Celebrating the time before the holidays, getting into the festive mood, and enjoying the seasonal markets and traditional foods are without a doubt best done in Europe.
Not only do most towns and cities offer several Christmas markets, usually open starting at the end of November, there are even atmospheric river cruises that take you from one market to the next. The cities have beautiful light displays and unique experiences across the continent, while unique workshops and stores offer handcrafted, traditional ornaments for your tree or house décor.
But while you can find Christmas cheer across Europe, there are some places that truly pull out all the stops and do the entire season a little better. Choosing which ones to recommend to you, though, is hard.
I am a holiday-season enthusiast. “The more (warm yellow) twinkling lights, the better,” is my motto. Plus, I am a winter person who loves nothing better than dressing warmly, heading out wandering around markets — preferably in the snow — stomping through decorated streets, and pausing regularly to try out traditional foods. And, of course, I love adding a regular dose of mulled wine to keep me warm.
I have been traveling for a pre-Christmas treat every year for as long as I can remember and I always try to head to some new places to see how they celebrate. I love the holiday season in places such as New York City, or even Dubai, but Europe is still my all-time favorite place for festive travel.
So, here I have collected 10 European towns and cities, in no particular order, that I have visited and would love to visit again during the pre-holiday season. I also included places I would travel to at the drop of a hat, if only it was possible. I love each place for different reasons and can hopefully inspire you to try these magical destinations for a festive fix.
10 Most Festive Christmas Cities In Europe
1. Strasbourg, France
Yes, I am starting with the clichéd “Christmas capital of Europe” — if not the world. Strasbourg is mentioned in every seasonal travel round-up, in every publication of every country, and is always called the Christmas capital. But you know what? It is because it is simply the most magical destination for Christmas.
Strasbourg is a lovely city at any time of the year with its scenic Petite France quarter, imposing cathedral, and half-timbered houses set along cobbled streets. And this city knows what’s at stake when it comes to the Christmas season because it cannot let down the thousands of excited visitors every year. Never have I seen so many decorations, lights, and markets. Around every corner there is something else to discover, from the tall tree on Place Kleber to the food stalls by the cathedral. It gets busy and at times you even have to wait in line for your mulled wine, but it is still worth it and definitely one of the best places to soak up the incredible festive atmosphere.
The main market, the so-called Christkindlmärik, is promoted as the oldest festive market in Europe, dating to 1570, with a few contenders of similar age dotted throughout Germany. The fabulous mix of French and German treats cover food cravings that reach from cheesy potatoes and baguette flambée to sausages and Sauerkraut. Add warm mulled wine, spiced beer, and Alsatian wines and you’ll be eating and drinking all day long. To learn a bit about the checkered history of Strasbourg — which has changed hands between Germany and France a few times and resulted in the bilingual street signs and mix of cuisine — why not get a local guide to show you all the best treats in the various markets?
In 2023, the Strasbourg markets all open on November 24 and stay open until Christmas Eve.
2. Nuremberg, Germany
Germany is famous for its Christmas markets. I would definitely go as far as saying it does the best markets during the holiday season, period. Fly over Germany in winter at night and you will see so many sparkling trees in gardens and town squares, making the magic begin before you even touch down. But there are Christmas markets and then there is the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt — one that needs to be visited at least once in a lifetime. The medieval city center of Nuremberg is a lovely sight to behold at any time of the year, just like all the other towns and cities mentioned here, but during the pre-holiday season, it is something else.
The Christkindlemarkt is translated as “Christ Child market” with — according to local tradition — the child being not a little baby boy but a girl with wings. It is filled with history, being one of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany, dating to the mid-1500s, that is still palpable today.
The main market is usually opened by the Christ Child herself on the first day of Advent. She does make regular appearances on weekends at the main church, the Frauenkirche, and the Rathaus — the town hall. The market square, lined by medieval buildings each prettier than the next, is filled with some 200-odd wooden huts, all either selling beautifully crafted traditional ornaments or food and drink. Most famously, the Nuremberg Market is all about Rostbratwürstchen — little grilled sausages that come in threes because of their manageable size. Although, three is never enough. There are also the typical Lebkuchen (spiced gingerbread) and, of course, mulled wine.
3. Hamburg, Germany
This year, you’ll find me in Hamburg during the pre-Christmas period. It is my hometown and I might be slightly biased towards its Christmas festivities, but it is a great place brimming with seasonal atmosphere. Hamburg is a city full of water: three rivers, two lakes, countless canals, and somewhere between 2,300 and 2,500 bridges. Imagine all of these bodies of water reflecting the fairy lights strung up everywhere. Add a glittering tree in the smaller lake, right in the city center, and you get the idea.
Streets such as the Neuer Wall — the chic shopping street filled with covered arcades — and the Jungfernstieg are beautifully decorated and lead to the best spot in the city, the Rathausmarkt town square. Here, you have the traditional market and the entire square filled with wooden chalets selling handcrafted baubles, candles, and other seasonal décor. There is one food stall snuggled up to the next, selling anything and everything from grilled sausages, enormous frying pans full of garlicky mushrooms, Kartoffelpuffer (which is a sort of Rósti), grated and fried potatoes made into a cake and served with applesauce, and traditional German Christmas cookies and sweets. And everything is held together with glühwein — the spiced, warm wine.
And like most German Christmas markets, the mulled wine is served in mugs that you can either hand back to the vendor to retrieve your deposit or take it home as a souvenir. I still use a little blue mug decorated with a Christmas scene and “Hamburg Christmas Market” written on it many years after I first took it home with me. The market on the town hall square is open until December 23, 2023.
4. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is a truly enchanting little town. The old, medieval center is completely surrounded by a sturdy wall, whose ramparts you can climb, walk around, and look out over the festively lit assortment of buildings. The narrow lanes down below are lined with colorful, crooked, and often half-timbered houses dating back as far as the 13th century.
The market square is adorable any time of the year. But at Christmas, it proudly presents a huge Christmas tree right in the center of the square, and around it, there are lots of little wooden huts selling local food specialties and glögi — the Estonian version of mulled wine. But, even more importantly, there are so many stalls and shops in town that sell the cutest little Estonian Christmas gnomes. According to legend, these little gnomes — with their red hats, bulbous noses, and often fluffy white beards — bring well-behaved children presents throughout the Advent season in Estonia. And they make the most precious little souvenirs as they come in all sizes, shapes, and forms, from soft toys to wooden figurines and hanging ornaments to porcelain sculptures.
After eating, drinking, and shopping, there is a small ice rink within the city walls with an atmospheric backdrop for working off the extra calories. Or, indeed, you can head to the gingerbread exhibition, where you cannot only sample but also marvel at the many things you can create from gingerbread.
The market tends to stay open until the end of the first week in January, so you can visit for an après season break. If you find yourself in Tallinn over the Christmas holiday, be prepared to eat a lot. Traditionally, seven to 12 different dishes are served on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, depending on personal preference. Make sure you leave some space and book yourself into a nice hotel with a good restaurant and preferably a big open fireplace. May I recommend the Hotel Telegraaf? It’s right in the heart of the old town, steps from the market, and it’s cozy and comfortable with a superb in-house restaurant.
5. Helsinki, Finland
In the winter season, 2 years ago, I went to Tallinn. I also went to Helsinki because it is so close by and it seemed a shame not to combine the two cities. You can simply hop on the ferry across the Baltic Sea, a brief 2-hour sail with several crossings each day. It is a comfortable and easy way to see the two capitals, especially as they are both perfect seasonal destinations.
Helsinki is a gorgeous city with some marvelous architecture, old and new; the entire city seems heavily into design and décor. And at Christmas, they like their twinkling lights. For once, it is actually an advantage to be far north, where little daylight reaches the people during winter, because you’ll get to see the fairy lights practically all day long.
For the best first impression, head down to the South Harbor, right at the end of the Esplanadi, a pedestrianized route filled with parkland, cafés, and twinkling lights. The little harbor and the historic three-mast sailboat are brimming with lights. There is a small Christmas market alongside the harbor with many stalls selling the loveliest and warmest gloves and mittens, which you will most likely need as it gets chilly here. Also on sale are plenty of cute reindeer ornaments making for nice souvenirs.
Pop into the Old Market Hall just steps away where you get plenty of local delicacies, from reindeer chips to local cheeses and warming brews. Then it’s back to Esplanadi, turning right to the Senate Square, where the city’s largest Christmas tree nearly hides the Helsinki Cathedral. Stalls, stores, and cafés all sell plenty of mulled wine and local candy. Try the salty liquorice; it’s quite interesting and good food.
And, talking about good food, the gorgeous Restaurant Kappeli, right in the middle of the Esplanadi, is perfect for all times of the day. They serve good coffee and their lunch and afternoon cakes are perfect, but my personal favorite is dinner in the shimmering glass building filled with twinkling lights. It makes you feel as if you are sitting inside a pretty ornament. And their reindeer steak is absolutely delicious: lean, tasty, and sustainable.
6. Reims, France
Christmas and the colder season as a whole are more so about hot chocolate and mulled wine, but when in Reims… This city, after all, is the capital of France’s Champagne region. As you drive along the highway from Paris, even the service stations along the way stock shelves packed with the regional produce — Champagne. So, it is not too surprising that there are champagne tents in the Reims Christmas Market.
And that is why I include Reims here, because I have a bit of a champagne problem, as my husband would put it nicely. I have never been known to say no to an offer of a flute of champagne, even at 6 a.m. Reims was my local Christmas market when I lived in Paris for a few years. It is less than an hour’s drive away; 1 hour and 20 minutes on the train. Once you’re in the heart of the old city, the magic begins with few but elegant lights strung across the main streets, stores with beautiful displays in their vitrines, and cafés with trees in the windows offering both mulled wine as well as champagne.
Head to the cathedral where all, or at least most, of France’s kings were crowned and you’ll find the traditional Christmas market huddled in its shadow. Some 140 or so wooden chalets, an inflatable snow globe, a picture-perfect little train, and many twinkling Christmas trees add to the atmosphere. You’ll also smell the tempting aromas of tartiflette — potatoes and bacon strips covered in melted cheese — that needs to be accompanied by warm wine, roasted chestnuts, and cinnamon-covered crepes, sausages, and much, much more.
Once done with the hearty and warming dishes, head for the champagne tent and opt for a more typically French Christmas dish. In France, seafood is king at Christmas. No Christmas market would be complete without oysters and foie gras. As luck would have it, these are best washed down with a glass or two of some local champagne. The Reims Christmas Market is open until Christmas Eve with parades throughout the day on the weekends.
7. York, England
When your parents-in-law live in North Yorkshire, then the old city of York is a must-see at every family visit over the holiday season. The tiny lanes, crooked buildings, and imposing York Minster all practically scream Christmas. There is even a Christmas ornament store, Käthe Wohlfahrt, that does business all months of the year. But once the alleys are decorated, the aroma of wine and cinnamon wafts through the streets. ANd when the lights are twinkling, you know you are in a great place for the holiday season.
The St. Nicholas Market’s Alpine chalets are dotted along Parliament Street and St. Sampson’s Square. Spilling over into the side lanes, the chalets offer superb food, seasonal arts and crafts, and an ambience that is so Christmassy, you’ll get into the mood immediately. The main market is open until December 22, 2023.
Just walking through the lanes with buildings overhanging and nearly forming a ceiling is wonderfully atmospheric. After all, The Shambles, one of the oldest streets, was the inspiration behind Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley and draws fans there throughout the year.
For kids of all ages, there is the Kirkgate Christmas Tale at the York Castle Museum, offering time travel back to a Victorian Christmas. And for the adults, the Festive Afternoon Tea complete with seasonal cocktails at The Grand Hotel is not to be missed. But should you need an extra nudge this year, why not visit the 60 Christmas trees decorated by local schools, charities, and businesses just outside York Minster?
8. Edinburgh, Scotland
It was last year that I was in Edinburgh for the first time before Christmas and it was beautiful. With its castle on the hill and the steep little lanes that quite literally inspired Harry Potter, Edinburgh is a gorgeous city all year round. But at Christmas time — and New Year’s for that matter — it really is the best place to be in Scotland.
To get that Christmas feeling, start at George Street, running parallel to Princes Street. Its trees are all twinkling and the shop windows are decorated beautifully. Book Afternoon Tea (well ahead of your visit) at The Dome, a former bank. Not only is the building gorgeous, the festive decorations amazing, and the food good, but it is the smell of Christmas that is too good to be true. They infuse the rooms with orange and cloves, and it smells heavenly throughout the building.
Then, head along the Christmas market on Princes Street. Yes, it gets busy, but the atmosphere is right. There is plenty of Scottish food from Stovies, a hearty stew; to Cullen Skink, soup with smoked fish; and Neeps and Tatties, warming vegetables — all washed down with mulled wine. There is even a stand selling German sausages and they are not bad at all.
After you have your fill and need to burn off a few thousand calories, walk up to the castle. The winding Cockburn Street, full of prettily decorated stores and beautiful old houses, takes you all the way to the Royal Mile. Here, the pretty lights are reflected in the cobbles, all set to the backdrop of the amazing castle.
And, you noticed I mentioned New Year’s in Edinburgh, which is quite a party: The Christmas market stays open until January 6, 2024, so you can kill two birds with one stone, or wrap two parties in one parcel, if you wish.
9. Tbilisi, Georgia
This is the holiday destination for those who love Christmas so much that they want to celebrate it twice. In Tbilisi, you can. This lovely city has been popular with visitors since the Silk Road days. Its Christmas markets and decorations go up roughly around December 20 to catch the Christian Christmas and last until roughly mid-January to cover the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. So, you can come before Christmas in December and stay until after Christmas in January. There will be plenty of stuff to keep you busy in between.
Check yourself into the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel, where I stayed, right on the main thoroughfare of Rustaveli Avenue, which could be right in the middle of Paris. The hotel is beautifully decorated, the avenue is spanned with light chains, there are light sculptures all along the street, and the nearby opera house and grand old buildings all have their windows decorated.
This is also the street where the main Christmas market takes place. It’s filled with stalls selling food — they love their cheese in Georgia — plenty of mulled wine, and strangely enough, lots of candy floss in rather bright neon colors. The large tree stands in front of the Parliament Building and the market stretches all along to Liberty Square, where the fun continues.
Meander down to Orbeliani Square, a place surrounded by cafés and restaurants where a Christmas Village opens every year. Experience regular Santa parades as well as seasonal concerts, marching bands, and a great atmosphere. But please note that these festivities tend to take place in the beginning of January rather than in December, fitting in with the Georgian Christmas dates. And with so many restaurants around, you can pop in somewhere to warm up in between strolling around the city. Don’t miss the Wine Museum where you can not only learn about Georgia’s extensive wine history, but also do some sampling, all within the setting on an old caravanserai decorated for the holidays.
10. London, England
Although I promised not to have favorites, outside of Germany, London is my favorite festive destination. During the holiday season, my first stop is always Regent Street. I try to get out of the Underground at Oxford Circus, have a quick glance down Oxford Street to appreciate those lights, and then meander down Regent Street. The lights — twinkling angels strung across the grand street — are all I need to get into the holiday spirit no matter how Scrooge-y I might have been feeling before. A quick sidestep to Carnaby Street on one side and along to the Burlington Arcade on the other and I am positively bursting with Christmas cheer by then.
One of the most festive places within central London is Covent Garden, the former market reinvented as small individual stores and restaurants within the old setting, and always beautifully decorated for the holidays. Nearby, for those Instagram photos, the light tunnel filling Conduit Court off Long Acre might be there all year round, but it fits in perfectly with the Christmas decorations.
One of my absolute favorite spots, which few people know about, is St. Christopher’s Place. A tiny, tiny alleyway leads off Oxford Street, just about opposite the Bond Street Tube station, next to 360 Oxford Street. Head through and you arrive on a tiny street filled with Christmas decorations and lovely boutiques and little cafés. Then, pop out at the other end on Wigmore Street, steps away from Marylebone, a neighborhood offering superb Christmas shopping.
Then there is, of course, the other side of the Thames, where you’ll find plenty of markets. In the morning, head to Borough Market filled with traditional foods, and at night, walk down Southbank with its traditional Christmas market stalls and great views across the London skyline.
If you are bringing the grandkids, try out the annual extravaganza that is Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, a mix of a traditional festive market and fairground.
So, which one is now at the top of your list? All these destinations have been tried and tested by me, and I could still not tell you, even after revisiting them all in my mind for this story. The lights of London, the foods and traditional ornaments of Germany, the setting of York, and a bit of Tallinn thrown in with a sprinkling of Helsinki can all make your holiday a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I suppose you better start planning the next few holiday seasons and try to get to a few different places while in Europe. Whether it’s a cruise or a grand tour of Christmas markets, it is so easy to travel through Europe and tick a few favorites off the list.