One of my favorite things about celebrating Christmas in Europe is getting the opportunity to stroll through the Christmas markets! That and food, of course! I wrote a detailed guide on French holiday foods here. But I digress. What surprised me most when discussing Christmas markets with my fellow Americans was how little they actually knew about them. After thinking about it, I realized there is nothing like the European Christmas markets here in the US. Markets in general aren’t as common as they are in European cities either.
When I started talking about my plans for the upcoming winter holidays, people began asking me questions about the markets: what they looked like, how many existed, what was sold there… and it gave me the idea to write this article. I thought I could gather all the most frequently asked questions I receive about the Christmas markets in one place and give detailed answers complete with pictures. So, if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the European Christmas markets, here’s everything you need to know!
- How many Christmas markets are there?
- What is there to do at the markets?
- What is sold at the markets?
- Are the vendors local or artisans?
- When are the Christmas markets open?
- How much does it cost?
- What can you eat or drink at the market?
- How long does it take to visit each market?
- What is the best time to visit?
- Which markets are the best?
How many Christmas markets are there?
This is a question I get often, and it made me realize most people don’t understand just how deeply rooted in tradition the Christmas markets are. But to answer the question, they are everywhere: from small towns to large metropolitan areas. Most cities, big or small, have their own Christmas markets. Preschools and nursing homes even hold their own little markets as an end-of-the-year fundraiser. Children and residents sell their crafts to raise funds for their establishment.
To know if the small towns you plan to visit hold a Christmas market, check their website. I grew up in a rural area in Western Belgium just a few miles from the French border. The closest city, Mons, is about 20 minutes away. I never go home without paying a visit to Mons, the Doudou city. It’s small, but I love its quaint Christmas market and wandering its lit-up streets during the holiday seasons.
Thousands of Christmas markets of all sizes can be found across Europe in December, so no matter where you go, you’ll never be far from one.
DID YOU KNOW?The christmas markets originated in vienna and have been a central part of holiday tradition ever since. Every december beginning in the late XIIIth century, vienna held its krippenmarkt. nearly 100 years later, the first open-air german christmas market took place. markets initially took place near churches to encourage shoppers to attend and became more holiday-focused in the XVIth century when the tradition of christmas gift-giving began.
What is there to do at the markets?
If you aren’t into shopping, then you may wonder how is it much different than going to the mall? Well, it just is. First off, most markets showcase local businesses and artisans, giving shoppers an opportunity to meet business owners and try their products. The food is delicious, and the feeling magical! Christmas markets are typically set up as small villages of wooden chalets gathered around a focal point like an ice rink or a giant Christmas tree. The smell of cheese melting, onions sautéing, and waffles being cooked mixes in the cold air with the sound of Christmas music to create the jolliest of atmospheres.
Within the market itself, people mostly stroll, shop, and stop to eat or drink. On Friday evenings, young people like to meet up with friends after work and linger by the giant tree trunks table tops until late in the evening. But if you aren’t a night owl, know that most markets usually offer other activities including some for children in the afternoon and on the weekends. Photo props, ice skating rink, or even Santa visits are often part of the Christmas program at the markets.
What is sold at the markets?
A variety of items. Some holiday themed and some not. Some made by local artisans and some imported from China and sold at a higher price. If you look closely and ask the right questions, it’s quite easy to determine which ones are which. Some of my favorite items to shop for at the markets are souvenirs, practical items, and (you guessed it) food. Keep reading to find out more about the different foods found at the Christmas markets.
Larger markets like Liège’s or Cologne’s even split up their chalets into different areas based on what merchants have for sale. They may have an area dedicated to food and drinks, one to local products, one for holiday-themed items, etc… At the markets, you’ll find everything from leather work to handmade soaps. Some of the most popular items include wooden objects, house décor, jewelry, personalized gifts, or even collective nativity scene figurines. Unless the market is advertised as covering a specific theme, there is no real way to know what you will find for sale in the chalets, but that’s part of the magical surprise
Are the vendors local or artisans?
It depends. Usually you will find a mix of both at each market. Check out the website of the market you are wanting to visit for additional information. And if you aren’t sure, simply ask the vendor whether they make their products by hand. Many local artisans will gladly advertise their business and may even have business cards to hand out. These businesses are often encouraged to set up at the markets by the city council, and some (like bakers) make up to one third of their annual profit during the holiday season!
When are the Christmas markets open?
While some families in the US take down their Christmas tree the day after Christmas, Europeans celebrate the holiday season well into the new year. Most markets will welcome visitors from late November until early January, generally a week or two after Christmas. That is the case in Belgium, France, the UK, Austria, or even Estonia. German markets, however, usually close by December 23rd, so make sure you keep that in mind as you make travel plans.
How much does it cost?
Wandering the Christmas markets is free! There is no fee to enter; however, many Christmas markets now require a sanitary pass in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Each visitors must present it at the gate to be given access to the Christmas village or ice rink. Though each country has its own rules, the European certificate is given to those who are 1) fully vaccinated or 2) have a negative Covid-19 test result taken within 2-3 days or 3) have recovered from Covid in the last 5 months. Check the website of the Christmas market(s) you will be visiting for more details on entry requirements.
Though there is no entrance fee, if you’re like me, you’ll spend most of your money on food. It is nearly impossible to resist the fragrant waffles, hot chocolate, or gluhwein, but believe me when I tell you they are worth every penny!
What can you eat or drink at the market?
I have hyped the food so much already. You’re probably thinking there’s no way it’s that good! Well, yes, it is! Christmas market food IS. THE. BEST! There is something so special about stopping on a tree trunk to enjoy a fresh bratwurst as Christmas lights twinkle around you and Michael Bublé plays in the background. The food will warm your soul, and it feels especially great when you’ve been walking around in the crisp winter weather. Here are a few Christmas market foods you won’t want to miss!
- Tartiflette – This is Garrett’s favorite. Imagine a potato soup casserole, but better! Tartiflette consists of layers of sliced potatoes doused in cream, bacon bits, and gewey Reblochon cheese. It is cooked in giant cast iron skillets right in front of you, and just the smell will have you in foodie heaven.
- Bratwurst – The Germans do it best! This is a quick, on-the-go dinner you can grab and eat as you walk around the markets and the city. They often come in a freshly-baked baguette with sautéed onions and a sauce of your choice. We recommend mayonnaise. We know… Bold choice, but you’ll thank us later!
- Flammekueche – Flammekueche is a signature dish of Alsace. If you visit Strasbourg’s or Colmar’s Christmas markets, you HAVE to try one. They are thin-crust pies garnished with bacon, onions, and cream. At least that’s the original recipe. Many establishments offer variants of the classic flammekueche with additional toppings such as mushrooms or Reblochon cheese.
- Cheesy spaghuetti – Cheesy spaghuetti is awesome, but even more so is the way it is prepared. The noodles are swirled around in giant wheels of melting cheese. Additional toppings are available as well.
- Local dish – I highly recommend trying out local foods when traveling. Ask around to see what are some of the regional specialties, and you aren’t likely to be disappointed. For example, when we visited Liège’s market, we made sure to get a plate of Liège boulets (meatballs with sweet onion sauce), fries, and applesauce. It was perfect!
- Waffles – If you find yourself in Belgium, you have to try the waffles! The waffles you’ll find in the markets are typically Liège waffles. They are baked on an iron right in front of you and served warm. You can enjoy them plain or lathered with Nutella or Biscoff spread.
- Nougat – Nougat is very popular at the Christmas markets. Artisans set up their giant logs of various flavors, and the honey-based treat is sure to be a hit with any sweet tooth.
- Candy – You’ll find a variety of candy -often homemade- throughout the Christmas markets. Just trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with homemade macaroons, fine chocolate truffles (especially in Belgium), or fresh caramelized nuts!
- Hot Chocolate – The coolest thing about drinking hot chocolate is that you can do so without single-use plastic guilt. Most Christmas markets offer adorable souvenir cups or mugs that you can keep or return to get your deposit back. The price of the cup is usually about 1 euro while souvenir mugs can cost as much as 4 euros.
- Gluhwein – Gluhwein is without a doubt one of the most popular drinks at the Christmas markets! This warm red wine is sweet and spicy with predominant notes of citrus and always a crowd favorite!
How long does it take to visit each market?
This will depend on which market you are visiting. Some markets only take a few hours to explore while others like the Cologne Christmas markets could take several days. Generally speaking, a half-day is enough to dedicate to most medium-sized Christmas market like Mons’s, but I would suggest spending at least one full day to explore the rest of the city all dressed up in tinkling lights for the holiday season. Here are some of the most popular Christmas markets and the minimum amount of time to dedicate to each one:
- Liège – 1 full day
- Brussels – 1 full day
- London – 2 full days
- Strasbourg & Colmar – 3 full days for both
- Frankfurt – 2/3 full days
- Cologne – 2/3 full days
- Vienna – 2 full days
What is the best time to visit?
To avoid the crowds, I would recommend visiting on a weekday during the first two weeks of December. Friday nights and weekends get busy, especially the last week before Christmas. As for what time of day is best to explore the markets, I’m partial to late afternoon. The sun sets around 4:30pm in most European cities, so I would suggest arriving no later than 3pm. Twilight brings out the light displays while still giving enough daylight to notice the intricacies of each building’s architecture and décor. Twilight is also prime time for photography. If snapping pictures at the markets is something you are interested in doing, then late afternoons and early evenings will be your best bet! This will also give you the opportunity to witness the markets in both daylight and at night, which is equally magical!
Which markets are the best?
Now that you know all about the Christmas markets, you may wonder which ones are the best to visit. It’s difficult to say. I personally love the smaller markets and their quaint feel, but I did my best to narrow it down, so here are my top 5 recommendations if you are traveling specifically to enjoy the European Christmas markets.
- Cologne, Germany for its multiple setups around town and the amazing backdrop of the cathedral (Kölner Dom)
- London, United Kingdom for its ice rink by the Natural History Museum
- Strasbourg, France for its fairytale vibes
- Frankfurt, Germany for its food
- Prague, Czech Republic for its snowy background
If you’re like me, you may be the type of person who would rather travel to new places than revisit already familiar locations. However, it’s different with the Christmas markets. I wouldn’t mind visiting the same Christmas markets over and over again. The setup changes each year, and so do the decorations and vendors. Though I love to go to Mons, Bruges, or even Brussels year after year, Budapest’s and Tallinn’s Christmas markets are high on my list for future visits!
I hope this article answered all the questions you had about the Christmas markets, but if I missed any, please leave them in the comment section below!
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