Discovering Christmas Markets in Central Europe
After traveling through Southeast Asia for several weeks, I ended my world tour in Europe. As a child, I remember watching movies that reflected Christmas across various cities in the world and I always wanted to experience the Christmas spirit in Europe.
I first landed in Milan, Italy and spent a couple of days there to get acclimated to the weather and time zone. I then journeyed east, north, west, and south in a counter-clockwise route. My journey began in Ljubjiana, Slovenia and concluded in Milan, Italy. I came across some of the most fantastic Christmas markets. Below is a complete list in the order I visited them:
Christmas Market # 1 - Ljubjiana, Slovenia
I wasn't too excited about visiting Slovenia but it was actually on my way to central Europe so I decided to visit anyways. I am glad I chose to visit this city because it was a good introduction to Christmas markets and celebrations in Europe. This city has a small town feel and there were not too many tourists visiting. I was able to meet and interact with mostly locals and this was special to me because it allowed me to really see the culture and enjoy the city and the markets rather than spending my energy in fighting tourist crowds and looking for places for photos. I spent my days drinking hot chocolate and trying several local Slovenian pastries. I also got to visits Ljubjiana castle. If you are thinking on doing a multi-city Europe trip during this time of the year I definitely encourage you to add Ljubjiana for 1 day or 2. It is more than enough time to see this charming city.
Christmas Market # 2 - Zagreb, Croatia
I took a bus from Ljubjiana to Zagreb with FlixBus: Bus travel through Europe. I will say that although Zagreb is a much larger city than Ljubjiana, it still had a small town feel to me. I rented an apartment in the city center that overlooked the city square.
I would say that the highlight of the Christmas markets in Zagreb to me was the vibe. There were fantastic music bands playing every day and every night. It also seemed to be a younger crowd. Local food was good also. Although I was surprised to see a big Italian influence in Croatian cuisine. If you have two or more weeks to visit Central Europe's markets, then I suggest a quick stop over in Zagreb. If you have the opportunity to go see a ballet performance I suggest that here as well. It will be much more affordable than Vienna or Prague.
Christmas Market # 3 - Budapest, Hungary
If I must give it a rating... Budapest's Christmas markets take the cake! 10/10! I arrived to Hungary worried that I had booked 3 days in this cold city. What was I going to do in 3 long days there? It didn't take long before I changed my mind. It happened after I visited the first Christmas market near the Opera house. Thus far, the cities I had visited had Christmas markets mostly in the city center. Budapest on the other hand seemed to have them everywhere! I spent over EUR60 in just the first afternoon buying anything from Goulash (beef stew) to roasted duck, strudel, hot wine, chocolate pastries, etc.
Music played in the background at all times and the hours spent there felt like brief minutes. I loved everything about this city during this time of the year. Perhaps it was the food, the music, the classic opera house, the castles with surrounded by ice ranks and ice skaters, or the beautifully decorated Parliament. Something about this city had me enchanted! The best part of this city... it was budget friendly compared to others soon to be discussed.
Christmas Market # 4 - Warsaw, Poland
Let's talk about the Christmas spirit in a place that felt like the North Pole... Warsaw! It was only when I landed in Warsaw I started to question why did I chose to go there to begin with, I wasn't completely prepared for this type of cold -10° C or 15° F. To be honest, my first choice was Krakow; however, due to the fact that I was limited on time and it took too long to travel there I opted to visit Warsaw. It was also a much more affordable flight from Budapest.
Although I really enjoyed my stay in Warsaw, and I met really nice people, I really would recommend to anyone interested on visiting Christmas markets to head over to Krakow instead. I did get to experience a couple of small shops in the city center but nothing like the Christmas markets that I had previously seen in the past three cities. I did enjoy walking through the city center and discovering small shops. I also fell in love with Polish dumplings. If you have never tried these, it's a must!
Christmas Market # 5 - Prague, Czech Republic
Ohh Prague.... Where do I begin!
Prague is simply an enchanting city. Although it is a large city, it feels smaller than it is because it is full of beautiful buildings and landmarks. The architecture is so magnificent and it seems like every building there has some type of story or purpose.
I'm going to be honest with you in this post... If I think of Christmas in Europe I think of nothing else but Prague. I will say that although it offers a large selection of Christmas markets, they were not superior to those in Budapest; however, the whole city was magical. I mean, it felt like that is what Christmas should look like. Christmas lights and colors decorating the city, horse carriages all over the city, the smell of hot cider in every street, and the lovely sound of the violins in every corner. My biggest mistake was that I only spent two days in Prague and this was not enough time to experience this beautiful city. As I walked back to my 2 bedroom flat, it began to snow lightly, It couldn't be any more perfect!
Christmas Market # 6 - Vienna, Austria
Vienna's markets definitely compete with Budapest. This city is BIG on making it a point that they have he BEST Chrismas markets. I will say that they may actually have the largest markets that I say in all 10 cities; however, not the most diverse. The most diverse were in Budapest. Vienna's markets are also targeted towards a higher end crowd. You will find exotic dishes and a wider vine selection. You will also find a a lot of high end products and souvenirs in these markets.
This city to me also holds a special place in my heart. Much like Prague, I was attracted to this city because of it's rich musical history and culture. It is the home most of the great composers and musicians of the Classical and Romantic eras... Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Strauss to name a few. I attended a classical music concert and opera while in Vienna and I highly recommend this if you go to Vienna.
To me Vienna was more than just Christmas markets, it was the full experience of a thriving modern European city that has managed to keep it's sophistication and cultural charm. Vienna is a must visit if you want to experience Christmas in Europe.
Christmas Market # 7 - Munich, Germany
I took a bus from Bratislava, Slovakia to Munich. I will not discuss Slovakia in this post because although I found the Christmas markets to be nice, I felt that they wouldn't make it to the top of my list. Much like Vienna, Munich is a big city. The city hosts countless Christmas markets and most of them will be found near the city center. I enjoyed cold beer and many schnitzels and currywursts while visiting the markets. Food in Germany is much much richer so make sure you are prepared.
I also made a day trip to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle. There were small Christmas markets in the town next to the castle. I enjoyed these markets much more because the crowds were manageable and the food seemed much fresher. It felt like an original small German town and the views from the hills were spectacular! (see below photos).
Christmas Market # 8 - Zurich, Switzerland
My visit to Zurich was a short day trip. Given the cost of accommodation, food, etc. It made more sense to spend the night at a nearby city/country. I decided to spend the night in Lichtenstein, but before getting there I was able to see this wealthy city and enjoy a quick Christmas market meal, hot wine, and local Swiss fondue.
Although very remote, Lichtenstein was a very small and intimate town with a small Christmas market as well. The hotel where I stayed was situated in Triezenberg and was high on the mountains overlooking the Swiss Alps. There was a church and a Nativity right outside the hotel. If you rent a car in Europe I recommend stopping in Liechtenstein even if it's just for a few hours. You can visit Vaduz Castle or Liechtenstein Castle.
Christmas Market # 9 - San Marino, San Marino
San Marino sits high on the mountains of Eastern Italy. It is mostly known for its impressive Guaita Castle. Elevated at 740 meters (2,400 feet) above sea level. I'd say San Marino's markets offered some of the best food in the 10 markets mentioned in this post.
The most impressive thing about San Marino to me were the spectacular views from high above the mountains. The castle is perfectly suitable for a Christmasy story or fairytale. I recommend trying g local dishes such as the famous piadina's. I also recommend a visit to the Castello (castle) or even a quick tour in the tram.
Christmas Market # 10 - Milan, Italy
After traveling in Europe for several weeks it was time to wrap it up and return back home. You would think that I would have been tired of the Christmas markets; however, I really enjoyed every single one because each of them offered a small piece of the country/city that I visited. I concluded my journey in Milano.
I recommend a visit to the Christmas markets near the Navigli (water canals). I visited the Navigli when I first landed in Milan; however, the Christmas decorations were just beginning to be set up and from what I hear, it is beautiful.
My last few days were spent at the Duomo Di Milano and at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (there was an orchestra concert). I also enjoyed the last bit of Italian food that I could possibly fit in my stomach. I enjoyed local dishes such as: risotto and vitello alla Milanese as well as fast food type food like panzerotti and arancini (Check out LUINI - FORNO DAL 1888.). The last night I ended up sitting in a bench at a park right across Il Teatro La Scala watching a light projection show. it was the perfect way to end to my European adventure and my Christmas market hunt.
I departed Europe right before Christmas day. I was left with countless memories and a great life lesson: "All good things come to an end, but all great things live within us!"
This concludes the Christmas market list. I hope you enjoyed this post and that it can be helpful for our next Europe trip.