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 Weihnachtsmarktthere), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Suss out low-season offers.
Many hotels run free-night or deep-discount promotions throughout the period of the holiday markets (with the exception of New Year’s Eve, which is generally expensive). I booked my pre-cruise hotel stay in Budapest and my post-cruise hotel stay in Salzburg via my Trusted Travel Expert for Austria andHungary, Gwen Kozlowski of Exeter International, because she has access to special reduced rates that include tax, breakfast, and various benefits (e.g., free upgrades based on availability). In Budapest, for instance, she has winter promo rates under $200 per night at the four-star Andrassy and 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 elegant five-star Hotel Sacher, where midweek rates in November and December start at $350 (again, that includes tax, breakfast, and various benefits).
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).