Are you looking for a special way to get in the holiday mood this year?  Consider a trip to Europe to visit the historic Christmas markets.  From handmade crafts to mulled wine, the Christmas markets are sure to bring holiday cheer to even the biggest Scrooge.  Here’s my guide on the Christmas markets including a suggested itinerary for the ultimate Christmas market experience.

What to Expect

Christmas in Europe is an extravagant affair.   Here, towns are lit up by miles of lights strung from every light post on every street corner.  You’ll find large mangers placed in town squares, ornately decorated Christmas trees around every turn, and carolers singing on street corners.  And in the center of all this yuletide glory is the historic Christmas market.  It is here where both locals and tourists gather to celebrate the Christmas season.   It truly is something to see.  The Europeans take their Christmas markets seriously, and some of these markets have been in existence for hundreds of years!

Typically, the Christmas markets all have the same things in common:  local seasonal food, mulled wine and hot cider, vendors selling local crafts and other items that make for the perfect Christmas gift, and crowds, massive crowds.  Although there is a common thread with the markets, don’t think “once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”  That’s not the case because each city adds its own unique twist to the market; and within each city, there may be multiple markets with each adding their own special touches.

xmas markets

So pack your boots, your warmest coat, and your hat and gloves to get ready for a full on blast of Yuletide madness.   And don’t forget to leave room in your suitcase for all the wonderful gifts you’ll pick up along the way!

Where to Go

You will find exquisite Christmas markets in most of the major cities in Europe as well as in some smaller towns and villages.  However, I think the best place to experience the Christmas markets is in Vienna, Austria.

vienna xmas

Other great places that I would recommend to get your holly jollies are Munich, Prague and Budapest.  If you want to venture to Scandinavia for the Christmas markets, consider Stockholm.  Stockholm offers not only a fairytale backdrop for its markets with its beautiful city, but with its snowy December weather, you’ll feel as if you are in walking around in a Christmas snow globe.

When to Go

Traditionally, markets start on the Friday before Advent providing four weeks of market enjoyment before Christmas Eve, when most markets end.  Some markets will extend until the Epiphany on January 6.  However, it’s best to experience the markets in the weeks leading up to Christmas to truly put you in the Christmas mood.

Once you arrive to your destination, if you don’t like crowds, try to visit the markets during the afternoon hours or early evening.  Once locals get out of work, the markets will fill up fast, especially around the mullled wine stand.   Weekends are always very crowded, too.  The best advice for visiting the markets on a weekend is to get there early, as soon as they open.  This will give you a much more pleasant shopping experience that will allow you to easily approach the various shopping stalls.  With your shopping done, return to the market in the early evening to enjoy some local food and mulled wine.  Although more crowded, it is a more festive environment and also provides the best opportunity to socialize with the locals.

What to Buy

Handmade crafts, jewelry, clothing, and food gifts are the typical items you’ll find at the Christmas markets. Several stalls will be selling similar items, so feel free to shop around for the best prices and most unique pieces. Most of the time, prices are listed and nonnegotiable, but you may get a small discount if you buy more than one item.

xmas markets

For the most part, the items for sale in the markets are of good quality and made locally. However, there are still some Chinese goods that find their way into the markets, so just be sure to ask where something is made before buying if that is important to you.

The food gifts available will depend on the country you are in.   Typically, you’ll find specialties unique to that country.  For example, in Stockholm, you’ll find food gifts that include reindeer jerky and flatbreads, while in Vienna, you’ll find plum cakes and gingerbreads.

What to Eat

Eating and drinking tends to be the more popular activities than shopping in the markets. You’ll always find the food and drink stalls overly crowded, especially in the evening.  Sure, the Christmas markets are a great place to pick up a unique gift for that special someone, but it is pretty clear that these markets are more about the social experience and drinking lots of holiday cheer, whether it’s hot mulled red wine, gløgg, or a cold beer.

xmas markets

These drinks will be pretty standard at every Christmas market you will visit regardless of the country.  However, the mulled wine won’t taste the same at every market because everyone vendor will use their own special recipe.  You’ll mostly find red mulled wine, but keep your eye out as some markets will also serve a white mulled wine drink, too.   (I prefer the red!)

budapest xmas

The food options tend to change a bit depending on the country you are visiting, but for the most part, you can expect variations of noodle dishes, sausage, potato pancakes, pretzels, and chimney cakes.

The Ultimate Christmas Market Itinerary

Start in BudapestQuality food and gifts, small town charm, a manageable market in the center of town

Budapest Christmas Market

By starting your Christmas market tour in Budapest, you’ll be able to ease into the European markets without being too overwhelmed.  It is here where you’ll find some of the best quality goods and food of all the markets.  The Budapest Christmas market, formally known as the Budapest Christmas Fair, is located in the center of town at Vörösmarty Square.  Vörösmarty Square sits at one end of the pedestrian shopping street, Váci utca, making it a conveniently located in the tourist zone.   The Budapest Christmas market is a decent sized market, packing a lot of merchandise and food into and around a popular town square.  The quality of the food and merchandise for sale at this market is top notch, and the market itself is very charming.  It exudes a small town feeling, and it is decorated beautifully, both during the day and especially at night when everything is lit up.

Travel Tip:  Take the train from Budapest to Vienna.   Upon arrival at the train station in Budapest, you’ll have porters available to help you put your luggage on the train.  Once in Vienna, however, you’ll be on your own, so keep the bags light and only pack what you can carry! You can easily get around Vienna’s subways with your luggage, too.   There are elevators at every station and plenty of room in the subway cars for bags.

Next stop, ViennaMagnificent backdrop, stunning decorations, many markets to visit

Vienna at Christmas

Now that you had a taste of what the Christmas Markets are all about, it’s time to take you to the ultimate city for Christmas Markets. Vienna does not have just one Christmas Market, but rather, the city packs over 10 of them all within range of the city center. You will definitely get your fill of Christmas markets after a visit to Vienna.

Xmas Market at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria

Vienna’s Christmas markets are truly special because of the magnificent city streets and buildings serving as a beautiful backdrop to many of them.   Here, you’ll find pretty much the same offerings in all of the markets when it comes to products and food.  However, what makes all of Vienna’s markets worth a visit is the vibe each one gives off as well as some unique touches, for example, you can find live holiday music at some or petting zoos at others.

Travel Tip:  To get to Prague from Vienna, you have two options:  the bus or the train.  If you have a lot of heavy luggage, you may want to consider taking the bus. The last time I checked, train schedules from Vienna to Prague required a change around the border.  It could be quite difficult to get off and on the train with heavy bags.  I opted for the bus:  it was very comfortable and faster; I didn’t have to worry about my bags until I got to Prague; and it was cheaper.  It’s very easy to get to the bus station via the Vienna subway, too.  If you choose to take the bus, be sure to buy your ticket well in advance, as this bus route sells out.

Last stop, Prague.  Romantic, festive, and traditional

Prague Christmas Market in Old Town Square

I saved the best for last.  I fell in love with gothic, romantic Prague the very first time I visited in 1997.  I could not wait to see this city decked out for Christmas, and all I can say is that it does not disappoint.   I think Prague was probably the most crowded of all the markets I visited, but that’s just Prague – it seems as if it’s always overcrowded anymore, and Christmas time is no different (perhaps worse).

There are three main markets to visit in Prague, and they are all located in the Old Town area within walking distance of each other.  You’ll find the largest and most festive market in the Old Town Square.  The next largest is found in Wenceslas Square, a quick walk from Old Town Square.  Finally, you’ll find a smaller, less crowded market at Republic Square.  At these markets, you’ll find some traditional Czech food that is also commonly found in Poland, and being of Polish descent, I have to be a bit bias and say that the best food was found at the Prague Christmas markets.  I probably ate the most food at this market and enjoyed it immensely!

Other Markets that can be added on to your itinerary

If you are feeling a bit adventurous and can’t seem to get enough of the Christmas markets, you can easily add a few more cities to this schedule.   During my Christmas market trip, I visited Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.  I started my trip with a stop in Stockholm, and I ended it with a jaunt over to Zurich.  I was able to go to all five cities over a two week period.  It would also be easy to add some German markets to this itinerary, especially beautiful Munich.

Have you been to the European Christmas Markets?  Which were your favorites? Share in the comments below.