When you’re looking for festive Old World holiday charm, you can’t beat Central Europe. Cities and villages decorate and light up their medieval town squares until they look like something out of a fairytale. Stalls sell unique handmade gifts and delicious regional specialties to eat. Locals gather after work to drink glühwein (hot mulled wine with sweet Christmas spices), socialize, and enjoy concerts al fresco. These Christmas Markets are great for holiday shopping too: Most of the merchandise is affordable handicrafts that you can’t find in the U.S. or in any catalog—and notably absent from the experience is the crass commercialism surrounding Christmas that you find in the States.
I’ve now gone Christkindlemarkt-hopping through Central Europe several times (by car, train, and river ship), as well as in several ways (on my own, with my husband, and, just last week, with children in tow), so I thought I’d share my hard-earned tips for how to plan an extraordinary Christmas Markets trip, illustrated with Instagram pics from last week.
1. Hit a mix of big cities and small towns—and more than one country.
It’s surprising how different the markets are in different cities—and how different the handicrafts and foods are. You might see something for sale and think, “I can get that at the next place,” but there are many unique items you won’t find again. The markets vary most by country, which is why country-hopping makes the experience even more interesting. Particularly lovely markets are in Vienna, Salzburg, Nuremberg, Passau, Heidelberg, Regensburg (specifically the Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt there), Strasbourg, and Dusseldorf, as well as in many small German towns. If you can choose only one city, make it one with several different markets; my recommendation would be Vienna.
Here’s the Christmas Market at Maria-Theresien-Platz. #Vienna #ChristmasMarkets A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
2. Time your trip right.
Each market has different start and end dates. In Central Europe many start in late November and last till December 24, with a few even lasting into the first days of January. Your itinerary will likely be dictated by the dates of the Christmas markets in the cities that most interest you. You’ll find those dates on each country’s or city’s tourism information website.
#Bratislava #ChristmasMarkets in front of the Slovak National Theatre. A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
3. Focus your Christmas-market visits on weekdays.
Factor into your itinerary that the markets are best visited on weekdays rather than weekends, when they can be extremely crowded. Morning is the best time for actual shopping (that’s when crowds are lightest), whereas the best time for photos is at about 4:30 p.m. (the sky turns from overcast to blue at dusk), and the concerts tend to happen in the evenings. Beware Friday and Saturday nights at the markets in big cities.
#Lights, #lanterns, and things that glow at the #ChristmasMarkets at Michaelerplatz, #Vienna A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
4. Don’t rent a car.
Driving between cities with Christmas markets is a logistical pain. Snow conditions can make it difficult, you can’t drive close to the markets because they’re usually in pedestrian-only areas in the old city, and parking is really hard to find. Getting around by train or river-cruise ship is much easier. Train stations are usually within easy walking distance of the old city (where the market is). A river cruise is easy in that you don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting between cities (the ship drops you off in town), and you don’t have to pack things from hotel to hotel. A river cruise is, in fact, what I did last week—aboard Viking River Cruises.
All aboard! Next stop: Bratislava. #VikingCruises A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
5. Forget restaurant reservations.
You’ll be snacking your way through Europe—it’s impossible to resist trying the many intriguing local specialties—and there won’t be space left in your belly for a sit-down meal. Much of the food at Christmas markets you can’t find in restaurants anyway—giant donut pretzels, for instance, or chimney cake. You needn’t even try speaking the local language because at each stand you can point to the food you want.
Have you ever seen a bigger #pretzel? #Salzburg #Christkindlemarkt #gobigorgohome A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
It’s 5 o’clock somewhere. A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
6. Consider going over Thanksgiving weekend.
Thanksgiving is low season in Christmas-market cities (it’s not a holiday that’s celebrated in Europe), and some of the markets kick off the weekend before Thanksgiving. Last week, on our Danube cruise over Thanksgiving, we managed to hit 12 holiday markets in 6 different cities. If you’ve got kids, depending on their school schedule, Thanksgiving might be the only break that works for your itinerary, timing-wise.
7. See if there are low-season offers.
Some hotels run promotions throughout the period of the holiday markets (with the exception of New Year’s Eve, which is generally expensive). Sometimes those offers are available only through a destination trip-planning specialist with clout. I booked my pre-cruise hotel stay in Budapest and my post-cruise hotel stay in Salzburg through my Trusted Travel Expert for Central Europe because she negotiates reduced rates that include tax, breakfast, and benefits (e.g., free upgrades based on availability). In Budapest, for instance, she had winter promo rates at the four-star Le Meridien (where I stayed, as one of the Christmas Markets is right downstairs). In Salzburg (a very expensive city), she put me in the five-star Hotel Sacher, where midweek rates in November and December start at $350 (again, that includes tax, breakfast, and certain amenities).
Aerial view of the @hotelsacher’s front desk. I’m not sure hotels get any more polished than this. #LHWtraveler A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on
Stay tuned for my advice for choosing the right Christmas Markets river cruise, based on last week’s Danube trip on Viking River Cruises (and the five other European river ships I’ve sailed on).
And if you’ve got any questions about travel to Europe during the holiday season, by all means ask below!
I took a Christmas market cruise on Crystal from budapest to nuremberg last december, using a travel agent on your trusted WOW List. Wonderful, they got us a very, very good rate, breakfast included and upgrade at the Kempinski in Budapest, along with some extras in our room that was not available online, The hotel was beautiful and wonderfully located near xmas markets and sites. I had always booked trips myself, but after this experience will use agents when planning big trips, so I am grateful for your recommendations . Also I agree with what you said about using a river cruise to see all the Christmas markets, it was so easy and enjoyable and we would come “home” in the early evening to drinks and a wonderful meal on board and we sometimes headed out for another show or shop after dinner. After seeing the ships docked near ours I thought crystal was the best looking for rooms and public spaces , to say nothing of the food (amazing, and I eat out in Boston and Providence often) and always anything to drink that you wanted any time of day.
Just wanted to tell you that this is the best review of Christmas markets ever!!! My husband and I are going this year – over Thanksgiving as that is his 65 birthday! Your review gave us so much information that we had not been able to find anywhere else.
One question – do you recommend credit card or Euros (cash) for the market purchases?
Debra, I recommend carrying both euros and a credit card. Merchants in the market who sell the more expensive items—e.g., glassware or leather goods—often accept credit cards. (Visa or Mastercard are accepted by more merchants than AmEx.) But you’ll want euros for food, drink, and stalls that don’t accept credit cards. Personally, because I use credit cards that waive the foreign-transaction fee, and it usually costs me fees to withdraw euros from ATMs, I try to use a credit card as often as possible, as it saves me money.
You have some great tips! My husband and I have wanted to see central Europe and the Christmas markets for a while. We are planning to take the Romantic Danube with Viking with an extension in Prague. We have never done a river cruise before. We are booking for the weekend of Thanksgiving 2019 as the prices are great right now. My question is that their itineraries are not really geared toward the markets so I am not totally clear how this all works plus all your meals are on the ship. Can you give me some idea how this worked out for you so I know what to expect? Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you so much!
I’m not sure what you mean when you say “their itineraries are not really geared toward the markets.” Then are you certain that the cruise you’re looking at is the right one for you? If you write to me at “Ask Wendy,” I can ask a couple more questions and make sure you get the trip you have in mind. Just click here: https://www.wendyperrin.com/ask-wendy-question/
I am going to Europe at the end of December and would love to visit some Christmas markets, I am still deciding on where we are going. How can you find out when the different cities/countries Christmas markets end as I would like to decide where to go somewhat based on that.
A quick Google search should bring you to the tourism board website for each city you’re interested in; there you’ll be able to find dates for that city’s Christmas market (along with additional useful info and links to specific market websites). If you can tell us which cities you’re considering, we could perhaps suggest the right travel specialist to arrange a superlative trip for you. You should also read the section on Europe’s Christmas markets here: https://www.wendyperrin.com/holiday-travel-ideas-christmas-new-years/. We wish you a wonderful trip!
We took Viking Christmas cruise, Budapest to Nuremberg 2 years ago…based on your great reviews .Now unable to book another one with Viking because we were tardy in plans and they are full.Have you any other recommended companies to try?
Thanks for the great question, Jan. To make sure Wendy sees it, please click over to the Ask Wendy page and submit it via the form there. That way it will go right to her inbox.