By Cordelia Solomon
Despite being overshadowed by its competitors and plagued by defining characteristics like grey skies and brutally low temperatures, winter is quite an enchanting season. Particularly in December, cities across the world embrace “the most wonderful time of the year” and transform into winter wonderlands.
Often centered around famed Christmas Markets -- a tradition that dates back centuries and represents a time of the past when villagers would come together to celebrate, indulge, and exchange gifts -- long winter nights are filled with cheer and twinkle with fairy-tale festiveness.
Here are our picks of the top five Christmas Markets to visit this holiday season!
Strasbourg, France | November 22 - December 30
Strasbourg takes its title of “Le Capital de Noël” or The Capital of Christmas seriously. With decorations dripping from its traditional white and black timber-framed buildings, cobblestone streets adorned in lights, and the smell of mulled wine wafting through the air, this city becomes nothing short of a picturesque wonderland and a feast for the senses during the holidays.
And, at the center of it all are its eleven Christmas markets, the oldest, and most famous being Christkindelmärik, which dates back to 1570. With over 300 stalls situated throughout the city you can’t help but feel cheery as your stroll through the streets of this magical winter town and experience the sounds and smells of the holiday season.
Strasbourg also offers two other unique experiences: the market at Place Gutenberg which is dedicated to a different country every year, and the elaborately decorated Great Christmas Tree, which at a minimum height of 30 meters, towers over and lights up Place Kleber.
Berlin, Germany | November 25 - December 31
With truly no bad time to visit, Germany’s capital city should be on everyone’s bucket list. During the final months of the year, however, Berlin turns into a a real-life fairytale. With 80 Christmas markets sprawled across the city’s neighborhoods, each with a different charm, there is no shortage of holiday cheer!
The Gendarmenmarkt is a can’t miss. The architectural splendor of Deutscher Dom and Französischer Dom, lit up for the season, tower over the that classic wooden huts and marquess decorated on theme, and creates a festive environment of the square. While this market is famous for its handcrafted and luxury gift stands, its evening concerts from jazz bands to holiday choirs are also spectacular.
Winterwelt market is another favorite. Beginning in early November, Patsdamer Platz transforms into a fantastical wonderland. It houses Europe’s largest toboggan, an ice rink, and endless food stalls serving traditional food like Bratwurst and mulled wine. With Christmas music playing throughout each day and DJ-hosted après ski parties in the evenings, this market knows how to celebrate the Advent season.
Vienna, Austria | November 15 – December 26
The old-world charm of Vienna makes it the perfect destination for festive markets and celebrations. The city held its first holiday market in 1298 and today is home to over 20.
Visit the Old Viennese Christmas Market and you’re sure to feel the city’s unique holiday atmosphere. As one of the most traditional markets still around today, locals and tourists alike wander through its corridors as snowflakes fall from the sky to admire the lights, breath in the scent of roasted chestnuts in the air, and enjoy Austrian sausages and holiday punch from one of the over 150 stalls.
Without losing its romance or nostalgia, the market has added some more modern activities in recent years including a curling rink, reindeer rides, and an ice-skating rink.
Prague, Czech Republic | November 30 – January 6
The Czech take their Christmas markets very seriously, and Prague has two notable ones: Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. Surrounded by stunning gothic architecture, these markets are filled with crafts, food stalls, and endless entertainment—including daily caroling and the famed tree lighting ceremony in the Old Town Square.
Grab a klobasa (Czech sausage) and a local Pilsner as you explore the markets’ charming stalls sprawled amongst sparking lights. The smell of freshly baked pastries penetrating throughout the crisp winter air makes it impossible to not indulge in at least one traditional Czech treat be it trdelnik, marlenka, or strudel.
The holiday season in the Czech Republic is rooted in several fascinating traditions and superstitions. Visiting Prague at Christmastime thus provides a unique cultural experience that goes beyond its markets and can’t be experienced any other time of year.
Budapest, Hungary | November 9 – January 1
The Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is its oldest and most popular festive market. Located in front of Budapest’s famed St. Stephen’s Basilica, the market’s 80+ stands offer everything from Christmas-themed gifts to local art to traditional Hungarian delights.
Deeply rooted in tradition, this market has two defining characteristics that still exist today—the exterior transformation of the famed Gebeaud Coffee House into a giant advent calendar and “lentil day.” The former is a sight to be seen with a magical window display that changes each year. The latter, which takes place on January 1, is a day where an assortment of lentil-based dishes are served as a symbol of luck an prosperity of the year ahead.
Budapest’s contemporary culture also shines through in this epic market. Entertainment ranges from classic folk dancing to flash mobs to live music to 3D light shows that shine on The Basilica’s façade.
Besides the twinkling lights and festive music, it’s the dichotomy between old and new that makes this Christmas market so special (and one of our favorites!)
*BONUS* - New York City
New York City is truly one of the most magical places in the world anytime of year, but there is really nowhere quite like it during the holidays. Bustling avenues transform into magical wonderlands with twinkling lights dripping from trees, street lamps dressed in wreaths, and an endless array of over-the-top window displays.
Bryant Park is home to the iconic Winter Village where visitors can explore the vast line-up of high-end holiday shops, take a free spin on its impeccable ice rink and enjoy a drink at the cozy rinkside bar. Just a bit further uptown is Central Park--a staple of any NYC visit--but especially enchanting in the winter when the aroma of chestnuts roasting wafts through the crisp air and music echoes around you.
Head to Rockefeller Center to admire the brightly lit and immaculately decorated Christmas Tree--a tradition that began over 80 years ago and has become an icon of Christmastime in NYC.
With no shortage of holiday-themed pop-up bars, NYC’s nightlife gets in on fun too! Check out the world famous Rolf’s or the yurt filled “Winter Garden” at The Standard East Village, or Mace’s Miracle on 9th for festive drink in cozy environment!