der Tauber - Most Romantic Setting
[Honorable Mention for its Market Food]
Another well-preserved medieval city has made the list, and this one is not in Belgium. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a beautiful town that I fell in love with - get inspired with my post about this destination here! Its medieval town setting, with the added wow factor of being decorated for Christmas, put Rothenburg ahead for the win for the most romantic atmosphere. Besides, it is even home to a CHRISTMAS MUSEUM! And the famous Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store has its flagship store here, of course. Bring your love, and fall in love, with Rothenburg at Christmastime!
Barcelona - Best Christmas Tradition
This find comes compliments of my hubby, as Barcelona is the only Christmas market featured here that I haven’t personally frequented. He returned and couldn’t wait to tell me about this discovery of his. Particularly because when it comes to potty humor, I have the maturity of a fifth grade boy.
Get this: In Catalan, there is a tradition involving this smiling log character pictured below, called the Caga Tió. This log makes an appearance in early December and children take care of the Caga Tió until Christmas Eve. They cover it in a blanket and feed him Turron until the eve of Christmas comes. That’s when they demand the Caga Tió to poop out their presents or else they will hit him with a stick. Apparently when asked about these logs, Michael’s tour guide was a bit embarrassed of this tradition. But I of course am awarding it as the most awesome European Christmas tradition ever.
Madrid - Most Likely to Visit a Christmas Market on a Sunny Day and Most Likely to Buy Something Made in China
To be honest, Madrid’s Christmas markets were quite underwhelming. Perhaps it was scaled down by the time I arrived just after Christmas, but I found the market stands poorly decorated and the products for sale mostly cheap plastic things likely made in a far away land. That said, the mild temperatures and sunny days were a warm welcome. Madrid is far from my first destination for a Christmas market experience, but worth some consideration to ring in the New Year!
Zurich - Best Christmas Tree
I was lucky to have a trip planned to Zurich just as they were starting to open up their Christmas markets for the season. I didn’t get to see all the markets open, but I was there long enough to make this assessment: Zurich has the best Christmas trees around.
Exhibit A: The Singing Christmas Tree. When we read that there would be a “singing tree,” we assumed it would be a real tree with some sort of speaker system playing music. What we found was so much better. It was a platform shaped like a tree where a live choir gave a performance from. How cool is that?! The picture only says so much - hop over to my YouTube channel for the live action (that comes with a warning - if you are like me, watching the clip is going to make you want to immediately watch Love Actually).
Exhibit B: The huge Christmas tree in the Hauptbahnhof (main train station). Not only does the main market in the train station have a huge tree, but it is dripping with Swarovski crystal ornaments. Michael’s been buying me a Swarovski ornament every year since we’ve been married, so we know how pretty they are as well as the price tag for a single ornament. So I can’t imagine the value hanging off these branches!
And there you have it! So now over to you - if you've visited any of these markets, what do you think of my assessment? Any superlatives you'd like to give out? Or any Christmas markets that you want to visit now?