Advent is ushered in with the opening of Christmas markets in towns and cities across Germany and Austria. Most cities and bigger towns have markets running every day right up to Christmas (and sometimes beyond) whereas lots of the smaller towns might only have them on weekends. Big cities in other areas of Europe and around the world also have Christmas markets and some of them are great but it’s tough to compete with the German and Austrian ones.
Christmas markets originated in German speaking Europe and have a history going back to the Late Middle Ages. Dresden’s Christmas market was first held in 1434 and you can find mentions of Munich’s as early as 1310. Vienna’s is probably one of the earliest ones to be established. It dates as far back as 1298. In the short, bleak days of winter, you can see why a Christmas market was an appealing way to add a bit of cheer and spirit to life.
From my experience, the German and Austrian markets really are the best. They are the least commercial and the most fun and festive. This spills over into border areas too (many of which used to be German speaking at some point). Below are my top picks but if you need some help with itineraries then click here.
The low down on my top 6 Christmas market picks!
Dresden has fabulous markets. Traditionally the original market is called Striezelmarkt. It is located in Altmarkt Square. There is usually a Ferris Wheel there that you can ride which gives you great views of the square. Like most places, there are a number of markets around Desden. One of the most popular ones is in the historic old town of Dresden. The market is between the stunning church of Frauenkirche and Brühl’s Terrace. I think it is the most picturesque in Dresden. There are plenty of others around-about that are just as impressive including Hauptstrasse, Neumarkt and Augustusmarkt.
The food at the markets in Dresden might be some of the best Christmas Market food you can get. There is an abundance of variety. The Frikadellen or meatball sandwiches are something you should not miss. It is basically meatballs in a roll which you load up with onions and mustard. Feuerzangenbowle is also a treat and best saved for a very cold day because of its high sugar content! It is a shot of rum and a sugar cube added to glühwein and set on fire.
Dresden has a very regional feel with the locally made hand-carved wooden decorations you get there. The hand-carved nativity scenes are beautiful and unique to the area. Also, check out the Christmas pyramids with their tiered candle carousels which are also lovely and a bit different to the ones you can get elsewhere.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
I will be upfront here and say that if you just go to Rothenburg ob der Tauber for the Christmas Market you might be disappointed. There is nothing wrong with the market. It is in a beautiful setting and has a nice relaxed, welcoming feel but you are really going here for the whole package, not just the market! The town is like a fairytale version of what Christmas should be like. The ultimate Christmas town.
It is a beautiful, well preserved, medieval town that the Allies spared during the war because of its historical significance. The town sustained some damage but was quickly repaired at the end of the war. It is a walled town with red-roofed houses and cobblestone streets which helps make it a stunning place to visit at Christmastime. If you are lucky you might get a sprinkling of snow on the rooftops.
Much of its Christmas charm comes from the fact that there are a number of wonderful Christmas shops in Rothenburg. Käthe Wohlfahrt headquarters are located here and they sell an extensive range of traditional German Christmas decorations. Their main shop in Rothenburg ob der Tauber is part Christmas Museum, part Christmas exhibition and part Christmas shop. It is a Christmas lovers paradise. It can be so overwhelming that you sometimes leave empty-handed because you just can’t decide what to buy. They also have another couple of shops in town.
Make sure to try out the famous schneeballs. They are not the light fluffy doughnut-like experience you expect when you see them but more like a pie crust cut into strips and rolled into a ball and deep-fried. They come in many different ways from powder sugar-coated to dipped in chocolate.
Rothenburg really is the ultimate Christmas experience. It is a lot less touristy than some of the larger markets and cities. There are no big-name brand stores but instead quaint little locally owned shops that are fun to poke around in. It really does serve up the perfect Christmas experience.
Stuttgart Christmas Market has it all. Great looking stalls selling a wide variety of decorations and local goods, excellent food, and a fun, festive atmosphere. It is big! Most big cities in Germany do have big markets but Stuttgart’s is one of the biggest and oldest in Germany.
It is more expansive than most big city markets spreading out over a larger area and not confined to the main squares. You can keep walking for what feels like hours without backtracking on yourself. It starts at the Schlossplatz and goes all the way to the Marketplatz taking in lots of smaller town squares, streets and alleys that are full of stalls. It is partly broken down into areas. There is the Finnish market, the antique market, the children’s market and so on but they all tend to run together and you just stroll from one area to the next.
I think Stuttgart would get the prize for the most elaborately decorated stalls. Each wooden stall is beautifully decorated around a theme with lots of attention to detail which keeps things unique and different. They have a competition where the public can vote for the most charming stall. I don’t know how you would pick, they are all charming!
Children especially enjoy the giant Advent Calendar at the Rathaus. The windows are covered up with numbers and decorated with lights. Festive pictures are revealed as the days pass and the numbers are removed. And of course, there is also an obligatory giant tree decorated in a million fairy lights there.
There are little markets dotted all over Vienna. The main market is in the Rathausplatz. With the stunning Rathaus as a backdrop, you couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting. Aside from the usual market stalls selling food and Christmas goodies, there is also a huge ice skating rink that snakes around among the trees. It is a great place for families. Some people complain that it is the most touristy one but even the locals will tell you they visit it at least once during the festive season. This is the place to buy hand-blown glass ornaments. They usually wrap them really well so you can put them in your suitcase.
Don’t miss the Arts & Crafts Market on Karlsplatz. There is usually lots to keep the children entertained and with the Karlskirche as a backdrop. It is a beautiful place to hang out for a bit with lots to do for Children. While you are there, try out the local Raclette Brot, crispy bread covered in melted cheese from the Alps.
If you are looking for a place to keep a group happy then Vienna is for you. Aside from the beautiful Christmas markets, there are great museums and galleries dotted all over the city. Last time we were there it snowed the whole time so we would spend time in between the markets ducking into wee galleries and funky shops to dry off before going back out into the snow for more glühwein and roasted chestnuts.
Colmar is like something out of a fairy tale. It is how you imagined Christmas should be when you were a child. It is a small town in the north-eastern French region of Alsace, close to the German border. Old town Colmar is often referred to as “Little Venice“ (la Petite Venise) and is crisscrossed with alleys, canals and bridges.
Technically there are around six Christmas markets in Colmar but they tend to run together and the whole town feels like one big festive market. The Children’s Market is a little separate and has rides and stalls geared to children. There are lots of activities throughout the advent period and if you are lucky and strike it right you will get to see Santa and boatloads of children moving up the canals holding lanterns and singing Christmas Carols.
You can base yourself in Colmar to take the train to other markets during the day including Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Basel (see below). Up until now, it has definitely been a cheaper option than staying in Strasbourg or Basel although as it becomes more popular that might change.
It is uncommon to see Basel on a list of must-see Christmas Markets, but it is a bit of a hidden gem. The markets are smaller than what most big cities offer but I think that is part of its charm. However, it is one of the largest and most festive in Switzerland. It is really two markets. One at Münsterplatz and one at Barfüsserplatz.
Münsterplatz is in front of the historic cathedral and is where you will find the obligatory giant Christmas tree. It has one of the nicest set up for children that I have come across. It is low key, authentic and relaxing. Children get to cook their own bread on a stick and cast Christmas decorations! While you are at Barfüsserplatz try out the delicious flammlachs – it is some of the best I have ever had. It is easy to find as you will see the salmon stacked up next to the open fire. I recommend getting it on potatoes.
The market at Barfüsserplatz is a bit more commercial but still has a nice cosy, festive feel. There are some fun little restaurants set up there and the usual market stalls selling everything from Christmas decorations to engraved Swiss Army Knives.
There are hundreds of markets all over Europe so these are just a few highlights. If you are looking for different itineraries be sure to come back tomorrow when we will offer up some good options that you can do by train. And please let us know what your favourite markets are!