How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets

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Even the words European Christmas markets bring a smile to my face, and a head full of travel plans. I get dreamy, thinking of wandering the paths between rows of booths twinkling with lights, a mug of steaming hot yumminess in my hands, surrounded by the fresh scent of pine and roasted chestnuts, and the crisp night air nipping at my cheeks. 

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets

People have enjoyed these markets for centuries – Vienna’s Rathaus Christkindlmarkt, started in 1294, is the oldest; Strasbourg’s was started in 1570, and is the oldest in France (leave it to this lovely town to kick it off, way back when); Dresden’s market began in 1434, while Aachen’s started recently, in 1973. 

Town Hall in Vienna, Austria. Christmas market. From How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets
Town Hall in Vienna, Austria. Christmas market. Wikimedia Commons: Marek Ślusarczyk

But there are hundreds of Christmas markets scattered all throughout Europe – how to choose? How do you have the most magical time? Here are our top 10 tips!

From How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets

1.    Do your research!

Long-time readers of this site will know: this is always one of my tips. But here’s why – you don’t want to get somewhere, and be on the wrong date – or time. Or, maybe you just missed the best music, or the ice sculpture festival in Zagreb. Some cities have markets in a variety of locations around town. Go big market, or small market (like Stuttgart’s, one of the largest in Germany). One of my students recommends going to larger markets, because smaller ones are more touristy. 

Find out the pertinent details you’ll need to have a great Christmas market experience, including dates, event schedules, locations, weather trends, and more.

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets

2.    Go to the Christmas markets on the weekdays

As with anything, weekdays are less crowded than weekends. Save your weekend travel for other activities, when most people are heading to the market. 

From How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets

3.    Be open to cultural learning & activities

Christmas is celebrated a bit differently in each place. Open your eyes and ears to how traditions differ by city, region, country, etc. You’ll learn more than you thought you would!

Ice rink, curling, and Cologne Cathedral at Christmas market. From How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets
Ice rink, curling and Cologne Cathedral at Christmas market. Wikimedia Commons: Marco Verch

4.    Get your shopping on!

This is the perfect place – and time to support local artisans and bring global goods back for presents (including presents for yourself). When you shop, ask for the backstory to what you’re buying. It connects you with the creator, and also teaches you more about the culture you’re exploring. One of the most fun is London’s Crafty Fox Night Market, held in locations around the city on different dates (refrain: do your research…). Be sure to purchase toys and Christmas ornaments for your own souvenirs. Our family has a collection of Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramide) from Germany. They are usually several tiers, and are moved by the heat from small candles. Look at this huge one from Esslingen!

Esslingen Christmas pyramid (Weihnachtspyramide). From How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Markets

5.    EAT…

Let's be honest, this one should have been first. Lebkuchen, roasted chestnuts, special breads, smoked meats, regional dishes – the list goes on and on. Try to taste it all (I know, lofty goals!) by sharing with your family and friends. 

Eat! How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

6.    Watching your budget?

Discover what regions – and markets – are less expensive. Hungary’s markets have been named the least expensive in Europe. Fun for less? Count me in. Another tip – your hot chocolate or gluhwein will come in mugs, which generally require a 2 euro deposit. Keep it – you’ve got a 2 euro mug that has memories – what a souvenir!

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

7.    Learn some of the language

While no one would expect you to master a language quickly, knowing the basics (please, thank you, yes, no, bathroom, etc.) will get you far. The more you show interest in another culture, the more welcome you will be.

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

8.    Take your kids

Christmas is already magical for kids – this will take it over the top, showing them that the season of goodwill and love is a wonderful thing. Adding in the intercultural component? Thank you for raising global citizens, aware of different ways of celebrating life around the world. The Christmas market in Bruges has a large ice skating rink in the middle - what fun! The Thessaloniki Christmas fair has a merry-go-round (plus it's warm). 

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

9.    Dress warmly

Northern and central Europe will be much colder than, say, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Know the temperature ranges of where you’re going, and bring warm enough clothes to enjoy being outside!

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

10.    Visit the markets that fit your interests best

Head to the markets that showcase what you love. Quirky gifts, festive food, the best lights, etc. – what do you love most? Be sure to visit those markets. Check this infographic for details:

How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

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How to Experience the Magic of European Christmas Market

 

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