Europe’s best Christmas markets
As the nights draw in and the weather gets chilly, Europe’s cosy Christmas markets promise a magical atmosphere, gastronomic delicacies and unique gifts – the perfect excuse for a weekend city break. What better than twinkling lights, hot mulled wine and traditional hand-made crafts to warm the spirit and put the fun back into Christmas shopping?
Berlin: Many of the largest and most celebrated Christkindlmarkts are in Germany (the inventors of Christmas trees), and Berlin is the capital of the festive crowd-pullers, hosting over 50 Christmas markets. Two of the best are at Charlottenburg Castle – boasting vendors from all over the country selling traditional handicrafts and tasty festive treats from decorated cabins – and Gendarmenmarkt, in one of the most beautiful squares in the city, bringing together embroiderers and wood carvers with jugglers and choral singers.
Crowds enjoy the Christmas market at Charlottenburg Castle, Berlin (Jurgen Henkelmann/Robert Harding)
Christmas market on Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin (Bernhard Freisen/Robert Harding)
Night view of the traditional Christmas Market in Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin (Iain Masterton/Robert Harding)
Nougat for sale on a Christmas market stall in Berlin (Stuart Black/Robert Harding)
Christmas market on Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin (Bernhard Freisen/Robert Harding)
Wooden nutcracker dolls on a Christmas market in Berlin (Ingo Schulz/Robert Harding)
Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market at night, Berlin (Karl Johaentges/Robert Harding)
Hamburg: Germany’s cosmopolitan second-largest city plays host to a series of magical festive markets, the most notable of which lights up the main square, Gansemarkt, overlooked by the grand city hall and a large illuminated tree. Enjoy spiced fruit punch and old-fashioned carousel rides, as well as colourful Christmas parades that fill the streets each Saturday. Most other markets are a short walk from this one and cater to different tastes – there is even an erotic-themed Christmas market on the Reeperbahn. Hamburg is a port city famed for its criss-crossing waterways and lakes, and Fleetinsel market – on a tranquil square surrounded by canals – reflects this maritime character with decorated vintage sailing ships moored nearby.
Christmas Market and City Hall at night, Hamburg, Germany (Robert Smith/Robert Harding)
Christmas market in front of the City Hall, Hamburg (Andreas Rose/Robert Harding)
Entrance to the Christmas market in front of the city hall, Hamburg (Andreas Rose/Robert Harding)
Illuminated stars at Christmas Market, Hamburg, Germany (Engel & Gielen/Robert Harding)
Town hall and Christmas market at dusk, Hamburg (Christian Ohde/Robert Harding)
Fleetinsel Christmas market and sailing boats in Hamburg (Christian Ohde/Robert Harding)
Cologne: The majestic, twin-spired cathedral (the largest gothic church in Northern Europe) forms the spectacular backdrop of a huge festive market that attracts around four million visitors per year, featuring traditional wooden stalls and free entertainment including choirs and brass bands. Try quality organic goods and regional culinary delights such as decorated gingerbread biscuits, delicious stollen and German Kölsch ale, while perusing wood carvings, handmade books, glass, ceramics and toys.
Aerial view of the illuminated christmas market and Christmas tree in front of Cologne Cathedral, North Rhine-Westphalia (Sabine Lubenow/Robert Harding)
A wooden carved Santa Claus at a Christmas Market in Cologne (Martin Child/Robert Harding)
Christmas market on Roncalli Place with the cathedral in the background, at Night, Cologne (Michael Leonhard/Robert Harding)
People under a chain of lights, visiting the Christmas market in front of Cologne Cathedral (Sabine Lubenow/Robert Harding)
Munich: With daily concerts, ice skating rinks and elaborate nativity scenes, the home of Oktoberfest is also a great place to experience the Christmas spirit. The Bavarian capital boasts one of the oldest and most traditional Christmas markets, said to hail from the 14th Century, in the lively pedestrian heart of the city. When you’re all Christmassed out, head to one of Munich’s renowned beer halls such as Hofbräuhaus in the old quarter, for a litre tankard of Bavaria’s best.
St. Nicholas impersonator at Munich Christmas market, Bavaria, Germany (Godong/Robert Harding)
Christmas market on Marienplatz in the evening, Munich, Bavaria (Ulli See/Robert Harding)
Close-up of painted wooden figures on sale in Munich, Bavaria (Godong/Robert Harding)
Cakes sold at Christmas market, Munich, Bavaria (Godong/Robert Harding)
Christmas market on Marienplatz, Munich (Alan Copson/Robert Harding)
Prague: With its chocolate box beauty, Prague is a great place to experience the Czech Republic’s unique brand of Christmas market, and do some sightseeing while you’re at it. Bright wooden huts fill the Medieval Old Town Square and the aptly named Wenceslas Square, selling lace, wooden toys, jewellery, scented candles and traditional puppets. Sample sizzling sausages, roasted hams and sweet treats such as trdelník – a rolled pastry topped with sugar and walnuts – accompanied by mead or hot punch. Once your hunger and thirst are sated, how about a festive concert in one of the city’s ancient churches or concert halls for an uplifting end to a perfect day.
Old Town Square Christmas Market in Prague (Chmura Frank/Robert Harding)
Church Of St. Nicholas and Christmas Market, Prague (Allstar/Robert Harding)
Christmas market at the Old Town Square with gothic Cathedral, Prague (Richard Nebesky/Robert Harding)
A stall at the Old Town Square Christmas market selling mead in Prague (Peter Erik Forsberg/Robert Harding)
Old Town Square, Christmas Market, Prague (Chmura Frank/Robert Harding)
Christmas Market and the Old Town Hall, Prague (Allstar/Robert Harding)
Vienna: Austria’s capital comes into its own at Christmas and is famed for its festive markets, filled with ornate decorations and delicious traditional cuisine – try roasted chestnuts, waffles and candied fruit washed down with Glühwein, hot mulled wine. If the children tire of gawking at shiny decorations and colourful gifts, the City Hall offers a space where they can get their hands dirty – learning to decorate candles and make Christmas cookies.
Baubles at a Christmas market in Vienna (Alexander Poschel/Robert Harding)
Christmas market at Rathausplatz square, Vienna (Rainer Mirau/Robert Harding)
Christmas Market and Town Hall at Rathausplatz at twilight, Vienna (Richard Nebesky/Robert Harding)
Girl and woman looking at Christmas decorations at a stall, at the Christmas Market at Rathausplatz, Vienna (Richard Nebesky/Robert Harding)
Brussels: The ever-expanding Brussels Christmas market (known as Winter Wonders) now extends over a mile, along an illuminated route through the city’s picturesque centre. As well as quintessentially European crafts it is the perfect place to buy Belgium’s mouth-watering speciality, chocolate – available as a toasty hot drink as well as perfectly formed truffles or pralines to take home to your loved ones. When you’re done shopping, take a break by enjoying the magical light shows, outdoor concerts, a toboggan slope, a 200 foot ice rink and an illuminated ferris wheel.
Christmas fair in the evening, Brussels, Belgium (R. Kiedrowski/Robert Harding)
Night shot, Maison du Roi and Christmas market, Grand-Place or Grote Markt square, Brussels (Tpg/Robert Harding)
Market stall at a Christmas fair, Brussels (R. Kiedrowski/Robert Harding)
Most Christmas markets open in the last week of November and continue until around Christmas Day.
See more Christmas market photos here