Despite the chill winds and snowflakes, the holiday fun radiating from the tents and stalls of Europe’s Christmas Markets is enough to make visitors feel welcomed and toasty warm. Here’s our pick of the very best places in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Great Britain and Austria to celebrate the season with kids at great European Christmas Markets. This tradition is so big in Germany, that German Christmas Markets have their own review.
During winter, in towns large and small, picturesque city squares are filled with musicians on balconies and choirs on church steps. Each evening from mid-November until early January, families can dine and shop outdoors the way locals do. At booths decorated in evergreen bowers and twinkling lights, parents can enjoy mulled wine while kids comb the stalls searching for the perfect gift: a nutcracker, a hand-painted creche, or a cake baked with loving care.
Starting from the largest and most glorious of destination Christmas Markets that you could center your whole trip around (Gothenburg, Sweden), to weekend affairs that make a great complement to other sightseeing (London Markets) here’s a look at what’s happening over the winter holidays.
Sweden Christmas Markets
Gothenburg (Göteborg), Sweden’s second largest city, home of Volvo and Hasselblad, is also the No. 1 city when it comes to Christmas celebrations. According to their tourism office, more than 1.5 million visitors arrive each year during the late November to end of December period when the city is decked out in all its glory. At its Liseberg amusement park location, they’ve figured out how to do things in a really big way; plan to be overwhelmed by the 700 evergreens, nearly 4 miles of fir garlands, and 5 million sparkling lights extending from the harbor, through town and into the park. This is the largest Christmas market (and the largest amusement park) in Scandinavia.
Typically, vendors in 80 stalls and cabins sell arts and crafts such as wooden toys, hand made candles, traditional straw work, traditional foods served by indigenous people from Lapland, pink pigs made of marzipan, lots of mulled wine (Skaal!), and decorated spruce trees. Around the park are reindeer sleigh rides, ice skating shows, light shows, and hundreds of young couples sipping trendy drinks at the Ice Gallery & Bar. Your family will see “guaranteed snow every day” effects. Of course, other spots in Goteberg have their own markets, with the old artillery Kronhuset, the Haga district and the Röda Sten Art Centre being notable options. For more information, visit Goteborg tourism or the Visit Sweden tourism site.
Finland Santaland & Christmas Markets
Finland has gone way beyond the European tradition of town square Christmas markets to promote itself as the home of Santa’s hideaway in the North Pole. Over the weekends leading up to Christmas, charter planes with loads of British and other European families fly into Finnish Lapland for just one day, to get a glimpse of Santa, and share their children’s Wish List with him.
For Finns though, the Christmas season is especially welcome because events are planned to offset the short daylight hours and cold, cold climate. Families will find special concerts and festive menus everywhere.
Helsinki’s Christmas Season typically begins in late November and ends a few days before Christmas. The entire Aleksanterinkatu Street is lit up, so Yuletide shoppers peruse beautiful and traditional craft items including fur hats, silver ornaments and wreaths made of woven oat stalks. There are small markets in Old Porvoo and lots of shopping at the Art Factory Christmas. Other favorites are at Senate Square, boasting 100 booths and the Women’s Christmas Marksmallet at the Old Harbor. In addition to fabulous Finnish art and high style clothes, delicious edible treats include marzipan animals, gingerbread cookies, Christmas fruitcake and the flakiest prune-filled Christmas tarts imaginable.
The museum village of traditional homes, Seurasaari, is illuminated by candles and has displays about the Finns’ ancient traditions and special family programming. And, your family may spend hours indoors happily exploring beautifully decorated stores such as Stockmann’s, Marimekko and Iittala. For more information, see Visit Helsinki Tourism.
Belgium Christmas Markets
Throughout Belgium, a country where chocolate and french fries are the joys of everyday life, the Christmas season begins at the end of November, with the celebration of St. Nicholas. Enjoy marzipan, klaasjes (flat hard cakes) and speculoos (St. Nicholas-shaped gingerbread) at several traditional Christmas markets.
In Brussels, the city center hosts a skating rink within its large Christmas market, which has an illuminated Ferris Wheel and street activities to keep the family busy. Visitors can get lost in the 240 wooden chalets set up around the Bourse (Stock Exchange), Place Sainte Catherine and the Marché aux Poissons (fish market). Each is packed with Christmas ornaments, handicraft items and seasonal gourmet treats. Choirs, processions, bands and concerts complete the holiday ambiance. Learn about the history, manufacture and artistry of chocolate, which makes a great holiday gift; the gift shop at Choco-Story Brussels is the place to buy Neuhaus, Godiva and Leonidas confections. And don’t forget that a Brussels Greeter will help you shop and introduce your family to the city, at no additional charge.
Bruges in December is the destination for concerts of Christmas and carillon (bell-ringing) music, shops boasting exquisite lacework and more, and the Procession of the Eastern Star parades across the city’s canals. In Antwerp and other major towns, the markets run through the first week of January (Three Kings Day), with entertainment provided by jugglers, musicians, painters, poets and musical groups. Many Belgian products, as well as gourmet goodies and crafts from other European countries, are widely available.
Throughout December, you can visit a magical Christmas Village composed of 155 decorated cottages in Liege, and even the tiniest villages (many just a day trip from Brussels) will feature Nativity scenes and holiday concerts. For more information, review the listings on Visit Belgium.
Denmark Christmas Markets
In Denmark, the hyggelig or cozy Christmas season opens early, typically in mid-November, and runs about five weeks till a few days before Christmas. At Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s beloved pleasure park, pixies prepare for Christmas and there are more than 60 stalls showcasing hand-made decorations, Christmas gifts and sweets through New Year’s Eve. Families will enjoy the three different light shows that play continuously, the Toboggan Run and warming up with mulled red wine, hot cocoa and other winter beverages. The park’s lavish decor is inspired by Danish and Scandinavian tradition, and live reindeer add to the Christmas scene. Not to say that several neighborhoods in Copenhagen host small markets and stores everywhere show off their holiday decorations.
Tonder, a market town that’s reigned near the German border in Jutland for more than 750 years, hosts a marvelous, very traditional Christmas market with its own Santa Post Office to send greeting cards from. At Den Gamle By, the living history site comprising 75 historic houses in Aarhus, costumed re-enactors create the spirit of Christmas’ past. Don’t forget that holiday music can be heard at churches and cathedrals at no cost, all over Denmark in December. For more information, look at Visit Denmark.
Great Britain Christmas Markets
In much of Great Britain, rural Christmas Markets are weekend affairs, but the big cities go all out. The 350 vendors of the multicultural Manchester Christmas Market are at 10 central sites daily during Advent. Albert Square Market is unmistakable, with pan-European food and drink stalls and a huge illuminated Santa in front of historic Town Hall. St. Ann’s Square features grilled bratwurst, hand-carved wooden ornaments and gingerbread -– much of it brought in by German purveyors. There’s a French Noel and a World Christmas Market, too. The popular York Christmas Market takes place annually at the City Square in St. Nicholas Fayre. Nestled amongst castles, cobblestone streets and medieval buildings, the unique ambiance creates a picture-perfect setting for shoppers to browse a variety of antiques, crafts, gifts and local produce.
The Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market is overtaken by 2 million visitors a year, who roam Victoria Square and Upper New Street enjoying the largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany or Austria. It runs from mid-November to Christmas Eve, inspired by the great one in its sister city, Frankfurt. The market has stalls with a variety of gifts including ceramics, candles, glasswork and jeweler, plus a number of stalls featuring traditional German items such as wooden toys, nativity scenes and marionettes.
Scotland visitors can enjoy the Europe Christmas Market at Princes Street Gardens, nestled near the historic castle in Edinburgh, where a Christmas market, ice-skating rink, big wheel and carousel add festive excitement from late November to early January. Traditional festivities held each year include The Light Night, Santa’s Reindeer Garden, Edinburgh Wheel, a special holiday panto or pantomime comedy — creating a Christmas experience that the whole family can enjoy. They serve authentic gluhwein too. For more information and current event schedules, see the Visit Britain resources.
Austria Christmas Markets
The holiday lights in the Austrian capital illuminate Vienna from mid-November until right after Christmas, with more than 10 Christmas markets to marvel at. Romantics are drawn to festivities in the more charming Spittelburg district, where one can find mulled wines, sweet treats and warm knitted goods till 9:30pm nightly. Belvedere Castle, one of Vienna’s most recognizable buildings, is home to a Christmas Village with Baroque accents, while the one on Maria-Theresien-Platz — full of regional crafts, unique gifts and culinary delights — becomes a New Year’s Market on December 27. For traditional handicrafts and Christmas music, head for the Old Viennese Christmas Market on the Freyung, or the Am Hof Christmas Market, which has a new champagne bar. Beautiful handmade gifts can also be picked up at the Art Advent in front of Karlskirche, where kids love to play in the straw around the petting zoo, visit the candle-making workshop and kids activities, listen to music and sample only organic foods. Vienna’s City Hall or Rathausplatz hosts Vienna Christmas World at the Christmas Market, arguably the city’s most famous Christmas Market with two rinks, one for skating and one for curling. One can find countless ways to get lost among 150 booths sharing the intoxicating Christmas spirit.
Not only does the picture perfect town of Salzburg have a Christmas Market specializing in klotzenbrot, a bread loaded with raisins, dried fruits and nuts — it also has a Christmas Museum. The main market, one of several in town, runs till December 26 in the center of Cathedral Square. All year round at the museum, visitors can see holiday decorations from the period 1840-1940, many from the famous Wienerwerkstatte which once sold as souvenirs. Another interesting fact about this musical city of Mozart and the “Sound of Music,” is that the holiday song, “Silent Night, Holy Night” was written here and will be celebrated with special family events at its 200th anniversary in 2018. Meanwhile, make sure you gift the whole family a Salzburg Card to save on transport including cable cars, local cruises, and the many holiday-themed attractions.
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