Twinkling Christmas trees, snow-dusted wooden chalets, cobblestones paved with hawkers selling everything from savoury snacks to chimney cakes – these are just a few of the highlights of Europe’s best Christmas markets.
Here are some of the oldest, best and most magical fairs worth travelling for this season.
Salzburg has that magical quality at any time of year, but during winter Mozart’s hometown (where the carol Silent Night was first written and performed) looks like a fairytale.
The market at Cathedral Square is the Austrian city’s oldest, dating back to the 15th century. The Salzburg Christkindlmarkt, as it is now known, has existed since 1974.
It’s officially opened with a ceremony on the Thursday before the first Sunday of advent, closing for the final time on January 1.
Traditional huts line the Unesco World Heritage-listed Old City, with about 100 market stands and a varied cultural programme that includes readings for children, guided tours, choral concerts, folk performances and weekly singalongs.
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Prague, Czech Republic
Two Christmas markets are taking place in the heart of picture-perfect Prague, running from December 2 to January 6. They sit in the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, which are a five-minute walk apart.
Traditional huts are stocked with local handicrafts and festive treats, from hand-blown glass baubles to puppets and embroidered lace, alongside typical Czech sausages fresh from the grill, garlicky cheese flatbread and sweet dumplings.
It’s the setting that sets it apart, however, as you look out onto the Gothic 14th-century spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn and the city’s noted medieval astronomical clock.
The 25-metre-tall Christmas tree at Old Town Square, which is brought in from the Usti nad Labem region of North Bohemia, makes it even more magical. Glittering tree lights are switched on at 4.30pm daily to a soundtrack of either Elizabethan Serenade by Karel Gott or Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You. This happens again every hour for the next five hours.
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For the third year in a row, Hungary’s Advent Basilica has been voted Best Christmas Market in Europe by European Best Destinations.
The 12-year-old market, which runs from November 24 to December 31, takes place in front of St Stephen’s Basilica, which is lit up with laser projections in the evening.
About 120 craft exhibitors gather in the square, while there’s also a 200-square-metre ice skating rink (that’s free for children), a festive-themed programme and plenty of food, including langos, which is a deep-fried pastry snack with sour cream and cheese, as well as barbecue specialities and salted kurtoskalacs, or chimney cake.
The Vorosmarty Square market at the heart of the city is Budapest’s oldest Christmas fair, with food stalls, handicraft shops and free festive concerts galore. This one starts on November 17.
Emirates, flydubai and Wizz Air Abu Dhabi offer direct flights to Budapest from Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Snow-dusted rooftops of centuries-old buildings and cobblestones in the Estonian capital’s old town provide a backdrop to what’s often considered one of Europe’s best Christmas markets.
This year it will be held at Town Hall Square from December 1 to January 7, with more than 60 wooden market stalls selling everything from handmade wreaths to woollen slippers and wickerwork. A festive programme is also filled with performances from dance troupes, bell ringers and brass bands, while there’s also a merry-go-round and even a visit from Santa. Local merchants, meanwhile, sell classic Estonian Christmas snacks, including black pudding, sour cabbage and gingerbread.
The star attraction, however, is the Christmas tree, which has been set up in the square since 1441, making it the first to be displayed in Europe.
Emirates and flydubai offer flights to Tallinn via Amsterdam and Warsaw, while Etihad Airways offers flights from Abu Dhabi via Frankfurt
A 2km-stretch of 240 wooden chalets lines the streets and squares of Brussels’s historic city centre, as the Winter Wonders campaign spreads out across Grand-Place, Bourse, Place Sainte-Catherine and Marche aux Poissons. This year it’s taking place from November 24 to December 31. About two million people visit each year.
Ice-skating rinks, light shows and a Ferris wheel are some of the main attractions, alongside a huge Christmas tree. Pop-up restaurants and food stalls serve hot waffles, mussels with frites and other Belgian staples, plus lesser-known festive favourites such as snails and stoemp (a mashed potato dish).
There’s also a dedicated winter festival for children with bouncy castles and craft rooms, where Christmas elves and fairies mill about between December 24 and 31 at Maison de la Poste.
Emirates and Etihad Airways offer flights direct to Brussels from Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Edinburgh comes alive with festive cheer in the lead-up to its world-famous Hogmanay event for New Year, which spreads out across the city’s historical streets.
It runs for seven weeks, from November 17 to January 6, with traditional markets, funfair rides, illuminations and projections, live outdoor events and performances, ice skating and more.
There’s a Santa’s Grotto, an elves’ workshop within a Christmas tree maze, plus myriad stalls selling toys, Harry Potter-themed presents and food and drink from mulled Irn Bru to vegan pigs in blankets.
On December 31, fireworks light up the skies for Hogmanay, while a ceilidh (traditional event of singing, dancing and storytelling) and concert also take place at East Princes Street Gardens.
Etihad Airways offers flights to Edinburgh from Abu Dhabi via Paris
Krakow’s Christmas market might be bigger, but in terms of romantic settings, you can’t beat the fair in Gdansk. This year it takes second place on the Best Christmas Market in Europe list by European Best Destinations, and consistently comes top for Poland.
Set in the historical city centre, the Gdansk Christmas market is a veritable winter wonderland that will run from November 24 to December 23.
Elf parades, a Venetian-style carousel and carollers set the mood, while shoppers root through stalls selling handmade jewellery, upcycled clothes and all sorts of Polish snacks, including the ubiquitous pierogi (dumplings).
Emirates and Etihad Airways offer flights to Gdansk from Dubai and Abu Dhabi via Frankfurt
Germany is filled with excellent Christmas markets, from Berlin to Cologne and Essen, but the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt is particularly notable for its focus on sustainability.
All of the mulled wine hawkers, for example, use a reusable cup system, while there’s organic produce galore and the market is powered by regional hydroelectric and photovoltaic plants.
It’s also one of the oldest and most famous Christmas markets in the world, dating back to the mid-17th century. Every year, the opening ceremony begins with a speech by the curly-haired “Christkind”, in her white and golden dress – she’s been an important symbol of the market for decades.
Shoppers can find handmade Christmas decorations, local crafts, Franconian products, charitable booths and more. Foodies are also in for a yuletide treat, with stalls peddling everything from bratwurst to gingerbread.
It runs this year from December 1 to 24.
Emirates and Etihad Airways offer direct flights to Frankfurt from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, followed by a train to Nuremberg Central Station
The century-old Madrid Christmas Market that runs on the city’s main square, Plaza Mayor, is a haven for collectors, with antiques and artworks on sale. This year it will run from November 24 to December 31.
More than 100 stalls, which were renovated in the 1980s to take the shape of small huts, are also filled with nativity scene figures, musical instruments, toys and gifts.
Numerous other markets run in Madrid that are also worth visiting. For handcrafted items, head to Plaza de Espana, while more than 60 embassies and cultural institutes gather at Plaza de Legazpi. Independent designers, meanwhile, head to Mercado de la Cebada to sell their wares.
Emirates and Etihad Airways offer direct flights to Madrid from Dubai and Abu Dhabi
The Christkindelsmarik draws in millions of visitors annually to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace on France’s German border, thanks to the fairytale-like setting. It is also known as the Capital of Christmas.
For more than four centuries, the market has transformed the city into an enchanting winter destination with shop windows sparkling, Christmas trees twinkling and the aromas of cinnamon and other seasonal spices wafting through the air. The sounds of carols also emanate from churches.
A 35-metre-tall tree is erected at Place Kleber, decorated with colourful ornaments and hundreds of glittering lights.
More than 300 wooden chalets are spread out across the city’s squares selling handmade gifts and tree decorations, as well as snacks including bredle, which are popular Christmas biscuits.
Etihad Airways offers direct flights to Paris, followed by a train to Strasbourg
Updated: November 15, 2023, 7:18 AM