Christmas markets bring to mind fairy tale scenes of medieval town squares, snow-capped mountains and the aroma of citrus-spiced glühwein (mulled wine) filling the air. It’s a pretty accurate picture, even several centuries after one of the earliest known markets popped up in Vienna in 1298.
The European Christmas market tradition has since spread across the globe. As a result, you might embrace the holiday spirit by sampling German-style pretzels and sausages in equally frosty Sapporo, Japan, as you admire its light show and towering tree. Or combine ice-skating with browsing for handcrafted jewellery, toys and gifts at the Bryant Park Christmas market in the heart of New York.
Taking inspiration from Santa himself, we’ve made a list and checked it twice to point you to the nicest Christmas markets around the world.
About 250 stalls serve glühwein, Belgium beers and waffles, of course, as part of the Winter Wonders celebration, which is centred at the Grand Place and bends around to the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie and Marche aux Poissons. An ice-skating rink, a merry-go-round and a light show (which takes place every half hour) are all part of the multisensory experience. The Christmas market itself encourages sampling all the oysters, champagne and Belgium chocolates you can muster. There are guided tours, but it is pretty self-explanatory – just follow your nose to eat, drink and soak up all that Brussels has to offer at Christmastime. 29 November-5 January
Germany takes its Christmas markets seriously, and the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt is tops for sheer size, quality and atmosphere. The market has a prime old-town location, with Frauenkirche church as an imposing backdrop, and a history stretching back to the 16th century. The stalls extend to nearby side streets, with seasonal foods such as local bratwurst, roasted almonds and lebkuchen, aka spiced gingerbread. Look out for the distinctive Nuremberg ‘prune men’ – edible sports and celebrity figurines made of prunes. You can also ride a reindeer with Father Christmas, jump on a giant merry-go-round and meet the Christkind (an angel believed by Lutherans to bring children their Christmas gifts). 29 November-24 December
Prague, Czech Republic
It’s a pleasant stroll under twinkling lights between Prague’s two biggest Christmas markets: Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, which features a stable of animals for children to pet and a Christmas tree transported from the northern Czech mountains. Wooden huts line the streets, while booming carols encourage even the grinchiest passersby to get in the holiday spirit. Sausages are a must-eat here; klobása is typically sandwiched between a simple white bread roll and washed down with a local pilsner. Polish off your market walk with vánočka, a traditional Christmas bread, while observing the festivities in front of St Nicholas Church or enjoying a Christmas concert. 30 November-6 January, including Christmas Day
St Gallen, Switzerland
From Zurich, it’s about an hour’s drive east to St Gallen, whose market shines brightest among Switzerland’s many charming examples. That’s thanks, in part, to the more than 700 twinkling stars strung up above the small city centre, pointing your way to the Abbey district – recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site – and its cathedral with a giant baroque Christmas tree. More than 70 stalls make up the surrounding Christmas market, known for its local Appenzeller cheese rarebit, raclette and the St Gallen bratwurst. We recommend forgoing the apple cider in favour of the local speciality, feuerzangenbowle, a spicy sugarloaf set on fire dripping into a glühwein. 24 November – 24 December
Vienna supposedly hosted the first Christmas market back in 1298 and now counts more than 20 variations, all of which deliver on holiday cheer, mulled wine and cookies. One standout is the Vienna Christmas Dream in front of the City Hall (Weiner Rathaus), where a giant tree and ice-skating rink are popular draws. Other markets worth prioritising include the Christmas Market Schonbrunn Palace, where traditional crafts, toys and treats like baked vanillekipferl (vanilla-flavoured crescent biscuits) are for sale, and the city centre’s Old Viennese Christmas Market on Freyung. It’s easy to access and fills up with both tourists and locals soaking up the ambiance – festive advent music begins at 4pm daily – and eating their fair share of marzipan-covered chocolate truffles. 15 November-6 January (exact dates vary by market)
There’s a significant Germany community in Chicago, who comes out in force for the annual downtown Christkindlmarket, inspired by the original in Nuremberg. Choirs and brass ensembles have been known to serenade those browsing for German-inspired classics like nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, beer steins and glass ornaments. Take a break from last-minute shopping to refuel with your choice of potato pancakes, pretzels, schnitzel or chocolate-covered biscuits. 15-24 December
New York, US
Even before Thanksgiving, glittering Christmas markets set up shop across Manhattan, with the most central being Bryant Park’s Bank of America Winter Village, right by the New York Public Library in Midtown. It’s a wonderland of 125-plus vendors selling jewellery, toys and chocolates, with an ice-skating rink smack bang in the middle. Union Square Market, meanwhile, supplements its bi-weekly farmers market with festive stalls for holiday ornaments, seasonal gifts and gourmet foods. A live DJ helps heat things up. 31 October-5 January (exact dates vary by market)
The Distillery district’s cobblestone streets and Victorian-era brick warehouses set the scene for Toronto’s annual Christmas market, which brings together local food purveyors such as Eva’s Original Chimneys for kürtőskalács (Hungarian hollow pastries, known as ‘chimneys’, which can be filled with soft-serve and any number of toppings); Belgian-style Wafel Bar; and Tartistry, famous for tarts filled with barrel-churned creamery butter and bourbon vanilla. More treats include an outdoor heated beer (and mulled wine) garden, a Ferris wheel, a 30-metre-long light tunnel, a towering Christmas tree and more than 500 carollers, dancing elves and other performers. 14-22 December
Since 2002, Sapporo has brought a dose of European-style holiday cheer to a similarly cold Asian setting through its German Christmas Market. (After all, Munich is Sapporo’s sister city.) Stalls clustered in Odori Park sell warming favourites such as mulled wine, pretzels and sausages. Shoppers are also here to admire the Sapporo White Illumination light show and the park’s giant Christmas tree. More than 1.3 million people turned up in 2018, including Santa Claus. 22 November-25 December
The Christmas Wonderland fair brings its annual dose of Yuletide cheer through seasonal carnival games, performances and even a ‘blizzard’ snow experience to the Gardens by the Bay. Wooden huts for shopping and eating replicate typical European Christmas market decor while the Supertree Grove is a lovely outdoor spot to linger under twinkling lights with family and friends. 1-26 December
All Aboard a Christmas Market Cruise
Want to experience more than one market? Go market-hopping across Europe on a festive river cruise
Crystal Cruises’ Danube Dreams and Discoveries itinerary hits Vienna, Nuremberg and Bratislava as well as Germany’s Black Forest as it bobs leisurely down Europe’s second longest river. It’s one of several Christmas market cruises, and the ships themselves are known for lavishly decking the halls.
Emerald Waterways offers Christmas Markets on the Rhine, an eight-day river cruise that visits Christmas markets in Amsterdam, Cologne, Koblenz, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Kehl, Strasbourg, Breisach and Basel.
Tauck sets sail along the Rhine from Basel in northern Switzerland to the western German city of Cologne, along the way exploring Strasbourg in France and the German spa town of Baden-Baden and sample the famed local gingerbread in Aachen, Germany, made with a 600-year-old recipe.
Avalon Waterways takes you on a German journey from Nuremberg to Mainz, visiting Bavarian towns and villages that ooze Christmas spirit. There’s even a shipboard expert to give context to the local holiday traditions.
And if Paris is always a good idea, that includes Christmastime, when you can visit with Uniworld as part of a cruise that sails the Seine, with stops at Monet’s home of Giverny, historic chateaux and the Normandy beaches.