Iconic squares ablaze with twinkly lights and the warm fuzzy scent of mulled wine. If gingerbread and fresh pine makes your heart glow, you can’t go wrong with an authentic Christmas market – and no one does them better than Europeans. Here’s a roundup of our favourites and where to stay for the ultimate festive experience. From glittering carousels to thick, dark hot chocolates crowned with cream, these Christmas markets in Europe will fill even the biggest Grinches’ hearts with yuletide charm…
1. Vienna, Austria
Best for: Unfeasibly large pretzels and delicate ceramics
Locals love the nostalgic tingles they’re showered in while wandering Viennese Christmas markets. The wafting scent of cookies takes them back to grandma’s kitchen, as does the hearty goulash, flavour-crammed sausages and Lángos (Hungarian deep-fried dough). You’ll love it too – head to Karlsplatz right in front of St. Charles Church to experience one of the best Christmas markets in Austria. You won’t find tacky souvenirs here – just genuinely unique arts and crafts, warming mulled wine and even a place to build straw castles with the kids.
Where to stay: Hotel Stefanie is the oldest hotel in the city and full of charm – wrapping you up in old-world guest rooms, lip-smacking wiener schnitzels and lashings of Viennese ‘Schmäh’.
Where to stay: Located smack bang in the middle of the creative arts quarter of the capital – the Hotel Erzherzog Rainer is a characterful, cosy respite from the winter chill.
2. Strasbourg, France
Best for: Alsace traditions and feel-good festiveness
Carousels glitter against the dusty night sky with a golden glow, lovingly made half-timbered houses are covered in red and white hearts and angels, and stars and snowflakes line the ancient streets. It must be Christmas in Strasbourg. Dating back to 1570, the Christkindelsmärik is France’s oldest – and quite possibly loveliest. Eleven ‘villages’ make up the market, which makes for a romantic stroll sampling special ‘bredele’ biscuits from the locals. Our favourite is orange and cinnamon – divine.
3. Lisbon, Portugal
Did somebody say Christmas cake? It’s Portugal’s speciality at this time of the year. Foodies must try the bolo rei king cake – a festive pastry stuffed with fruit that you can sample at Lisbon’s Natal E Na Fil market. Every year, Lisbon’s centre is drenched with magical lights and graced with a glorious tree, which look fairytale-like surrounded by chocolate-box style market stalls selling toys and gifts galore.
Where to stay: Round-off a day of festivities in a beautiful bed at As Janelas Verdes, a charming 18th-century mansion in the heart of the capital.
4. Florence, Italy
Best for: Religious relics and life-sized nativities
Those desiring to experience Christmas like a Tuscan local can do no wrong flocking to Florence for their festive break. It’s a misty, magical sensation. Unlike the tourist-heavy summer months, there’s a serenity and calmness in the air. Thousands of local handicrafts make unique gifts or decorations, including palm-sized Virgin Marys, Josephs and baby Jesus’. As you wander the city, don’t be surprised to see these Italian nativity scenes spring to life – live presepe, as they’re known, are traditional performances where locals dress up as religious characters, posing in human-sized stables.
Where to stay: The Villa Campestri sits in the ancient Mugello Valley, is Italy’s first olive oil resort and just an hour from the city. Book a reviving olive oil massage as a Christmas treat.
Where to stay: Treat yourself to a stay at the gorgeous Villa Le Barone, a 16th-century sanctuary and relax in the heated, salt-water infinity pool overlooking Chianti vineyards.
5. Zurich, Switzerland
Best for: Crystal trees and twinkling lights
Strings of lights loop across this magical city for the annual Christmas market extravaganza. Enchanting and magical, Zurich is host to several markets, each as lovely as the next. Festive illuminations light up every street corner from late November, and the sparkling centrepiece is a giant Swarowski Christmas tree located in the main train station. Mulled wine and cinnamon-baked delights are aplenty at Zurich’s oldest Christmas market in the romantic Old Town. Or, for something a bit cooler head to the Christmas village on Sechseläutenplatz, by The Opera House, where you can find handmade jewellery and endless delicious treats.
Where to stay: Situated in the middle of Zurich’s historic Old Town, the Marktgasse Hotel is a great base for a festive trip to the Swiss capital.
6. Ansbach, Germany
Best for: An authentic German Christmas experience
If you want a Christmas market at its most authentic, head to the birthplace of them all: Germany. You can elbow your way through crowds at Nuremberg’s most popular extravaganza, or you can head to charming Ansbach for a quaint, soul-stirring atmosphere. Sandwiched between the beautiful St. John’s and St. Gumbert’s churches on Martin-Luther-Platz square, this festive market is a great day out.
Where to stay: Wander craft stalls amid the scent of roasted almonds and gingerbread before sleeping off your stollen in the historic inn and guesthouse, Schwarzer Bock.
7. Bruges, Belgium
Best for: The best hot chocolates and a festive vibe
Bruges is beautiful all year round, but the Flemish city takes things up a few gears during Christmas. Come December, its medieval surroundings are a-buzz with Christmas market giddiness – the syrupy scent of fresh waffles lingers in your nostrils, the sound of horse-drawn carriages clip-clop off cobbles, and the houses look like those of the gingerbread variety.
Where to stay: The fuzzy festive feeling is strong at Flanders Hotel – an award-winning historic stay in the heart of historic Bruges.
8. Milan, Italy
Best for: An out-of-this-world Milanese Christmas tree
Milan is home to several alluring Christmas Markets, but the Mercatino di Natale in Piazza Duomo (Piazza Duomo Christmas Market), with its spectacular Christmas tree, is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque. In front of the city’s mighty Duomo cathedral, the market is home to over 60 wooden chalets selling all kinds of delightful ornaments and sweet and savoury treats. Grab a firunatt, a long necklace of smoked chestnuts, before exploring the square behind the Duomo. Here you’ll find lines of wooden huts filled to the brim with decorations, delicacies and tasty Italian produce, from local cheeses and preservatives to cured meats and wines.
Where to stay: Centrally located is the magnificent Grand Hotel et de Milan, a 19th-century building only minutes walk from La Scala theatre – a must-go for opera buffs.
Where to stay: An hours drive north of Milan is Locanda dei Mai Intees a gorgeous villa surrounded by heavenly landscaped gardens — a peaceful retreat from the festive fun.
9. Krakow, Poland
Best for: Real live camels and unique decorations
In search of some yuletide charm? Look no further than Poland’s postcard-worthy city of Krakow. Start your shopping in Rynek Glowny, the largest medieval town square in Europe and in the shadow of the imposing and fascinating Renaissance Sukiennice. Here you’ll find hundreds of brightly lit stalls full of quirky decorations and handmade wooden trinkets for perfect gifts. Refuel with a hot kielbasa (sausage), a local favourite. Then, take time out from retail therapy to explore Krakow’s candlelit churches, which are especially beautiful this time of year.
Where to stay: Just 20km south of Krakow is Sierakow Manor – all crackling fires, award-winning cuisine and a mystical four hectares of greenery — an unforgettable Christmas getaway destination.
10. Bucharest, Romania
Best for: Traditional handcrafts and unforgettable light shows
One of Europe’s prettiest cities, Budapest, celebrates the advent period in a big way. Each evening, religious scenes and stories are projected onto the façade of the awe-inspiring St Stephen’s Basilica in an extraordinary light show. An open-air market surrounds the landmark, and hundreds of stalls sell a mix of artisan handcrafts, one-of-a-kind jewellery and local art. Homemade sweets and snacks are also popular. Try flodni — a delicious apple, walnut and poppyseed cake — best eaten immediately to keep the blood sugars up for all that shopping.
Where to stay: Book into the five-star Suter Palace for a real festive treat and experience Bucharest’s grand and luxurious past.
11. Cork City, Ireland
Best for: Festive food and Ferris wheels
Cork, Ireland’s southernmost city, has an infectious buzz year-round, but it goes all out in December. Taking place along the Grand Parade overlooking the River Lee, Glow — Cork’s Christmas Market — has quickly become a locals’ favourite. Browse the stalls for Xmas trinkets and grab a bite at one of the artisan food trucks. See the city sparkle from atop the giant Ferris wheel and experience some winter magic in Bishop Lucey Park.
Where to stay: Head to The Metropole Hotel, a 19th-century, iconic stay that has welcomed movie stars, poets and artists through its luxurious doors.
12. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Best for: Ice sculptures and honey schnapps, a strong but delicious Slovenian drink
Slovenia’s capital and largest city, Ljubljana, is rich in history and culture and often wrongly overlooked as a festive destination. Come December, Ljubljanas’ Prešeren Square is decorated with twinkling lights and a generous helping of festive cheer. Browse the Christmas stalls that line the banks of River Ljubljanica, sip warm mulled wine and lose yourself in the medieval streets of this storied spot. You can even take a funicular ride up to Ljubljana Castle for picture-perfect vistas over the city.
Where to stay: There’s no better place for a Christmas escape than the romantic Antiq Palace, a 16th-century boutique stay in the very heart of the city.