The best Christmas markets in Europe for sipping warming glühwein and munching on kartoffelpuffers (potato cakes), for shopping for handcrafted Christmas gifts and gawking at buildings festooned with garlands of fairy lights… here’s our guide to the best of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
It’s that time of year when it’s impossible to not get into the Christmas spirit, especially when you live in the northern hemisphere, as we have done since 1998. When we’re in Europe, one of our favourite things to do in December is to shop the Christmas markets. Before we settled in Southeast Asia, we used to head to Europe each winter. A white Christmas, a spot of snowboarding, fireplace time, and festive markets were our motivation.
As an Australian with a tradition of sunny summer Christmases, after we moved to the UAE in 1998 from where Europe was just a 7-hour flight away (rather than 24 hours!) I became a bit obsessed with the idea of a white Christmas. Snowy winters were such a novelty – as were festive Christmas markets. Switzerland, Germany and Italy were favourite winter destinations and were also home to some of the best Christmas markets in Europe. After we took to the road in 2006 to travel the world, we made an effort to spend as much time as we could in Europe in winter.
One of our most memorable European winters was spent in Belgium, where we wrote a guidebook on Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent. Brussels, where we had sweeping views all over the snowy city from the cosy penthouse apartment we rented, was bliss. Our best winter in Europe for a white Christmas, however, was 2010 when we did our 12-month grand tour of the world. At the end of that year we spent our first full winter in Europe and got to go to Christmas markets in Budapest, Vienna, Zell am See, Krakow, and Zakopane.
In Budapest, we had a Christmas market right on your doorstep. Our apartment was just one block from the main Christmas market, which begins on Deák Ferenc Square and continues down the pedestrianised street to Vörösmarty Square, where most of the festive action takes place. As a result, we’ve now sipped mulled wine at Christmas markets in Zurich, Bern, Basel, Prague, Salzburg, Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin, Barcelona, and dozens of small towns across Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
Here’s our guide to the best of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
The Best Christmas Markets in Europe
Krakow Christmas Markets
Krakow is home to one of the best Christmas markets in Europe and must have the most spectacular location of all. Slap-bang on The Rynek, the Old Town’s market square, it was looking especially enchanting when we first arrived, with everything dusted in snow. It’s a medium-sized market with stalls selling delightful handmade wooden toys, cosy woollen slippers and furry hats, and those traditional floral scarves that Polish women wear, among other fun things.
Krakow’s market wins the award for the stalls selling the most beautiful Christmas decorations. My favourite were the small Christmas trees with wreaths and angels crafted from natural materials like twigs, leaves, and dried fruit and flowers. And naturally the glühwein, sold from barrel-shaped stands it is easily the best mulled wine in Europe.
See the Krakow City website
Vienna Christmas Markets
Vienna boasts some 20 Christmas markets (I asked the woman at the tourist office to highlight each and every one on a map for me) and we must have sipped glühwein or punsch (the local preference) in half of them during our stay in the city. During December the whole of Vienna is festooned with spectacular garlands of glittering lights, especially on Kohlmarkt, Graben and Kärntner Strasse, and there are shiny baubles and sparkling fairy lights on Christmas trees in every store window.
We endeavoured to check out as many of those Christmas markets as we could. Our favourite of all, which is easily one of the best Christmas markets in Europe, is the largest, in front of the Rathaus or City Hall. There, hundreds of stalls sell delicious hot dogs and scrummy kartoffelpuffers (potato cakes), a mind-boggling range of Christmas decorations and gifts, from teddy bears and gingerbread men to beeswax candles and baubles for the tree, souvenir t-shirts and hippy clothes, it was all here! There was quite a bit of tacky nonsense between the quality stuff, which is the only reason I think Budapest might just be a slightly better market.
See the Vienna Tourism website
Budapest Christmas Markets
One of the best Christmas markets in Europe for us is the main market in Budapest. When we rented an apartment there, we could smell the glühwein even before we reached Deák Square. Once there, the first thing we’d do was buy a couple of mugs of the steaming hot wine. We’d always do the rounds of all the glühwein sellers, but our favourite – which was nice and spicy – was sold by the man splashing some into a cup for us in the photo above.
Budapest’s main Christmas market is compact compared to Vienna’s, however, we preferred the atmosphere of the market in Budapest – there was nearly always some kind of music or a band on the stage. Steam was always rising from the food stalls from which mouthwatering smells emanated. There was a huge variety of hearty traditional food. And the Christmas decorations, crafts and gifts for sale were some of the finest quality we’d seen, from colourful felt hats to handmade warm woollen sweaters and socks.
See the Budapest Tourism website
Zell Am See Christmas Markets
The Christmas market at Zell Am See, the Austrian lakeside town where we headed after Budapest, was tiny, with just a single stand selling piping hot glühwein, another selling sizzling sausages grilled on a smoky barbecue, and a dozen or so selling sparkly Christmas decorations and handcrafted gifts. But it had loads of Christmas charm.
The woman who sold the handmade woollen beanies, scarves and socks would knit them right there every evening! There was a wonderfully aromatic stall dedicated to everything and anything that can possibly be made from lavender and I’m sure it was all made from the cute old lady who ran it. And every evening the locals gathered to shop and drink and eat. As did we!
UPDATED: December 2019