When I think back to the winter I spent backpacking around Eastern Europe, I remember the smell of mulled wine, the sight of kids sledding down man-made hills at Christmas markets, and the wonderful feeling of stepping out of subzero temperatures and into a warm museum.
Christmas in Europe is beautiful in the winter and the cold keeps most of the tourists at bay, so you have the opportunity to explore historic cities without the crowds. I would highly recommend it.
Here’s a look at Christmas in eight European cities. Europe is a continent that has retained its “Old World” charm and this is, undoubtedly, what makes Christmas in Europe as diverse as it is festive.
From the Christmas markets of Germany to the singing of yuletide carols in Austria, Christmas in Europe makes for a great vacation.
Unforgettable Christmas in Europe
Jena, Germany: Christmas Market
Photo Credit: ReneS
Christmas in Europe is celebrated differently and starts early, too. The Jena Christmas market, for instance, is held in Germany’s Thuringia region. Villages and towns begin decorating in November and in a time-honored tradition, Jena’s Christmas market officially opens when the first cut of the four-meter long stollen, or cake, is made.
The market is decorated with lights and the ubiqiuitous Christmas trees where a trumpet sounds off every day at 5 PM to welcome revelers. Stollen and Glühwein, a.k.a. Christmas cake and mulled wine, respectively, are sold in nearly all the stalls of the Jena market alongside Äpplewoi (hot apple cider), Bratwurst, and roasted chestnuts.
The Jenaer Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market in Jena, runs from November 25 to December 22. Visitors flock to Thuringia, home to the reformer Martin Luther, the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, for Jena’s Christmas market to buy exquisitely-carved wooden toys and Christmas decorations.
Traditional Christmas music, most of them by Bach, is performed by local musicians and small orchestras and played while shoppers go through colorful marionettes, nutcrackers in various designs, woven baskets, and Christmas cribs of the baby Jesus. While Germany has a plethora of Christmas markets, that of Jena shouldn’t be missed.
Photo Credit: Nedko
Prague, Czech Republic: Old Town Square
The Czech Republic has one of the best Christmas markets outside of Germany. These Christmas markets, or Vanocni trh, as they are called there, have colorful stalls that sell fine Bohemian crystal, classic marionettes, hand-carved wooden toys, and handmade jewelry.
Unknown to many, the Czechs make one of the most delicious sweet treats. These include honeyed gingerbread, the braided, raisin-studded pastry called vánocvka, and the cookies made with rum known as vosí hnízda’ that resemble “wasps nests” made from butter, cream, and firm walnut dough.
The best Christmas market is located in the Old Town Square’s medieval movie-like set. Christmas in Prague’s Old Town Square is characterized by its entertainment program which typically features choirs from the country and overseas who sing carols while shoppers and revelers roam the place for a good meal or a bargain find.
In Christmases past, National Theater and State Opera soloists have performed in the Square. The Old Town Square is famous for the interesting merchandise that its Christmas markets sell.
Embroidered lace, hand-painted ceramics, scented candles, hand-sewn gloves, blown glassware, beautifully-dressed dolls, and bespoke hats are only some of the items that collectors look for in the Square’s Christmas markets.
The Christmas market in Prague’s Old Town Square is the biggest in terms of visitor attraction and space. With a shiny Christmas tree in the Square’s central area, this market is surrounded by breath-taking architecture of Gothic buildings like the Baroque-designed St. Nicholas Church that lends classic elegance to the Christmas market.
If you want to taste local honey, buy crystal jewelry or sip hot and spicy mulled wine called Svarák, head for the Old Town Square early to avoid the queues that become longer before lunch. Take a look at the replicas of the nativity scene after lunch in the Square, which dates back to 1296, and buy an inexpensive version to take back home.
Barcelona, Spain: Solar Powered Christmas Tree
Photo Credit: Peterzen
Spend an environmental-friendly Christmas in Barcelona, as this Spanish city plays host to a solar powered Christmas tree, the first of its kind in the European continent. This Catalan city leads the way in harnessing solar energy to bring light to locals and visitors alike at Christmas with it sustainable, eco-friendly Christmas tree.
With reflective silver and blue solar panels, it is, literally, a bright idea that is not only unique but a reflection of the effort to educate Barcelona residents and tourists of the efficacy of solar power. The tree, installed in Mercat Santa Catalina square, is powered entirely by bicycles. It may look like a useless, ugly piece of construction during the day, but the cone-shaped tree lights up at night.
Passersby are requested to pump the tree’s bicycle pedals for several minutes in order to “boost” the tree’s solar energy. But the solar powered Christmas tree is not the only attraction in Barcelona. The Catalan city has Christmas markets, a magic fountain (Font Magica) which spews a fantastic show of water and light to the cheerful sounds of Spanish Christmas carols, a skating rink in Barcelona’s central square of Plaza Cataluña, and the Copa Nadal, a 200 meter swimming dash to the Barcelona harbor on December 25th, in freezing water.
And speaking of Christmas markets, these have been an annual affair in Barcelona for more than 225 years. Majority of the stalls in these markets sell nativity scenes, friction drums called zambombas, artisanal treats like native honey, cheese, wine, pastries, and chocolate confectionery, and the ubiquitous handmade Spanish fans.
Vienna, Austria: City Hall
Photo Credit: Chad K
The aroma of baked goods and the scent of fragrant hot punch spike the air from Vienna’s Christmas markets that open at the start of Advent. Swarming with over 150 stalls, the one put up in in front of Vienna’s city hall is considered a classic, as well as those in Am Hof, Spittelberg, and Karlskirche.
Christmas tree ornaments, ceramics, traditional Austrian sweets such as the Spritzgebäck cookies, roasted chestnuts, candied fruits, and other traditional Viennese delicacies are on sale at these stalls. The trees surrounding city hall’s park are lit with Christmas lights and provides an almost surreal setting for shoppers and strollers alike.
Inside Vienna’s city hall is an area dedicated to children where they are taught how to make Christmas cookies or candles. Listen to international choirs sing Christmas carols on Advent weekends or gear up for open-air concerts for free at the Rathauspark (City Hall Park).
And in between performances, enjoy mulled wine, Wiener Schnitzel, roast chestnuts, langos (deep fried potato bread bathed in garlic paste), and the Christmas punch called Weihnachtspunsch. City Hall Square on Christmas Eve is replete with a spectacle of trees decorated with glittering lights while listening to piped-in carol music.
Tallinn, Estonia: City Center
Photo Credit: Sashapo
Rome, Italy: The Colosseum
The Colosseum is one of three major sights – the other two being the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – that is closed on December 25th (and on December 31st) but there are other activities to be enjoyed around the area. Like in many parts of the world during the holiday season, Rome has its own unique Christmas markets.
Abundant displays of food, Christmas tree ornaments, trinkets, and handmade crafts are only some of the things in these Christmas markets. Street performers, Christmas carol songs, and sparkling Christmas lights characterize these Christmas markets, especially at night.
Photo Credit: Yakobusan
Various sized Christmas trees go up at the Spanish Steps, the Vaticcan and the Colosseum, called Colosseo in Italian, to complement elaborate crèches or the Nativity scene. The Colosseo has the biggest of these fir trees where it becomes the exquisite focal point of the elegant backdrop set against the starry sky.
Although the Colosseum is more popularly visited during the summer months, Christmas is the best time to be there. While the Colosseum itself is closed, the Christmas markets around the area will have authentic Italian food, Renaissance-inspired crafts including handmade jewelry, and rare antiques and knick-knacks.
Paris, France: The Eiffel Tower
You can visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris any time of the year but if you choose to visit it at Christmas time, you will see the Christmas markets in the Champ-de-Mars and Quai Branly that sell fresh local produce and handcrafted Christmas ornaments, an open-air ice skating rink, and a recreated Christmas village at the Place de la Bastille.
Holiday lights deck Parisian buildings, monuments, and streets at Christmas time including the Eiffel Tower, of course, as well as the Champs-Elysées with the most dazzling display of bright lights lining the city’s long boulevard. Three hundred freshly cut fir trees spruce up the traffic circle Rond-Point’s ring with twinkling lights.
What is Christmas without shopping? Even window shopping is festive in Paris at this time of the year. Locals and visitors alike queue to department stores a stone’s throw away from the Eiffel Tower like Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marché, and Printemps for some serious window shopping, which the French call lèche-vitrine, or “window licking.”
Kids will enjoy the Christmas carousel, known as Manèges de Noël, which nearly every Parisian neighborhood has. Practically all the Christmas markets near the Eiffel Tower will have a plethora of pastries, from the traditional Yule log (bûche de Noël) to those chocolate cups with a creamy custard filling called puits d’amour. The Eiffel Tower is open even on Christmas day itself. Have Christmas dinner at Le Jules Verne, a restaurant up the famous tower which serves contemporary French cuisine, while gazing at the spectacular display of scintillating lights scattered all over the City of Lights.
Spend Christmas in Europe and experience an unforgettable holiday. Other countries may celebrate the holidays in similarly cheerful fashion, but nothing beats Christmas in Europe countries which are characterized by diversity. Where else can you have Neapolitan honey pastry (struffoli) while listening to a Mozart concert?