Fun Things to Do in Europe: Christmas Markets
‘Tis the season for many of the cities in Northern Europe to transform their city centers into festive Christmas markets. Marchés de Noël in French-speaking countries, or Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt in German-speaking countries, the Christmas markets are outdoor winter festivals steeped in local traditions and fanfare.
If you are looking for fun things to do in Europe between mid-November and early January, consider taking time to visit a Christmas Market in a local city. Regardless of the country, most cities have them and they offer a festive way to celebrate the season and immerse oneself in the country’s culture. In some cities such as Strasbourg, France, the tradition of the Christmas market dates back to 1520! In addition, many of the markets offer a full schedule of musical performances and winter exhibits like ice sculptures. And there’s plenty for kids to do.
Here is what you can expect, and some tips for making your European Christmas market experience a magical one:
As you might expect, most markets will have food stalls selling local sweets as well as hot and cold food and drinks. If you’ve never tasted Gluhwein (hot spiced wine) or roasted chestnuts (marrons in French), this is your opportunity!
Some markets have a wide variety of vendors who sell everything from fresh flowers, souvenirs and Christmas decorations to handmade crafts, and art. The Christmas market in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg has flea market-type booths where vendors sell vintage or antique housewares, books and artwork. Still other cities’ markets have stalls that represent different nations and the products they offer. Think of the gifts you can buy for family back home!
Fun Kid Activities Abound
Kid-friendly festival rides like carousels, bouncy castles, slides, Ferris wheels and mini roller coasters can be found at most markets. Some Christmas markets like the one in Bruges, Belgium even have a temporary ice skating rink! We visited a Christmas market in Heidelberg, Germany that had a petting zoo where our girls could pet donkeys and rabbits. No matter what city you’re in, the Christmas markets will have activities geared towards young ones.
How to make it magical:
Do a little pre-planning
Research parking options ahead of time. Christmas markets in the bigger cities will most likely offer an online map. If you’re taking mass transit, remember, everyone else will be too, so research alternative transportation options for the return trip. While visiting the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, we had planned to take the light rail train back to our hotel, but ended up having to walk, as the trains were too crowded.
Embrace the holiday spirit
In other words, “Prepare for crowds and queues.” There will almost certainly be crowds, so the key is to try to visit the market during the off-peak hours. If you hate crowds, go early and leave early. If you are traveling with young ones, we found it best to leave the strollers behind. There are few things more frustrating than trying to push a stroller on crowded, cobblestone streets. This would be an instance when a Baby Bjorn, sling or toddler backpack would make your visit much more pleasant.
Things may have changed in recent years, but at the time of our visits, cash was required for most of the market transactions, especially when purchasing food and drinks. Another benefit to using cash is it allows you to barter, which for many European vendors is quite acceptable!
Dress for the weather
The locals are not inhibited by the cold weather; in all kinds of weather people come out to shop, eat, drink and enjoy the festive atmosphere. And you can too, provided you are dressed for the temperature and prepared for the possibility of wet conditions. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of warm, comfortable walking shoes or boots for everyone in the family!
We have many happy memories of bundling up the family and braving the cold temperatures to mingle with the locals and enjoy Christmas markets in Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg. It’s an experience not to be missed during a winter visit to Europe.
Joyeux Noël, Frohe Weihnachten and Zalig Kerstfeest!
Erin is a native Floridian who has resided in Atlanta since 1995. Her husband Mike and she have two funny, smart, active girls and two cats.