15 Best European Christmas destinations filled with unexpected surprises

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What’s the best time to visit Europe?

If you’ll ask this question, most people will say summers. But there’s something truly magical about snowy season. Europe gets a complete makeover in winters. Overcrowded and overpriced cities become refreshingly crowd-free and inexpensive. Moreover, Christmas and New Year Celebrations lend some seriously unforgettable experiences. Experiences that become conversation starters again and again in get-togethers, marriages, and any small or big gatherings. Despite the mercury touching sub-zero temperature, there’s something about Christmas that makes even locals gawk like tourists. Every tree, and storefront sparkles like a star. People are in a jolly mood. Honestly, if you can brave the cold, Christmas holidays are the best time to see Europe on budget as locals do.

While there’s no place like home to celebrate Christmas, these five places are my absolute favourite places to spend Christmas holidays:

1. Lille, France

Paris is never a bad idea but Lille is even better Christmas destination. As the holiday season kicks in, the capital of the Hauts-de-France gets decked up in lights and colour. And, its Christmas Village, above all, reflects the soul of the Northern France: welcoming, warm and friendly. The Christmas spirit wraps the whole town as it wears a huge crown of luminous garlands and delightful decorations.

More than 900,000 visitors come to Lille’s Christmas Market every year to enjoy the magic of the “Grande Roue” at the heart of the Grand Place. In the Grand Place, a giant 18-meter tall fir, the 50-m high big Wheel, and its 36 nacelles dominate the Christmas decorations offering a beautiful panorama of the city. It’s the best time to relish the irresistible aroma of cinnamon and roasted chestnuts in the Place Rihour, where 80 decorated chalets welcome you with open arms 7 days a week for over a month.

What makes it special: 

Lille’s privileged location in the heart of the Paris-London-Brussels triangle attracts tourists from all corners. With a great railway network, you can reach Lille in 1 hour from Paris, 2 hours from London, and just 35 minutes from Brussels.

2. Prague, Czech Republic

When your city is known as the ‘the Magic city’, you have a reputation to live up to. No city can wear the crown of a winter wonderland like Prague when a dusting of snow coats the ‘city of a hundred spires’.

European Christmas Destinations: Prague Christmas Market
European Christmas Destinations: Prague Christmas Market

Prague Christmas markets are legendary, thanks to Gothic backdrop and Czech treats. Even the most jaded traveler like me succumbed to the excellent mulled wine, barbecued sausages and fragrant trdelnik (pastry) of the Czech Republic. Old Town Square becomes the main centre of pre-Christmas celebrations with a huge Christmas tree selected each year from a different region of the Czech Republic. The Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square are the biggest Christmas markets in Prague, which remain open every day from Nov 23 to Jan 6, including Christmas day.

What makes it special? 

The Czech treats and gothic architecture set Prague apart from the rest of European Christmas destinations. Moreover, the five-minute walking distance between the two biggest Christmas markets makes it more irresistible and convenient for visitors to stay outside.

3. Banska Bystrica, Slovakia

Many people would be clueless when asked to point Banska Bystrica on the map. And, that’s what attracted me to this pocket-size fairytale town of Central Slovakia. The atmosphere is very romantic, festive and cozy like home. You can feel the true sense of Christmas spirit wherever you go.

Folk dancers, actors, and musicians take the centre stage on the main square every day to celebrate a distinctly Slovakian Christmas. Every hour, the “Anjelské zvony(Angels bells) sound over the city rooftops from the Zvonová Veža church tower. A glass of Slovakian Cisársky Punč (red and white wine, rum and orange juice) or varené víno (sweet mulled wine) will surely keep your cheeks rosy. Save room for a plate of lokše (thin, crispy potato pancakes) and warm crepes peppered with sugar and poppy seeds.

What makes it special: 

The town is just a snowball’s throw from Jasná, the best Slovakian Ski resort offering high-quality skiing at affordable prices. In the morning, the lovely Tatra Mountains could be your adventure playground and in the evening, Banska Bystrica could be your social ground.  

4. Vienna, Austria

Few cities can look as beautiful as “the most livable city in the world” during Christmas. Following a vintage tradition of organizing Christmas market since 1298, today more than 25 Christmas markets are held on chocolate-box squares across the city.

The festive beauty of Vienna is swelled by a hot punch, mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and stalls selling local handicrafts and homemade goodies. Christkindlmarkt (in front of the City Hall) is the biggest Christmas market with the biggest Christmas tree.

What makes it special

The traditional Christmas markets with reindeer rides create a contrasting image with curling (winter sport) on the ice rink.

5. Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb’s Christmas markets were once Croatia’s best-kept secret. But thanks to modern explorers, Zagreb’s advent scene has been discovered. The city is loved so much for the holiday celebrations that it has been voted as the “best Christmas market destination” by European Best Destinations for two years in a row. 

Jelačić Square becomes the congregation point where a huge Christmas tree stands tall, the fountain is transformed into a light display and live music is played every day. King Tomislav Square remains abuzz with skaters, live ice sculptures are made, pop-up bars and street food stands serve lip-smacking food. There’s even an area dedicated to “fooling around” (fuliranje) where revellers dance in the street and enjoy gastronomic delights to their heart’s content.

What makes it special

The Jolly Christmas Tram is tough to beat. Here kids (and big kids) zip through the city center along with Santa and his elves.

Besides the above 5 Christmas markets, these 10 Christmas destinations should also be on your list:

1. Cologne Christmas Market, Germany

Offers a lavish German spread consisting of the Glühwein, the crafts, the twinkling lights and entertainment of 100 performances against the backdrop of Cologne’s landmark cathedral

2. Dresden Striezelmarkt, Germany

The oldest and the biggest Chrismas market in Eastern Germany is all about celebrating the traditions. The highlight is a 45-feet high Christmas pyramid and the “Stollen” (buttery fruit cake) representing the entrance to the mines in the nearby Erzgebirge range.

Germany is all about celebrating the traditions. The highlight is a 45-feet high Christmas pyramid and the “Stollen” (buttery fruit cake) representing the entrance to the mines in the nearby Erzgebirge range.

3. Frankfurt Christmas Market, Birmingham, UK

Living up to its name the buzzing Birmingham holds the largest authentic German Christmas Market outside of Germany. However, Chris Moose (the singing moose) found outside the market’s Council House entrance, lends a distinctly British flavour to the festivities

4. Brussels Christmas Market, Belgium 

Every year the Belgian capital transforms into a Winter Wonderland. The city puts together an impressive setup with 200 wooden chalets, a covered ice rink, a Ferris wheel, and a light and sound show projected onto the Grand-Place.

5. Strasbourg Christmas Market France

The heritage city of Eastern France is home to one of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets dating back to 1570. Today it has expanded to 10 locations and 300 stalls. It’s a great place to enjoy year-end festivities while sipping the local Alsatian wine and enjoying the decorations.

6. Tuomaan Markkinat, Helsinki, Finland

Finland never ceases to surprise – even during their Christmas celebrations. From playing bingo to win a vegan ham to watching a holiday outfit contest for dogs; Finns add a dose of quirkiness to their holidays. Not to forget the wood-heated unisex sauna set in the of the market in Senate Square

7. Budapest Christmas Market, Hungary

The extremely photogenic city of Budapest looks even more photogenic during Christmas time. St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s largest cathedral becomes the centre of Christmas celebrations. Szent István Square comes alive with 80 vendors, a skating rink, and weekend cultural performances.

8. Tallinn Christmas Market, Estonia

The city has the distinction of putting up a Christmas tree in front of its town hall since 1441—making it the first Christmas tree to ever be displayed in Europe.

9. Ljubljana Christmas market, Slovenia

The pint-sized Slovenian capital is a charming place to spend Christmas. With colourful Christmas markets, lively performances and beautifully lit streets – Lubjljana is awash in Christmas spirit and festive glow. The icing on the cake is Krvavec, Slovenia’s second largest ski resort, where you can reach within 35-minutes.

10. Brasov Christmas market, Romania

With its cobbled medieval streets, awe-inspiring Gothic architecture, and the dramatic Mt Tâmpa towering above, the gorgeous Transylvanian city is a perfect place to spend your winter holidays. Additionally, Poiana Brasov, Romania’s best and most exclusive ski resorts, is only 12 km away.

Have you ever visited any of the above 15 best Christmas destinations or took part in the 10 best New Year Celebrations around the world? If yes, I would love to hear your views. Please do share your feedback in the comment box below.

Related: 4 months solo Europe travel on budget

Merry Christmas and a very happy new year to you!

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8 Comments

  • Annick says:

    Christmas in Europe really is beautiful with its Christmas markets and dusting of snow. Prague, Vienna and Budapest have been on my bucket list for a while so maybe I should consider a trip next Christmas. Although Croatia’s offer of a fooling around area sounds like a great way to spread the joy!

  • Amy Chung says:

    What a wonderful list! Doesn’t even need to be Christmas to love all those destinations. These Christmas markets are just fantastic and its impossible to get sick of any of them. If your entire list, I would love to visit Slovakia the most. That small little country is so high on my list and I reckon its packed full of amazing things to see and do. As for reindeer rides in Vienna, mmmmm not so sure about that!

  • Daniel says:

    This is one awesome list! I visited most of these cities and I would say that they are great places to visit for the rest of the year too but you’re right. They are even more special for Christmas and the whole atmosphere is absolutely amazing.

  • Loved this post. I tend to spend Christmas at home in the US but always travel during Thanksgiving. Perhaps next year a visit to the Christmas markets will be in order. I have seen some when traveling for work in early December but would like to be there closer to the holiday.
  • Sinjana Ghosh says:

    I haven’t been to any of these European cities so it’s all on my bucket list. Prague is certainly number 1 on the list after seeing that picture. There’s so much diversity in these neighboring countries and so many different ways they celebrate Christmas. Pinned your post for future

  • Blair villanueva says:

    After reading this blog, I admit that these places seems much better than Disneyland! Each Christmas market have its own appeal and unique stories. I wish to take part of it on next holiday season 🙂

  • Emmanuel Damian says:

    I love the Christmas markets in Oslo, Brussels, and Frankfurt. I want to try Lille, France next year. I’ll definitely save up for it!

  • Kalyan Panja says:

    It was nice going through your list. I would love to visit all of them again and again.

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