6 Best Christmas Markets in Western Europe for Your December Family Vacation
As winter’s chill descends upon the Northern hemisphere, a magical transformation sweeps through the cobbled streets and historic squares of Europe. Fairytale dust is sprinkled from the rooftops, and the scent of roasted chestnuts and spiced mulled wine wafts through the frosty breeze.
It is the season of enchantment across the Christmas markets in Europe, where centuries-old traditions come to life amidst twinkling lights and festive atmosphere. So bundle up in your cosiest scarves and mittens, and let’s embark on a Yuletide adventure through 65 of Western Europe’s most enchanting Christmas markets, where the heartwarming magic of Christmas knows no bounds.
Christmas Markets in Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg Christmas Market
Dates: 23 Nov 2023 to 1 Jan 2024
What to Expect: Salzburg is one of the most charming destinations in Austria, originally being a Celtic settlement, known of course as the birthplace of one famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site with perfectly preserved mediaeval buildings.
If you want to find out if “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” then you should definitely visit this charming Austrian city, which grew in international fame as the location of ‘The Sound of Music’.
You can expect the Salzburg Christmas market stalls to look pretty much the same as they did back in the 15th century, with concerts daily at 5pm in front of the old cathedral, and Christmas carollers livening things up every Tuesday at 6pm. Make sure you take home a snow globe as a true Salzburg souvenir!
Must Try: Salzburg is renowned as one of the birthplaces of delectable strudels. Also try schnitzels, kasnocken (cheese dumplings), Salzburger Nockerl (soufflé dessert), Mozart balls (chocolate-dipped marzipan balls with pistachio and nougat filling).
Check Out: While you’re in Salzburg, you should definitely check out the picturesque Hallstatt Christmas market, situated on a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This elusive Christmas market only happens on one day a year - 8 December 2023 this year. Blink, and it’ll be gone! You can also take a day trip to the amazing natural glacier underground ice caves known as the Eisriesenwelt, which means “the world of ice giants”!
Christmas Markets in Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg Christmas Market
Dates: 24 Nov to 24 Dec 2023
What to Expect: Strasbourg presents the best of Alsatian Christmas festivities, with their Christmas markets being spread across ten locations around the city, all within walking distance. No wonder Strasbourg has the reputation of being “the Capital of Christmas''!
Here are four Christmas markets worth visiting in particular:
Place Kleber Square - The majestic 30m high Christmas tree, a symbol of Alsatian tradition that goes back five centuries, is bathed in illumination, and there are also light shows in the evenings.
The Christkindelsmärik (market of the baby Jesus) has been held here since 1570. In the evenings, expect a giant animated light projection onto the City Hall with snowflakes and other Christmas magic.
The Place de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg market right next to Notre Dame de Strasbourg lights up at night, and you can even go inside the cathedral to view their incredible nativity scene and astronomical clock.
Village d’Advent - Located in the heart of Petite France, you’ll adore the advent decor, chalet booths, magnificent bridges and canals. They also host workshops and shows specially for kids. Their After Christmas Village even extends the Christmas magic from 26 Dec 2023 till 1 Jan 2024.
Must-Try: Alsatian food specialities such as flammekueche (crispy pizza), Bredele cookies, truffles, foie gras, choucroute (sauerkraut dish), tartiflette, bretzel (French pretzels), kougelhopf (domed cake with raisins and almonds), Alsatian wine, craft beers.
Christmas Markets in Zurich, Switzerland
Zurich Christmas Market (Christkindlimarkt)
Dates: 24 Nov to 23 Dec 2023
What to Expect: Zurich is home to many Christmas markets, but it’s also home to a glittering canopy of lights affectionately named Lucy! Lucy is made up of more than 12,000 lights that line up Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main shopping street, and the light up ceremony is worth catching at precisely 6pm every day.
The Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Main Station has a completely different atmosphere as it’s set up in a train station itself. Just step out of the train and you’ll be greeted to a most spectacular Christmas tree decked out in more than 6,000 Swarovski crystals! To light up the tree, visitors are invited to generate energy by pedalling electric bikes.
The Christmas market most worth visiting is the Zurich Christmas Village or Wienachtsdorf at Sechseläutenplatz in Bellevue. With its scenic location near to Lake Zurich, right by the city’s grand opera house, you’ll find rustic wooden chalets in a village-like atmosphere, complete with a large skating rink, Bavarian curling, traditional carousel, and out-of-the-ordinary art and craft finds.
Must Try: Swiss specials such as glühwein (hot spiced mulled wine), glühmost (mulled apple juice), 65h cider steak (prepared for 65 hours), öpfelchüechli (apple fritters with custard), raclette (Swiss cheese on anything and everything), gommer cholera (vegetable pie), biberli (Swiss gingerbread).
Check Out: Christmas in Zurich is super fun for kids, with the magical Märlitram Christmas tram from the Bellevue stop. Only kids between the ages of 4 and 10 are allowed to board this special tram, where they get to listen to Christmas tales. Near to the Wienachtsdorf you’ll also find Bürkliplatz where kids get to experience traditional Swiss candle dipping and create their own unique candles.
Christmas Markets in Edinburgh, Scotland
iStock (istockphoto.com) Edinburgh Christmas Market
Dates: 17 Nov 2023 to 6 Jan 2024
What to Expect: Edinburgh’s Christmas markets at Princes Street Gardens and George Street have it all for the whole family: Santa’s Grotto, a hidden elves’ workshop, an open air skating rink, classic fairground rides we love, Christmas carousels, the 60m-high Star Flyer ride, the Big Wheel (ferris wheel), and even an interactive Christmas Tree Maze. Discover tartan accessories, knitwear, Scottish whisky and gin, and more.
The best part about visiting Edinburgh in the winter months is the way Christmas blends seamlessly into the Scots’ 3-day Hogmanay celebrations. Beginning on 29 Dec 2023, their annual Hogmanay Festival ushers in the new year with a Torchlight Procession through the streets of Edinburgh, a grand Street Party in the historical city centre, a Concert in the Garden, and spectacular fireworks.
Must Try: Traditional Scottish food like Haggis (with sheep’s offals), cullen skink (creamy soup), mince pies, Christmas shortbread, cranachan (sweet dessert with a dash of whisky), Scottish tablet (like fudge), hot toddy (Scottish classic whisky drink), mulled Irn-Bru.
Check Out: While in Edinburgh, check out their festive winter light trails happening in different places across the city. The Royal Botanic Gardens’ magical winter trail (16 Nov to 30 Dec) will feature sparkling tunnels, dancing reflections and street food vendors, while the Castle of Light trail (24 Nov to 3 Jan) will feature art lighting installations and projections that will illuminate the magnificent walls of Edinburgh Castle. The Edinburgh Zoo will also have a Christmas trail.
Christmas Market in Ostend, Belgium
Source: European Best Destinations Ostend Christmas Market
Dates: 1 Dec 2023 to 7 Jan 2024
What to Expect: There are plenty of Christmas markets in Belgium, but “Winter in the Park” in Ostend stands out the most for recreating the good old-fashioned ice skating experience, which is not always possible anymore.
Only during this special event, the pond in Leopold Park gets turned into a frozen ice skating rink to skate on, no matter if the weather permits it or not! Just the idea of skating in a park on a pond, surrounded by 200 beautifully decorated and brilliantly lit Christmas trees, under the heavens — what could beat that feeling?
Add to that the decorated wooden cabins surrounding the park toting all sorts of wares to warm the tummy, heart and soul, and an old school carousel, and you’ve got a cosy Christmas market that might be small in size but packs a punch in atmosphere.
Must Try: Absolutely Belgian things like chocolate pralines, French fries, Brussels waffles (rectangular light and fluffy, with toppings) and Liege waffles (round brioche batter with caramelised pearl sugar), all kinds of Belgian beer, and flavoured Jenever (This spirit comes in fruity, nutty, chocolatey, even cactus flavours!).
Check Out: The Belgian coast is home to many attractions that will keep the kids occupied, such as Plopsaland De Panne (kiddy theme park), Sea Life Blankenberge (marine aquarium), which are just about an hour away by train from Ostend in either direction.
Christmas Markets in Germany
Cologne Christmas Market (Cathedral)
Dates: 24 Nov to 23 Dec 2023
What to Expect: When people think of Christmas markets in Europe, the first go-to destination that comes to mind is probably Germany. And rightly so, Germany is home to a plethora of towering castles, intricate cathedrals and charming town squares that set up the perfect fairytale atmosphere for Christmas markets.
Our pick is Cologne, home to a Christmas market set against its gothic cathedral (Kölner Dom), waterfront markets along the Rhine River, Markt der Engel with its suspended twinkling lights like stars above you, weekend markets dedicated to mythical gnomes or pirates, Nikolausdorp (Saint Nicholas’s village) for the kids, and even events like Christmas Garden at the Zoo.
Must Try: Bratwurst (of course!), reibekuchen (potato pancakes), brezeln (pretzels), schäufele (smoked pork shoulder), käsespätzle (egg pasta with cheese), lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies), stollen (German fruitcake), glühwein, apfelwein (cider), drachenglut (fruity honied wine), eierpunsch (eggnog), and of course, the many varieties of German beer.
Bonus Christmas Market Feature: The first and only Christmas market hidden within the gorges of the hills of the Black Forest, the Ravenna Gorge Christmas Market in Germany is probably one of the most unique and adventurous markets you’ll ever visit. Happening only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 24 Nov and 17 Dec, you’ll have to take a train and shuttle bus to access this Christmas market that’s located at the base of a 40m railway viaduct that forms part of the Devil’s Valley Railway. This scene straight out of a postcard — twinkling lights set amidst natural Christmas trees against the sandstone arches of a rail crossing — easily makes this market the most picturesque one of all.
Ravenna Gorge Christmas Market
And there you go, 6 amazing Christmas markets in Western Europe to visit with your family, in no particular order! Which destination are you going to pick, and are you already counting down the days till Christmas is here? Don’t forget to pack warm especially for the outdoor Christmas markets, and to get your travel insurance early, 30 days in advance before you fly! Have a great ho-ho-ho-holiday!