Europe does Christmas Markets so well that many of its big markets have a reputation beyond borders and across oceans that attract international crowds every winter. Just think about Nuremberg in Germany, Strasbourg in France, or Edinburgh in Scotland. However, while the big, famous markets are definitely worth a visit, there are also plenty of others people might well not have heard about that are superb. If you make the trek, chances are, you will not be surrounded by tourists when you enjoy your mulled wine.
Especially in continental Europe, Germany, and further east, Christmas markets can be found in every large city and even smaller towns. The traditional markets are a big deal here and are part of the cultural heritage and traditions, offering stalls with traditional foods and drinks, local handicrafts, and events for the entire family to enjoy around Christmas time.
I have listed some great places to visit during the holiday season where you can enjoy some superb Christmas markets in cities or even countries that you might never have thought of visiting before.
1. Kraków, Poland
The city of Kraków, as well as the country of Poland, are two often overlooked destinations that are well worth visiting. I want to mention the Kraków Christmas Market over the Warsaw markets because this is about the lesser-known markets, and the capital is always more likely to get more visitors than any other city. Located on Rynek Główny, the stunning Main Square, surrounded by gorgeous architecture, is the leading Christmas market. Not only can you buy plenty of traditional and handcrafted Christmas cribs and creches, which originated in Kraków, but you can also try many traditional foods here. From mulled wine to pierogi dumplings, from gorgeous poppyseed cake to borsch soup, you won’t go hungry.
Pro Tip: Get your meat fix before Christmas because in Poland the Christmas meal is traditionally meat-free in remembrance of the animals that were in the manger with baby Jesus.
2. Helsinki, Finland
Finland is always associated with Christmas because of the Santa Claus Village, but few think of Helsinki for a Christmas city break. The Finnish capital is magical at Christmas time with twinkle lights everywhere, the ships in the harbor decorated, and markets at every corner. The biggest market is located in Senate Square in front of Helsinki Cathedral. Complete with an enormous Christmas tree, small stalls selling local arts and crafts, many reindeer, elk mementos, and food involving reindeer and elk. It pays to overcome any squeamishness because reindeer is a wonderful, low-fat, tasty, and sustainable meat. There are little stalls next to the harbor basin and the historic indoor market nearby is also all decked out for Christmas.
Pro Tip: Catch two of my favorite Christmas destinations in one wash by hopping on the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. In just over a couple of hours, you’re there. With any luck, the Baltic is frozen, offering some stunning sights.
3. Prague, Czechia
For some reason, most people seem to visit Prague in the summer, when it is too hot and too crowded to truly appreciate the city. In winter, yes, you might have to dress a little warmer to enjoy a drink on the terraces, but if you make it a mulled wine, or indeed a warm, spiced beer, then you are onto a winner. There are plenty of Christmas markets on the city’s two sides, but the nicest is found on the Old Town Square, which is decorated and lit up festively with a large Christmas tree that stands proud in the center of the square. Head also to Wenceslas Square, where the second largest of Prague’s markets takes place.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to have a quick look at King Wenceslas riding his upside-down horse in the Lucerna Passage just off the square. This is a fun installation by local artist David Černý.
4. Tbilisi, Georgia
Last year I was in Tbilisi to get a little holiday fix and not only is the city simply wonderful, but it also allows you to enjoy Christmas twice. The Georgians celebrate Christmas on January 7, because of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but the non-orthodox celebrate on December 25. The main Christmas market starts on December 25 and stays open until January 14. So, you can easily have Christmas at home, or elsewhere, and then join the Georgian celebrations for an encore. The main Christmas market is set up along the wonderful Rustaveli Avenue, and the sidewalk is filled with lights, stalls, performances, and much cheer. Definitely worth visiting.
Pro Tip: Stay in the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel on Rustaveli Avenue for more decorations. Even if you are not staying there, make sure you pop in for a hot chocolate.
5. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, just across the Baltic from Helsinki, is one of my favorite places to visit for a bit of Christmas cheer. The old town is filled with higgledy-piggledy houses and cobbled streets. It usually snows. The Town Hall Square is so picturesque any time of the year with its unusually plain church but is especially quaint when it fills with little chalets. Unlike other Christmas markets in Europe, which open at the end of November and close either just before or shortly after Christmas, the Tallinn Christmas Market starts on the 25th, Christmas Day, and lasts until the first week of the New Year, making it perfect for an after-Christmas break.
Pro Tip: Buy yourself some of the cute little Christmas gnomes for sale throughout Tallinn at Christmas. They are noted for their big, round noses and red, pointy hats. They are adorable and always take pride in my house for Christmas.
6. Brno, Czechia
Brno is Czechia’s second city, but not on everybody’s radar. Yet here you will find wonderful old and colorful architecture, cobblestone streets, and inner city squares prettied up with lights and decorations and filled with stalls, chalets, and trees. The main square, Freedom Square, not only has the largest Christmas market but is also the place to catch special events, performances, concerts, and a fairground. The Cabbage Market focuses on hand-made crafts and traditional local products, while there is a life-sized nativity scene at Dominican Square, and Moravian Square has a large, heated marquee, a twinkling Ferris wheel, and a popular outdoor skating rink.
Pro Tip: If you are an architecture enthusiast, don’t miss a visit to Villa Tugendhat by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, just north of the city center.
7. Wrocław, Poland
Wrocław, which, incidentally, you pronounce something like vrot swarf, is a city on the banks of the Oder River, southwest of Poland. Over the centuries, influenced by the nearby Czech, German, and its own Polish culture, the Wrocław Christmas Market is delightful and a must-see for Christmas Market enthusiasts. My favorite bit on the vast market square is the gigantic, tiered pyramid, a replica of traditionally candle-powered turning carousel pyramids, which most Germans have as part of their Christmas decorations stock.
Pro Tip: Try the famous Oscypek, a traditional smoked cheese from Wroclaw, which you won’t find anywhere else.
8. York, United Kingdom
York at Christmas time is maybe not that unknown, but it is still a city that is not on the well-trodden path for winter visits to the United Kingdom, with most people enjoying London’s fabulous decorations and lights. I do not want to discourage anybody from staying in London for Christmas. The lights, especially in Regents Street, are my all-time favorites. However, when you’re there, why not hop on the train from King’s Cross? In less than two hours you are in the center of York and can start to get that true Christmas feeling that is often lacking in larger cities. Head to the St Nicholas Market’s wooden chalets that stand along Parliament Street and fill St. Sampson’s Square, spilling over into the tiny side alleyways. There is food galore, from hot cinnamon donuts to German sausages, pulled pork with cranberry sauce, and more. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
Pro Tip: Make sure you stop at Bettys Tea Rooms and have the cinnamon toast. Pure heaven.
9. Radovljica, Slovenia
In the north of Slovenia, in the Julian Alps, little, medieval, and too pretty-for-words Radovljica is filled with buildings dating to the 16th century, and it turns into a magical Christmas wonderland in December. Usually covered in a blanket of snow, the celebrations start on St. Nicholas Weekend, around December 6, with the turning on of the Christmas lights on Linhart Square and the main Christmas stalls on Radol’ca Market. The celebrations last until December 29.
Pro Tip: To get a sense of the true spirit of Christmas, head to the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, which is not only a pretty Renaissance church but also a pilgrimage site and home of the Nativity Museum.
For more information on Christmas markets, check out these articles: