Christmas – the most wonderful time of the year – would not be complete without a visit to Europe’s best Christmas markets along the Danube. It’s the type of holiday getaway you need to take at least once in your life and will surely give you plenty of reasons to return over and over again.
The Christmas market season begins around mid-November each year and it’s the perfect opportunity to get out of your daily routine and dive into the Christmas spirit. One of my favourite ways to experience a variety of Christmas markets is by joining a Danube river cruise because who doesn’t love travelling by riverboat while celebrating the reason for the season?
Experiencing the sights and sounds of a European Christmas market is almost as good as purchasing handmade trinkets for your tree. If you’re lucky, new-fallen snow will crunch beneath your feet. Purchase a cup of glühwein to warm your hands, as well as your insides when the warm wine slides down your throat. At night, lights sparkle from a carousel creating a magical scene as spicy aromas waft from nearby food stalls. Who cares about the cold when there’s such a magical scene to explore? – Donna Hull, My Itchy Travel Feet
But what is all the fuss with Christmas markets anyway? While there’s no better way to find out than to actually go, picture this: church and children choirs singing Christmas carols against a backdrop of twinkling lights, with the sounds of friendly bartering carried through the crisp winter air. Add an irresistible variety of food and drink that complement each other in a symphony of aromas and you’ve got yourself one unforgettable adventure in the charming land of European Christmas markets!
1. Explore Nuremberg, Germany
Starting the list of German Christmas markets, one not-to-miss destination is the city of Nuremberg. With hundreds and hundreds of stalls taking over the whole center of the town and the surrounding streets, this is the largest Christmas market in Europe.
What To Eat
The first thing you want to do when you get to Nuremberg is get a taste of the city’s traditional sausages. For an authentic experience, go to the Original Nürnberger Röstla. The recipes are a few centuries old and, up until today, they have been made by local butchers, only with the freshest ingredients.
The next best thing about Nuremberg? The gingerbread! With a tradition of no less than 600 years, the famous Lebkuchen has stayed close to the hearts of children and adults alike, as the one sweet treat no one can ever get enough of. Should you be a first-timer on the lookout for an authentic taste, check out the Lebkuchen Schmidt boutique in the Nuremberg Christmas market.
I enjoy the aromas and tastes of the Christmas market food the most. There is a richness and warmth to the air and flavors that make every turned corner a fresh experience and always keep me coming back for more! – Christy Swagerty from What Up, Swags?
What To Buy
What would Christmas be without ornaments? Fortunately, you’ll never have to answer that question since visiting one of Europe’s best Christmas markets will give you tons of options to choose from. The one souvenir you cannot leave this city without is the traditional Rauschgoldengel.
The Zwetschgenmännle is not to be forgotten, either. A staple figurine in German culture, these cute handmade men are built out of prunes or almonds and have been a main attraction in the Nuremberg Christmas market for decades. Manufactured by the Schrödel family, they have managed to become a trademark in the world of Christmas markets.
2. Visit Regensburg, Germany
Smaller scale when compared to Nuremberg, the Regensburg Christmas market is just as charming and filled with new things to discover. A great amount of its charm is owed to the lively medieval spirit, which has secured the small town as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Every year, the Christmas market takes place in two main locations. The Thurn and Taxis Palace is one of the city’s most romantic locations. Knights on horses and princesses in carriages are heavy contributors to creating this unique atmosphere. While you are there, head to the Museums Cafe – grab a quick bite, or better yet, ask around for a tour of the castle and city. Bask in all the culture and spirit of this magical place!
The traditional Regensburg Christmas market is also held in Lucrezia Markt, a place filled with craftsmen and delicious food to try out. Get ready, as you are about to be blown away by fascinating handmade gifts such as dolls, ceramic items and ornaments made out of brown glass that will speak directly to your inner child.
“You have to eat this, there…”
If you consider yourself a true carnivore, the different varieties of smoked meats will most likely overwhelm you. You will need to pay a visit to Wurstkuchl, a restaurant with years of history behind specialized in serving homemade bratwurst, a traditional german sausage, along with a generous portion of mustard.
Tucked away in the back corner of the Thurn und Taxis Palace courtyard in Regensburg, is a basket weaver. The Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt was the last on my list of markets to research for my novel before flying home, but the moment I entered the grounds, it quickly became my favorite.
As you walk along the bough-lined winding pathways, you’ll feel like you’re in a small German town rather than on a palace grounds. The fences along the pathways shine from sparkling lights, the scents of spiced glühwein and sausage tempt you to linger and the soft sounds of musicians entice you to enjoy the moment.
If you are looking for that authentic German Christmas Market feel – this is the place where everything you’d imagined becomes real.
My favorite stall was the one where I met the basket weaver. The stall was covered with baskets and in the middle of them as the weaver, aged with time. A small group of children sat in front of him, completely enthralled not only by the way his hands moved but also by the story he told. Their faces were lit with smiles, his laughter infectious and in that moment, everything I’d hoped to experience came true. The magic of the markets, from the atmosphere to the memories came alive for me that night. If you have the chance to visit the market there, find the basket weaver and listen in to one of his stories. You won’t regret it! – Steena Holmes, author of the Finding Emma series.
3. Passau, Germany
What To Eat
An even smaller German Christmas market, but equally entertaining to attend, is located right in the front of Passau’s most outstanding baroque cathedral. Apart from the traditional sausages, this part of Germany will spoil your taste buds with a new culinary experience: the Sengzelten, a flatbread made out of rye and served with sour cream and ham or cheese. Baked right in front of you, you will get to love this steaming dish!
If you are up for a snack, you can grab a small packet of roasted almonds or chestnuts. Don’t forget about the gingerbread, though! Cafe Simon provides locals and tourists with some of the best varieties of Lebkuchen, so make sure you pin this to your German Christmas market bucket list!
What to Buy
Passau has a thriving wood industry so you can only imagine the variety of small wooden figurines and Christmas decorations that are everywhere. Get the ones which appeal the most to you and don’t forget to try the glühwein , the traditional hot mulled wine served in signature mugs you get to keep!
Everything about the ambiance was simply magical, from the stars twinkling in the trees to the bundled up children riding the carousel. Friends talked and laughed loudly over steaming mugs of glühwein, and it seemed like everyone had just gotten off of work. And most importantly, there were plenty of yummy things to eat and drink. – Ashley, Ashley Abroad
4. Vienna, Austria
Leaving behind the land of poets and thinkers, perhaps you might opt to relax on an enticing cruise through the land of music and end up right in Vienna, the capital of Austria. Vienna does it like no other when it comes to Christmas preparations.
The Christmas market has developed intensely in various parts of the city, but the two main locations are still Rathausplatz, the city hall, and the courtyard of the Schönbrunn Palace. The first one is the largest and is playfully decorated with lamps strewn through trees, while the fair that’s hosted in the palace’s courtyard boasts a huge Christmas tree at its centre. Either way, you cannot say you have experienced the Viennese Christmas market until you have visited both locations.
What to Drink
Since the city is surrounded by vineyards, you can imagine that the Viennese mulled wine is some of the very best in the world. However, if you are looking for a lighter drink, give the punsch a try! This beverage features a fruity aroma with a pinch of rum flavor. It is a traditional drink around Vienna and is even more popular than you would have thought.
What to Buy
Should you be looking to do some Christmas shopping for your loved ones back home and want to amaze them with an authentic Austrian souvenir, search for the pressed-tin decorations that are painted by hand. A true connoisseur will know to appreciate such a gift.
After gazing at all the wonders offered by the Vienna Christmas market, you will surely start to feel hungry. You could go for a quick snack – different varieties of mandel (almonds) and maroni (chestnuts) are to die for.
A more fulfilling meal is the famous Austrian Wurst. Immerse yourself completely into the Viennese experience and try out the best wurst in town at Wurstelstand.
The best thing about European Christmas Markets is that most of them have a long history some even date back to 1722, like the one in Vienna. A fact that one can see in many details. There are tons of traditions and special culinary treats like gingerbread or sausages. Also, some have old traditional carnival rides that are popular with kids. The best time to go there, is at sunset, when the night sets the scene in a special light. – Clemens Sehi, Anekdotique
5. Budapest, Hungary
The Danube course will take you further away to the Budapest Christmas market. Another must see on the European themed market list, Budapest has them all: delicious traditional food, catchy souvenirs, a wonderful atmosphere and friendly vendors to chat with.
What To Eat
Food and shopping go hand in hand here, so expect lots of stalls serving traditional food like stuffed cabbage with grilled sausages, or the famous kurtoskalacs, a sweet treat tourists often call chimney-bread. After being grilled in plain fire, this sweet wonder is rolled in cinnamon, coconut, almonds or cocoa. Talk about one fine dessert! Where can you find these goodies? Look for Molnar’s Kurtoskalacs boutique in the Vörösmarty Square, or visit them at their home in the city centre.
What to Buy
You can’t leave the Budapest Christmas market without taking at least one souvenir with you. As you will notice, there will be plenty of items available in other Christmas markets as well, but if you’re searching for something truly unique to this region, then the exquisite Hungarian ceramic and porcelain items carefully crafted by Zsolnay are a must.
If ceramics are not your ideal souvenir and you’re aiming for something that oozes elegance, the Ajka Crystal will certainly offer something to match your taste! The company holds over a century of tradition, creating superb handmade crystal decorations that will light up any room in your house.
If you’re looking for a magical holiday experience in an equally magical town, Budapest’s Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is a must-see! Held in the scenic plaza of Vörösmarty Square, you’re sure to experience the best of the Christmas season with the array of wooden stalls that provide the best culinary delights, mulled wine, beverages, and snacks that the city can offer! One thing that you should not miss out on are the open kitchens that serve traditional fare such as lepény and kürtös kalács. – Aileen, I Am Aileen
The best Christmas markets in Europe are known for masterfully blending regional art with traditional cuisines. Simply visiting one of these markets will be a massive cultural immersion into the spirit and identity of the country itself.
You can design your own Christmas adventure, as there are plenty of Danube and Rhine river cruises to choose from, as well as other river cruises in Germany you cannot miss. They will inspire both your body and spirit, turning an otherwise traditional Eurotrip into an unforgettable story.