All across Europe, the start of the holiday season is signaled by the arrival of Christmas markets. Cities transform into winter wonderlands with string lights illuminating every cobblestone street and finely decorated trees standing on every corner. Spiced, savory notes waft through the air, while cozy wooden chalets filled to the brims with festive finds and mouthwatering delights populate snow-dusted town squares. It’s a sight straight from the pages of a storybook, and a tradition that dates back as far as the late Middle Ages. This year, although some have chosen not to open, many of these historic Christmas markets have been working to put safety measures in place to ensure guests can enjoy them while practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it’s the zesty mulled wine in Prague, the hand-carved musical instruments in Madrid, or a visit from Santa in Tallinn, Estonia, these markets offer one-of-a-kind experiences that are sure to put you in a festive spirit. Read on to discover more magic from the 10 most charming Christmas markets in Europe.
1. Tallinn Christmas Market, Estonia
With blankets of snow covering the cobble streets, a clear starry sky, and a heavenly aroma of gingerbread permeating throughout Town Hall Square, the Advent Market in Tallinn looks and feels as though you just walked onto the set of a Christmas movie. It was at this market in 1441 that the first-ever Christmas tree was displayed in Europe. While the towering masterpiece remains one of the market’s highlights, families can also look forward to meeting Santa, who often pays a visit in his reindeer-pulled sleigh.
2. Salzburg Christmas Market, Austria
The origins of the Salzburg Christmas Market date back to the late 15th century, when locals would gather at Cathedral Square to buy simple goods for their holiday celebrations. Today, the famous Advent market has over 95 stalls with the sweet smell of flaky apple strudels flooding the square, traditional wind music ringing from high above, and sparkling lights highlighting the entire city. Singers and Christmas-music-lovers alike can even partake in a daily sing-along.
3. Berlin Christmas Market
No one does Christmas markets as well as the Germans as there are over 70 Christmas markets in Berlin. You might not have enough time to visit them all, so I’d suggest heading to Gendarmenmarkt, which is the most famous one in the city. Enjoy a stroll among the glassblowers and Christmas delicacies against a backdrop of the Französischer Dom and Deutscher Dom (French and German churches) which makes everything just extra special.
4. Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
A list of Christmas markets is not complete without mentioning the famous Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, London. From November to January, the park transforms into a giant modern theme park complete with rides, rows of stalls selling festive food and drinks, as well as bars and live music. There are plenty of activities to do here too such as ice skating, riding on a giant Ferris wheel, visiting the circus and exploring the Ice Kingdom’s beautifully crafted world of snow and ice sculptures, that depicts the cautionary tale of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
5. Prague Christmas Market
Postcard pretty Prague is perfect for the festive season. Make like a local and swap your mug of mulled wine for a glass of grog – rum, water, lemon and sugar. The setting is magnificent: on one side, the 14th-century twin spires of Our Lady Before Týn; on the other, the city’s famous 15th-century astronomical clock. Between them swirls a glittering pool of seasonal cheer.There are presents aplenty on offer including frosted, hand-blown glass baubles. But it’s the food that will keep you hanging around: warm, fatty sausages just off the grill; fresh pancakes; garlic and-cheese flatbread; all topped off by a glug of svarák, the local, citrussy take on mulled wine. Its cinnamon scent is misted over the whole square.
6. Florence Christmas Market
At the beginning of December, the piazza outside the Basilica di Santa Croce transforms into a festive German-style market filled with tasty treats and gifts from around the world. For nearly 500 years, the market at Piazza Santa Croce has served as one of Florence’s most treasured traditions with its 50 stalls of artisanal treasures. Be on the lookout for stalls selling the market’s must-try item: chimney cake covered in cinnamon and chocolate.
7. Madrid Christmas Market
At the heart of Madrid, the Plaza Mayor stands as a reminder of Spain’s royal past and is the site of one of the country's most celebrated traditions: its acclamaid Christmas Market. Unique collections of hand-painted and decorated nativity figurines and musical instruments flood the nearly 100 stalls across the square.
8. Vienna Christmas Market
The first recorded winter market in Vienna dates back to the Middle Ages, when Albrecht I of Habsburg allowed citizens of Austria’s capital to hold a December event in 1298. Centuries later, Vienna hosts an impressive 20 official Advent Markets, but none are quite as charming as the Vienna Christmas Dream. The market, which takes place in front of City Hall, has over 150 stalls selling roasted chestnuts and all the Christmas decorations imaginable. Children can even learn how to make Christmas cookies and candles on the ground level of City Hall and take a ride on an actual reindeer.
9. Kraków Christmas Market
The iconic Cloth Hall, magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica, and storied medieval streets prove to be the perfect backdrop for a bustling Christmas market in Kraków’s Old Town. Local vendors offer a fun array of goods and gifts from hand-crafted Bolesławiec pottery and sweet boiled candies to fresh pine wreathes. But one of the main attractions of the market is the honored Kraków Christmas Crib Contest, where decorated re-creations of nativity cribs and Baroque churches are paraded around the square for judging. The winners are shown in the Historical Museum of Kraków.
10. Trento Christmas Market
Set at the foot of the snow-dusted Brenta Dolomites, the quaint Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti of Trento become a picturesque “Città del Natale,” or Christmas Town, with sparkling trees, thousands of golden lights, and 90 wooden huts. Vendors sell sheep’s cheese, sweet panettone, wood-carved nativity scenes, and glass ornaments across the two squares. With its commitment to environmental sustainability, the Trento Christmas market only utilizes clean energy and uses local products and eco-certified paper bags.