I love Christmas. It is without a doubt my favorite holiday. I’m not really a winter person, but I spend the whole year looking forward to December. My love for Christmas has a very clear origin: my German family. Growing up, we would always go to Germany to spend Christmas with my moms family. My dad is Dutch and the Dutch don’t really care that much about Christmas. They have their own crazy holiday called Sinterklaas, which was never as special to me.
Christmas in my family meant that everyone would gather at my grandparents place for a three-day celebration. They would put a giant pine tree in the living room, decorated with vintage decorations and real candles. Everyone got their own plate of cookies (which my mom, aunts and grandpa spend weeks baking) and a pile of presents. We would sing carols, play board games and eat ungodly amounts of delicious food. To this day I still have to standards for overeating: regular full and Christmas full.
Growing up with the German Christmas traditions, I obviously have a deep love for anything and everything festive. Even as a digital nomad, I always make sure that I’m home for Christmas. To me, Europe, with all its different Christmas traditions is the perfect place to get into the holiday spirit. I pretty much exclusive listen to Christmas music during the month of December, have an Advent calender and go to as many Christmas markets as I can.
Germany is obviously my number one place to spend Christmas, but there are a lot of places around Europe that do it (almost) just as well. There are lots of picturesque towns with great Christmas markets to choose from, but these are my favorite festive Christmas destinations in Europe:
There are Christmas markets and then there are Viennese Christmas markets. Christkindl markets as they are called in Austrian are an institution in Vienna. The tradition dates all the way back to 1298 with the first “December market”. Nowadays, there are over 20 official markets all around the city.
The main Christmas market is the one in front of City Hall at Rathausplatz. The stately Gothic Rathaus provides the perfect backdrop for this huge market. The first floor of the building is even used childrens activities such as cookie baking and candle making. International choirs sing carols at the entrance. Outside, 150 stalls sell everything from Christmas decorations and gifts to food and drinks. There is also an ice rink and lots and lots of lights. Even though it’s touristic, it doesn’t really get more Christmassy than this.
If you want a more local experience, I recommend the Art Advent market at Karlsplatz. Here, the stalls sell cute handmade gifts, art and decorations. There is a pen in the middle with sheep and a donkey as part of a nativity scene. The food at this market is all organic as well!
If you’re looking for real Austrian souvenirs to take home, have a gander around the markets at St. Stephen Cathedral and Michealarplatz. Foodies need to stop at the market in front of the Opera to try all the delicious regional products and traditional Christmas foods.
If you can’t get enough of these markets even after Christmas, the one at Schönnbrunn Palace very cleverly turns into a New Years Market.
If you do decide to go to Germany for your dose of Christmas, might I suggest my own stomping grounds: Hamburg? When I was young, we would celebrate Christmas at my grandparents house in Düsseldorf (which also has a great Christmas market), but now we go to my aunts and uncles in Hamburg.
Hamburg is a worthwhile city year round, with lots of cool areas, but I especially love it in December. December in Hamburg means Christmas markets. There’s more than 30 of them, in all the different neighborhoods of Hamburg. The main Christmas market is at Rathaus (City Hall), a glitzy tourist affair with lots of lights and a delightful floating Santa with his sleigh who circles the market.
If you’re more into fairs than understated Christmas markets, you should check out the Hamburger Dom. This giant fair with rides, loud music, fireworks and neon lights is held three times a year, one of them from November 8 to December 8.
A surprising addition to this list is the Estonian capital Tallinn. Christmas in Tallinn is a much smaller affair than in Germany or Austria. But by no means less atmospheric.
Tallinn has a beautiful Medieval historic city center which just screams Christmas. This fairy tale city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the perfect backdrop for a Christmas Market. Not just the market but the whole city is decorated with trees, lights and ornaments. Tallinn was also the first city to put up a Christmas tree back in 1441. A giant Christmas tree is still the center of the market. The stalls at the market sell handicrafts, Estonian products and typical Estonian foods. The best thing about the market is Santa who the kids can visit in his house.
Another area of Europe that does Christmas well is Scandinavia. Forget red and green, the main colors of Christmas decorations in the Nordics are red and white. The Danes love Christmas, or Yule as they call it. After all, they already celebrated it way back when it was still a pagan holiday.
When I was in Copenhagen mid November, I was pleasantly surprised that the Christmas markets were already open. To my delight, without even trying, I stumbled upon three separate markets. A glass of mulled wine is the perfect way to warm up on a cold, rainy day.
Tivoli Gardens is also particularly beautiful at Christmas time.
I always thought that the Germans loved Christmas the most, until I spend December in Scotland two years ago. Scots and Brits really give them a run for their money.
Edinburgh is in itself a city that exudes magic. It’s no wonder J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter here. But Edinburgh in December is a whole new level of magic. The Medieval Old Town is lit up with millions of lights, bringing warmth to the cold winter weather. For a Potterhead like me, Christmas in Edinburgh is the closest you’ll ever come to Christmas at Hogwarts.
There are decorations and Christmas music everywhere as well as a giant Christmas market at the Princess Street Gardens. It is a huge, neon-lit beast of a market, nothing like the quaint ones in continental Europe, but nonetheless a lot of fun. I also recommend a trip to the Botanical Gardens which has beautiful light art installations every year in December.
Don’t mind the people walking around in crazy Holidays outfits, the office Christmas parties start in November already. I love a good Christmas sweater but I draw the line at an inflatable turkey costume.
So where will you be spending your Christmas? Do you have any favorite festive destinations in Europe? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
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