Europe does Christmas markets so well that many of its major markets have a reputation across borders and across oceans that draw international crowds every winter. Think of Nuremberg in Germany, Strasbourg in France or Edinburgh in Scotland. However, while the famous big markets are definitely worth a visit, there are also plenty of others that people may not have heard of that are superb. If you do the trek, chances are you won’t be surrounded by tourists when you enjoy your mulled wine.
Especially in continental Europe, Germany and further east, Christmas markets can be found in all major cities and even in small towns. The traditional markets are very important here and are part of the cultural heritage and traditions, offering stalls offering traditional food and drink, local crafts and events for the whole family during the Christmas period.
I’ve listed a few places to visit during the holiday season where you can enjoy great Christmas markets in cities or even countries you might never have thought of visiting before.
1. Krakow, Poland
The city of Krakow, as well as Poland, are two often overlooked destinations well worth visiting. I want to mention the Krakow Christmas Market in the markets of Warsaw, as these are the lesser-known markets, and the capital is still more likely to attract more visitors than any other city. Located on Rynek Główny, the beautiful main square, surrounded by magnificent architecture, is the main Christmas market. Not only can you buy many traditional and handcrafted nativity scenes and nativity scenes, native to Krakow, but you can also try many traditional dishes here. From mulled wine to pierogi dumplings, from gorgeous poppy seed cake to borscht soup, you won’t go hungry.
Pro tip: Get your meat fix before Christmas because in Poland the Christmas meal is traditionally meatless in memory of the animals that were in the manger with baby Jesus.
2. Helsinki, Finland
Finland is always associated with Christmas because of the Santa Claus Villagebut few think helsinki for a Christmas city break. The Finnish capital is magical at Christmas with twinkling lights everywhere, decorated ships in the harbor and markets around every corner. The biggest market is located on Senate Square opposite Helsinki Cathedral. Complete with a huge Christmas tree, small stalls selling local crafts, lots of reindeer, elk souvenirs and food involving reindeer and elk. It is beneficial to overcome any delicacy, because reindeer is a wonderful meat, low in fat, tasty and durable. There are small stalls next to the harbor basin and the historic covered market nearby is also all decorated for Christmas.
Pro tip: Catch two of my favorite Christmas destinations in one wash by jump on the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. In just over two hours, you are there. With any luck, the Baltic is frozen over, providing stunning views.
3. Prague, Czech Republic
For some reason most people seem to visit prague in the summer, when it’s too hot and crowded to really enjoy the city. In the winter, yes, you may need to dress a little warmer to have a drink on the terraces, but if you make it a mulled wine, or a hot and spicy beer, then you’re a winner. There is a lot of Christmas markets on both sides of town, but the prettiest is Old Town Square, which is festively decorated and illuminated with a large Christmas tree standing proudly in the center of the square. Also head to Wenceslas Square, where the second largest market in Prague is held.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to catch a look at King Wenceslas on his upside-down horse in the Lucerna Passage just off the square. This is a fun installation by local artist David Černý.
4. Tbilisi, Georgia
Last year I was in Tbilisi to take a small dose of vacation and not only the simply beautiful city, but it also allows you to enjoy Christmas twice. Georgians celebrate Christmas on January 7, because of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but non-Orthodox celebrate on December 25. The main Christmas market starts on December 25 and remains open until January 14. So you can easily spend Christmas at home, or elsewhere, and then join the Georgian celebrations for an encore. The large Christmas market is set up along the beautiful Rustaveli Avenue, and the sidewalk is filled with lights, stalls, performances and lots of joy. Definitely worth the detour.
Pro tip: Stay in the Marriott Hotel Tbilisi on Rustaveli Avenue for more decorations. Even if you’re not staying there, be sure to come by for a hot chocolate.
5. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, just across the Baltic from Helsinki, is one of my favorite places to visit for a bit of Christmas cheer. The old town is filled with jumbled houses and cobbled streets. It usually snows. The town hall square is so picturesque at any time of the year with its unusually simple church, but it is particularly picturesque when it fills with small chalets. Unlike other Christmas markets in Europe, which open at the end of November and close just before or shortly after Christmas, the Tallinn Christmas Market starts on the 25theon Christmas Day, and lasts until the first week of the New Year, making it perfect for a post-Christmas break.
Pro tip: Buy yourself some of the adorable little Christmas gnomes for sale all over Tallinn this Christmas. They are known for their big, round noses and red, pointy hats. They are adorable and are always proud of my house for Christmas.
6. Brno, Czechia
Brno is Czechia’s second city, but not on everyone’s radar. Yet here you will find beautiful old and colorful architecture, cobbled streets and town center squares adorned with lights and decorations and filled with stalls, chalets and trees. The main plaza, Freedom Square, not only has the largest Christmas market but it is also the ideal place to attend special events, shows, concerts and a funfair. The Cabbage Market focuses on handmade crafts and traditional local produce, while there’s a life-size nativity scene in Dominican Square, and Moravian Square has a large heated marquee, glittering Ferris wheel and outdoor ice rink popular.
Pro tip: If you’re an architecture buff, be sure to visit Villa Tugendhat by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, just north of the city center.
7. Wroclaw, Poland
Wrocław, which, by the way, you pronounce something like vrot chips, is a city located on the banks of the Oder River in southwestern Poland. Over the centuries, influenced by neighboring Czech, German and Polish cultures, the Wroclaw Christmas Market is delightful and unmissable for lovers of the Christmas Market. My favorite feature in the vast market square is the gigantic, multi-tiered pyramid, a replica of the traditionally candle-powered revolving carousel pyramids that most Germans have in their stockpile of Christmas decorations.
Pro tip: Try the famous Oscypek, a traditional smoked cheese from Wroclaw, which you won’t find anywhere else.
8. York, UK
York at Christmas may not be that unknown, but it’s still a city that’s not on the beaten track of UK winter visits, with most people enjoying London’s fabulous lights and decorations. I don’t want to discourage anyone from staying in London for Christmas. The lights, especially in Regents Street, are my all time favorite. However, when you’re there, why not hop on the King’s Cross train? In less than two hours you are in the center of York and you can begin to understand true christmas feeling which is often lacking in large cities. Head to the wooden chalets of the Saint-Nicolas market that stand along the rue du Parlement and fill the place Saint-Sampson, spilling out into the small side streets. There’s food galore, from warm German sausage cinnamon donuts, pulled pork with cranberry sauce, and more. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
Pro Tip: Be sure to stop at Bettys Tea Rooms and have the cinnamon toast. Pure paradise.
9. Radovljica, Slovenia
In the north of Slovenia, in the Julian Alps, little Radovljica, medieval and too pretty for words, is full of buildings dating from the 16th century and turns into a magical Christmas paradise in December. Generally covered with a blanket of snow, the the celebrations begin St. Nicholas weekend, around December 6, with the switching on of the Christmas lights in Linhart Square and the main Christmas stalls in Radol’ca Market. The celebrations last until December 29.
Pro Tip: To get a sense of the real Christmas spirit, go to Basilica of Mary Help of Christianswhich is not only a pretty Renaissance church but also a place of pilgrimage and houses the Nativity museum.
For more information on Christmas markets, see these articles: