Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but we think everyone should celebrate Europe's Christmas markets! Every city and town has one, in fact some places have more than one. They can be a great opportunity to buy yourself a little gift even if you've been naughty all year!
We have done extensive research among holiday travelers and had all the information double-checked by two independent elves. In all seriousness, what follows is our selection of 2018 Christmas markets around Europe. We ho-ho-hope to see you at one of these great locations!
A Festive Half-Dozen in Colmar, France
A quick hop from (say) Basel in Switzerland or (say) Freiburg in Germany, Colmar is in fact best known for being the wine capital of Alsace, a region likewise associated primarily with its vineyards. Colmar's most famous son is the sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, author of New York's Statue of Liberty. In addition to a museum devoted to his works, Bertholdi's statues can be seen all over Colmar. Having the good fortune to escape destruction in various wars, Colmar's stone-cobbled streets are well worth a stroll in any season. However, Christmas Markets bring this quaint French town to incredible, exuberant life. This year there will be as many as SIX markets, with the addition of a Gourmet Festival following Colmar's 2017 award for having the best Christmas Market in France, and the second best in Europe. With or without kids, single travelers or couples, you are sure to experience Christmas magic in Colmar.
Winter Wonders in Brussels, Belgium
Winter Wonders is a huge event in downtown Brussels, capital of Belgium and of the EU. The main site is of course the famous Grand-Place, however activities will be spread across the city center, from the Bourse and Place de la Monnaie to Place Sainte Catherine and Marche aux Poissons. The Christmas market with over 200 chalet-style stalls is just one element of this festival, which usually includes such attractions as ice skating, light shows and a Ferris wheel. There is in fact so much to see and do that guided tours exist (in English) and this would be our #2 recommendation for first-time visitors. You know that our #1 recommendation is an airport transfer!
Budapest Christmas Fair & Winter Festival
Hungary's capital is one of Europe's most underrated cities. The idyllic, sprawling metropolis by the Danube will reward even the most demanding visitor with such iconic sights as the Chain Bridge, the Matthias Church or the Fishermen's Bastion. The Inner City Christmas Fair and Winter Festival kicks off in early November. It's easy to find: follow Váci, the main shopping street, to Vörösmarty square. There are over 100 stands with entertainment such as light shows, folk dancing and live music. The Historicist building of the Café Gerbeaud, itself a major landmark quite apart from the magnificent pastry shop inside, plays a major part in the Christmas fair: its windows are a transformed into a giant Advent calendar, with a new display each day.
Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany
Drawing 2 million visitors each year, the "Fair of the Christ Child" begins two days prior to the first Sunday in Advent. More than a Christmas-themed event, it is an ancient celebration of life and an enthusiastic affirmation of the joys of human companionship. The solemn opening of the Christkindlesmarkt takes place in front of the 14th century Frauenkirche church (best known for the mechanical clock above the entrance.) The Christ Child, having won a careful selection process among local girls, wearing a tall crown and "angel wing" long golden sleeves, delivers her Prologue speech to a crowd of thousands, ending with the words:
You men and women, who were children once,
Be them again today, happy as children can be,
And now the Christ Child calls you to its market;
All who come are welcome indeed.
(In addition to meeting minimum height requirements, Christ child entrants must be 'free of giddiness,' a significant challenge for teenage girls.)
Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg, France
Often referred to as the Christmas Capital of Europe, Strasbourg strives to outdo itself with each year's Christ Child Market, a tradition started in the year 1570. This last entry in our guide is a somewhat over-the-top production, the Big One after which no other similar event can compare. The tree is 30 meters tall (100 feet), hotels are booked a year in advance, and each year there is a "partnering country." The 2018 is Finland, the home of Santa Claus, which you must agree is a highly appropriate choice. The Christkindelsmärik takes up 10 locations with over 300 stalls all told. The main site is the Place Kléber, the central square on Strasbourg's Large Island ("Grande Île"), which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988—the first such recognition of an entire city center. Once at the Kléber, make sure to visit Aubette Palace, whose interior decorations have been described as "the abstract Sistine Chapel."