Navigating Europe’s Big-City Christmas Markets and Festivities

The holiday season is a time when the already-magical streets and squares throughout Europe become even more alive.  As the lights and decorations go up, people come together to celebrate this special time of year, creating a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the some truly amazing decorations, events and markets.

The tradition of Christmas markets dates back to the Middle Ages in Germany and Austria, and the concept that has since spread to cities across the world.  Often called Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt (which literally means “Christ Child Market”), these outdoor markets are a way to celebrate the Advent season and typically feature open-air stalls selling traditional food, drink, handmade decorations and other gifts.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of all the Christmas markets and events in Europe, rather here are some highlights from the cities I recently visited to give you a hint of what to expect.  And regardless of where you find yourself this time of year, I wish you the happiest of holidays!

London
One of the biggest holiday attractions in London is the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, which has everything from a Christmas market to ice skating, a magical ice kingdom, rides and other family-friendly events and activities.  With so many things to do, Winter Wonderland can get very crowded so be sure to get there early when the venue opens to avoid some of the rush.  And while admission to the park is free, if you plan on doing any of the activities that require a paid ticket, consider pre-booking online to avoid waiting in line.  And while not exclusive to the holiday season, I loved walking through the beautifully decorated Borough Market, one of the largest and oldest food markets in London.

For me, the real highlight in London is all of the beautiful holiday lights on major streets and squares like Regents Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street (I loved this year’s peacock theme) and Covent Garden.  Big department stores like Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols are also decorated with lights and go all out with their window displays for the holidays.  You also don’t want to miss the big Norwegian spruce Christmas tree on Trafalgar Square (a gift from Norway every year since 1947 in recognition of Britain’s support during WWII), and if you’re interested in ice skating there is no shortage of rinks in London at places like the Natural History Museum, the London Eye and Somerset House.

More information: visitlondon.com

Paris
Paris is one of my all-time favorite places in the world, and it truly lives up to its name as the City of Light during the holidays.  A walk down the iconic Champs-Elysées is a must as the 200 trees along the avenue are illuminated with glistening lights from the Arc de Triomphe to the Palace de la Concorde (where you’ll also find a giant Ferris wheel).  Browse the wooden chalet stalls at the Champs-Elysées Christmas market with a cup of vin chaud in hand, and keep an eye out for an overhead visit from Pere Noël himself.

There are many other Christmas markets throughout Paris in places like the Trocadéro, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Montparnasse, Montmartre, Notre Dame and further west at the modern Grande Arche de la Défense (which provided an incredible backdrop and wasn’t very crowded).  For ice skating, there are rinks on the Champs-Elysées, in the Jardins du Trocadéro, inside the Grand Palais and outside of Hôtel de Ville (the latter stays open through March).

Les grands magasins department stores sparkle even more than usual this time of year, and some of the best eye candy has to be Galleries Lafayette (both inside and out – this year a jewel-encrusted tree was suspended upside down from its glass dome) and Printemps (the Burberry-sponsored window displays were gorgeous).  Even if you’re not a shopper, the holiday season is the perfect time to indulge in a little window shopping or lèche-vitrine (literally “window licking”) as the French call it.  And while you’ll find beautiful holiday lights and decorations throughout the city, I loved ending my nights walking by the Christmas tree in the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

More information: parisinfo.com

Munich
The Bavarian capital is abuzz during the holidays with traditional Christmas markets located throughout the medieval city.  The largest and oldest Christkindlmarkt is the one on Marienplatz, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Gothic Neues Rathaus town hall and 100-foot Christmas tree.

Sip glühwein as you browse the stalls of handcrafted ornaments, authentic food and other gifts, which will make you think to yourself, “now this is Christmas.”  In early December, you might catch a glimpse of Nikolaus and his angels who visit the market to hand out fruit and gifts to children.

Nearby you’ll also find the Kripperlmarkt with hundreds of small figurines to build your own nativity scene, and other markets in places such as the Residenz, Rindermarkt and Sendlinger Tor.   As an alternative to these markets in the old city center, the Tollwood Winterfestival at the Oktoberfest grounds feels more like an artisan craft show with a ton of food booths.  If you’re traveling with kids, you can head to Karlsplatz for the Münchner Eiszauber ice skating rink, or take a ride on the ChristkindlTram for a festive tour of the city, complete with mulled wine, gingerbread and festive music.

More information: muenchen.de

Salzburg
Equally as adorable, the Advent season in Salzburg is like something right out of a storybook.  The Austrian city’s Christkindlmarkt on Domplatz and Residenzplatz is a feast for all of the senses, from aromatic ornaments and wreaths to delicious pretzels and other treats (Linzer cookies anyone?), mugs of mulled wine to keep your fingers warm and the sound of beautiful music everywhere you turn.  Saturdays are extra special as the Christkind and angles dressed in white and gold robes walk through the market in the afternoons, followed by a brass concert in Residenzplatz in the evenings.

Other holiday activities in Salzburg including the Weihnachtsmarkt at Mirabellplatz, the Festungsadvent market at the Hohensalzburg Fortress, plus a small ice skating rink on Mozartplatz.  Christmas decorations and lights adorn doors and shop windows throughout the already charming city, including those on the iconic shopping street Getreidegasse with its traditional iron signs.  And if you’re looking to steal a holiday kiss, you’ll even find vendors selling bunches of fresh mistletoe in Salzburg.

More information: salzburg.info

Florence
The Christmas season officially begins in Italy with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and lasts through the Epiphany on January 6th.  In Florence, this means the arrival of the nativity scene and huge Christmas tree (decorated with the city’s iconic red fleur-de-lis) on Piazza del Duomo.  We were lucky to be in the city on December 8th and attended the tree lighting ceremony, which was hosted by the mayor of Florence and filled with lots of fanfare.

If you’re up for a small hike, you’ll find a similarly decorated tree atop Piazzale Michelangelo, along with a sweeping view of the entire city below.  In Piazza della Repubblica, the Italian department store La Rinascente is decorated to the nines, and other streets throughout Florence are also dressed up for the holidays with twinkling lights.  The German-inspired Weihnachtsmarkt on Piazza Santa Croce is the largest Christmas market in Florence, and we also enjoyed the artisan market that is held in Piazza Santissima Annunziata around the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  For family-friendly ice skating and snow tubing, head to the Firenze Winter Park east of the city center.

More information: firenzeturismo.it

Rome
The biggest Christmas market in Rome is typically held on Piazza Navona, but didn’t happen this year due to a permit dispute.  While there are other markets throughout the city on select dates, for me the real draw is the impressive lights on major boulevards including Via del Corso (this year featured flags of the 144 nations taking part in Milan Expo 2015), Via Condotti and Via Frattina, as well as squares like Piazza del Popolo.  Wintertime activities are light, sans a small ice skating rink near Castel San’Angelo, but some of the best Christmas trees we saw during our trip were the ones on Piazza Venezia across from the Victor Emmanuel Monument and outside of the Colosseum.

Many churches throughout Rome host traditional nativity scenes (look for signs that say presepe), and the 100 Presepi annual exhibition aims to preserve the holiday practice of constructing nativities.  In addition, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore houses the oldest known nativity in existence from the 13th century as well as a reliquary containing wood from the Holy Crib of the nativity of Jesus Christ.   And no holiday trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Vatican to see the life-size nativity and Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square.  On Christmas Eve, the Pope says midnight mass at St. Peter’s Basilica (which is also broadcast on screens outside of the church) and on Christmas Day, he addresses the crowd at noon from his apartment window overlooking the square.

More information: turismoroma.it

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