A guide to the best Christmas Destinations in Europe – Part One
There is nothing quite like a classic European Christmas. As you stroll through the Christmas Market stalls, you almost feel as though you’ve stepped onto the set of your favourite Christmas film. Europeans have the holiday season down to a fine art, one of which I’ve been lucky enough to experience first-hand over the past few seasons.
European Christmas traditions are the ones we’ve all come to know and love, with everything from Christmas trees to jolly old Santa originating somewhere in this melting pot of western culture. Snow dusted roofs are lit by lashings of golden lights and bring Europe’s historic centres to life at their fairy-tale best. Combine this with good food, good booze and good old Christmas cheer and you have all the elements for not only a unique Christmas, but a great travel experience.
When telling our Aussie friends and family our plans to visit Europe at this time of year, I am guaranteed their first response will be “but won’t it be cold?!”. Well yes, compared to the average 30 to 40°C we experience at home in late December it’s cold! But it’s nothing a thick jacket and a few extra layers can’t fix. In all honesty, Josh and I found the cold only adds to the Christmas atmosphere. I mean, there is no chance I could whip out my chunky Christmas sweater in the Australian sun!
As with special events in any city, you certainly won’t be alone in your travels. We found there to be a huge swell in both international and local tourists pouring into the major cities to celebrate, with the largest crowds seen the week prior to Christmas and onward until just after the New Year. Western Europe is home to some of the grandest and most famous religious buildings, many of which hold special services in reverence of their most holy time of year, so anticipate large crowds at these landmarks and plan your visit accordingly. Christmas markets will pop up in public squares, luring locals and visitors with delicious food and festive knick-knacks. As with most major cities around the world, New Year’s Eve means party time! You can expect large gatherings in capital cities and known “party destinations”.
If you’ve never been to Europe for Christmas, let me share my experiences with you in part one of my Christmas and New Year extravaganza! Here I’ll detail my favourite destinations, must see locations and delicious foods that you’ll need to try for yourself. From serious to silly, and amazing to annoying, hopefully you’ll get some tips for planning your very own Christmas trip!
Brugge – The perfect romantic Christmas getaway
Brugge’s famous historic centre is a stunning slice of old-world charm, deserving of a full post of its own which I intend to get to at some point, but for now I’ll do my best to keep it seasonal.
Christmas is a historic tradition, and what better setting than stepping back in time a few hundred years and immersing yourself in the glorious, ornate architecture for which this city is so well known. Every inch of this spectacular city simply oozes romance. There’s nothing quite like strolling the cobblestone streets of an evening, hand in hand, as you watch the warm glow of Christmas lights reflect in the canals below. Picture it – You and your significant other pausing on the gentle arch of a bridge to watch swans drift by before stopping at one of the numerous cafes and restaurants to enjoy a bite to eat and some delicious Belgian beer. Finally, you indulge your sweet tooth at one of the chocolatiers that call Brugge home (Dumon is a good start), before you drag that someone special back to your hotel to, you know… fall in to a food coma and sleep off that jet lag!
Brugge’s Markt is the “Christmas Hub” of the city. Here you’ll find a quaint Christmas Market, set amongst some of the most famous landmarks and attractions Brugge has to offer. The Christmas market here is much smaller in comparison to Europe’s big city equivalents. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with charm! Small wooden stalls fill the square, offering tasty treats, festive ornaments and knick-knacks. In the middle of it all is the ice-skating rink. If you’re feeling brave, or maybe after a few mulled wines to work up the courage, jump on and carve up the ice under the light of the giant Christmas tree while the historic bell tower rings out carols over-head. If you really want to go all out, why not treat yourself to a romantic horse and carriage ride through the maze of streets and past the famous zig-zag topped facades – You’re sure to feel like you’ve stepped into a fairy-tale!
Despite Brugge being such a popular tourist destination, we found it to be relatively quiet in late December. So if you’re looking for a quieter location to spend Christmas, look no further! In case you haven’t noticed, I absolutely fell in love with Brugge and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Amsterdam – For the young at heart
Travel, as with anything can never be perfect all the time, and for me Amsterdam was one of those locations. World famous and much loved by the young at heart, Amsterdam draws huge crowds of tourists year-round – The Christmas period was no different. During my time here, the city was flooded with groups of tourists, predominantly young men, out on the town and making the most of Amsterdam’s liberated mindset. To me, it felt a little as though some of this crowd were here purely to take advantage of the “relaxed” rules of this city, rather than experience it. But don’t get me wrong, my experience certainly wasn’t all bad. Away from the hustle and bustle of the main squares, Amsterdam was the beautiful canal city I had envisioned.
Amsterdam comes to life at Christmas; bridges and facades are encrusted with shimmering fairy lights and seasonal ornaments and the icy waterways mirror the lights above, making night time exploration a must-do while you’re in town.
Christmas markets can be found across the city’s public squares with stalls selling traditional foods, souvenirs and trinkets. Rembrandtplein, in the heart of Amsterdam’s nightlife district attracts large youthful crowds, but is tastefully arranged and beautifully decorated with its centre piece the ever-popular ice rink.
Dam, Amsterdam’s famous main square and traditional heart of the city hosts an impressive 20-metre-high Christmas tree, laden with over 40,000 shimmering bulbs. The square is bordered by elegant and ornate buildings, which are bathed in the warm glow of Christmas lights, making for a truly impressive backdrop.
Museumplein; surrounded by Amsterdam’s incredible Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum, is a lush grassy public space that hosts Winter themed mini village during the festive season. Here you can indulge in delicious treats such as bollen (a doughnut ball full of custards, jams and even Nutella), and sip a warm mulled wine by the open fire pits.
If you’re feeling a little more energetic, Museumplein has the best Christmas ice rinks in the city. Lace on your hired skates for a few laps with the locals, or watch the action and inevitable spills from the safety of the traditional style drawbridge over the rink. Museumplein’s Christmas markets are the perfect place to linger a while, people watch, eat, drink and be merry.
Berlin – For the Christmas Market enthusiast
Germans take this Christmas business seriously and pull out all the stops when it comes to celebrating this special time of year. If you’re looking to experience the best Christmas Markets, look no further than Germany, with tons of great options across the country.
Germany’s thriving modern capital Berlin takes the title of best Christmas markets in my eyes, with a variety of set-ups on offer throughout the city. The festivities in Berlin generally commence in the last days of November / first days of December and continue on until New Year’s Day. Whether you’re looking for some festive souvenirs, or for a cheap, tasty meal, these markets have something for travellers of all ages and backgrounds.
Our first stop on the Christmas Market bucket list was the sprawling Berliner Weihnachtsmärkte (Berlin Christmas Markets), located in Alexanderplatz. These markets were the largest and my favourite to date. We visited on December 23rd in the main thrust of celebration in Berlin. A large variety of very traditional German stalls sold a wide selection of keepsakes, while street performers, vendors and game stalls compete for your pocket change. Of course I must also mention the food, the glorious German food! Perfect for warming you up on a chill Christmas eve.
Bratwurst, rostbratwurst, bockwurst and currywurst; the Alexanderplatz Christmas Markets are German sausage heaven! Grab your favourite wurst, preferably on a crisp roll with mustard, and wash it down with a cold German beer, a warm glühwein or a creamy (and extremely potent) eggnog. Pull up a seat by one of the open fire pits and relax with the locals, try out your German language skills and down a Chrissy beverage or 3.
When you order your festive beverage of choice, you’ll be charged a small fee as a deposit on a collectable mug or glass. If you return your mug, you’ll get your Euro back. However, you can choose to keep your mug as a festive souvenir, and at around 4 euro, it’s quite the bargain!
If ever there’s a time to indulge your inner child, surely its Christmas! A short stroll from Alexanderplatz lands you at Wintertraum am Alexa. Here you’ll find neon lit markets of the carnival variety. Roller coasters, bumper cars, ghost trains and all your amusement park favourites can be found here. Each ride requires a ticket and prices vary between rides. Now, the idea of this coupled with the dull roar of screaming children and long ques might be enough to have you retreating back to the roaring fire and another serving of ghoulash, but hang in there just a little longer. The epicentre of these markets is the giant Ferris Wheel offering panoramic views of the surrounding city and markets below. From the top, you’ll have an almost uninterrupted view of the sprawling metropolis that is Berlin, and for only a fraction of the price and hassle of Berlin’s famous TV tower.
Just 1 Euro gains you entry to the spectacular Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt Markets. These huge, immaculately decorated markets are located in Gendarmenmarkt Square, surrounded by 3 architectural masterpieces (Deutsche Dom, Konzerthaus and the Franzozische Friedrichstadtkirche) which provide a dramatic backdrop to the festivities below. A much classier affair than other markets I’ve visited across Europe, there is a seemingly endless array of cute wooden stalls, filled with handmade crafts. The food options are vast, and of the very best quality, their tasty scents linger in the air, enticing you to indulge.
We visited on Dec 26th, St Stephens day in Germany and a very important day in their celebrations. The market was filled to the brim with people gathering to listen to the live bands, enjoy a few steins and celebrate as a community, something I truly admire about German culture. Their willingness to gather together as a community, help make this vast modern metropolis feel more intimate yet welcoming.
You’ll find similar Christmas Markets all throughout Berlin; Potsdamer Platz, Charlottenburg Palace and Spandau to name a few, making it easy to get a fix of freshly made Goulash wherever your travels take you!
Want to visit these places for yourself? Simply zoom into the Christmas Tree markers on the map below to discover the best Christmas locations Brugge, Berlin and Amsterdam have to offer.
If this has inspired you to start planning your very own European Christmas trip I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and let me know what your favourite Christmas destination is, I’d love to add it to my wishlist for my next adventure!