There’s nothing in the world quite like the holiday season in Europe, and if you’re there from late November through the New Year, it’s easy to see why: There are wooden chalets in 13th-century towns, snow-capped cathedrals, seasonal cookies and cakes in display windows (better still: in your mouth), and of course, all the hot mulled wine you can drink. Put all of it together, and the towns practically twinkle with fairy-tale festiveness. We’d venture to say there’s hardly a wrong way to do Christmas across the continent, but it’s worth hitting some of the biggest celebrations first. Here, in no particular order, are 16 of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
Old Town and Wenceslas Square, Prague, Czech Republic
Why we love it: Just five minutes’ apart by foot, Prague’s Old Town and Wenceslas markets are the best in a city that already tops our list of places to spend Christmas. (It’s all that Gothic architecture and mulled wine stalls.) Don’t miss the barbecued pork or trdelník, a hot, rolled pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill. Also, pack the hat and gloves: It can get cold here in December.
When: December 1 to January 6
Cologne Christmas Market, Germany
Why we love it: In front of Cologne’s landmark cathedral, this market has what you’d expect of a classic German spread: the Glühwein, the crafts, the twinkling lights. One thing that stands out, though, is its entertainment—more than 100 stage performances throughout the festival, including Christmas swing music and gospel. After you’ve had your fill of tunes—and food—head toward nearby Hohe Strasse and Schildergasse, two of Cologne’s well-known shopping areas, to walk off all those bratwurst.
When: November 26 to December 23
Trento Christmas Market, Italy
Why we love it: Each year, the cobblestoned streets of Trento, in the northern Italian region of Trentino–Alto Adige, are filled with twinkling trees and 90 wooden huts in two places—the strollable Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti—to combine for what Italians call Città del Natale, or “Christmas Town.” Vendors sell sheep’s cheeses and dried orange slices below the 13th-century Buonconsiglio Castle, and the Alps in the distance provide an incredible backdrop to the whole scene.
When: November 24 to January 6
Tallinn Christmas Market, Estonia
Why we love it: In addition to Estonian Christmas dishes like black pudding and sour cabbage (it’s better than it sounds, we swear), Tallinn’s market in the Town Hall Square also has a Santa who arrives by reindeer-pulled sleigh. The highlight, though, is its Christmas tree, which the city has been putting up in front of its town hall since 1441—making it the first Christmas tree to ever be displayed in Europe.
When: November 16 to January 7
Brussels Winter Wonders, Belgium
Why we love it: Every December, Brussels’s Grand-Place around the Bourse stock exchange, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place Sainte-Catherine, and the Marché aux Poissons are transformed into a winter wonderland, with more than 200 wood chalets, a covered ice rink, a Ferris wheel (pictured), and a light and sound show projected onto the Grand-Place.
When: November 30 to January 6
Tuomaan Markkinat, Helsinki, Finland
Why we love it:This market scores major points for its mix of contemporary and traditional. Though visitors can do everything from play bingo for a vegan ham to watch a holiday outfit contest for dogs, it’s not all quirky: Choirs sing Christmas carols on the weekends, and visitors can stroll illuminated market stalls while drinking more of that hot mulled wine. Not feeling Finnish enough for you? Relax in the wood-heated unisex sauna, smack in the middle of the market in Senate Square.
When: December 1 to 22
Advent Feast at the Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
Why we love it: One of Budapest’s landmarks is St. Stephen’s Basilica, which is Hungary’s largest church and dedicated to the country’s first king, Stephen. It’s fitting, then, that this festival takes place around the church, in Szent István Square, with 80 vendors, a skating rink, and weekend folk dance shows. Most of the action is in full swing before Christmas, but if you’re there on January 1, stop by the fair for some lencseleves, or lentil soup—it’s traditionally made in Hungary on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.
When: November 27 to January 2
Dresden Striezelmarkt, Germany
Why we love it: Founded as a one-day market in 1434, the Dresden Striezelmarkt is Germany’s oldest. The annual focal points here are typically the 45-foot high Christmas pyramid and the Stollen, buttery fruitcake dusted with powdered sugar and packaged with a special seal depicting the city’s famous former king, August the Strong.
When: November 28 to December 24
Manchester Christmas Market, U.K.
Why we love it: Manchester has Christmas markets spread around its downtown core, but our favorite is in picturesque Albert Square, where the main market has been based for the past two decades. (It will get a new home next year, as the Town Hall backing the square is slated for a years-long renovation.) Traditional German bratwurst are on offer, as are dishes from around the continent—think Hungarian goulash, Spanish paella, and even a hog roast. Walk off the meal by browsing the wooden stalls, which sell everything from amber jewelry to French soaps.
When: November 9 to December 22; Albert Square is open until December 23
Viennese Christmas Market, Austria
Why we love it: Some cities just look better covered in snow, and Vienna—which already ranks high on our list of best cities in the world—is one of them. The city’s Viennese Christmas Market, which takes place in front of City Hall and has everything from reindeer rides to an ice rink for skating and curling, is as classic as it gets.
When: November 17 to December 26
Salzburg Christkindlmarkt, Austria
Why we love it: Salzburg’s famed Christkindlmarkt in the center of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old City isn’t just mulled wine and market stands: There are daily sing-alongs (Tuesdays from 6–8 p.m.) and traditional wind music performed above the square on Thursday and Saturday nights. We’re not mad about the Bauernkrapfen(fried pastries), either…
When: November 22 to December 26
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark
Why we love it: The real-life inspiration for Disneyland, this twinkling theme park is beloved by tourists and locals alike; come winter, it’s decked out in more than 500,000 fairy lights. Don’t miss Danish treats like aebleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar, or honninghjerter. Similar to German gingerbread, this dense honey cake is sometimes filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze. Hygge, indeed.
When: November 17 to December 31
Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt, Germany
Why we love it: Head to the Hauptmarkt, the central square in the city’s old town, for this market—one of the world’s most popular, with more than two million annual visitors. Each year, the celebrations officially open with a speech given by the Christkind—the traditional gift-giver and symbol of the Christmas Market—from the balcony of the Frauenkirche, a monumental Gothic church.
When: November 30 to December 24
Christmas Market at East Princes St. Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland
Why we love it: Adjacent to the Scottish National Gallery, this annual market turns Edinburgh’s sprawling East Princes St. Gardens into a “Santa Land” with a Christmas-tree maze and a mini-train ride for the little ones. Take it all in from atop the 108-foot tall Ferris wheel, aka the Edinburgh Eye.
When: November 17 to January 5; closed Christmas Day
Christmas Market at Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden
Why we love it: If you’re looking to get really traditional, visit this open-air museum on the island of Djurgarden in the center of Stockholm, where all of the historic homes and farmsteads are decorated accordingly. Tuck into smoked turkey and sugared almonds at the market, or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, participate in traditional dances around the festive tree at Bollnäs Square and make your own Christmas decorations in the workshop.
When: November 24 to December 16
Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt, Germany
Why we love it: Considered by many Germans to be one of the most traditional markets in the country thanks to its sparkling trees, local artisans, and location, the Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt has nearly 300 stalls set against the backdrop of the Old Castle, which dates back to the 10th century. Sip on the usual mulled wine, sure, but don’t miss the chance to sample some Maultaschen: large, ravioli-like noodles that are a speciality of the region.
When: November 28 to December 23
From Conde Nast Traveler
Photos are courtesy of Getty images