Eight Nostalgic European Christmas Markets

Follow the scent of cinnamon, spice and all things nice to our edit of Europe’s top Christmas markets. These eight festive fairs promise nostalgia and Yuletide feasting galore, with nary a plastic-wrapped stocking filler in sight

Is there anything more festive than a traditional Christmas market? Forget neon lights and plastic Santas; our Christmas wish list involves lines of wooden chalets piled high with knitted mittens and strolls under twinkling lights with a steaming mug of gluhwein in one hand, a cone of roasted chestnuts in the other.

In Europe, festive fairs are taken seriously, with multiple markets running in most capital cities from the end of November right through to the big day (and, sometimes, beyond). Book a winter city break to a snowflake-dusted metropolis and you'll be drinking in the Yuletide atmosphere of a charming European Christmas market as soon as you step off the metro. Germany is the first place we'd recommend heading - after all, Dresden claims to be the birthplace of festive fairs, having opened its first in 1434 - but from Stockholm to Switzerland, there are markets big and small across the continent offering handcrafted goods, unique local traditions and Santa-sackfuls of good old-fashioned fun. Here's our pick of the best Christmas markets in Europe, with not a neon light in sight.

'Tis the season: eight old-school European Christmas markets

Stalls at Christkindlmarkt, Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg, Austria

Best for: traditional trimmings

Fur-wrapped Fraus hunt down wooden decorations and drinking horns at markets across Austria - a sure sign that the country's Christmas fairs are suitably old-school. In Salzburg, the Christkindlmarkt (17 November - 1 January) in Cathedral Square and Residenze Square keeps things nostalgic. Follow the nutty scent of toasted almonds dancing through the crisp winter air to find a festive market arranged beneath strings of twinkling bulbs, selling hand-knitted socks, sweetly scented incense and intricate tealight lanterns. The Austrian snack of choice? A freshly baked apple. Grab one, then head to the cathedral for 5pm sharp to hear a daily outdoor concert - it might be choral singing one day; traditional wind instruments the next. On Tuesdays, a weekly carol singalong commences at dusk.

A red hut, and big wheel, at Montreux Christmas Market
Photo credit: IraVi / Shutterstock.com

Montreux, Switzerland

Best for: Swiss excellence

Each year, the lakeside city of Montreux announces a guest of honour for its Noël markets (18 November - 24 December). Normally a fellow European country is heralded, but for 2022, it's all a bit off-piste: Le Chat is the VIP. The cat - or rather, 20 giant statues of Belgian artist Philippe Geluck's famed feline sculpture - are spread across the city, accompanied by a Boutique La Chatte, on Avenue des Alpes, where you can pick up festive delights associated with the animal. Cats aside, this Swiss city fills over 170 fir-trimmed chalet stalls with local traders at the in-town market, selling snow globes, nativity scenes and bunches of candy canes. By the lake, you'll find 150 more. Drink vin chaud and munch roasted nuts, but keep your eyes on the sky: every day at 5pm, 6pm and 7pm, Santa Claus passes by on his sleigh above the Place du Marché. La magie!

A Christmas market in Berlin

Berlin, Germany

Best for: Kraftwerk and kitsch

Don't expect only ye olde charm at Berlin's markets. The German capital holds true to its alternative reputation, mixing Germanic kitsch (hello, gingerbread hearts) with a healthy dose of left-field concepts (think, an eco-friendly fair on Kollwitzplatz, a medieval-inspired market complete with troll forest at art compound RAW, and an LGBTQI+ fair offering mulled wine-fuelled yoga, drag bingo and Christmas karaoke).

Of the 70-odd city-wide markets (most of which are open from 21 November - 31 December), WeihnachtsZauber wins all the prizes for being the prettiest, with its light-strewn Christmas tree surrounded by bauble-hung, pointed-top tents, each crowned with a softly lit star. Spandau's candy-striped sprawl, meanwhile, is the city's largest. Kunsthandwerklicher fair on Karl-August-Platz is our go-to for German handicrafts. For gourmands wanting to stock their pantry with regional foods, there's also Kranoldplatz's Dicke Linda market, where you can slurp steaming pumpkin soup and taste-test your way around the schnapps stalls.

Biscuits on sale at Strasbourg Christmas Market

Strasbourg, France

Best for: all-out festive feels

Perhaps Europe's most Christmassy city, Strasbourg's festive fairs are enchanting for visitors young and old alike. You'll find 13 separate Christmas markets sitting pretty throughout the city's storied streets. The original, Christkindelsmärik (25 November - 24 December), has been going since 1570, and still resides in the Place Broglie, with more than 100 stalls tucked between timber-beamed townhouses and the gothic city cathedral. Fairy-tale-inspired lights lead the way between markets and adorn much of the city. In Place Kléber, you'll find Europe's "most decorated" tree (all 30m of it). Prepare to overindulge when you visit: regional Christmas bites include creamy spaetzle noodles, crème-fraîche-topped baguette flambée, and sugar-sprinkled pretzels. For gingerbread - or pain d'épices - seek out the chalet-style Mireille Oster stalls. The specialist baker's fig and walnut gingerbreads make a suitably seasonal souvenir.

Stalls at Prague Christmas Market
Photo credit: R Rostislav Glinsky / Shutterstock.com

Prague, Czech Republic

Best for: food, glorious food

It's all about the food at Prague's main Christmas market (26 November - 6 January), but don't expect any of the ubiquitous Germanic fare you're accustomed to. Stalls huddled beneath the city's fairy-tale-esque two towers of the Church of Our Lady, in Old Town Square, serve glossy, plum-coloured klobása sausages straight off the grill, juicy ham slices, fruit-filled palačinky crepes, sweet-smelling pastries and cheesy Hungarian flatbreads, lángos. Forget gluhwein; we're drinking the citrussy local equivalent, svařák (or maybe, hot mead or honeyed wine or grog, the Czech hot toddy).

Elsewhere in the country, Ceske Budejovice and Český Krumlov are worth a visit, too - head to their Christmas markets to fill up your Santa sack with wooden toys and carved Christmas decorations, all beautifully displayed beneath Bohemian architecture.

A ride at nostalgis amusement park, Liseberg
Photo credit: Trygve Finkelsen / Shutterstock.com

Gothenburg, Sweden

Best for: a real-life rom-com

Guaranteed snowy scenes put Sweden's selection of Christmas markets at the top of our wish list (with most open from 19 November - 30 December). From Stockholm's ancient Stortorgets Julmarknad to Småland's Kosta glassware fair and Visby's medieval shenanigans - think, torchlight processions and performances of historic choral music - you can expect ancient customs, excellent craftsmanship and a commitment to keeping things handmade in fairs across the country.

Gothenburg's Liseberg amusement park market is our hands-down favourite. The 1923-built park is a nostalgic throwback to Christmases past, complete with wooden roller coaster, elf-inhabited ice rinks, spinning carousels and gently tinkling sleigh bells. Scoff smoked reindeer snacks and kebabs (sorry, Rudolph), washed down with Nordic glögg, visit a dashingly dressed Santa (fur-trimmed, and with excellent knitwear), then head over to the Hamnkrogen restaurant for a traditional Swedish seafood buffet.

Christmas market in Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

Best for: folk festivities

Tallinn's spectacular Town Hall Square Market (25 November - 8 January) centres around a 15m Christmas tree, with stalls radiating out from the festive foliage, housing local traders of sheepskin slippers, handcrafted tree decorations and intricately made knitted goods. Find a toasty pair of mittens, then seek out gingerbread and sticky cinnamon pastries to nibble on, or fill up with a typically Estonian Christmas plate of black pudding and sauerkraut, washed down with a warming cup of blackberry glögg. Oakohv coffee stall is the one to seek out if you're feeling cold - the Estonian brand is serving four roasts that are unique to the Christmas market this year.

Christmas markets beneath the mountain in Italy
Photo credit: Essevu / Shutterstock.com

Merano, Italy

Best for: alpine wonder

This cinnamon-scented market (25 November - 6 January) is worth the trek into the Italian Alps; you'll be rewarded with a quirky selection of stalls winding along the frosty banks of the Passirio, and jaw-dropping views of the snow-capped mountains towering above the compact Italian town. You'll find boiled-wool slippers and hand-carved wooden goods, such as nutcrackers and music boxes, on offer at the carefully curated selection of stalls, while food options include towers of freshly prepared cinnamon cakes and steaming strudel. Keep your eyes peeled for the loitering Krampusse if you visit on 5 December; local tradition sees townspeople donning hand-carved masks and goatskin cloaks to discipline disobedient children before the arrival of the gift-giving St Nicholas the next day.

The green Marx Room at Quo Vadis
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