Fresh snow blanketing the ground. The sound of carols in the air. A festival of twinkling lights and bright colors. The wind carrying the mixed scents of cinnamon, peppermint, gingerbread, and warm mulled wine on the breeze. This is the Christkindlmarkt. The tradition of Christmas markets in Europe stretches back hundreds of years, with the earliest documented version of one having been held in Vienna in 1294. It is a practice that has continued almost uninterrupted to this day throughout the continent, with the most famous and beloved being held in Germany, France, and Austria.
While similar Christmas markets can be found around the world, even in cities like New York and Chicago, there is something uniquely magical about strolling the same streets where these celebrations have been held for centuries. Some markets feature skating rinks, others have pageants, but all are decorated with trees, lights, stalls of local delicacies, and more.
While any number of delightful souvenirs and holiday treasures can be found at the markets, their beauty and history have made them destinations unto themselves, with tours and river cruises visiting a selection each year, and cities relying on them to draw visitors around the holidays (the most visited markets in Germany, Cologne and Dortmund, draw 4 million and 3.5 million visitors, respectively). Just one of Viking River Cruises’ holiday itineraries, for instance, includes stops at the Christmas markets in Heidelberg, Wertheim, the walled medieval city of Rothenburg with its Christmas Museum, Bamberg,and Nuremberg.
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But what should you buy while you’re there? The answers are as endless and varied as the markets themselves. In Stuttgart, teddy bears are a traditional souvenir. In Nuremberg, pick up some “prune men” (or zwetschgenmännie), small figurines made of dried fruit and walnuts (but don’t eat them!). In Vienna, you’ll find hand-painted tin ornaments, and Budapest is home to stunning Hungarian ceramics.
You’ll also want to pick up some snacks, as the markets are home to some of the best homemade local foods available, like gingerbread, sausages, fruitcake, and more – and wash it all down with glühwein, a hot mulled wine that keeps the chill at bay while fortifying you for one more round of shopping!
If you somehow manage to tire of the markets and the holiday festivities, don’t worry; all of these towns and cities are home to plenty of other things to see and do, from ancient walls to towering castles. We’re pretty sure you won’t need them, though – the Christmas markets of Europe are magical enough to make just about any Scrooge change his tune.
Check out these specific markets from late November through Christmas Eve!
London’s market features a Bavarian Village, ice rink, food, drink, and shows—with no admission fees!
Paris presents the traditional markets with trinkets, gifts, and grog along Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, on the Champs-Elysées, and Trocadéro, and don’t miss out on the famous window displays at Galeries Lafayette.
Berlin offers more than 60 different markets, including those at Gendarmenmarkt Square, Potsdamer Platz, and Charlottenburg Castle.
Bremen shines with romantic lights, a historic setting, and festive booths, and the market is considered to be one of the best in Germany.
Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmarik is one of the oldest markets in Europe and was voted “Europe’s Best Christmas Market” in 2014 by European Best Destinations. The poll had 72,000 voters!
Which markets are you most excited to visit? Tell us in the comments!
About Meghan Brennan