Whether it’s your first time visiting Europe’s Christmas markets or your 20th, Christmas markets are magical. The smell of wood, gingerbread, and mulled wine surrounded by twinkling lights and decorations transforms a city into a wondrous fairyland.
With at least 30 cities consistently being named “the Best Christmas Markets” it’s hard to decide where to go. With the Christmas season lasting only a few weeks, and Germany alone having over 2500 Christmas markets, you can’t see everything. But with careful planning from a major city, you can visit the most Christmas Markets within your time frame.
If you read my last post, How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Europe’s Best Christmas Markets, you’ll know that you have to be strategic in the dates, travel time, and your travel companions’ interests. I’m in the process of planning my own epic Christmas Market trip, so I understand your excitement and frustration of trying to narrow down your list to fit within your time frame.
I shared four different two-week Christmas market itineraries with Tom, and a look of fear crossed his face. He told me I was trying to plan too much with each one. That’s typical of me. I felt pretty proud of myself for narrowing down my list of 30 Christmas market towns to 12, but I see his point.
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FYI: Major Cities Have Multiple Christmas Markets
It’s true! There are plenty of Christmas markets in the major cities. Munich, Vienna, or Berlin, have more than enough Christmas markets to keep you entertained. Plus staying in one of the major cities means less city-hopping travel, and more time for shopping, eating, and sightseeing.
After you decide on what city you want to base yourself out of, you will have to do some research on your own as to when the Christmas markets will be open. Some are open every day, others just on the weekends, and still others for a day or two. This post is to help you limit your travel time, but also give you plenty of ideas for day trips to smaller towns.
I’ve chosen the best cities for Christmas markets with major airports that have the most international connections. European cities look like they are close on a map, but travel time can eat up a lot of your vacation. These cities are suggestions to hit the most Christmas markets with minimal travel time. I’ve also included some valuable travel tips for you, too.
- Mosel River Towns
- Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Dresden
Frankfurt- Hanau- Mainz- Rüdesheim am Rhein- Wiesbaden- Koblenz- Heidelberg-Mannheim-Weinheim- Marburg
With its excellent location and transportation connections, Frankfurt is an excellent city for Christmas Markets. Most of Frankfurt was destroyed in WWII. Römerberg is the old town, reconstructed with half-timber houses and exuding old German charm. The Weihnachtsmarkt in Römerberg is one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe. Many people have raved about the food selections at the Weihnachtmarkt. Paulsplatz Market nearby has the red-brick church of St. Paul as its backdrop. Other Christmas markets in Frankfurt are located near the shopping streets and centers.
The best thing about Frankfurt is its location. For that old European charm, half-timber houses, and twisting alleyways, visit Hanau, a mere 20 minutes away. Fairytales rule in Hanau, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm. Or hop on a 40-minute train ride to Mainz, the Wine Capital of Germany. For an international Christmas market, visit Rüdesheim am Rhein’s Christmas Market of Nations. Over 17 nations will display their crafts and cuisine at this little gem.
South of Frankfurt
To the south are Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Weinheim all within an hour’s train ride respectively. Heidelberg with its castle ruins is a favorite. Mannheim has one of the largest Christmas markets in Germany. Weinheim is off the beaten path, but if it’s a storybook town you are looking for, Weinheim is worth it.
North of Frankfurt
Northeast of Frankfurt 80 minutes away is Marburg, listed as one of the prettiest towns in Germany. To the northwest, Koblenz lies at the intersection of the Rhein and Moselle Rivers. There’s a good chance Riesling will be flowing along with the mulled wine.
Frankfurt has a train connected to the airport. Frankfurt and Cologne are an hour’s train ride from each other on the fast train ICE. You can easily combine some Christmas markets from each location.
Cologne- Essen- Dusseldorf- Bonn- Aachen- Koblenz
Another favorite city for Christmas markets is Cologne. You’ll find seven themed Christmas markets around the city. The most popular Christmas markets in Cologne are the Angel Market, Heinzels Winter Fairytale market with the ice rink and fairy characters, and the Christmas market in Roncolliplatz with the Cologne Cathedral as a backdrop. If you need to get out of the cold, visit some of Cologne’s fascinating museums ranging from chocolate to medieval history and modern-day art.
If all the different markets in Cologne aren’t enough, you have Bonn, the former capital of Germany, to the south, Dusseldorf and Essen to the north, and the ancient Roman settlement of Aachen where Emperor Charlemagne resided to the west. Be sure to try the famous Aachener Printen, a type of gingerbread. Koblenz is the halfway point between Cologne and Frankfurt, and the gateway to the Riesling wine region of Mosel.
With the medieval town of Aachen as a halfway point between Cologne and Brussels, you could easily combine cities from both locations. You may find it easier to fly into one city (like Brussels) and fly out of the other (like Cologne or Frankfurt).
Mosel River Towns Between Koblenz and Trier
Koblenz, Cochem, Traben-Trarbach, Bernkastel-Kues, Trier
I’m including the Mosel River towns because they are a great destination anytime of the year from Frankfurt, Cologne, or Trier. If you want that storybook Christmas Hallmark destination, the Mosel River towns are the perfect locations.
Start in Koblenz where the Mosel and the Rhine rivers converge, travel down the Moselle to Cochem for its spectacular castle, Traben-Trarbach for its Mosel Wine Night Market in the cellars below the town (check dates), and don’t miss the large Moselland Advent calendar in the market square of Bernkastel-Kues. End your trip in Trier, Germany’s oldest city, and considered the “Rome of the North” for its many Roman architectural wonders. The Mosel River towns have limited train and bus service, so it will be easier to rent a car.
Brussels- Bruges- Ghent- Liege- Lille- Aachen- Luxembourg
Belgium may be small, but it’s in the perfect location to visit multiple Christmas markets. Bordered by 5 other countries, you can easily base yourself in Brussels for many cross-the-border Christmas markets. But before you do, make sure you enjoy the Belgian Christmas markets of Ghent, Bruges, Charleroi, and Liege with their waffles, chocolate, and beer. All these cities are an hour or less away from Brussels. The gingerbread architecture decorated in Christmas lights in Bruges and Ghent is well worth the hour or so train rides. Did you know Belgium has over 1000 breweries including Stella Artois? So if you prefer beer to mulled wine, this is your country!
Check out Vanessa’s Complete Guide to Belgian Christmas Markets on her website, TravelingNess.
An hour’s train ride from Brussels is Lille, just across the border in France. The Lille Christmas market is known for its gourmet French food. To the northeast is Aachen, one of the oldest towns in Germany just over an hour train ride away from Brussels.
Luxembourg to the south is a much longer train ride, so you should spend at least one night in town. The Christmas markets in Luxembourg reflect the melding of cultures and food between Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Germany. Also, public transportation is free in Luxembourg.
Brussels has three main train stations and a few smaller ones. Gare Centrale or Centraal Station is a 7-minute walk away from the Grand Palace and other attractions. Brussels-Midi is the southern train station and the busiest. It’s a 15-minute drive from the center of town. If you are connecting from another country, you most likely will arrive at Brussels-Midi or Gare Nord.
Strasbourg- Obernai, Kayserberg- Colmar- Eguisheim- Mulhouse- Basel- Freiberg- Baden-Baden
Known as “the capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg may just be the ultimate city for Christmas markets. With its storybook streets, light displays, and over-the-top decorations, Strasbourg is consistently named one of the best Christmas markets. But there are plenty of Disney-like Beauty and the Beast villages not too far and easily accessible by train like Colmar, Eguisheim, Obernai, and Mulhouse. With half-timber houses lining narrow walkways and surrounded by the Alsace wine region, these little villages are the perfect place to experience a Germanic-French Christmas.
During the three weekends in December, Colmar’s bus transportation company offers a holiday bus to even smaller villages like Riquewihr, Ribeauville, and Kayserberg. Check the noel.alsace website for more details.
If you visit Strasbourg, you are close to many cities in other countries. Basel, Switzerland is easily reachable for a day trip. And just across the German border, an hour’s train ride from Strasbourg is the spa town of Baden-Baden and Freiberg, the gateway to the Black Forest. Renting a car is an option so you can explore more cute little villages along the way.
There aren’t many direct flights to Strasbourg from other major European cities. The best way to reach Strasbourg is to fly into Paris or Frankfurt and take a high-speed train (2-3 hours). Or you can fly to Basel and take the train to Colmar first and then to Strasbourg.
Munich- Nuremberg- Regensburg- Salzburg- Berchtesgaden- Garmisch-Partenkirchen- Fussen- Augsburg
There is so much to do in and around Munich, that you may want to stay in this city for your entire vacation. You can easily stay in Munich for the whole week visiting over 20 Christmas markets. During your downtime between Christmas markets, visit one of the many beer halls for local beer, food, and entertainment. On Sundays, all museums in Munich are only one Euro. If you are planning to visit any of the castles in Bavaria, buy your tickets weeks in advance. They do sell out around the Christmas holidays.
Bavarian Towns South of Munich
If you feel like venturing out into the countryside, Berchtesgaden, Oberammergau, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen are a 2-hour or less train ride away and are framed by snow-capped mountains with cute half-timbered houses decorated in murals. These towns are also known for their ski resorts. Fussen is also about two hours away and known for two castles of Ludwig II, Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.
Across the border in Austria is Salzburg, home of Mozart, and known for its smaller, but spectacular Christmas markets.
Bavarian Towns North of Munich
Traveling north from Munich are some of the most popular Christmas markets, Nuremberg, Regensburg, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The Christmas Market in Nuremberg is considered one of the most beautiful Christmas markets in Germany. Try the Nuremberg Lebkuchen (gingerbread), sausages, and local beer while perusing over 180 little chalets of food and handmade products. The old town, castle, and several museums will keep you busy when you aren’t shopping. Spend a few days in Nuremberg and take day trips to Bamberg (fewer tourists in Bamberg) or Rothenburg ob der Tauber, both well-preserved medieval towns with gorgeous (and delicious!) Christmas markets. Paul from Paul Passing Through wrote an excellent post on what to expect at three Bavarian Christmas markets.
If you are taking the train to towns in the state of Bavaria, consider buying a Bavarian Ticket. The starting price is 26 euros, but you can add up to 5 people on the ticket for an additional 9 euros each.
The Bavarian ticket is good for riding the regional trains all day. This is a great saver as a train trip from Munich to Nuremberg round trip costs 38 euros for one person. And because there is no direct train from Munich or Nuremberg to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the Bavarian Ticket will be your most cost-effective way to visit this town by train.
With over 100 Christmas markets in Berlin, you may not feel the need to go anywhere else. Not all the Christmas markets are open every day, some are only open for one weekend, so check the schedule and plan accordingly. Visit the bigger Christmas markets during the week such as the Christmas Market in Spandau, Gendarmenmarkt, Alexanderplatz, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin City Hall, and the Christmas Market on Potsdamer Platz. On the weekends, check out the theme markets around the city. There’s even one for man’s best friend!
There’s plenty to see and do in Berlin any time of the year. Visit the many museums (Checkpoint Charlie Museum is one of my all-time favorites), world-class restaurants like Restaurant Tim Raue, or even a speakeasy or two.
But if you do have time, take the train to Potsdam, just 35 minutes from central Berlin. Other day trips you can take from Berlin are Magdeburg and Leipzig, one of the oldest Christmas markets with 250 chalets for you for more handcrafts and goodies. If you plan on visiting Dresden, it’s an average of 2 and a half hours by train, so spend a few days there.
Zurich- Lucerne- St. Gallen- Basel- Bern- Zermatt
The old town of Zurich frames the northern part of Zurichsee (lake). Christmas lights reflect on the water, and the aromas of chocolate and fondue add to the magic of the Christmas season. While there’s plenty to do in Zurich, take some day trips an hour away to nearby towns such as St. Gallen or Lucerne, one of the prettiest lake towns I’ve ever seen. You could even cross the German border and visit Lake Konstanz, just 90 minutes away.
If you plan on visiting more Swiss Christmas markets, don’t miss Zermatt nestled in the Alps. Step inside a Thomas Kincade painting with horse-drawn carriages, twinkling lights, and the Matterhorn overlooking the car-free town. Other cities you can easily connect to in Switzerland are Bern and Basel. on the border of Switzerland, Germany, and France, Basel has been voted as one of the best Christmas markets in Europe for a few years now.
Switzerland’s currency is the Swiss Franc, not the Euro. There may be a few places that take euros, but having the correct currency is appreciated especially from the smaller vendors.
Milan- Lake Como- Lake Maggiorre towns-Turin-Asti-Govone
Known as a city for fashion, Milan is another gateway city to spectacular little towns around alpine lakes and the Piedmont wine region. Milan’s Duomo (cathedral) is beautifully lit, and it has a nice Christmas market. From Milan, you can visit Lake Como with its spectacular light displays. Or travel by train up the right side of Lake Maggiore to the little towns of Arona, Stresa, and Verbania. Turin is a two-hour train ride away and a fantastic place to base yourself for the Piedmont wine region. Turin, home to Nutella and Fiat, was the first capital of Italy but is now one of the chocolate capitals of the world.
Christmas markets outside of Turin and Milan may only be open on weekends so plan accordingly. This region is famous for Barolo and Nebbiolo wine, so food and wine lovers will have plenty to sample while here. From street food to gourmet products, Italian wines, and handmade crafts, the ultimate food and wine lover’s Christmas market (Il Magico Paese di Natale) takes place in Asti. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Govone transforms into Santa’s village with live nativity scenes, Christmas lights, and elf villages. Both of these Christmas markets are only open on weekends in November and December.
Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and DresdenThese next four cities require a lot more travel time. All have an airport and major train stations. If you decide to drive or take a train, please note that the average time between Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Dresden is around four hours between the cities. The flight will be about the same time because of check-in, going through security, the flight, and gathering your bags. If you decide to visit any of these cities, spend at least 3-4 days in each. These are some of the best cities for Christmas markets ranked year after year. Another bonus to these cities is that there are also plenty of museums, historic architecture, coffee shops, and beer halls to warm up in and pass the time. Vienna Vienna- St. Pölten- Linz- Bratislava Christmas market enthusiasts consistently name Vienna as one of their favorite cities for Christmas markets. The city itself is breathtaking any time of the year with its Roman and Italian architecture. The Christmas Market in front of the Rathausplatz is also one of my favorites. The smell of gingerbread and wooden creches is just mesmerizing. Other Austrian Christmas markets you can visit on a day trip are St Pölten and Linz. For a day trip in another country, Bratislava in Slovakia is an hour’s train ride away. Other favorite Christmas markets like Prague and Budapest can be accessed by Vienna, but because of the travel time, you’ll want to spend a few days in these cities.
My recommendation is to spend at least 3 days in each city. Start in Budapest, then travel to Vienna with a day trip to Bratislava. Next, visit Prague with day trips to Pilsen, České Budějovice, and Karlovy Vary, and finish in Dresden or Berlin. Or vice versa.
Combine Different Cities for More Christmas Markets
If you have the time, you can easily combine two city hubs to visit more markets. Here are a few ideas:
- Frankfurt and Cologne
- Frankfurt and Strasbourg
- Strasbourg- Basel- Zurich
- Vienna and Munich
The best cities for Christmas markets aren’t limited to Western Europe. There are plenty of other Christmas markets to visit in other countries as well. Poland, Finland, Estonia, and Croatia are also wonderful places to spend the holiday season. If you can’t decide between Austria and Italy, visit the Christmas markets in the Tyrol region of Italy where there is a heavy emphasis on Germanic food and culture.
Whether you plan a two-week vacation or can only visit for a weekend, we hope this helps you narrow down your choices based on ease of travel and possible choices around certain cities. No matter which Christmas markets you choose, you’ll have a magical time shopping for ornaments, eating local cuisine, and drinking hot chocolate and gluhwein. Enjoy!