Lifestyle & Culture

New for 2019/2020: Dispatches’ expat-curated list of Europe’s best Christmas Markets

When we started working on our Dispatches’ Best Christmas Markets list for 2019/2020, pinging our expats, we realized we had way too much content for one list. So this year, we’re breaking the list into two installments. And those will be updated as we go to more markets.

After years of exploring the various offerings across Europe, we can say there are really two Christmas Market experiences: The mega-markets in Nuremberg, Cologne and Strasbourg that go on forever and the boutique markets that are more manageable for a weekend outing.

We enjoy both. So we’re including both types as long as they’re great.

This first installment will include the markets we and our expats have visited most recently.

LINES WERE LONG FOR THE FOOD OFFERINGS (Photo by Terry Boyd)

• AMSTERDAM

(Terry Boyd)

You always have to keep an open mind in Amsterdam, right? Well, the Christmas Market at Ice*Village Amsterdam (Museumplein) is unlike any Christmas market we’ve been to. (There really is an asterisk in Ice*Village, by the way.)

 Strictly speaking, it’s not really a “Christmas market” in the sense of Colmar or Nuremburg. The Ice*Village version is more of a hipster Christmas market. Or at least a Bohemian Christmas market.

So, what makes a hipster Christmas market?

• Lots of funky apparel including those thick wool hoodies from the Andes my teenage daughters call “drug rugs.” Oh, and man jewelry.

• Locals wearing funky apparel including drug rugs, scarves and those wool caps from the Andes. And that one woman wearing the goggles.

• Artisan sausages and pork belly at a food stall with no identifying signs or menus, but a line a mile long.

• Original art instead of those goofy cowhide rugs and leather pants at the other Christmas markets we went to last year.

• And all the signs were in hipster English, including one that read, “Don’t panic; it’s organic!” Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re in Boston or Amsterdam.

This is just one of the Amsterdam region’s multiple Christmas markets. But it’s a good one, and it’s right in front of the Rijksmuseum and that big white “I amSterdam” sign everyone loved to climb on till they took it out.

The details:

Ice*Village, the skating rink itself,  runs from to 16 November thru 2 February in front of the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein. Anyone can tell you where this is.

The Christmas Market is open from 13 December to 26 December.

Open daily from 10 am to 9 pm

  • Sunday to Thursday: 10:00 – 21:00
  • Friday and Saturday: 10:00 – 22:00
  • December 24 the ice rink closes at 17:00
  • December 31 open until 1:00 am (closed between 6:00 & 8:00 pm)
  • January 1 opened from 12:00

It’s 6.50 euros to enter the rink, and 6.50 euros to rent skates.

ANTWERP CHRISTMAS MARKET (Photo by Terry Boyd)

• Antwerp

(Terry Boyd)

Dispatches finally made it to Antwerp in January 2019 and the Christmas Market (billed as “Winter in Antwerp“) is great … and all over the place. Like so many big cities, the Antwerp Christmas Markets are in multiple locations across the city, though within a quick walk of one another.

It’s like a Christmas Market trail that goes from Groenplaats to Grote Markt and Steenplein. We’re planning to make it to all the different squares including the mega-Ferris Wheel on the water before it closes.

The main draw is the unique skating rink that’s built around a statue of Flemish master Peter Paul Rueben, Antwerp’s native son. This market is in Groenplaats in the shadow of the iconic Cathedral of Our Lady and has a cluster of stalls and several places to get food and drink. On Christmas Eve, the rink was VERY crowded and very festive. It was fun to see the families from Antwerp’s famous Lubavitcher community skating to schmaltzy American Christmas music alongside Muslims and Christians. Not a bad thing these days ….

Just south of the skating rink is another Christmas market in front of the Hilton Hotel Old Town. This one has more booths and a couple of places to get cocktails or Christmas drinks.

While the Antwerp Christmas market isn’t as grand as Strasbourg or as high-end as Basel or Trier, the setting is sublime in the Old City. If you’re coming by train, be sure to savor the walk from the grand central station down through the shopping streets to the Old City, which takes about 20 minutes.

And yes, we’ll be returning with friends because this is a fun, festive market in one of the loveliest cities in Europe.

The details:

The Antwerp market is open from 7 December thru 5 January, 2020

• Monday till Thursday: noon until 10 p.m.
• Friday and Saturday: noon until midnight
• Sunday: noon until 10 p.m.

Exceptions are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve: noon till 6 p.m.

By the way, the shopping Sundays are 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 December and 5 January.

Skating rink admission is 6 euros, and throw in another 3 euros for skate rentals. Kids under 12 pay 4 euros admission and 7 euros for entrance and skates.

BRUSSELS CHRISTMAS MARKET

Brussels Plaisirs d’Hiver

(Terry Boyd)

We went to the 2016 Brussels Christmas market as a political statement after the Berlin Christmas Market attack: No one was going to ruin Christmas in Europe for the Boyd family. For the 2019/2020 season, the Brussels Christmas Market again runs into January.

Brussels is fabulous! Blocks and blocks and blocks of every sort of activity from vendor stalls to lighted see-saws and a Ferris wheel to fabulous food and drink. Brussels’s mega-market differs from many of the others we’ve visited in that it focuses on local vendors. We bought Belgian-style jerky from a farmer, for example. And lots of craftspeople have booths with high-end products such as leather goods and textiles including silk. The music was great, and we drank the best Glühwein we ever sampled.

Technically, the Brussels event, which covers an astounding number of blocks in the Old City, is Winter Wonders (Plaisirs d’Hiver)(Check out the map on the website here before you go.)

It bills itself as one of the biggest Christmas markets and winter festivities in the world, and it is. It covers the Grand Place, the area around the Bourse (the Place de la Monnaie), the Place Sainte-Catherine and the Marché aux Poissons.

We guestimated there were not thousands, but tens of thousands of people the Saturday night we went. It’s an unforgettable moment when you get off the subway at Place Sainte-Catherine and find yourself in the middle of this winter wonderland of lights and happy people.

Now, a word about the crowds: There was one point in the Place Sainte-Catherine near the Ferris wheel when we were literally swept along by the crowds. But, everyone seemed to have the Christmas spirit. One rather inebriated chap bumped into me, then turned around, took me by the shoulder, looked deep into my eyes and uttered a heartfelt “Pardon, mon ami.” True story.

The details:

  • Plaisirs d’Hiver runs from Friday, 29 November through 5 January
  • Opening hours are noon through 10 p.m. every day except Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, when the markets are open from noon to 6 p.m.
  • The Christmas market has more than 200 chalets
  • Fairground attractions (Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds, etc.)
  • A covered ice rink for skating (Place de la Monnaie, till Sunday 7 January)
  • A Christmas tree and sound and light show on the Grand Place

Though Plaisirs d’Hiver is the big one, there are other Christmas markets around Brussels. See the details here.

Brussels is a big city and if you’re going for more than a day, check out our travel posts on this very inviting city.

Düsseldorf

Everyone goes to the Nuremberg and Cologne markets … which is why Düsseldorf is her favorite, says Eindhoven-based Brit Emma Wooldridge … not a lot of tourists.

“Köln and Aachen are a bit touristy. Düsseldorf is mostly locals catching up with each other,” Emma says. That said, this is a big one, with seven themed markets around the Centrum.

Highlights include:

• a Handwerker Markt in front of the Rathaus where you can find artisan-made goods

• the Dome of Lights on the Königsallee, Düsseldorf’s ultra-high-end shopping district.

• an ice skating rink on Corneliusplatz

• a huge Ferris wheel on Burgplatz

Düsseldorf is one of our favorite cities, so we’ll be there opening day. More as we’re on the ground.

The details on Düsseldorf:

Where: Literally all over the city

When: Düsseldorf is open for 2019 from 25 November to 30 December, a bit longer than some of the other German markets such as Cologne. Closed on Sunday, 24 November and 25 December 2019.

Open Christmas Eve from 11 a.m. to 3.00 p.m and on 26 December from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Opening Hours:

Daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Sundays to Thursdays) and to 9 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays).

Open Christmas Eve from 11 a.m. to 3.00 p.m and on 26 December from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

There’s a terrific on-line booklet with lots of details here.

COLOGNE CHRISTMAS MARKET (Photo by Jackie Harding)

KÖLN (COLOGNE)

(Jackie Harding)

Germany has cornered the market, literally, on the Christmas market and one of my favorites is in the city of Cologne/Köln, situated on the Rhine River in the west of Germany, an easy trip for expats in central Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, northern France and the Netherlands

Famous for its cathedral, the city has seven different themed markets for you to wander and soak up the festive season. You can buy traditional gifts and eat and drink the usual tasty traditional treats such as sausages and bratwurst, roast chestnuts and almonds and of course drink glühwein and eggnog from the collectible mugs, offered at each market.

The seven markets are:

• The Cathedral Christmas Market around Cologne’s Kölner Dom landmark.

• The Angel’s Christmas Market

• The Harbour Christmas Market

• The Old Christmas Market

• Heavenue, the LBGTQ market (only open later)

• Christmas Market in the Statgarten

• St. Nicholas Christmas Market

A tip: Eindhoven-based Brit Emma Wooldridge says stick to the bigger markets. “The obscure ones aren’t great.”

The details on Cologne:

Where: Literally all over the city

When: Cologne is open from 25 November to 23 December.

Opening Hours:

Daily from 11 a.m. till 9 p.m.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday open until 10 pm
Saturday from 10 am till 10 pm

You can see Jackie’s complete post here.

MAASTRICHT CHRISTMAS MARKET (Photo by Terry Boyd)

Maastricht

(Terry Boyd)

Magical Maastricht is one of the Netherlands’ best Christmas markets. First of all, it’s in a quaint corner of Maastricht, Vrijthof Square, which is in the center of the centrum on the west side of the Maas River.

The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants and close to the city’s main shopping district.So, you can get some Christmas shopping done before or after the market. Second, it has a 900m2 indoor skating rink, a giant Ferris wheel and lots and lots of snacks and beer, so it’s a full day out.

Finally, Maastricht actually has some quality Christmas goods for sale instead of the usual trash and trinkets. It’s so good, we’ve been multiple times and will be there this year.

Okay, if you’re going, you should know we go to Maastricht every weekend because it has everything we love – fun, architecture and great food. See our Quick Trip post here and make your Christmas Market visit a long weekend.

Here are the details for the main Magical Maastricht:

Where: In Vrijthof Square
When: 29 November – 31 January, 2020

Opening hours:

Santa’s Grotto
Every day: noon to 8 p.m.

All attractions, food stands, and ice rink
Mondays to Wednesdays: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Thursdays to Sundays: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

MUNICH

(Beth Hoke)

Munich’s Christkindlmarkt starts on 27 November in front of the town’s world-famous Glockenspiel and spreads across 20,000 square meters of the pedestrian zone. It’s open till Christmas Eve for 2019.

By the time we lived in Munich, I was old enough to drink the Glühwein with brandy added and I had developed a craving for Gebrannte Mandeln, almonds coated in crunchy, browned sugar. To this day, the smell of these Christmas market favorites takes me back in time.

If you’re really into German food and wine (and really, who wouldn’t be?) a culinary group offers a tasting tour of the market during which you can try Stollen, Rahmschmankerl, and other seasonal culinary favorites.

Be sure to visit the Sternenplatzl (Square of Stars) at Rindermarkt and the massive Christmas tree that stands in Marienplatz to see Christmas lights like you’ve never seen them before. The 2017 tree weighed 5.3 tons and was illuminated with 3,000 lights!

As with Nuremberg’s market, smaller auxiliary markets are held nearby, including the Medieval Christmas Market, where visitors can see minstrels, knights, and noblewomen celebrating the way they did in the Middle Ages when Munich’s first Christmas market was held.

Here are the details for the Munich Christmas markets:

At the Kripperlmarkt, tourists and locals can buy hand-carved wooden pieces for their crèche collection. A popular walking tour of the Christkindlmarkt and the Manger Market is led by guides who tell visitors about the history and culture of the markets. 

Where: Centered in the Marienplatz, but there are other locations.

When: 27 November thru 24 December

Opening hours:

Monday to Saturday: 10a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sundays: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Christmas Eve: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

RIGA CHRISTMAS MARKET

• RIGA OLD TOWN CHRISTMAS MARKET

Somehow, we left Riga off our first list despite the fact we have family connections there. Shame on us.

We got this from Laura Stein:

Greetings from Amsterdam,

I saw your list with Christmas markets in different European cities. Definitely check out Riga, capital of Latvia, which probably is also home for the first Christmas tree. There are three Christmas markets in the old town, but I love Riga Central market – it is really great for shopping seasonal food. It is also a place to be for music lovers.

Best wishes,

Laura

Thank you, Laura, for suggesting a city that has one of the coolest Christmas traditions, which started with a black cat and a cold little girl names Lena.

The Old Town Christmas Market in the city center includes Doma laukums and Līvu laukums squares, as well as in Esplenāde Park (which includes a “village” of live rabbits). On Saturdays, head across the Daugava River to the Kalnciema kvartāls market.

Details:

When: The Old Town Christmas Market runs from 1 December to 6 January, 2020

The lighting of the Christmas tree and official opening of the market is 3 December at 5 p.m.

Hours are:

Week Days – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Fridays, Saturdays – 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sundays – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
24 December – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
New Year’s Night – 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.

A note: Each year, the market raises money for a foundation, Palidzesim.lv, that funds social-inclusion measures for children and young people with special needs.

‘S-HERTOGENBOSCH CHRISTMAS MARKET (Photo by Terry Boyd)

• ‘s-Hertogenbosch Winterparadijs

This is the first year on our list, a mini-market in the chicest little city in Europe that no one has ever heard of.

‘s-Hertogenbosch – or Den Bosch, as local call it – has a creative little Christmas Market, the Winterparadijs, in the Parade Square just east of St. Janskathedraal, one of the most ornate cathedrals in the Netherlands. You can’t miss it.

We caught the tail-end of this market last year and some of the booths were closed. Overall, it has a stage for live performances and lots of food and drink opportunities. It’s nothing like the mega-Christmas Markets in Germany and France. This is an intimate area with clever ways to get you to relax, slow down and get in the holiday spirit.

One of the most interesting features of last year’s market was the quirky little sitting rooms inside of tents – one with kitchen decor, the other a living room with a crazy full-size sofa. It was one of those “only in the Netherlands” moments.

There’s not a lot of info posted about the 2019/2020 market except the dates – 8 December to 5 January. So more as we know more.

A tip: As we noted above, this is such a chic little city that it has its own fashion weekend. So go full fashionista to the Den Bosch market and you’ll fit in with the locals.

TALLINN CHRISTMAS MARKET (Photo by Anna Bubnova)

• TALLINN

(In 2017, Alex Wellman suggested Tallinn and we listened. This year, Tallinn native Anna Bubnova filled us in. )

Dispatches contributor Anna Bubnova has one word for her hometown Christmas Market – “Amazing.”

First of all, it snows for Christmas in Estonia to set the mood, Anna said. Tallinn the most northerly capital in the Baltics (by a lot!), so you’ve got a pretty darn good chance of experiencing a White Christmas here in this ancient city. Second, there are elements other markets don’t have including a pin with elk – real elk – along with Santa and all the highlights one expects. Finally, there are more handmade items at the Tallinn Market, she said.

Tallinn claims its Christmas market dates back to 1441 when the first Christmas tree was displayed, making it older than Nuremberg or Munich.

Where Tallinn really differs from other Christmas markets is that it features performances by folk singers and others. Lots and lots of performances.

For 2019/20, about 3,000 artists – Estonian and others – are scheduled on the Town Hall Square stage. You can see the full list on the website here.

Keeping with its reputation as a tech leader, Tallinn replaced the old glarey lights in its Christmas market in 2017 with 40,000 LED bulbs on the Town Hall Square to give this Christmas market a warmer glow.

Now that is attention to detail.

The details:

When: For 2019/2020, the Tallinn Christmas Market runs from 15 November thru 7 January. (Check out the website for all the events including Santa’s schedule and the lighting of Advent candles.)

This year the opening ceremony of the Christmas Market will take place on 16 November at 16:55.

Opening hours:

The market is open every day 10:00 – 20:00
Hot Christmas drinks till 23:00
Each Friday, there’s a Christmas program/performance from 17:00 – 19:00
On Saturdays and Sundays Noon – 14:00

ZAGREB

On our Facebook page, Conrad Kellett voted for Advent in Zagreb as did Luka Oreśković. And we see why.

Zagreb is, like all of Croatia, beautiful and inviting. But this Christmas market gets accolades year after year as Europe’s most beautiful. The tourism promotion site Best European Destinations named Zagreb as Europe’s most beautiful every year since 2015, though the post doesn’t exactly say why. But a number of other travel sites concur.

Unlike other Christmas markets, the Zagreb version only dates back to 2002. But it has grown in popularity to the point the market is one of the top draws in a country full of attractions, with about 71,000 visits and 124,000 overnight hotel stays, according to the Zagreb Tourist Board.

That many people couldn’t be wrong ….

Details:

Where: There are Advent events spread out all over the city including at an ice skating rink and at museums. Each appears to have its own schedule. See the details here.

When: The Zagreb Christmas Market runs from 30 November to 7 January 2020.

Here’s the opening day schedule of events for 30 November:

5 p.m.   Lighting of the candle at the Manduševac Fountain in Ban Jelačić Square
6 p.m.    The opening of the Ice Park
7 p.m.    The opening of Fuliranje – Life is a Circus

7:50 p.m.    Lighting of the Christmas lights at Advent at Zrinjevac
9 p.m.   Snow at the Christmas Fairytale in the Ban Jelačić Square

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