Every holiday season, Christmas markets, known as Christkindlmarkts in Europe, transform town and city squares into holiday winter wonderlands. Finding your ideal Christmas European Market could mean the difference between a memorable trip and the trip of a lifetime.
I’m not a cold-weather person, but when the opportunity arose to visit Europe during Chistkindlmarkt season, my husband and I jumped on it. Europe truly knows how to celebrate Christmas in a non-commercial way, relying on the gift of tradition and simplicity in lieu of a massive pile of gifts under the tree. Simply put, Christkindlmarkts are magical and a throwback to Christmas as it was meant to be celebrated.
There’s no better way to get a sense of a place than walking through its village squares surrounded by castles and churches, dining on its local grogs and fare, and admiring its local handicrafts.
The Christmas European market dates back to medieval times. In Dresden, Germany, the first market, the Striezelmarkt, opened on Christmas Eve in 1434. Now, nearly 600 years later, these markets scattered throughout European cities and small towns still attract millions of locals and visitors each year.
Our AMAWaterways ‘Christmas Markets on the Danube River’ cruise enabled us to visit markets in four European countries: Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia. While there are many other Christmas markets to be found throughout this region, these are ones we fell in love with.
Though the city of Budapest sports 10 fun and festive Christmas markets, we couldn’t have enjoyed the vibrant holiday spirit of the Budapest Christmas Fair on Vorosmarty Square more.
This is one of Budapest’s most famous public squares located on the Pest side of the River Danube. Hundreds of wooden market stalls gaily decorated with Christmas lights, garland and tinsel offer a variety of Hungarian dishes, hot mulled wines, grogs, gingerbread and other baked goods, along with traditional Hungarian handicrafts.
Those visiting the city in the evening will love the glorious light show of St. Stephen’s Basilica Christmas Market. Every 30 minutes from sunset to late in the evening, the 19th century church is a spectacle of light, projection and animation.
Bratislava has three main Christmas markets throughout the city, but the Main Square Market is a must-visit for its beautiful setting and traditional Christmas customs.
Slovakian Christmas markets may not be as well known as their Austrian and German counterparts, but even the Slovakian traditions go back hundreds of years.
While the market is relatively small compared to some of Europe’s larger cities, it is cozy, festive, and filled with delightful local foodie favorites and beverages along with stunning arts and crafts. One unexpected surprise, Slovakian hot mulled wine comes in a multitude of flavors.
Vienna’s Christkindlmarkts could be a story on its own as there are so many located throughout this alpine paradise – you’d need a week to visit them all. We were fortunate to visit three of the main markets in one day, each magnificent in its own right.
The Market at Maria-Theresian-Platz is located between two near-identical palaces, one housing the splendid Vienna Historical Art Museum and the other at the impressive Natural History Museum. On a cold morning, a mug of piping hot glühwein was the ideal accompaniment for browsing the booths of the market and its colorful hand-painted candles and other stunning works of art.
Situated in one of the city’s most splendorous settings, the Schönbrunn Christmas market is housed in the massive courtyard of the 1,441-rooom Rococo palace, one of the most important architectural, cultural and historic monuments in Austria.
Stalls here sell glassware, ceramics, exquisite handmade toys and ornaments, along with an endless array of food and drink. But the palatial backdrop and fountains lit at night made for a picture-postcard moment.
Though it’s stunning any time of the day, the twilight blue hour brings a special magic to one of the most photographed of the Vienna markets, the Rathaus. Its archway of lights welcome visitors with ‘Frohe Wehnachten’ – Merry Christmas.
150 stalls located through lighted pathways and twinkling tree lights sell everything from cream cakes, jelly doughnuts, grilled sausage and giant pretzels to stunning Christmas ornaments and Austrian handicrafts. The park also offers a carousel, traditional Ferris wheel and an outdoor skating rink, popular with the young and old alike. The towering magnificence of the Rathaus only adds to the magic.
Vienna could be considered the capital of the Christmas European market!
The origins of the Christmas Market on Cathedral Square in Salzburg date back to 1491, making it the oldest market in the city, but most importantly, Salzburg feels just like Christmas. This is the birthplace of the most famous Christmas carol of all time: ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.’
If the ‘City of Mozart’ isn’t like walking into a fairy tale by itself, the snowflakes coming down as we strolled the old streets of the town made us feel as though we were inside our own personal snow globe.
It’s not just the Christkindlmarkt that is absolutely gorgeous here, it’s also the many boutique shops celebrating the holidays. The Old City is filled with secret passages, hidden arches, and enchantment. A medieval fortress perches high above the city and Salzburg’s combination of Gothic and Renaissance architecture is breathtaking.
You don’t even have to see the booths of Passau, Germany’s Christmas market to know you’re getting close. The smell of gingerbread, spices, bratwurst, bangers and flambé wafts through the air.
This small-town Christmas market has a lot more than just excellent German food. Quality goods include woodcarvings, nativity scenes, jewelry, candles, and handblown glass ornaments, just to name a few.
And oh, the setting…in the historic square fronting the 1688 Baroque landmark of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Don’t miss going inside the cathedral as the splendor of this Catholic church is mind-blowing. And if that isn’t enough, this magnificent building also boasts one of the largest Catholic organs in the world, with a jaw-dropping 17,974 pipes.
An unknown author once wrote, “The beauty of Christmas lies not just in the date, but in the feeling it gives.” Nothing feels more like Christmas than being in Europe. With its embrace of age-old family traditions and customs shared with others, the Christkindlmarkts reflect the true spirit of the season like no other.
Get out there and find your favorite Christmas European market!Christmas marketdestinationhistoric
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