Christmas in Europe: Dazzling Markets and Rich Traditions

If Only in My Dreams 

Update November 30, 2020: Mr. TWS and I have been fortunate to visit many European cities and Christmas markets during the holiday season over the years. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about our lives and plans, but we are optimistic that we will experience the magic of holidays in Europe in the future — perhaps in 2021. In 2020, many, possibly all, European Christmas markets will not be open or it is still unknown if they will be operating at least in some modified fashion due to the pandemic.  Please visit city government and tourist office websites of each location to find out which particular markets are open, cancelled for 2020, or have a status still unknown. 

My favorite places in Europe to kick off the Christmas season

Come along and dream with me about Christmases past and those to come.

Santa Claus on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, France

Just Santa and me on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris

My first time: England

Christmas in London

I’ll never forget our first European Christmas experience in London. We enthusiastically soaked up the festive decorations, lively pubs, busy shops, Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the traditional tree lighting at Trafalgar Square. I think it’s important to note that for many years Norway has been giving the people of London a Norway pine to be the holiday tree in gratitude for British assistance during World War II.

Christmas in London: Trafalgar Square tree lighting, Covent Garden, fountain in Trafalgar Square, London, England

Christmas in London: Trafalgar Square tree lighting, Covent Garden, fountain in Trafalgar Square

So many markets, so little time: Germany

Germany is well known for its festive Christmas markets for good reason. My very first Christmas market experiences were here in Berlin. Although there are many more markets in many more cities in Germany for me to visit, this list should give you some great places to start.

Christmas in Berlin

As I neared Charlottenburg Palace I could hear the sounds of laughter and music. My mouth started watering from the aromas of grilling sausages. The lights and the festive sights were tantalizing. This was my first ever European Christmas market and I was forever hooked. I later went to the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market and continued the enjoyment of food, drink, and holiday spirit.

Christmas market at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany

Christmas market at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin

Christmas in Hamburg

The markets of Hamburg have an especially warm and friendly feel. I reveled in the ambiance of the large market at the Rathaus and more modest ones in smaller squares around the city.

Christmas in Germany at Rathaus in Hamburg, Germany

Christmas tree and market at the Rathaus in Hamburg

Christmas in Nuremberg

We began our Viking Danube River cruise in Nuremberg. The Christmas market on the Hauptmarkt, the main city square in Nuremberg, is Germany’s largest market and considered by many to be one of the best in Europe with high quality crafts and delicious lebkuchen, a traditional spicy gingerbread treat.

Christmas Market crafts and lebkuchen in Nuremberg, Germany

Christmas Market crafts and lebkuchen (a tasty gingerbread specialty) in Nuremberg, Germany

Christmas in Passau

Passau was a stop on our Viking cruise on the Danube River. Locals and tourists alike didn’t seem to mind the quite cold and damp weather as they celebrated the season with toasts of glühwein and shopping for gifts.

Christmas market at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Passau, Germany

Christmas market at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Passau, Germany

Christmas in Munich

There are several Christmas markets in Munich, a city that radiates a joy of the season in its numerous Christmas markets. I especially enjoyed the market at Neues Rathaus, a perfectly picturesque setting. We also took time for a glass of glühwein at the market at the Munich Residenz and shopped the booths at Mittelaltermarkt (a medieval-themed market).

Weihnachtsmarkt at Marienplatz, Munich, Germany

Marienplatz Weihnachtsmarkt at Neues Rathaus in Munich, Germany

Christmas in Prien-am-Chiemsee

The Christmas market on Frauenchiemsee Island near Prien-am-Chiemsee is one of my favorites for its unique setting on an entire island in Lake Chiemsee. It seemed much like a winter wonderland.

"Frauenchiemsee Island Christmas Market, Germany"

Christmas Market on Frauenchiemsee Island, Prien am Chiemsee

Christmas in Lübeck

In Lubeck, not only did I indulge in the typical market fare like sausages, I made sure to sample the city’s famous Marzipan cake at one of the top cafes. It’s a specialty that you don’t want to miss.

Christmas Market, Lübeck, Germany

Christmas Market, Lübeck, Germany

Sleigh bells ring in Austria

Christmas in Salzburg

The hills (and the city) are alive with the Christmas spirit during December in Salzburg. We loved our time here meandering the snowy streets decorated for the season and strolling the markets in the old town and at Hohensalzburg Fortress.

European Christmas Markets: Hohensalzburg Fortress atop Festungsburg Mountain in Salzburg, Austria

Christmas market at Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg, Austria

Christmas in Vienna

Vienna has many treasures — Mozart, the waltz, architecture, palaces, Sacher Torte, and the many Christmas markets throughout the city. The markets at Schönbrunn Palace and Rathausplatz are our favorites.

Toasting with glühwein and posing as an angel, at the festive Rathausplatz Christmas Market in Vienna, Austria

Toasting with glühwein and posing as an angel, at the festive Rathausplatz Christmas Market

Simply magical: Czech Republic

Christmas in Prague

I dreamed of Prague for many years and when I finally got to visit it was during the Christmas season. It was so magical that we went back for another December visit to Prague a few years later.

Christmas market in Old Town Prague, Czech Republic

Christmas market in Old Town Prague

Intriguing and beautiful: Hungary

Christmas in Budapest

Budapest is one of my favorite cities in any season and we’ve had the pleasure of visiting twice in the month of December. The main Christmas markets in this intriguing city are in gorgeous settings at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and Vörösmarty Square.

Christmas market at St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary

Christmas market at St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

Christmas in Szentendre

Szentendre is a nice side trip from Budapest. We spent a few hours there getting a taste of Christmas in this small Hungarian village less than one hour away from the city on the HEV train.

Christmas in Szentendre, Hungary

Szentendre, Hungary

A mysterious Christmas: Slovakia

Christmas in Bratislava

It was a quick visit — just one night and morning to get a taste of Bratislava and its Christmas festivities, but it was delightful. There was also a different kind of feeling here — a bit mysterious as exemplified by this scene of the Christmas tram on the foggy night that we visited.

Festive Christmas tram in Bratislava

Christmas tram in Bratislava

Romance and rich cultural traditions: France

The French Christmas markets we’ve visited seem a bit more subdued than other European markets, but they are still full of fun and tasty treats. In fact, instead of glühwein, I sipped champagne while admiring the arts and crafts of the market vendors.

Christmas in Paris

In Paris, there is added element of romance to the Christmas season. Some of my favorite things are to stroll the Champs-Elysees and narrow streets of charming neighborhoods, admire the city-wide holiday decor and Christmas tree at Notre Dame, and the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower on a brisk winter evening.

Lights and decorations of the Champs-Élysées, Galeries Lafayette, and Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

Lights and decorations of the Champs-Élysées, Galeries Lafayette, and Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Christmas in Provence

In the French region of Provence. we enjoyed learning about the rich Christmas traditions of the region, especially the 13 desserts and santons (the little saints).

Faire aux Santons in Marseille, France

Faire aux Santons in Marseille, France

Mr. TWS and I look forward to many more opportunities to experience the beauty, fun, and traditions of Christmas in Europe. 

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Christmas in Paris - with Santa Claus on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées

17 thoughts on “Christmas in Europe: Dazzling Markets and Rich Traditions

  1. Irene S Levine

    As your photos show, Europe offers so much more during the holiday season beyond its markets: decorations, traditions, special foods, events and being surrounded by joyful locals. A decided perk for braving the cold!

  2. Judy Freedman

    What an interesting read. I think I want to go to the markets in Salzburg. I really haven’t thought about traveling to Europe in the winter for the markets. This post may have changed my mind. It’s put me in the holiday spirit.

  3. Mike

    I don’t if you remember telling you a few years back that Germany/Austria/Switzerland is my lifelong bucket list. So reading this put such a big smile on my face! Oh and by the way, I’m going to give it my all and see if it’s meant to be – I started writing again on my blog. If you read it (it’s short) you’ll get some enightening info about your ol’ friend in Reno. Wishing you and Mr TWS a great weekend Cathy! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Krakow, Poland: Part Two of a 9-Day Itinerary | Traveling with Sweeney

  5. Jeff & Crystal Bryant

    While we have never experienced Christmas across Europe, we can imagine how wonderful it must be to see in person. Fortunately, you have assisted in our daydream by posting these beautiful images of the historic displays. We hope you have a marvelous holiday.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Happy holidays to you, too! Christmas in Europe is very special for us and we hope to experience it again in 2021. Mr. TWS’s birthday is in December, so we consider it a birthday gift for him, too.

  6. Cindy Carlsson

    Wow! You’ve been to so many places for the Christmas holidays! I’ve never visited Europe in winter (why would I, when I get plenty of winter in Minnesota), but I’ve started eyeing those Christmas markets and about a year ago decided that this would be a good winter to visit Germany for the Christmas markets. You can guess how that worked out!

    Question: Do you usually visit as part of an independent trip, or do you do a cruise or tour? Do you have a recommendation?

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I hear you that you don’t need to travel to experience winter, but there is something extra magical about Europe in winter. Of course, I also enjoy winter in Chicago (my old hometown). 🙂 We travel in a variety of ways — independently, a few river cruises and one Viking ocean cruise. We love them all. I think it depends on the destination and the experience you’re looking for. I hope you’ll look through some our old posts to get some ideas.

  7. Jackie K Smith

    Well for fear of sounding like Grinch, if you were here this year you would find the markets shut down as well as many of the larger cities as the European Union is still fighting the pandemic with both gloves on. Hopefully, by next Christmas we will at least have a bit of what we once knew as the kind of Christmas’s you showed us in this lovely trip down Memory Lane. Have a great Christmas!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      As I mentioned in the update paragraph, I know that many, possibly all, the markets would be closed this year and people should check with the city or other resources. But it’s nice to reminisce and think toward a brighter future.

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