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I had heard for years about the beauty and wonder of Europe's Christmas markets. But it wasn't until my family experienced old town squares filled with Christmas lights and saw the market stalls, wooden toys, and traditional food that I really understood how it felt to step into this winter wonderland. The best European Christmas markets are the perfect place to savor the holiday season, with beautiful Christmas trees, plenty of decorations, and fun for the whole family. Here's what you need to know to plan your trip to Europe's magical Christmas markets.

 

 

 

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Europe's Christmas Markets: Everything You Need to Know

 

 

They're Not Just in Germany

 

In a typical Christmas market (also known as a Weihnachtsmarkt or a Christkindlmarkt), you'll find a giant Christmas tree, fairy lights decorating tiny wooden chalets, and a dozen sights and smells creating a festive atmosphere that pervades the entire city. You may even find a Ferris Wheel or a giant, wooden Christmas pyramid. 

Germany is home to some of the best Christmas markets and the most well-known, but traditional markets can be found all over Europe. Vienna, Austria, is known for their gigantic market near city hall that includes an ice skating rink and skating paths bordered with snack stands. Strasbourg, France, has been hosting a popular Christmas market for over four hundred years and has been dubbed "The Capital of Christmas" for the way it celebrates the festive season.  

I enjoyed the market in the Old Town Square of Prague in the Czech Republic. Our family shopped at booths, enjoyed the nativity scene, and then tried the ultimate street food of Prague Christmas markets – stick bread! (Seriously, you MUST try stick bread. It's amazing.)

 

Pro-Tip: Be sure to do some research before assuming you are headed to a traditional Christmas Market. I once ended up navigating through a drunken party in London's Leicester Square because the internet told me it was a "Christmas Market."

 

 

Stick bread being made at a Christmas market in Prague.

At the Prague Christmas markets, we loved watching how stick bread, or trdelník, is made. (We loved eating it even more.) Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

 

Some Cities Host Several Markets

 

While some towns host one big market right in the city center, others are home to several smaller markets scattered around the town. Sometimes the smaller markets are good places to find shorter food lines and unique crafts. Dresden's Striezelmarkt began in the late 15th century and is probably the oldest Christmas market in Europe. It also may be Europe's best Christmas market, and it draws thousands of tourists. But as a family traveling with young kids, we enjoyed the smaller Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt in Dresden, where we found a calm area to chat and sip warm drinks.

Local artists work all year and then bring their wares to sell at these events, so a Christmas market is one of the best places to do Christmas shopping and find one-of-a-kind gifts. Venture away from the crowds to find quieter places to shop and explore.

 

 

The entrance to Dresden's Streizelmarkt, one of the best Christmas markets in Europe.

Dresden's Striezelmarkt is a popular tourist destination, but don't miss the smaller markets that are scattered throughout the city. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

 

 

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Find the Medieval Markets

 

In addition to the main market in the town square, cities such as Vienna and Munich also host medieval markets. These markets are like mini Renaissance Festivals and are great places to find unique gifts and see traditional craftsmanship with wood carvings, leather, and pottery. While not every town hosts these specialty markets, they are worth seeking out.

Dresden's medieval market is held within the walls of the Dresden Royal Palace. Colorful banners decorate the wooden stalls as jugglers entertain crowds and musicians wander in period costumes. Some medieval markets are known for having fire shows and sword fighting demonstrations. The festive spirit of the medieval markets is sure to be fun for everyone.

 

 

 

 

Check the Schedule

 

Here in the U.S., we count on shopping for Christmas decorations at half price even into early January. But you won't find discount bargains after Christmas in a European market. Instead, you'll find an empty main square, with the magical Christmas village shut tight. While the markets of central Europe kick off the Christmas season in late November, most of them close by Christmas Eve or even December 23.  

Also, check the market schedule before visiting to alert you to any special events in the area. We stumbled across an amazing live music concert with Christmas carols in Dresden. It was fantastic … until we were stuck in the crowd of thousands of people all trying to leave at the same time.

Many cities have postponed or canceled their markets during the last couple of years due to COVID-19 surges, so keep an eye on local websites for the latest information. 

 

 

Moravian Stars decorate a wooden booth at a Christmas market in Dresden.

We managed to visit Dresden's beautiful Christmas markets on one of the most crowded evenings, but we still enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

 

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Have a Snack  …  and Don't Forget the Mugs

 

Of course, one of the best parts of any Christmas market is the food. The baked goods at Christmas markets are truly a sight to behold, and I wanted to buy them all. In Dresden, we enjoyed trying stollen, a special Christmas bread made with fruit and nuts. (We may or may not have eaten it for breakfast the next day.) We also bought a bag of roasted nuts covered in cinnamon and sugar to give us the energy to finish the short walk to our hotel (protein, right?).

Mulled wine (aka glüwhein) is popular with adults, and kinderpunsch is the non-alcoholic cider available for the younger crowd. The drinks are the best way to stay warm in the cold weather. They also are an essential part of the Christmas market experience. Each drink is sold in a ceramic mug that is specific to the market where it was purchased, with a festive design and the year painted onto the side. You can return the mugs to food stalls for a small refund, or you can keep them as memorable souvenirs. 

 

 

A festive mug at a Christmas market in Dresden.

My husband carefully packed our Christmas market mugs in our suitcases, surrounding them with our clothes to prevent damage. The mugs made it through the flight home! Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

 

Watch for Family Fun

 

In addition to ice skating, there are plenty of activities for little ones in many Christmas markets. Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, has amusement park rides as well as visits from Santa Claus and his reindeer. The Christmas market in Leipzig has four carousels, a Ferris wheel, and a fairytale land with reenactments of famous children's stories. In England, the Manchester Christmas Markets offer a special family-friendly area in Cathedral Gardens with live shows created just for kids. And Nuremberg, Germany, has an entire market made for children, with kid-sized booths, a tiny post office, and a hands-on bakery.

 

 

A carousel at a Christmas market in Europe.

Christmas markets often have carousels, train rides, and visits from Father Christmas to delight kiddos (and their families). Photo by CMO Photo on Unsplash.

 

 

Find Magical Markets Closer to Home

 

If a trip to Europe isn't in the cards this year, you can look for great Christmas markets right here in the United States. Cambria, California, hosts a Christmas market from the end of November to December 23 featuring light shows, local artisans, and fire pits. Chicago, Denver, and Carmel, Indiana, all host impressive German-style Christmas markets with the distinctive wooden booths and traditional holiday food. And if you're celebrating the holidays in New York, head to Columbus Circle for an accessible, festive opportunity to shop and celebrate right by Central Park.

 

 

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The traditional yet modern Columbus Circle Christmas Market in Manhattan.

Columbus Circle hosts a traditional Christmas Market in the middle of Manhattan. Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash.

 

 

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No matter what holiday you celebrate this season or where you find yourself, let these markets add extra joy, magic, and fun to the end of your year.

 

 

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Christmas Markets: A Quick Guide to Europe's Best Stops

 

 

Christy Nicholson is a writer, editor, and recovering perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. When not traveling with family, she enjoys cozy days at home reading, gardening, making music, and wrangling two awesome kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about travel and sustainable living.