Christmas has crept up on us again, and where better to spend it than somewhere in Europe? Our guide to the best Christmas destinations in Europe covers the length and breadth of the continent. We show you the best Christmas markets in Europe, and also some of the best places to experience Christmas in Europe.
Many of the best cities in Europe for Christmas are spread across the centre and north of the continent. This is where you’re most likely to get the authentic cold weather Christmas experience, and where you’ve got the best chance of a magical white Christmas in Europe.
When we talk about the best Christmas cities in Europe, we mean places where you can stay over the actual Christmas holiday period, and places where you can enjoy the run-up to Christmas, including at one of the many Christmas markets Europe has.
Most of the European Christmas markets are held over the Advent period in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s worth noting that the German Christmas markets close a day or two before 25th December, whereas some cities’ markets continue into the New Year.
Christmas in Prague
We found Prague to be one of the best places for Christmas in Europe, staying over one magical Christmas a few years ago. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and makes for an amazing setting to enjoy the festive season.
The Czechs have their main celebration on Christmas Eve, when they get together for their main dinner. This includes fish soup followed by fried carp. This is the only time everything really shuts down, as many places open again on Christmas Day.
Prague Christmas Markets stay open until the New Year, so if you’re staying over for Christmas, you get the best of everything. There are several markets around the city, including in the Castle District and Wenceslas Square.
But the best of all is the Old Town Square Christmas Market. The setting is incomparable. You’re surrounded by amazing architecture wherever you look, including the fairytale Gothic spires of the Our Lady Before Týn church. We ended up doing half of the following year’s Christmas shopping while we were there. The mulled wine, spit-roasted trdelnik cake and wonderful Czech beer went down beautifully as well. One of the best cities to spend a Christmas vacation in Europe.
London at Christmas
London is one of the must visit cities in Europe, compelling at any time of year. The run-up to Christmas is one of the most magical times of year, as the whole city gets lit up and goes festive.
Each year the people of Norway donate a Christmas tree which takes pride of place in Trafalgar Square, and many of the nearby main streets are lit up for the occasion. Oxford Street and Regent Street, the main department store hub, get the full lights treatment. Traditional stores like Harrod’s and Fortnum & Mason also get the decorations out for seasonal celebrations.
One of our favourite things to do in London at Christmas is to visit the beautiful ice rinks around the city. The rink at Somerset House is spectacular, surrounded by a gorgeous Neoclassical courtyard. There’s also the rink outside the magnificent Tower of London, and another outside the Natural History Museum in Kensington.
There is also a Winter Wonderland over at Hyde Park, which also has a fun fair and food and drink stalls. You can also find plenty more of the latter at the South Bank Christmas Market, close to the South Bank Centre.
Christmas Day in London tends to be a quiet affair with the Tube (underground trains) and buses closed for the day. However, some pubs, bars and restaurants do open on Christmas Day – you’ll need to take a taxi, Uber or, better still, walk to get around.
Cologne at Christmas
Cologne is one of the best cities for Christmas breaks in Europe. It’s a long-time favourite of ours, a wonderful city with one of the best arts scenes in Germany. In December, it’s also home to one of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
There are actually six Christmas markets in Cologne, and there’s no doubt which is the best of them. The square below Cologne’s vast Dom, or Cathedral is an incredible setting for a market. The twin spires of the Dom soar over 500 feet above, and inside you’ll find the shrine purportedly containing the relics of the Magi (the ‘Three Wise Men’ who followed the star to Bethlehem to visit Jesus). You can’t really top Christmas credentials like that.
Cologne’s Cathedral Market has all the German Christmas traditions – the aromas of gluhwein, gingerbread and roast chestnuts mingling in the cold evening air, the wooden hut stalls with mini-villages of ornamental houses. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric market. The other Cologne Christmas markets are great too – the Alter Markt in the Old Town is lovely. The Harbour Market at the Chocolate Museum on the Rhine offers something unusual and different, including entertainment from the Rhine pirates. There’s also a gay and lesbian Christmas market, with pink and purple stalls and lots of events.
Cologne is also a regular stop on Christmas river cruises in Europe, and can usually be visited for a day as part of a package. It’s only a short distance from Bonn, the former West German capital, which has another lovely atmospheric market in the square outside the Münster church.
Nuremberg at Christmas
The Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg is one of the best Christmas markets in Germany, and therefore Europe. Many of the Christmas traditions in Europe originate from Germany, and the Christkindlesmarkt is one of the oldest celebrations of Christmas, dating back to the 16th century.
The market is held in the main market square, outside the iconic Frauenkirche church. It’s one of the most evocative Christmas markets in Europe, with the 180 wooden hut stalls beautifully lit, almost a child’s ideation of a warm, cosy Christmas. The Christmas food and drink is excellent – the city gave the world the Nuremberg bratwurst, delicately flavoured with marjoram and mace and served in a bun with mustard or ketchup. The larger bratwurst is now a staple at Christmas markets all around the world. Another of its innovations is Feuerzangenbowle, a hot spicy brew with wine and rum that is extremely potent.
Nuremberg is the capital of Franconia, the region of northern Bavaria. It also sits on the upper reaches of the Danube, so receives plenty of visits from Christmas cruises in Europe. Nuremberg is also near the ‘Romantic Road’ cities of Rothenburg, Würzburg and Bamberg, so it’s also a popular destination on Christmas markets in Europe tours.
Dresden at Christmas
Dresden makes for one of the best Christmas breaks in Europe. This stunning Saxon city on the river Elbe is around two hours south of Berlin and is close to the Czech border. Somehow, nearly thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it hasn’t really been embraced for what it is – one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.
Dresden was infamously levelled by an intense aerial bombardment in February 1945, and it took over 60 years for its architectural glories and treasures to be fully restored. The Baroque Frauenkirche was the last to be finished, completing the stunning city skyline which you can view from the banks of the Elbe.
The main Dresden Christmas Market is one of the oldest in Germany – the Striezelmarkt was first documented in 1434. It is open until Christmas Eve, as are most of the German Christmas markets. It’s well-known for its candle pyramid, from the nearby Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains).
One of the food highlights of the Christmas Market in Dresden is the Christstollen, a famous fruit bread now sold worldwide. The Dresden version is shaped like the entrance to a mine tunnel – the word ‘stollen’ originally meant a post supporting such an entrance. Another Dresden speciality to look out for is the Pfaumentoffel, an edible chimney sweep’s boy made out of prunes.
Bath at Christmas
Christmas in Bath, one of the most beautiful cities in England, is also magical. One of the prettiest cities in Europe with its harmonious Georgian architecture, it deserves a visit at any time of year. The run-up to Christmas is one of the best times of all.
The Bath Christmas Market has a relatively short run – it’s open this year from 22nd November to 9th December. We’ve visited a few times, and believe it’s one of the best Christmas markets in the UK. Its setting is stunning, beneath the Perpendicular windows of Bath Abbey in Abbey Churchyard and along neighbouring York Street.
One of the great things about Bath is that several of the main sights are very close to each other. The Roman Baths are right next door to the Abbey, and late on a winter afternoon is one of the most atmospheric times to visit, with the Great Bath lit up by torchlight at twilight. The adjoining Pump Room was the place to be seen in 18th century Bath high society, and lunch or afternoon tea there is a great part of the Bath experience.
Much of the city of Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the best places to see Georgian architecture in Bath are around a ten-minute walk from the Abbey. The Circus and Royal Crescent are a few minutes apart – they’re magnificent 18th century terraces.
Bath is ideal for a Christmas break – some Bath hotels offer luxury packages including spa treatments over the Christmas period.
Vienna at Christmas
Vienna is one of the best tourist cities in Europe, a capital city with outstanding culture, coffee and cakes. It’s also a popular stop on many Christmas tours in Europe: it’s also on the River Danube, so if you’re on a Christmas river cruise in Europe there’s a good chance you’ll be stopping at Vienna for a day or so.
The Christmas Market in Vienna is one of the oldest in Europe. In 1298 Albrecht I granted Vienna’s citizens the right to hold a ‘December market’, and it has grown over the following seven centuries and more. The main Vienna Christmas Market takes place in the Rathausplatz, outside the City Hall, a magnificent setting. The Rathaus also hosts a special area for kids where they can try out making gingerbread or other handicrafts.
There are over twenty Vienna Christmas markets in all, with some of the most enchanting at Belvedere Palace and Schönbrunn Palace. Expect to find gluhwein and all kinds of foodie treats everywhere you go. Look out for one Viennese treat in particular – vanillekipferl are delicious crescent-shaped biscuits flavoured with ground almonds and, you guessed it, vanilla.
Salzburg at Christmas
Salzburg is another candidate for putting on the best Christmas in Europe. It’s the birthplace of Stille Nacht – Silent Night – one of the best-known Christmas carols of all. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also born in Salzburg, and his legacy is everywhere, with music playing a big part in Christmas in Salzburg.
Salzburg’s Altstadt, or Old Town, looks much as it would have in Mozart’s time. Much of it dates from the 17th and 18th century, resulting in one of the most exquisite Baroque cities and skylines in the world. The whole scene is overlooked by the mighty Hohensalzburg fortress, whose origins go back over 900 years.
The main Salzburg Christmas market is in Residenzplatz, next to the Baroque cathedral, a gorgeous setting. Salzburg’s Christmas traditions go back around 600 years, and it makes for a magical place to stay for Christmas. The Market is open until the 26th of December. I haven’t done it myself, but you can also join a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and learn all about the von Trapp Family Singers.
Rovaniemi at Christmas
I always used to wonder where Santa Claus is from as a boy, and was always told ‘Lapland’ or the North Pole. Santa’s exact place of origin remains a closely guarded secret, but he has an official residence. That is in the Finnish town of Rovaniemi, which is indeed in Lapland, and inside the Arctic Circle.
Rovaniemi is one of the best Christmas destinations Europe has, because it’s home to so many popular Christmas traditions. The Santa Claus Village a few miles from the city is a great place to start. It’s next to the main Santa Claus Post Office, which is where your letters requesting presents end up. You can meet Santa, of course, and his many helpers.
One of the best things to do in Rovaniemi is to take a reindeer sleigh ride through the snow, a magical experience no matter what your age is. You can also meet the elves who help him get organised for his trip around the world, and wave him off on December 23rd.
Tallinn at Christmas
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one of the prettiest cities in Europe, and it has been celebrating Christmas longer than most. A Christmas tree was first put up in the Town Hall Square – Raekoja plats – in 1441. The Tallinn Christmas Market is open for seven weeks between mid-November and 6th January, so if you opt to spend Christmas in Tallinn, you get to enjoy it as well as the rest of the city.
The Christmas Market in Tallinn is like the city itself, small but wonderful. There’s something for all ages – Santa Claus and fairground rides for the kids, traditional Estonian craft stalls, and mulled wine and gingerbread to guard against the cold. You can also take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the square.
Christmas dinner in Estonia is also quite different to anything in western Europe. The main meal is served on Christmas eve, and includes black pudding, pork, sauerkraut, potatoes and lingonberry jam.
As Tallinn is situated in the northerly latitudes of the Baltic Sea, there’s also a fair chance of experiencing a white Christmas when you’re there.
Merano at Christmas
Southern Europe hasn’t had much of a look in so far, but Merano, in northern Italy, deserves a place on our list. Merano Christmas market is smaller than most others on our list with around 80 stalls, but it makes up for this in atmosphere.
Merano – Meran in German – is a lovely town in Trentino Alto Adige, the Alpine far north of Italy also known as Südtirol. Merano has one of the best Christmas markets in Italy, and with Austrian and Italian heritage, you get a taste of both worlds. So as well as gluhwein and roast almonds and chestnuts you get pizza straight out of a woodfired oven.
There are also plenty of other things to do in Merano. It has a beautiful old town, and some fine hiking trails close by. These include the gentle Tappeiner Promenade which has outstanding mountain views, and the riverside Sentiero di Sissi (Sissi’s Path).
Cardiff at Christmas
Christmas in Cardiff, the capital of Wales and one of our former home towns, is a wonderful surprise.
The Winter Wonderland, a funfair and ice rink outside the elegant City Hall, is a long-term fixture. The walls of the Castle are brightly lit, and the streets around St John’s Church and The Hayes become home to the Christmas Market for a few weeks.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.