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The brisk winter air bites at your cheeks as you stand in a brightly lit plaza. A towering cathedral decked out for the holidays looms overhead, illuminated by multi-coloured, twinkling lights. The smell of grilled sausages swirls around, children chatter excitedly, and everywhere you look someone has their hands wrapped around a steaming hot mug of mulled wine. This is what it’s like to visit the festive markets during Christmas in Europe.
A tradition dating back centuries, nearly every city between London and Moscow hosts a month-long marketplace which are usually found in the town centre, and there’s no better way to get into the spirit of the season. Millions of people from around the world are drawn to them each year, and operators like Viking Cruises even offer getaways where passengers get to visit some of the best Christmas markets in Europe over the course of a week.
If you’ve got a European Christmas vacation planned, here are five tips to make the most of your experience.
Shop wisely at the Christmas markets in Europe
When it comes time to choose some souvenirs or gifts, the choices can be simply overwhelming. Homemade, heart-shaped gingerbread. Gorgeous, decorative stars that light up the night. Toys, wooden ornaments, fuzzy hats and gloves, irresistible chocolates…the list goes on and on. So before you buy, be sure to take a walk around all the stalls to make sure you don’t have buyer’s regret by settling on something too soon.
The country you’re in will also make a difference in what you come home with. While staples such as ornaments, sweet treats and mulled wine are found just about everywhere, there are distinct differences between the local specialities.
For example, Austrian and German markets can be quite similar, and tend to display lots of trinkets such as candles and figurines. Oh, and SO. MUCH. BRATWURST.
In contrast, the fabulous Christmas market in Budapest has more handmade wares such as clothing, leather gloves, artwork and fragrant cloves.
In France, you can expect to find wine and champagne at the ready, along with delicacies such as caviar.
The good news is that no matter which Christmas market in Europe you go to, you don’t have to get too caught up with price matching. Most vendors have equal prices, and haggling isn’t a common practice.
Timing is everything at a European Christmas market
No contest here: Christmas markets are heaps better after dark versus during the day. Sparkling lights twinkle overhead, candles glow through windows, and the sounds of choirs singing festive favourites float above the stalls.
Even better, some markets such as the one in Annecy, France have bar areas aimed at pleasing the younger crowd. They’re crammed full of stalls serving up fare like oysters, champagne, poutine and meat fresh off the grill to revellers, who soak in the atmosphere as a DJ spins thumping beats in the background.
Compare that to daytime and, well, the ambiance leaves a bit to be desired. Sure, it may work better for families with young children, but the top Christmas markets in Europe don’t really get busy until people get off work, there’s rarely any music, and sometimes they don’t even open until late in the day anyway. So if at all possible, try to schedule a visit after dark.
Bring your appetite to a Christmas market in Europe
Repeat after me: “I will not eat before going to the Christmas market. I will not eat before going to the Christmas market. I will not…” OK you get the point. Don’t eat before you go!
You won’t believe how much amazing food is sprawled out in front of you, such as gingerbread, fresh baked cookies, marshmallows and strawberries dripping in chocolate and roasted chestnuts. Oh, and did I mention the half-metre bratwurst you can find at the market in Passau, Germany? Amazing!
Don’t skip the glühwein during Christmas in Europe
Let’s be honest: the real reason most people want to go to spend their Christmas holidays in Europe is for the glühwein. That famous, sweet mulled wine is a staple of the season, boiled with cinnamon, cloves and oranges until it’s steaming hot and ready to warm revellers from the inside out. It’s traditionally made with red wine, but you can usually find white wine versions as well.
Glühwein is served in a custom mug, which customers pay a deposit for (usually a couple of euros). You can either return the mug when you’re finished and get your money back, or bring it home as a fun souvenir.
Pack lightly for a European Christmas vacation
Finally, one of the most important tips for visiting a Christmas market: leave room in your suitcase! Unless you spend all of your time drinking glühwein, chances are you’ll come home with a ton of gifts for family and friends—and we all know how airlines feel about overweight luggage.
Before you leave home, ensure there’s ample room in your suitcase to bring everything back home, or bring a foldable duffle bag. If you think you might come home with breakables such as wine or champagne bottles, pack some wine skins to provide extra protection.
This article was originally published in December 2015 and updated in April 2020
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