When I think of the holiday season, I always think of Germany or Central Europe. There is something about the snow-clad pine forests and historic German towns resembling a chocolate box that play the perfect backdrop to the holidays. While it is a little cliché at times, part of that festive feeling for me comes from the Christmas markets you’ll find all across Central Europe. In the region you only need to throw a stone during Advent and you’ll find a Christmas Market. The smell of mulled wine and gingerbread just wafts through the cold, crisp air.
However, having lived in Germany and now Hungary, I feel fortunate to have truly explored some of the best Central European Christmas Markets, with plenty more to discover in the future. Here are some of the top ones as well as some of my personal favorites.
I’m biased when it comes to Frankfurt. While most write it off as a financial city with no life, I disagree. Living in Frankfurt, I came to love the city and for me wandering through Römer during the holiday season was pure magic. Frankfurt was also my first Christmas market and I will never forget looking up and glancing the few drops of snow flitting down in the air over the little thatched houses selling ornaments or glühwein framed with historic German buildings in Frankfurt’s old square. The market spreads out over the city, turning it into what seems like an endless winter wonderland from the Main River around Römerberg to the Operahaus further up.
The great thing about Frankfurt and the region is that you you can simply drive into the German countryside with a hire car to explore some of the smaller villages in Hessen or the Odenwald for a charming, seasonal experience since the festive spirit spreads all across the country. The town of Worms, just south of Frankfurt, is said to be Germany’s oldest city, and is famous for it’s Christmas market, so it’s worth the drive if you want to get out and explore.
Budapest, Hungary Christmas Markets
Budapest is a city with something to offer all year round, but it really captures the holiday spirit with its markets down on Vörösmarty Square and by the Basilica. You’ll find endless rows of stalls selling artisanal gifts, traditional Hungarian street food like kenyérlángos, a baked Hungarian pizza of sorts topped with sour cream and onions, kürtöskalács, the famous baked chimney cake rolled in cinnamon or cocoa or other seasonal toppings, and more. You’ll also find concerts and folk music and dance shows on the little stage in various parts of the market. Even when the cold wind blows in off the Danube, the various spiced mulled wine and grog concoctions will help keep you warm this time of year.
Bratislava, Slovakia Holiday Market
While many choose to skip Bratislava when traveling around Central Europe, the Slovakian capital is a city that is coming into its own. The old town is a tight network of cobbled streets, spire-topped churches mixed in with modern cafés serving Chemex and cold-drip filter coffee and thick hot chocolates, that is overlooked by the white and red castle. During Advent, the downtown part of the city transforms into a crowded plaza of Christmas tents and villages, including an ice rink, various street foods and stalls selling gifts and decorations. Bratislava is only 45 minutes from Vienna, and 2.5 hours from Budapest, so if you want to make a central European Christmas odyssey, Bratislava is one that can definitely be easily visited as a stopping point.
Vienna is perhaps the city the epitomises Central Europe, so where better than to spend Advent than in the Austrian capital? The Christmas Markets in Vienna can be traced back to the Middle Ages and since then these markets have become an institution. From punch and roasted chestnuts to handmade goods, all set amidst the city’s famous sites, like the City Hall or the Belvedere Palace, you’ll find the various Christmas Markets here unforgettable in the season. And it’s more than just eating and drinking, you can also find hands on activities like how to make candles or cookies.
Prague, Czech Republic
Millions flock to Prague, and Christmas is no exception. The city’s Old Town Square has a staged nativity scene, a massive tree and not to mention music and dance performances to keep festive shoppers entertained. The market also spreads out onto the appropriately named Wenceslas Square, where you can find handmade goods, Bohemian crystal and local folk decorations. If you start to feel overwhelmed by the crowds though, see these alternative things to do in Prague.