I have never gotten into as much of a Christmassy mood as I did when visiting these European Christmas markets - picture a light snowfall, steaming mugs of mulled wine, glittering lights, and Christmas decorations by the thousands. You can't get more Christmassy than that! Christmas can be a magical time of year around the world, but Europe seems to take it one notch further. Here are my 5 favourite places to get into the holiday spirit in Europe.
1. Munich, Germany
Munich's Christmas market is absolutely beautiful - set in the city's main square against the backdrop of city hall, you won't find a prettier urban Christmas market location. They say that Germany's Christmas markets are the very best, and Munich did not disappoint!
Munich can be reached via a quick train from Salzburg (tickets can be booked easily via the Trainline app). Otherwise, it's less than a two hour drive from either Stuttgart or Nuremberg.
To start your visit, walk down Kaufingerstrasse to Marienplatz, taking the time to stop at any stalls that pique your interest along the way. We found a place along Kaufingerstrasse that served rosé and white gluhwein, both uncommon finds! Keep in mind that most stalls will charge you a "pfand" (deposit) of a few euros when you order a beverage, which will be refunded to you upon returning the glasses (or not if you decide to hang onto a few as souvenirs).
Before you consume too many glasses of gluhwein (!!), make sure to stop head to St. Peter's Church to climb the tower - for only €3 you'll get an amazing view over Marienplatz and the Christmas market.
Another Christmas market in Munich worth checking out that's just a quick walk away from Marienplatz is the Christmas Village in the Kaiserhof of the Residenz. This market is set in the courtyard of Munich City Palace, and feels really cozy and magical.
2. Salzburg, Austria
The home of the Sound of Music puts on some pretty amazing Christmas markets, and its proximity to the mountains will quickly put you in a wintery mood. To get here, you can hop on a train from Munich (between 1.5 hours and 2.5 hours depending on your departure time), or from Innsbruck (just under 2 hours).
First up, make your way to Fortress funicular - for €12.90, you'll get a return ticket on the funicular and access to the Hohensalzburg Forstress, which dates back to 1077 and is the biggest fully preserved castle in Central Europe. And the best part of visiting around the holidays is... a little Christmas market pops up in the castle's courtyard! Stop by here for a snack and mulled wine while soaking in castle views.
To keep on with that wintery spirit, grab a taxi over to the Untersbergbahn, a cable car that will bring you to the top of the Untersberg mountain, which straddles the border between Germany and Austria. Otherwise, hop on the #25 bus, a cheaper option to get to the cable car from Salzburg (and more convenient for the return given there are unlikely to be taxis waiting around, especially in winter months). The views from the top are incredible and seeing snow immediately gets me in a Christmassy mood! Side note: I recommend wearing better footwear than I did.
Once the sun sets, make sure to walk down Getreidegasse to soak in the hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers and check out the beautiful lights. Next up, head towards the cathedral and the Salzburg Residence for the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt, the city's most popular market. If you're hungry, try raclette, a dish of melted cheese, potatoes and cured meats, washed down with a steamy mug of gluhwein. And make sure to walk around and get some shopping in - this market had the best decorations and Christmas knick knacks (cookie cutters, dog treats, etc.) of all the markets I'd visited.
To end the evening in a cozy Austrian way, head to the Augustiner Bräu brewery to taste local beers in a classic beer hall environment. Maybe not Christmassy per se, but will definitely get you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside :)
3. London, United Kingdom
There's a reason why one of the most loved Christmas movies of all time, Love Actually, was set in London. London knows how to do Christmas right - although Germany and France are normally crowned the kings of Christmas, I think London is a pretty strong contender.
To get here, grab a flight to one of London's many airports - Heathrow is the most common one for international flights, but you'll find that a lot of low cost fares go to Gatwick or Luton. If you can, snag a flight into London City - it's the closest to London itself so you'll avoid wasting too much time commuting. London is also connected to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam by the EuroStar train - way less of a hassle than flying!
The best thing about London at Christmas? The LIGHT DISPLAYS. They're everywhere and they're absolutely gorgeous. Do not miss checking out the lights at Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby and Covent Garden. Pop by the Ivy restaurant in Covent Garden - they've normally got a pretty cute door display around the holidays as well. Keep an eye out for other special things going on in Covent Garden as well - this area is a hub for brand pop-ups and activations. Last year Tiffany put on an epic winter wonderland pop-up - so picturesque!
London is also home to some of the world's most amazing department stores, all of which happen to put on amazing displays around the holidays - stop by Liberty (my favourite) for the picturesque view of the building from the outside, the ornaments (HEAVEN), their annual Christmas display inside and if you're up for it, high tea in their dining room. It's great and surprisingly one of the least expensive ones I've seen in London. Stop by Fortnum & Mason, checking out their holiday cookies and other treats, and last but definitely not least - Harrods.
Next up, check out the Christmas market on the South Bank. Set against the backdrop of the London Eye, the views from here can't be beat. Grab something to snack on and some mulled cider to keep you warm, and spend some time walking around.
Trying to stay on the north side of the Thames? Swing by the market at Leceister Square instead. There's another market (albeit smaller) at Trafalgar Square as well if you're in the mood to market hop.
If you're up for a full fledged meal, you cannot miss an opportunity to dine at 34 Mayfair around the holidays. They deck out their dining space with 14,000 ornaments (!!) and it's absolutely magical. And they have special holiday inspired cocktails - yes please! Make sure to book ahead as it's very popular.
Finally, a staple of London at Christmastime is Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland. Hyde Park turns into a magical Christmas village, featuring a German style beer garden, lots of rides and more. Unfortunately this won't be taking place in 2020 due to COVID-19 (similarly to all the other hopes and dreams I had for this year), but keep this one on your list for 2021.
4. Maastricht, Netherlands
Maastricht is located in the southernmost part of the Netherlands, sitting right next to the Belgian border, and is home to one of the best Christmas markets in the country. Plus, the entire city is decorated festively and immerses you in the holiday spirit. Its main Christmas market can be found at Vrijthof square, and is home to a large ferris wheel, dozens of market stalls and a skating rink. In 2020, the market will be open from November 27th through December 29th.
Maastricht is a 2h15 minute drive from Amsterdam, or just 1h22 from Brussels. It's also possible to get here by train from Amsterdam, although it'll take you a little longer - you're looking at roughly 3 hours and a half from the Amsterdam central station.
We stayed at the super trendy boutique hotel The Dutch, and just loved it. The décor is on point and fun touches around the room (like these mugs) make it a memorable place to stay.
To escape the cold, make sure to stop for lunch at the cozy Café De Knijnspiep for an onion soup and Belgian beers.
For dinner, head to Cafe Sjiek to sample typical Maastricht fare, like zuurvlees (a tangy stew) and bloedworst (blood sausage). It's a popular spot so expect to wait.
At the market itself, take some time to walk around and maybe even hop on a couple of the rides they have set up. Do not miss out on trying poffertjes, tiny pancakes served with a generous heaping of icing sugar.
One of the best things about the location of the Maastricht Christmas market is that Vrijthof square (where it's located) is lined with bars and restaurants with inviting terraces. Stop by one to have a nightcap or hot cup of tea and soak in the Christmassy vibes.
5. Hamburg, Germany
Hamburg's second largest city is home to a number of Christmas markets, the largest one taking place outside city hall. It's also home to the world's first erotic Christmas market (sounds weird, I know - read on to learn more).
To get to Hamburg, grab at taxi from the Hamburg Airport (roughly a 20 minute drive to the centre). Hamburg is also in proximity to a couple other big European cities - you can hop on a FlixBus from Copenhagen (5.5 hours), or drive from Amsterdam (4.5 hours).
For the aforementioned (very) alternative Christmas market experience, head to the Sankt Pauli district of Hamburg - this area is filled with bars, nightclubs, and the city's red light district... and their x-rated version of a Christmas market fits right in.
The mulled wine mugs are a little different than what you'd find at other Christmas markets, the stands sell a variety of "sexy" toys and baked goods, and there's even a tent where strip shows take place. Yup, different than your average Christmas market, but super fun and entertaining.
If you're looking for somewhere to stay, the Side Hotel has modern, minimalistic rooms and a great breakfast.
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