The 10 best European cities for Christmas markets
A mug of mulled wine warming your hands. The scent of candied nuts and sausages wafting into your nostrils. The dim glow of fairy lights illuminating a medieval town square, where row after row of market stalls sell nutcrackers, snow globes and gingerbread cookies. Welcome to Christmas in Europe, and the 10 best cities to experience the magic.
Germany is the capital of Christmas markets, so the capital of Germany is a good place to start. More than 50 markets spring up around Berlin in late November, but the most popular is the star-topped white tents at the Gendarmenmarkt. The atmospheric Deutscher Dom, Konzerthaus and French Cathedral provide a suitably scenic backdrop to indulge in bratwurst, glühwein and candied almonds.
There are four HI hostels to choose from in Berlin, including the uber-central Jugendherberge Berlin-International and trendy Jugendherberge Berlin Ostkreuz.
Croatia doesn’t spring to mind as a Christmas destination, but Zagreb has been voted Europe’s best Christmas market for the last three years in a row. The entire Croatian capital comes alive with lights, decorations and live entertainment, an ice-skating rink in King Tomislav Square, as well as German-style huts serving festive food and drinks in Jelačić Square and European Square.
You’ll find HI Zagreb only one block from the ice.
When a giant Christmas tree is hoisted in front of the Rathaus in mid-November, the entire city of Vienna embraces the holiday spirit. There are 25 different Christmas markets dotted across the Austrian capital but the 150 stalls surrounding that massive tree in the Town Hall Square have got everything you need—mulled wine, sausages, ice-skating, a traditional nativity scene and even reindeer rides with Rudolph and the gang.
You’ll almost be able to spot that enormous Christmas tree from HI Vienna Myrthengasse, just a kilometre away.
The Danes invented the whole cozy concept of “hygge”, so it’s no surprise that Copenhagen nails the warm atmosphere of a Christmas market. The Tivoli Gardens glows with more than 500,000 lights during the six weeks before Christmas, inviting visitors to munch on æbleskiver (sugar-dusted pancake balls) and guzzle down gløgg (spicy mulled wine) among the market stalls and amusement park rides.
The 18-storey Danhostel Copenhagen City enjoys panoramic views over Christmas in Copenhagen, including Tivoli Gardens 400 metres from the front door.
Prague looks like a page out of a fairytale year round, but it goes to another level when twinkling Christmas lights are added to its romantic medieval architecture in December. Czechs flock to Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square to feast on klobása (sausages) washed down with medovina (honey wine, or mead in English), and while most Christmas markets close on December 24, Prague keeps rocking until January 6.
HI’s Hostel Advantage is located in the heart of the action, just a five minute walk from Wenceslas Square.
The French city of Strasbourg straddles the border with Germany, and world-class Christmas markets are a cultural tradition. Markets in the self-proclaimed “Capitale de Noël” date back to 1570, and five centuries after it all began, Strasbourg’s Marché de l’Enfant Jésus features 300 wooden chalets serving vin chaud and flavoured biscuits beneath the 30-metre-tall Christmas tree.
HI Strasbourg 2 Rives sits on the banks of the Rhine, a short ride in Santa’s sleigh to hundreds of German Christmas markets across the border.
Waffles, chocolate, beer, cheese and frites… Belgians really know how to treat themselves, and all those indulgences are dished up in spades at Christmas in Brussels. Plaisirs d’Hiver (Winter Wonders) stretches from Grand Place to Place St. Catherine, where more than 200 wooden huts house all that mouth-watering festive fare alongside an ice-skating rink, light shows, Ferris wheel and even steampunk merry-go-rounds.
Three great HI hostels—Bruegel, Génération Europe and Jacques Brel—are situated close to the city centre.
The iconic Gerbeaud Coffee House in Vörösmarty Square is transformed into the world’s biggest Advent calendar in December, when a dazzling light projection opens a new magical window every day in the lead-up to Christmas. The square is also home to Budapest’s oldest and most popular Christmas markets, which are famous for their traditional Hungarian kürtőskalács (chimney cake).
There are seven HI properties in Budapest, including the Maverick Hostel just a five minute walk from Vörösmarty Square.
Welcome to the quintessential German Christkindlesmarkt. With almost 200 red-and-white striped market stalls filling the city’s Gothic market square, Nuremberg delivers all the Christmas classics: mulled wine, roasted almonds, gingerbread, bratwurst and a quirky local specialty called Zwetschgenmännle, figurines with bodies made of prunes and heads made of walnuts.
Your hostel stay is all part of the charm—DJH Youth Hostel Nuremberg is located in the imperial stables of a 500-year-old castle, overlooking the medieval streets below.
Dreaming of a white Christmas? Then Krakow is your best bet in Europe. The huge Rynek Glowny main square—the largest medieval marketplace in Europe, the size of six football fields—usually receives a dusting of snow in December, cloaking the Christmas market stalls in a picturesque blanket of white. Hand-painted glass baubles and spiced nuts are the local Polish specialties.
Experience the old town atmosphere at HI’s Pink Panther’s hostel, just one block from the Main Market Square.
Closer to home…
It might be too late to plan a European Christmas trip this year, but there are some festive markets closer to home. Vancouver Christmas Market features 80 huts selling authentic German sweets and treats, while the Toronto Christmas Market brings the same twinkly atmosphere to the cobbled streets of the Distillery District.