Every winter some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities are given a seasonal glow-up, literally. In the build-up to Christmas, thousands of twinkling lights and flashing fairgrounds illuminate grand cathedrals, charming market squares and rustic buildings for the Christmas market season. Originally a German phenomenon, Christmas markets have spread across the continent with hundreds of adorable wooden chalets offering sparkling festival trinkets, artisanal stocking-fillers, soul-warming food and aromatic mulled punch to starry-eyed visitors. Even the most Scrooge-like of souls would find it hard not to get heady on Yuletide feels at these gleaming bazaars. From ancient market squares lit up by 3D illuminations to big-scale fêtes brimming with delectable Christmas treats, here are the most magical Christmas markets in Europe that look straight out of a fairytale.
Too traditional for you? Check out these weird and wonderful festive traditions in Europe’s alt Christmas destinations.
Make a visit to where it all began. Christmas markets have their roots in Germany in the late Middle Ages, meaning a trip to one of Deutschland’s Weihnachtsmarkt is truly something to tick off your European travel bucket list. Cologne is one of the biggest and most illustrious in the country with beautifully painted stalls that look straight from a theatre set, hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights, outdoor ice skating and sweet spices hanging in the air. The largest market stands are under the cathedral in the city centre, but you’ll find plenty more in the neighbouring squares and down winding, quaint streets. Look out for a huge programme of events from choir performances to festive storytelling. It’s also a market that takes its historic roots seriously with markets dedicated to mythical creatures and steeped in folklore.
Find it: November 23 to December 23 2023
What to buy: Make a beeline for the bespoke wooden homeware made by local craftspeople in the Heinzels Wintermärchen.
A delicious mixture of old and new, Budapest’s Christmas festivities offer traditional stalls framed by Neoclassical and Baroque architecture with a dose of dazzling 3D illuminations. At the open-air market, you’ll find glowing Christmas trees and shops trimmed with greenery selling traditional wooden toys and ceramic decorations. While, every evening during advent, St Stephen’s Basilica will get a modern makeover with kaleidoscopic lights and lasers projecting Christmas stories onto its ancient facade. The result? A unique mixture of spectacle and charm that’s hard to beat.
Find it: November 17 2023 to January 1 2024
What to buy: Pick up beautiful, traditional folk textiles from the fashion and craft stalls in Deák Ferenc.
Christmas hygge, but make it stylish. Festive cosiness gets a cool edge as the buzzy Danish capital transforms for winter. As well as several markets dotted about the city – including main shopping centres in Tivoli Gardens and Nyhvan – all decked out in colourful lights, decorations and fir trees, you’ll also find a huge funfair with Hans Christian Andersen-themed rides and a mesmerising Ferris wheel. Look out for the ice rink and nightly tree-lighting ceremonies. Or, mix up the festive traditions with a visit to one of the city’s gourmet food halls and wine bars for hot sandwiches and streaming glögg.
Find it: November 17 2023 to December 31 2023
What to buy: Pick up artisan homeware and artwork from Freetown Christiana’s famous market held in The Grey Hall.
This pretty city on the edge of the Rhine turns into a dreamscape of Yuletide magic in winter. Its market packs in over 150 enchantingly decorated wooden chalets, offering up everything from the city’s famous spiced biscuits – Basel Lackerli – and mulled wine, to exquisite baubles and charming wooden toys. But, the city’s festive feels don’t stop there. As advent approaches Basel’s pretty streets come alive with Christmas performances, IRL advent calendars, light shows and wintery forests where visitors can get involved with festive workshops.
Find it: November 22 to December 22 2023
What to buy: Look out for ‘Kulpa Weihnachtskugeln’, a stand in Barfusserplatz dressed up to look like a huge Christmas present and full of unique, eye-catching baubles.
Bruges is already one of the most romantic cities on the planet, thanks to its beautifully-preserved Medieval architecture, winding canal network and dazzling sun-soaked views, but whack a glowing Christmas market in it and the place becomes a scene lifted straight from a fairytale. Over the festive season, the alluring city is home to two markets in the main Markt square and Simon Stevinplein billowing scents of sweet spices, cooking sausages and aromatic mulled wine throughout the city. Turn the romantic vibes up to 11 by having a skate around the outdoor rink festooned with twinkling lights, hopping on a horse-drawn carriage, or exploring the Light Experiences Trail which makes the beautiful buildings glow in all the right places.
Find it: November 22 2023 to January 7 2024
What to buy: You can’t leave Bruges without sampling some iconic Belgium beer. Head to the Markt square for stalls packed with the best bottles. Plus, cheese, meats and pâté to soak it all up with when you get home.
Nothing will get you tingling with festive feels quite like the winter wonderland that is the Montbéliard Christmas Market. Over 120 stalls sit beneath the grand Temple Saint-Martin for the occasion selling traditional products (from jewellery to glasswork) and local produce (think flambées, chocolates and crêpes). To add to the bewitching atmosphere, each day during advent hundreds of thousands of lights frame the town’s ancient streets, making winding stone streets glisten. It’s enough to put stars in your eyes until the new year.
Find it: November 25 to December 24 2023
What to buy: Have the full French experience by tucking into champagne and oysters beneath Temple Saint-Martin.
Prague, Czech Republic
One of the most magical cities in Europe to visit at any time of year, Prague is the perfect spot for Hansel and Gretel-style stalls and copious amounts of fairy lights. Its Christmas market sandwiched in an absurdly picturesque location between Our Lady Before Tyn and the gilded astronomical clock is a feast for the senses with vendors selling brightly-coloured decorations and soul-warming food and drink. In fact, it’s the food that really makes the experience with stalls offering sweet-roasted hams on spits, smoked meat dumplings, barbecue sausages and steaming vats of grog. Don’t miss the farm animals making real-life nativity scenes in the street and festive pop-up performances.
Find it: December 2 2023 to January 6 2024
What to buy: Don’t leave without sampling the traditional Czech Christmas fish soup rybí polévka – a warming concoction made from carp, vegetables, cream and brandy.