5 European Christmas Markets to Feel Festive AF During Your Winter Wonderland Vacation
From late November until the end of the year, European cities turn the fairytale vibes up to 100 with their bustling Christmas markets. Each city does things a little bit differently, but no matter where you are, it’s impossible not to feel über levels of jolliness and festive joy. We asked a couple of our expert Tour Directors (who run all of our European Christmas itineraries) for their favorite markets across Venice, Prague, Munich and beyond. Plus, the must-try foods and must-buy souvenirs from each!
by Reid Flynn
December 15, 2020
Simply... having... a European Christmas time 🎶🎵🎶
Consider The Grinch. He’s green, he’s mean, he simply cannot get in the holiday spirit. That is, until he learns how the locals celebrate Christmas and he learns a valuable lesson. Honestly, that whole movie is a waste of time. If Cindy Lou Who had simply encouraged The Grinch to spend five minutes wandering a European Christmas market, it would have been over immediately. Cue his heart growing three sizes, browsing enthusiastically for the best little gift for Max.
Joking aside, if you’re considering spending Christmas in Europe, or really anytime around the holidays—you cannot miss your destination’s Christmas market. It is simply impossible to be at a European Christmas market and not instantly feel those sweet wintry festive feels. There are carnival rides, food, souvenir stands, artisan craft shops, pop-up bars and so much more. Though every city celebrates a little differently, there is a sense of joy, excitement, and community across every European Christmas market.
In an effort to help you plan your European Christmas vacation, we recruited our top elves—uh, I mean Tour Directors—Elo and Ingo to share their thoughts on what makes each Christmas market from Venice to Munich to Prague so special. If you’re looking for the best Christmas markets in Europe, we've got you covered. And if you’re looking for a way to ensure you see all the sights, slurp all the spirits, and stay out of the Krampus’ way—take a look at EF Ultimate Break’s Christmas market trips and New Year's itineraries in Europe. Everything planned. Everything included. Just book, maybe buy an ugly sweater, and go!
Our Christmas market experts
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
Munich, Germany | © FooTToo/Shutterstock
Munich, Germany: Marienplatz Square Christmas Market
Gotta have that Glühwein
What it’s like: Germans love their Christmas traditions. Let’s get that straight first of all. C’mon, does it get more German than “Kris Kringle”? Tour Director Elo says: “In Munich, the people are just the most down-to-Earth so it is so much fun!” Yes, Christmas is in the air at one of Europe’s best Christmas markets at Marienplatz Square. Those old-school traditional Bavarian vibes permeate the culture here (think: lederhosen and dirndls), and with that comes a strong sense of the entire community coming together to embrace those classically German traditions.
Fellow Tour Director and German local, Ingo, says of this beloved Christmas market: “In the heart of Munich, just in front of the famous Munich town hall and in the middle of the pedestrian zone, wooden huts and stalls are set up to fulfill everything your heart could possible desire. From tasty food over jolly-making drinks to the perfect souvenir and gift to bring home. Christmas music is played as well as live entertainment.”
It's not all fun and games though. Word to those who have misbehaved this year, Elo says: “There is a bit of a spooky, but fascinating tradition—the so-called ‘Krampus Run!’ The Krampus is the scary assistant of the kind, old, lovely St. Nicholas (Santa). Santa turns a blind eye to naughty children, but the Krampus on the other hand is not so easy! He runs around rattling his chain in a terrifying manner. The tradition goes back at least 500 years in the Alpine region.” So be sure to consult your Christmas psychic before journeying to Munich, lest the Krampus catch you 😉.
What to taste: Hope you left enough room after that schnitzel for sausage. Ingo says: “In Germany and Austria, we are very proud of our quality and variety of sausages. One has to taste it for oneself. I recommend my travelers opt for mustard (Senf) instead of ketchup.” And Elo adds: “In Munich, I can NOT get over the variety of sausages available. Go try a sausage. And sauerkraut, my friends. And Glühwein.” What’s Glühwein you may ask? Boy oh boy. It is a German holiday favorite. Spiced, mulled wine, often spiked with rum. A must try, as recommended by every German ever.
What to take home: And speaking of Glühwein, the mug it comes in makes for an excellent souvenir. When you order it, you pay an extra 2 or 3 Euro deposit, which you get back when you return the empty beer stein it comes in. But, as Tour Director Elo points out, “the mugs you get to keep if you don't want the deposit back (totally acceptable there). A mug that you've drank the German mulled wine out of is a sentimental and practical souvenir that brings you back to the market in your mind for many years to come.” For other ideas for loved ones, Tour Director Elo adds: “As a souvenir I would get a traditional German gingerbread heart (‘lebkuchen’) with my family members' names drawn on them that can be eaten or used as ornaments on the Christmas tree. Also, the famous German Christmas angels are so cute. As well as some German traditional Christmas cake called ‘Stollen’ to bring to my family back home (it travels well and you can eat it in months—actually the longer you keep it, the better it gets).”
Venice, Italy | © Franco Amian/Shutterstock
Venice, Italy: Campo Santo Stefano Christmas Market
Chestnuts roasting on an open canal
What it’s like: Ah, Venice: the floating city, situated on over 100 islands between a maze of gorgeous canals. Where do you put a full-fledged giant Christmas market in a place like that? Like always, the Venetians got creative: put the vendors on boats. Tour Director Elo has this to say: “St. Stephens' Square—or Campo Santo Stefano—where the market is held, cannot be compared to anything in this world. Being at the heart of a ‘floating’ city of boats and gondolas surrounded by the blue lagoon and minutes away from the Academy Bridge and the Grand Canal is incredible. Also the smell of the chestnuts and other delicacies is all through the air!”
What to taste: You’re in Italy. You could be filling up on pizza or gnocchi or ravioli or porchetta... but save room for dessert when you’re done carbo-loading (you’re on vacation, enjoy it!). In Venice, being one of Europe’s top Christmas destinations, Elo’s recommendation for a wintry treat is this: “You have to try the candied chestnuts and other traditional delicacies like the star-shaped, powdered-sugar-dusted Christmas bread straight from Verona.” Verona, the hometown of Romeo and Juliet, serves up a dessert as sweet as their most famous resident lovers? Oh, yes, indeed.
What to take home: Venice has been known for being the glasswork capital of Italy—and maybe the world—for over 1,500 years. Not far from the Campo Santo Stefano Christmas Market is the island of Murano: the heart of Venetian glass production. And since it’s the holiday season, Elo recommends catering your souvenir to these facts. “I would definitely get a Christmas tree ornament made of authentic Murano glass, or glass jewelry for gifts for my family.” Imagine that: every time you look at the family Christmas tree, you’re reminded of your epic trip to Venice. Then you’re reminded of us at EF Ultimate Break. Then suddenly you start sweating—you simply need to travel RIGHT THIS MINUTE. You remember our interest-free payment plans and oh my goodness flights are also included in the price you pay and next thing you know, you’re booked on your next trip! Okay, okay, sorry. Let’s get back to Venice. Another festive gift idea from Elo: “If it’s your first time in Venice, I probably would include some Venetian masks—great for glamming up a New Year's party or the upcoming carnival season!”
Featured Trip: Germany, Italy & Switzerland Christmas Markets
10 days. 4 cities.
Highlights: Ice skating, trinkets, and eating your weight in chocolate. Need we say more? Plus, you'll soak up all rich history, must-see attractions, and scenic beauty of three iconic European countries.
Prague, Czech Republic | © Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock
Prague, Czech Republic: Old Town Square Christmas Market
Trdelniks are back in fashion
What it’s like: Just when you think a city can’t look any more like a fairytale come to life, Prague is all like “hey guys, what’s up, let’s get magical.” The capital city of the Czech Republic (and the historic Bohemia region) retains all of its medieval beauty but really cranks the charm up during the holiday season. There are a few different markets in town to choose from, but Ingo has a favorite. He says: “The prettiest Christmas market will be held on the Old Town Square. Little stalls next to the Jan Hus statue surrounded by Gothic churches and medieval colorful buildings.” Make sure to grab lunch from a local market stall here.
If you’re looking for where the locals buy their Christmas presents, Ingo says: “Another Christmas market takes place at the Wenceslas Square, the biggest square in the Old Town. It's a great alternative as here you find more locals and it's also a great shopping area surrounded by cafes, beer halls, and restaurants.”
What to taste: When you’re really hungry, there are few things as satisfying in the cold months as a hot and hearty stew like real Czech goulash. But if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you simply cannot leave the Christmas market without procuring a trdelnik. No, not a turtleneck sweater—this is a sweet chimney cake, sort of like the fried dough you find at American carnivals, but way more fun. Ingo says: “You will see them all over the city. But they are best just freshly baked on the fire in front of you. Fine flakey pastry which you can order filled or traditionally just with cinnamon sugar coating. Nowadays one can find the trdelnik also outside the winter season and this delicious sweet made its way all over Europe and the world. But it is always special to have it in its original place of origin.” Ain’t that the truth.
What to take home: Prague really is a great place to peruse for artisan specialties. The city has long been home to craftspeople and artistic types, and the creative spirit of the people shows. Consider some handmade Bohemian jewelry, etched ornaments, or glassware. One thing is for sure though, you certainly won’t have to worry about spending your souvenir money on beer—a pint of the golden stuff runs about $1-$2 USD (25-45 Czech Koruna).
Salzburg, Austria | © mapman/Shutterstock
Salzburg, Austria: Residenz Square Christmas Market
Mozart’s winter wonderland
What it’s like: Yes indeed, the hills are alive with the sound of Christmas. Salzburg, Austria may not be Austria’s largest city, but it is an incredibly historical one—home of Mozart, the setting for The Sound of Music, and perhaps Austria’s most festive spot during the holiday season. Tour Director Ingo’s endorsement captures it well: “The whole beautiful Old Town of Salzburg is basically a huge Christmas market with stalls everywhere. A big Christmas tree is put up in front of the residence palace and surrounded by stalls. And just one minute away the market continues in front of the Cathedral (the one from The Sound Of Music). Part of the Christmas market is also a big ice skating rink. So if you haven't had too much Glühwein, you can rent skates and enjoy some rounds on the rink while classical music plays and the Mozart statue watches. Above all stands the mighty fortress Hohensalzburg. This is my favorite of all Christmas markets for sure.” We think it’ll be one of your favorites, too.
What to taste: All that ice skating will surely build up an appetite. In that case, the Austrians have your back. Ingo’s recommendations: “If you are more in the mood for savory dishes I recommend an Austrian goulash soup. A meat stew which comes with a crispy bread roll. Also in Austria a popular type of sausage is one filled with cheese. For vegetarians there are plenty of delicious treats, as well, like roasted Champignons AKA roasted mushrooms: a healthy snack often with a garlic sauce and herbs.”
If you’ve got more of a sweet tooth, Elo says: “They have amazing Christmas sweets like the Christkuchen (traditional Christmas cake) as well as Gugelhupf (marble cake) and Kokosbusserl (translates as coconut kisses—similar to coconut macaroons). Try saying those in German!”
What to take home: Austrians love Christmas as much as Germans do—so all of those classic German souvenirs we already talked about like the Christmas tree angel ornaments can also be found here. But in addition to that, Elo says: “At the Salzburg Christmas market they make the most adorable and authentic snow globes! I would get the snow globe along with some famous handmade Mozart Balls (candies with marzipan in case you're wondering).”
Lucerne, Switzerland | © KlavdiyaV/Shutterstock
Lucerne, Switzerland: Franziskanerplatz Christmas Market
Market in the mountains
What it’s like: Situated way up in the Swiss Alps, with Mt. Pilatus looking down upon the bustling little city, Lucerne is a must-hit Christmas vacation destination. Once you’re done playing mountain goat for the day scurrying and sledding around the winter wonderland in the mountains, come back into town to chat with the locals, drink some hot cocoa (remind me again what that popular brand here in the US is called?), and peruse the stalls for gifts and oddities.
What to taste: Expert on all things Swiss, Tour Director Elo says: “In Switzerland, they have these amazing things called Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate (ever heard of them?)—the melted cheese dishes like raclette and fondue on a cold day are next-level. Now add chocolate fondue and hot chocolate with good Swiss chocolate to that list. Also Apfelchucheli—heavenly slices of apple, dipped in batter and deep fried until crispy and delicious, served with vanilla custard.” ‘Nuff said.
What to take home: Listen, you’re going to be here and you’ll call your mom and be all like, “Can we have the Swiss Alps at home?” And your mom will say, “We already have the Swiss Alps at home.” And unless you live in the Colorado Rockies, I’m sorry but it’s just not the same. Plus, the Swiss don’t only know good food and drink. They are purveyors of quality in all things. Elo’s recs for souvenirs agree with this assessment: “I am into Swiss quality, starting from the Swiss chocolate and cheese to the Swiss army knives, watches and beyond. Switzerland is where you get good quality stuff. The handicrafts like the traditional hats and gloves would be my go-to. Besides chocolate. And cheese.” Honestly, sign us up, Elo.
Happy holidays from EF Ultimate Break!
Of course trinkets and gifts are heartfelt and thoughtful, but they pale in comparison to the memories you make on a trip—especially when shared with loved ones. And at EF Ultimate Break, we make it soooo easy for you to take a trip chock full of those memories, be it during Christmas vacation or not. All you have to do is find your trip, pay over time interest-free, and sit back dreaming of sugarplum fairies (or more normal stuff like all of the German sausages and Glühwein you’re going to have) until it’s time to depart. Once you’re at your destination, you just focus on having fun. We’ll do the rest. Happy holidays from EF Ultimate Break!
by Reid Flynn
Reid is a copywriter at EF Ultimate Break. He loves cheese, playing guitar, and speaking loudly about indie rock to anyone who will listen. His favorite place in the world is Amsterdam.