There are places in this world that magnify the magical feeling of the holiday season, especially in Europe. Half-timbered houses dusted in snow, giant fir trees in every town square, and garland strung with lights around pop up shops certainly set the mood. But the best Christmas markets in Europe will have you believing that you’ve shrunk down in size to explore a winter wonderland inside one of those adorable miniature snowy village displays.
Christmas Markets Cruise Highlights
There are Christmas markets all over Europe during the month of December, from big cities to tiny villages. But if you’d like to explore more than one, cruising is definitely the best way to go. We took a Rhine Getaway Christmas Markets river cruise through Viking Cruises, and it is now something I want to make a tradition.
Get into the holiday spirit and take a peek below at our pics of the best Christmas markets in Europe and see why it’s our favorite place to travel for winter. Be tempted by our list of delicious Christmas market foods. Enjoy a highlight of some fun European holiday traditions and take note of our holiday travel packing tips at the very end of the post.
1 – SEE MORE THAN ONE MARKET, UNPACK ONLY ONCE!
The first time I traveled to Europe around the holidays was a short visit to Prague, and the jolly atmosphere centered around spiced wine, cinnamon-dusted chimney cakes, and handmade gifts had me hooked. I wanted to see more! Going on a Christmas Markets cruise added a bit of comfort and convenience as we could unpack just once, then wake up each morning to step off the boat into a new storybook-like village. Plus, there was the added charm of snuggling up in a blanket and sipping hot butter rum while cruising by medieval castles along the shoreline.
2 – TASTE DELICIOUS HOLIDAY COMFORT FOODS
Europe has plenty of delicious holiday comfort foods unique to the season. At the Christmas markets, you’ll find an abundance of savory meals smothered in cheese, like raclette (a swiss cheese that’s melted over an open fire and served with a side of potatoes), spätzle (a savory dish of egg noodles and cheese), and schupfnudel (a sort of German style gnocchi).
There’s also warm gingerbread cookies and giant chimney cakes meant for pulling apart and sharing. But my favorite thing about Christmas market foods is most definitely the glühwein, a spiced mulled wine that is made a little differently in each region and market. In fact, one of the fun things about visiting multiple Christmas markets is collecting their souvenir glühwein mug — from easy-to-travel plastic cups to more elaborate ceramic.
(In the mood for glühwein? You make make something similar at home with this Holiday Sangria Recipe)
3 – EXPERIENCE EUROPEAN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
One of the fun things about traveling to Europe during the holidays is experiencing Christmas traditions not widely celebrated throughout the United States.
- Krampus — The story of Krampus is one I first heard about when asking one of our tour guides why there were foil-wrapped Christmas chocolate devils being sold. Krampus is goat-like demon-looking creature that inspires kids to be good. In some countries, on St Nicolas Day, a trio of costumed adults will go door-to-door around a village dressed as St Nicolas, Krampus, and an Angel. The children are given a piece of candy or other treat if their parents tell the trio that they’ve been good, and the masked trio will receive schnapps or some other libation in return.
- St Nicholas — The inspiration for Santa Claus, St Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th (the 5th in the Netherlands). As mentioned above, St Nicolas sometimes travels with friends, but during our Viking Cruise, we were encouraged to leave a shoe outside our door at night, and the next morning we woke up to find chocolates inside.
- Epiphany Witch — In addition to Krampus, there’s another European Christmas figure that reminded me more of Halloween — the Epiphany Witch. After seeing witch decorations around the Christmas markets, I learned that the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated a little differently in each country. In France, there’s shared cakes and sweets between Christmas and Epiphany Day. In Italy, a good witch named Befana brings additional treats to children after Christmas. And in the United States this additional festivity coincides with Three Kings Day.
PACKING & TRAVEL TIPS FOR VISITING CHRISTMAS MARKETS
When thinking of packing to visit the Christmas markets in Europe, you’ll definitely need to keep the weather in mind. Pack thin long-sleeved shirts, thicker sweaters, and a good coat so you’ll have layers for all weather. Also, be sure to take that coat in your carry-on luggage (or carry it by hand) just in case your luggage gets lost or delayed. (My husband, Pete, learned this lesson the hard way). Comfy walking shoes that can give you some stability on brick streets are a must. Also be sure to leave extra room in your suitcase for bringing home gifts, or pack a large empty foldable bag that you can fill with gifts you purchase in the markets and bring back home as a carry on.
Two other big tips I’d give is to use your ATM to withdrawal Euros to have some cash for purchasing food and smaller items in the Christmas Markets. Your bank is going to give you the best exchange rate and have the lowest fee, as compared to exchanging money at the airport. And if you plan to send postcards home, you’ll need to remember to mail them from the country you bought the stamps in. Even though the Euro is the common currency through most of Europe, postage stamps are different in each county.
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