Nestled in the shadow of ancient cathedrals or in illuminated town squares, Europe’s bustling holiday markets offer a taste of Christmas through the ages. Of the hundreds of exceptional celebrations around Europe, we’ve selected these five festive destinations and their best markets.
Dazzling Lights at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens
Millions of dazzling Christmas lights at Copenhagen‘s historic Tivoli gardens illuminate Denmark’s most popular Christmas destination, with ice-skating on the lake, parades, carolers, fireworks displays and, of course, Santa Claus. For this year’s Russian theme, visitors explore a Russian city, starring a replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral complete with onion domes and carillon bells. The gardens also host the traditional Christmas market, with 70 half-timbered stalls offering local crafts and gifts. Warm up with an æbleskiver, a tender apple popover served with a steaming cup of spiced glögg.
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Details: Visit Tivoli; the Christmas market runs through December 23.
Festive Spirits in Germany’s Nüremberg
Around for a mere 380 Christmases, it’s not Germany’s oldest holiday market, but Nüremberg‘s Old World charm has secured its place as Europe’s most popular. It’s a sensory feast, as visitors mill around the cobbled square to the sound of live holiday music and the scent of mulled wine and Nürnberger bratwurst grilled in the open air. Sample the local lebkuchen, a honeyed gingerbread served at holiday time since the 14th century, or enjoy a carriage ride around the brilliantly trimmed Old Town.
Details: Visit Nüremberg Tourism; the Christmas market runs through December 24.
Handcrafted Gifts in France’s Strasbourg
They don’t call Strasbourg the Capital of Christmas for nothing: half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, a gothic Cathedral and garlands of lights set the mood for France’s oldest and best Christmas market. In fact, there are 12 markets scattered around this canal-traced city, each with its own distinct pleasures. Intricate handcrafted gifts, ornaments and nativity figures spill from glittering stalls at Place de la Cathédrale’s Marché de Noël and the ancient Christkindelsmärik at Place Broglie. Artisanal food stands at Place des Meuniers, proffer such delicacies as pain d’épices and hot spiced wine.
Details: Visit’s Strasbourg’s Capital of Christmas site for maps and information. The markets run through December 31.
Celebratory Flavors at the Old Viennese Christmas Market
The Magic of Advent market at Vienna’s sprawling Rathausplatz market is the epitome of Christmas splendor. Colorful wooden stalls offer handmade gifts, sweets of every kind, the scent of roasting chestnuts, and the traditional Austrian libation, hot brandied Weihnachtspunsch, all under a towering 90-foot Christmas tree. The city’s rich cultural heritage is vibrantly alive at the Old Viennese Christmas Market on Freyung, where choral music fills the air. Projected short films and photos enhance the enchantment of narrow cobbled lanes at the elegant Spittelberg market.
Details: Visit Vienna Tourism for information. The holiday markets run through December 24.
Christmas Carols and Ice Skating in London
The city of London becomes one sprawling market at Christmastime, with revelry on every corner—from sing-along concerts at St. Martins-in-the-Fields to a medieval Christmas celebration and ice-skating at the Tower of London. Regents and Oxford Streets’ famous lights displays put shoppers in the mood, and the historically minded can dine with Henry VIII and his new queen Catherine Howard at an authentic 1540 Christmas at Hampton Court Palace. Don’t miss the Christmas Nightmare tour led by Ebeneezer Scrooge, who explores the London tombs while expounding on characters from Christmases past.
Photo credit: courtesy Congress und Tourismus Zentrale Nuernberg / Uli Kowatsch