If sipping glhwein, perusing endless stalls filled with holiday wares and admiring thousands of twinkling Christmas lights sounds like your personal idea of a winter wonderland, plan to celebrate this season at one of Europes most festive Christmas markets.
Traditional Christmas markets date back hundreds of years and are still popular today in many European countries. Although the weather is cold (and snowy in some destinations), experiencing the colorful lights and aromatic traditional fare along with all that holiday cheer is the best ways to brave the chilly temperatures. And, though many markets begin in November, they typically extend through the holiday season, giving travelers plenty of opportunities to snag a winter flight deal or off-peak award redemption to Europe.
Here are some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, complete with tips on the best ways to get there and where to stay.
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Wander past the 150 stalls at Viennas largest Christmas market, in famous City Hall Square in Rathausplatz (open until Dec. 26). Besides sampling the snacks and shopping for holiday gifts, visitors can also strap on rental skates and glide around the 32,000-square-foot ice rink (open through Jan. 6), viewing all the sparkling lights and jolly decorations. Kids will love the reindeer train, Ferris wheel and carousel theres even a Nativity path too.
Where to stay: The Park Hyatt Vienna is the ultimate embodiment of Viennese luxury: high, arching ceilings, an indoor swimming pool and suites decked out with chandeliers and marble bathrooms. Winter rates start at $474 or 25,000 Hyatt points per night.
Getting here: Fly nonstop to Vienna (VIE) with Star Alliance member Austrian Airlines from Chicago OHare (ORD), New York-JFK, Newark Liberty (EWR) or Washington Dulles (IAD). Though you can always use United miles to fly business on Austrian, a better plan would be to book your award through Aeroplan, Air Canadas loyalty program (and transfer partner of Amex and Capital One). One-way business-class awards may be as low as 55,000 miles if you fly from the U.S. to Europe 1 (Austria falls into this category). Just be aware that Aeroplans fuel surcharges can be higher than Uniteds.
Quite possibly the most famous country in Europe for Christmas markets, Germany has a market in practically every city. We simply couldnt pick just one, so here are some of the best:
- Cologne: This city, famous for its towering Gothic cathedral, features not one but seven different Christmas markets, including an LGBTQ-friendly Christmas market (open until Dec. 23).
- Munich: Bavarias most famous market (Nov. 27 to Dec. 24) is in Marienplatz, decorated with 2,500 candles and featuring more than 160 stalls.
- Munich Airport: Jump right into the holiday spirit during a long layover at Munich International Airport (MUC), which transforms into a Christmas market each season (until Dec. 29). Wake those stagnant muscles up after a long flight by ice skating or enjoy plenty of live music and traditional food.
- Frankfurt: One of the countrys largest markets opened on Nov. 25 with the Frankfurt Opera hosting a singalong. Enjoy the shopping and the markets 105-foot-tall Christmas scene (through Dec. 22).
- Nuremburg: Besides its world-renowned lebkuchen, or gingerbread, you should keep a look out for this markets Christkind, a young lady with curly blond hair dressed like a golden angel, who makes frequent appearances at the festivities (Nov. 29 to Dec. 24).
- Berlin: Germanys capital has a number of Christmas markets, but one of the best is the market flanked by two cathedrals in Gendarmenmarkt (until Dec. 31). Expect the typical food and shopping but also incredible holiday-inspired performances from fire eaters, acrobats, jugglers and choirs belting out classical, jazz and gospel Christmas tunes.
- Dresden: One of the countrys oldest and largest markets in the former East Germany, the Striezelmarkt features puppet theaters, storytelling time and gingerbread-decorating workshops (to Dec. 24).
Where to stay: The new Andaz Munich Schwabinger Tor features modern rooms with wooden floors and innovative art pieces, some of which have views of the Bavarian city. Rates start at as low as $208or 20,000 points per night.
Getting there: Considering these markets are right around the corner, its fitting to fly Lufthansa first class, which you can only book 15 days or less from your departure date using Star Alliance partners. Lufthansa operates out of several U.S. airports, ranging from major hubs like New York-JFK and Los Angeles (LAX) to smaller airports such as Charlotte (CLT) and Denver (DEN). Your best bet is to book first class with Avianca LifeMiles, which requires 87,000 miles one-way. Or use 70,000 Aeroplan miles from Air Canadas Aeroplan program, though you may be on the hook for pricey taxes and fees.
Although you cant go wrong with markets in French spots like Lyon and Lille, Strasbourgs Christkindelsmrik, near the citys cathedral, is one of Frances most popular holiday haunts for sipping mulled wine, tasting French treats like tarte flambe or bredele biscuits and shopping at more than 300 wooden stalls (until Dec. 30). A city known as the Capital of Christmas, Strasbourgs towering Christmas tree, millions of twinkling lights and festive ice rink will convince any Grinch to love the festive season.
Where to stay: Those on a budget should stay at the no-frills Holiday Inn Express Strasbourg Centre, with rates starting at $105 or 20,000 points per night. For a more luxurious experience, stay at the Sofitel Strasbourg Grande Ile Hotel, an Accor property a few minutes away from the market. Rates start at $200 per night.
Getting there: Strasbourg is a smaller city, and you cant fly nonstop there from the U.S. Instead, fly to Strasbourg Airport (SXB) from hubs such as Paris, Madrid (MAD) or Amsterdam (AMS). Or, plan a layover to check out Munich Airports Christmas market (see above), then continue on to Strasbourg. You can also take a train from Frankfurt or Paris to the French city.
Sample Baltic holiday cuisine like black pudding and gingerbread paired with spiced wine at the Christmas market in Tallinns medieval town square (open through Jan. 7). The setting is simply stunning: Historic buildings surround stalls selling Christmas goods and decorations (many of which are heart-shaped, as Estonians firmly believe Christmas is a time of love), with the enormous tree as a centerpiece. More than 3,000 performers will take the stage during the almost-two-month-long festival, which features seasonal music, Christmas theater and special guests including Santa.
Where to stay: The Radisson Blu Sky Hotel is a short walk away from the town square, which you can view from the hotels outdoor terrace, which overlooks the Estonian capital. Rates start at $149 or 44,000 points per night.
Getting there: Although you cant fly nonstop from the U.S. to Tallinn Airport (TLL), you can connect easily to hubs such as Warsaw (WAW), Istanbul (IST), Frankfurt or Brussels (BRU) and then fly on over. If you fly Finnair between the U.S. and Helsinki (HEL), a ferry to Tallinn takes about three and a half hours.
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While Antwerp, Ghent and Brugges markets have a more intimate, almost cozy vibe, Brussels Winter Wonders market (Nov. 30 to Jan. 7) is the largest and most impressive in Belgium, with about 250 stands peppered around the city center. The Grand Palace sparkles, covered in lights and decorations. Take a spin around the ice rink, fly high in the Ferris wheel or enjoy a visit from Santa. New attractions for the 2019 season include a special dome that will create an immersive audio and visual Christmas experience for visitors.
Where to stay: The Brussels Marriott Grand Palace is right in the heart of all the Christmas action. Room rates start at $168 or 30,000 points per night.
Getting there: Fly to Brussels on Star Alliance carriers from hubs like New York-JFK and Washington, D.C.(IAD). Some of your one-way redemption options include United MileagePlus, Avianca LifeMiles, Air Canada Aeroplan and Singapore KrisFlyer. Consider combining a trip to Brussels with other European cities (or Christmas markets) using the Brussels Airlines pit-stop service. This stopover program allows passengers to stay from one to five nights at no extra charge in Belgium.
Prague, Czech Republic
Its may be difficult to decide whether to visit Pragues Old Town Square market or Wenceslas Square market. Fortunately, theyre only a 10-minute walk from each other, so its easy to visit both (Nov. 30 to Jan. 6). They both sell similar items, such as medovina honey wine and Czech crafts including puppets and dolls, and Old Town Square has live animals like sheep and donkeys for children to pet. Both markets have massive Christmas trees and Nativity scenes, too.
Where to stay: Hilton Prague Old Town is a 10-minute walk from Old Town Square, offering modern comforts and renovated guest rooms but not losing the Old World charm that Prague is famous for. Room rates start at $148 or 50,000 points per night.
Getting there: Many low-cost carriers fly to Prague (PRG) from numerous European hubs your best bet for traveling here this winter. Just make sure to brush up on the rules before flying Europan low-cost carriers so youre not caught off guard.
Voted numerous times as Europes best Christmas market, Zagrebs holiday magic is truly special. In fact, the entire city is decked out with lights, Nativity scenes and decorations. Start at the Zrinjevac Park Christmas market (Nov. 30 to Jan. 7), where you can sample hot trukle (a pastry with melted cheese), or medenjaci cookies paired with soul-warming wine as you browse handmade ornaments and toys. Then visit Zagreb Cathedral with its famous Nativity scene out front. Finish the evening with a few laps around the King Tomislav Square ice rink or a ride on the carousel in Strossmayer Square.
Where to stay: A short walk away from the Christmas action, the Westin Zagreb is ideal for travelers wanting a quiet, contemporary space to relax in while being close to all the holiday cheer. Rates start $81 or 15,000 points per night.
Getting there: Getting to Zagreb (ZAG) will take you more than one flight: There are no nonstop flights available from the U.S. to the Croatian capital right now. Stop first in destinations like Frankfurt, Istanbul or Frankfurt en route to Zagreb on various airlines.
Wander around over 160 snow-covered wooden stalls at Basels Christmas market, stretching from Barfsserplatz to Mnsterplatz (Nov. 28 to Dec. 23). A steaming mug of glhwein perfectly complements traditional delights like waffles, gingerbread and melted Swiss raclette.
Where to stay: Basel doesnt have many points options for hotels, as the Hilton Basel is now permanently closed, but there is a Radisson Blu Basel. Once you return from the Christmas markets, you can warm up and relax in the hotels indoor pool. Rates start at $190 or 70,000 points per night.
Getting there: Getting to Basel (BSL) from the U.S. requires a stop somewhere in Europe. The airport (officially EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg) is actually in France, though its a short drive from both Basel and the border of Germany perfect for visiting three countries in one trip. But you can fly Swiss International Airlines to Zurich (ZRH), stopping there quickly before hopping on a Swiss Federal Railways train to Basel, bookable as one complete ticket on the Swiss website.
If you want to visit other cities in Europe, check before booking to see if your destination has a market. Many European cities have versions of these seasonal markets, including (but not limited to) Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Madrid, Budapest and Krakow.
Featured photo of the christmas market in Frankfurt by Boris Jordan Photography/Getty Images.