Spending the holiday season in Europe is like stepping into a Dickens novel. The Old World charm comes to life with festive Christmas lights, midnight masses at Gothic churches, ornate shop windows and caroling along cobblestone streets. The highlight of the season, however, is the traditional Christmas market, which usually starts throughout Europe on the Friday before Advent (four Sundays before Christmas Eve) and ends on Christmas Eve. Some even continue until Epiphany on Jan. 6.
If you travel to Europe during the holidays, here’s what to expect from a few of Europe’s most popular holiday markets:
Dating back to 1434, Dresden Christmas Market is Germany’s oldest Christmas market. Traditionally called Striezelmarkt, the market is located on the Altmarkt Square in the historic city center and is a treasure trove for handmade crafts. The focal point of the Dresden market is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid (45 feet tall) and the world’s biggest nutcracker. For a sweet treat, make sure to pick up a Dresden Cristollen (German Christmas cake), a loaf-shaped fruitcake coated in sugar icing, also known as Stollen and originally called “Striezel” — which accounts for the market’s name. Each year on the second Sunday in December, the market celebrates the Stollen Festival, where residents parade around the city carrying a giant fruitcake that weighs about 3 tons.
ABC News notes that other Dresden markets worth visiting are Neurmarkt, Haupstrasse and the medieval market near Royal Palace.
Heralded as “the capital of Christmas,” Strasbourg is home to one of France’s oldest and best-loved holiday markets. Since 1570, Strasbourg has hosted its Christmas market around the town’s cathedral. Now there are 12 markets scattered around this historic city, each with its own unique attractions, from handcrafted gifts, ornaments and nativity figures to artisanal food stands.
In the center of Copenhagen, Denmark’s premier tourist destination, Tivoli Gardens, literally lights up for Christmas. During the holiday season, ABC News reports that the oldest amusement park in Europe (it’s the second-oldest in the world) is decorated with twinkling lights that extend for miles over the park’s willow trees and around the Tivoli Lake. Tivoli’s traditional Christmas market features 70 chalet-style stalls of local crafts and gifts, and offers ice skating on the lake, parades, carolers, fireworks displays and an appearance by good old Santa Claus.
More than 1 million visitors flock each year to the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) in front of Vienna’s Town Hall, one of the oldest and best classic Christmas markets in the heart of Europe. Great gifts and sweet and savory treats await. The family-friendly market’s Christmas spirit is on grand display with a large Christmas tree, eight nativity scenes, a children’s baking and crafts workshop, and choir concerts. In recent years, the market has been enhanced by LED-lit “Starry Night” and “Snowflakes” archways. If you’re exploring more of Vienna during the holidays, ABC News suggests checking out the festive holiday markets in Frevung, Spittelberg and in front of the church of St. Charles Borromeo.
With 80 authentically decorated wooden chalets selling unique jewelry, handcrafted toys and handmade soaps, visitors will experience a beautifully lit, German-style Christmas market at London’s Southbank Centre Christmas Market. Sip warm mulled wine and nosh on gingerbread and roasted nuts as you stroll along the Thames (London Eye to Waterloo Bridge). And don’t forget to ride the carousel and pause to listen to choirs singing traditional Christmas music.
When to travel
According to USA Today, since winter is the low season for travel to Europe, bargain airfares and vacation packages are often available from major international airlines and tour operators from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.