10 Best Places to Spend Christmas in Europe
Most travelers think about Christmas markets when considering Europe in December, but these colorful fairs are not the only attractions for tourists. Equally colorful festivals celebrate the season with lights, ice sculptures, music, and traditional customs that date back centuries.
For travelers, these winter events combine several favorite things to see and do: shopping, sampling traditional foods, sightseeing, local crafts, pageantry, music, and entertainment. In any of these cities and others throughout Europe, look for Christmas concerts in the churches, beautifully lighted streets, and seasonal displays in department store windows.
These are not the only windows to look for. In Germany, some cities turn their city halls into giant Advent calendars, lighting a new window display daily.
Wherever you find them, food is always a major attraction of European Christmas markets, especially in Germany, where the air is fragrant with roasting chestnuts, strudel, spicy Nurnburger Liebkuchen, sausages sizzling on grills, and the local specialties of each region.
Most of these markets and festivals involve being outdoors, often walking in the snow, so be sure to dress warmly and wear boots or heavy shoes. And bring a pack or tote to the markets because you're sure to be tempted by the beautiful handmade goods you'll find.
Use this list to plan your trip, and you'll be sure to find the best places to spend Christmas in Europe.
1. Nuremberg, Germany
Europe's best-known Christmas market, and the first to gain status as a major tourist attraction, is in Nuremberg. The setting could be a movie set, a large square surrounded by medieval buildings highlighted by a pinnacle-studded cathedral bathed in lights. At one side is a magnificent fountain, also brightly lit, and the entire scene is filled with rows of cabins, each its own glittering wonderland.
Although many of the things you'll see in Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt are similar to those all over Germany, look especially for contemporary crafts and design in addition to the traditional local handiwork.
And be sure to sample the city's two famous foods: Nürnberger Lebkuchen are spice-filled gingerbread cookies, as well as larger forms such as the popular frosted hearts and even gingerbread houses. The other thing not to miss is a snack of Nuremburg Bratwurst, right off a sizzling grill and encased in a crusty bun.
A unique feature of Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt is the Sister Cities Market, where goods from partner cities all over the world are displayed and sold. You might find pearls from China or traditional Russian nesting dolls or crafts from Nicaragua here.
While in Nuremberg, look for concerts of Christmas music in churches, and tour the old city in a horse-drawn carriage.
The season offers plenty of things to do for families, as well, with a separate children's area in the next square, Hans-Sachs-Platz, where there's a double-decker carousel, a small Ferris wheel, and a kid-sized steam railway. At hands-on booths, they can bake and decorate their own lebkuchen, or make candles, sand pictures, or Christmas cards.
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2. Stuttgart and the Black Forest, Germany
Nowhere are Germany's Christmas markets more enchanting than in the Black Forest region. Stuttgart has one of Germany's biggest and oldest of them (it's been here for 300 years), with nearly 300 beautifully decorated cabins selling gifts, food, and everything Christmas.
An entire section dedicated to children features a train ride through a miniature village and a Ferris wheel of giant Christmas tree ornaments.
Stuttgart's market is only the starting point for a region filled with them. About 20 minutes away, Ludwigsburg fills a postcard-perfect square with the Baroque Christmas Market, where 170 market stalls are decorated in the Baroque style of neighboring Ludwigsburg Palace.
Another short train ride from Stuttgart takes you to Esslingen, and back to the 14th century in time. The Mittelaltermarkt is an authentic medieval street market set among original timber-framed buildings, where craftspeople demonstrate and sell authentic period crafts, dressed as they would have in the Middle Ages.
In the well-preserved Black Forest town of Gengenbach the Christmas Market is under the 200-year-old façade of the town hall, which is transformed into a giant Advent Calendar. Each evening everyone gathers to see another window open, revealing an enchanting lighted scene.
In the first week of December, the narrow streets of medieval Tübingen become a giant chocolate shop for Germany's largest chocolate festival, Chocol'ART. More than 100 of the world's top chocolatiers sell (and offer samples of) beautiful and delicious chocolates in all forms: truffles, chocolate-dipped exotic fruits, molded versions of St. Nicholas, even chocolates that realistically imitate sausages and other foods.
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3. Strasbourg, France
Not one, but several Marchés de Noël fill the large and small plazas of this Alsatian city on the Rhine. Strasbourg has the oldest and best Christmas market in France, and in an unbeatable setting. Half-timbered houses form the backdrop, and garlands of lights hang between them. Elaborate light displays illuminate the squares. In Strasbourg's lovely Petit France neighborhood, the market is along the river, backed by medieval buildings.
The largest of the markets is under the magnificent Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral, where wooden cabins sell Christmas ornaments, handicrafts, and foods.
Look especially for bredele cookies and the traditional Alsatian honey gingerbread, a dense loaf that's often filled with dried fruits and bits of candied ginger. Snack on warm flammekeuche (tarte flambée in French), a thin flatbread topped with cheese and onions cooked over an open flame. Cabins in Place du Marché-aux-Poissons specialize in Alsatian food products.
One square is dedicated to fine crafts of various European neighbors, featuring the country's best craftspeople. Throughout the market are groups of carolers, nativity plays, and music groups, and there is a skating rink. To find all these markets, stop at the welcome booth near the train station for a map marking the locations.
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4. Dresden and the Ore Mountains, Germany
Dresden's Striezelmarkt dates from the early 1400s, so it's steeped in centuries of tradition. None is more cherished - here and throughout Germany - than the Dresden Christstollen, a rich buttery yeast bread with candied fruits inside. It is not just sold and consumed in quantity; it is celebrated in a parade highlighted by the world's largest Dresden Stollen, 13 feet long and weighing four tons.
Markets with different themes scatter throughout the city. Inside the courtyard of the Dresden Royal Palace is a medieval market with no electricity and only authentic crafts, foods, and arts of the Middle Ages. Neumarkt steps back into the 1800s with craftsmen in period clothing selling only quality handmade works, as strolling minstrels serenade the shoppers.
Throughout the markets are booths of the many skilled wood artists from the villages of the nearby Erzgebirge mountains. Nearly all the tiny brightly painted Santas, angels, musicians, children, snowmen, and other wooden Christmas tree ornaments you'll see all over Germany originate in these Saxony towns, where wood turning and carving has been the main industry for generations.
Christmas candle arches and the intricate multi-tiered wooden carousels that turn by the heat of candle flames also originate here, along with the traditional scowling nutcrackers.
To see more of these traditional crafts and learn their fascinating history, visit the villages where they originated. Annaberg-Buchholz and Seiffen each has its own Christmas market, and each has an outstanding museum/exhibition of the woodcarvers art: Manufaktur der Träume (maker of dreams) museum in Annaberg and the Spielzeugmuseum Seiffen.
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5. Precepe Scenes, Italy
It is thought that St. Francis of Assisi originated the first public nativity scene, known in Italy as a presepe, when in 1223 he built a replica of the nativity at his mountain hermitage in Greccio, near Assisi. The annual tradition continued there and spread throughout Italy, taking several different forms in different regions and towns.
Any tourist in December is likely to see at least a few. Some of the most unusual are tableaus of real people playing the roles of the holy family and shepherds, scenes complete with live sheep and other animals.
In Barga, Tuscany, on December 23, more than 100 costumed people form a procession behind Mary and Joseph as they ask for lodging throughout the town. In Rivisondoli, Abruzzo, the scene includes hundreds of costumed people dramatizing the arrival of the Three Kings on Epiphany.
Elsewhere, you can see life-sized scenes in public squares and churches, with the figures dressed in real clothes. Smaller scenes may have figures and animals made of wood or terra-cotta, and the settings are often local ones. Small scenes may be quite elaborate, replicating Bethlehem or an Italian village scene. Life-sized or smaller figures are made of carved wood, terra-cotta, and other materials. Often the figures are dressed in real clothing.
The most elaborate precepi are in Naples, where studios of craftsmen who make the figures line Via San Gregorio Armenov, crowded in December with shoppers selecting new figures for their own family precepi.
The most unusual is the Presepe della Marineria in the small Adriatic fishing village of Cesenatico, Emilia-Romagna. The town's marina becomes a floating nativity scene, with boats populated by 50 life-sized statues on the first Sunday in December. The figures represent the Holy Family and the local population: shepherds, musicians, bakers, fishermen, carpenters, children, and sailors.
6. Munich, Germany
Like most large German cities, Munich's Christmas market is really many separate markets, each with its own character and theme. The main one fills Marianplatz, beneath the ornate neo-Gothic city hall. Here, you'll find a glittering assortment of decorations and gifts, in booths strung with lights and hung with frosted gingerbread hearts.
A few streets away, the Kripperlmarkt is devoted entirely to crèche scenes and their people, animals, and buildings - even tiny household tools and baskets of fruits and vegetables. Along with mass-produced figures, you'll find beautifully hand-modeled figures and delicately carved wooden figures from nearby Oberammergau and Alpine villages in Bavaria.
More intimate than either of these is the cluster of cabins inside the courtyard of the Residenz palace, and in Wittelsbacher Platz, the Medieval Christmas Market is filled with arts of the Middle Ages, including blacksmithing, leatherwork, fine book binding, and calligraphy.
Outlying neighborhoods, including the student quarter of Schwabing; the Chinese Tower in the English Garden; and even the airport, Flughafen München, have Christmas markets.
If you need a break from the tinsel and gingerbread, spend an evening at the Tollwood Cultural Festival, where cutting-edge designers and contemporary craftspeople exhibit their art, jewelry, fashion, décor, and other creations. Music here is unlikely to be traditional Christmas carols.
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7. Vienna, Austria
Perhaps no other city in Europe celebrates the holiday season with so much music as Vienna. Every church seems to have concerts, providing settings of Baroque splendor that matches the music.
Palaces provide more venues, especially the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace, where several concerts are held during the season. Classical, chamber, and choral music prevail, and the most famous concert is Christmas in Vienna by the Vienna Boys Choir at the Wiener Konzerthaus. St. Stephen's Cathedral is an especially impressive setting for sacred music.
Palaces also provide settings for two of the loveliest of Vienna's many Christmas markets. Schönbrunn Palace provides a stunning backdrop for a market devoted exclusively to fine handicrafts and traditional decorations. The market in front of Belvedere Palace is perhaps even more spectacular a sight, as each booth is decorated in swirls of lights, which reflect - along with the palace's magnificent lighted façade - in the lake.
The largest of the markets is in the center, in front of the City Hall, under a giant Christmas tree. A skating rink and a special section for kids with a carousel and cabins where they can create their own gifts make this a market for the whole family, with things to do for all ages.
The Viennese love good food, and you should stop to try some of the local seasonal specialties: krapfen (deep-fried pastry similar to donuts and often filled with jam), kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), and raclette (bread coated with melted mountain cheese).
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8. Zagreb, Croatia
Although street markets selling decorations and gifts are a part of the celebration, Advent in Zagreb is far more than a Christmas market.
From late November through January 3, Croatia's capital city is a wonderland of lights, music, art, entertainment, and food. Colorful displays of lighting line the streets, fill the parks, and create scenic viewpoints all over the city. The fountain in Ban Josip Jelačić Square is transformed into a light display, and there is a huge Christmas tree decorated with lights.
Lanterns light the promenades in Zrinjevac Park, which is a center for musical performances and for pop-up studios, where you can buy art and handmade gifts. Other wooden cabins sell hot chocolate; cookies; and other traditional foods such as strukle, a cheese-filled pastry.
Join people skating in the Ice Park on King Tomislav Square, where there are also live concerts and performances.
Strossmayer Promenade hosts four separate Christmas markets - each with its own theme - and wonderful views of the city as you climb the stairways. In the late afternoons, next to Zagreb Cathedral, a Live Nativity Scene re-enacts the Christmas story.
You can tour the various venues and markets on the Merry Christmas Tram, starting from Ban Jelačić Square. Along with being less crowded with tourists than many of the western Europe Christmas events, Advent in Zagreb has another attraction: it is also one of the least expensive places to visit during the holiday season, with some very good hotels and hotel packages available.
9. London, England
It's hard to decide what the biggest attraction for tourists is at Christmastime in London. Banners of lights form a sparkling canopy over the streets of Mayfair, Sloan Square, Regent Street, Oxford Street, and other shopping districts.
Department store windows become magical scenes filled with imaginative displays that range from workshops of busy elves to futuristic fashions. Each year brings new surprises as the windows of Selfridges, Harrod's, Liberty, and others unveil their displays.
Hyde Park turns into a Winter Wonderland, with trees covered in twinkling lights, the city's largest outdoor skating rink, Christmas carolers, a Ferris wheel, and a German Christmas market.
There are skating rinks everywhere, and Christmas markets spring up from Kew Gardens (where there's a spectacular lighting display) to the Docklands, where a market is dedicated to Japanese crafts, performance, music, and food.
The Tower of London returns to 1284 to recreate scenes from the court of Edward I during its medieval Christmas at the end of December. St Paul's Cathedral and other churches and concert halls host concerts and musical events, including carol sing-alongs.
For quite a different sort of December experience near London, be among the hardy few hundred to watch the sunrise at Stonehenge during the Winter Solstice. Stonehenge is an easy day trip from London.
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10. Amsterdam, Netherlands
From November through January, Amsterdam glows with dozens of light installations that illuminate buildings, decorate the bridges, and reflect in the canals. The Amsterdam Light Festival has a different theme each year, and illumination artists have free reign to interpret it, with spectacular results. Most displays are in the Canal Ring and the Amstel River areas.
Some displays are static: a twinkling spider poised above a bridge, butterflies hovering over a canal, and others seem never to stop as they sweep in patterns across the fronts of buildings.
In addition to the artists' contributions, bridges are outlined in white lights that reflect in the canals below. With all the water to reflect the shapes and colors, the show is a constantly changing one, especially when viewed while moving on the water in a canal boat.
If you are in Amsterdam in late December or January, consider traveling north to historic Zwolle for the Netherlands Ice Sculpture Festival, when artists from around the world create ice and snow sculptures.
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