You can be dropped blindfolded and disoriented anywhere in Europe—and the smell of mulled wine will tell you it’s Christmastime.
It’s cold, it’s rainy, often crowded—but magical. The four weekends of Advent see peak travel to European cities famous for their Christmas markets.
There’s just something about Europe that’s so damn appealing at Christmastime. When it’s blanketed in snow, mulled wine—heated wine mixed with spices—is the drink of choice (personally I like my alcohol cold). Stirred in metallic vats at the stalls, the smell lifts and warms your spirit. At no other time of the year do people willingly drink hot wine.
Having said that, travel plans can change due to the weather, and Europe at this time of the year can get very expensive with some weekends almost as expensive as peak summer.
It was on the second week that the receptionist at my hotel in Zagreb, Croatia told me it was the busiest weekend of Advent or the four weeks that lead to Christ’s birth. “It’s crazy, hotel rooms are going for 500 euros a night this weekend,” he said.
Zagreb, for instance, has more food and alcohol and barely any products. In Colmar, it’s the reverse. Budapest, too, has more food than Basel.
While I did not spend that much (and I wouldn’t), I saw the price difference when I was booking two stays in Zagreb: the first when I arrived from Manila, the second after I went to Slovenia for another two days in Croatia to pick up my large suitcase on the way to Hungary. Even the Airbnbs were ridiculously priced double.
But this is Europe during the holiday season—people from all over the world flock to cities known for their Christmas markets to bask in the lights, tastes, and holiday mood of an entire continent. This was my reason too for staying here for a month and a half and traveling through 5 countries. I wanted to see as many Christmas markets as I could.
What makes Christmas markets different in each city is the offerings. It’s either they have more food stalls than products or vice versa. Zagreb, for instance, has more food and alcohol and barely any products. In Colmar, it’s the reverse. Budapest, too, has more food than Basel. But one thing all the five Christmas markets I’ve been to have in common apart from mulled wine: chocolates and French macarons—stalls upon stalls with all kinds of flavors.
Here are the 5 Christmas markets I visited in 5 countries, and why some are better than others.
This is Christmas decorating on steroids. Located in northeastern France, Colmar is the third largest city in the Alsace region. Like Strasbourg and the rest of the French cities that border Germany, it’s known for its timber-framed houses. All throughout the old town, their facades are decorated with Christmas lights, wreaths, stuffed toys, and other holiday décor.
Christmas trees adorn the parks and streets while the canals have tableaus of wintry tree branches and red balls or gifts.
There are six Christmas markets in Colmar with a different theme each but it seems like it’s just one huge market. The old town is charming and packed, there’s a lot of limited-edition treats that ranged from handmade winter accessories (they like faux fur) such as scarves and hats; chocolates, macarons and marmalades. With Colmar being the capital of Alsatian wine, there are limited-edition wines too.
Beyond its Christmas markets, Colmar’s je ne sais quoi makes it a popular destination all year round.
One of Budapest’s Christmas markets, in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral
The first time I experienced the Christmas markets of Budapest was in 2017, when I stayed for two weeks over New Year’s Eve. Christmas markets in Europe typically open at the end of November and, depending on the city, could be dismantled right after Christmas or until the first days of January. Budapest belongs to the former.
This year, I arrived on the second weekend of the market—and my god it was full! You could barely move to get your alcohol or take a picture of the giant Christmas trees.
Budapest has several markets and three of them within a stone’s throw away from each other. The biggest and most famous is at Vorosmarty Square at the northern end of Vaci utca or the famous pedestrian street flanked by shops, boutiques and restaurants. In front of the large food stalls—small cafeteria-sized stalls!—offering Hungarian dishes like toltott kaposzta (stuffed cabbage rolls), sausages, and ghoulash (meat stew with paprika and other spices) is a shopping building with C&A, Pull and Bear, and a shop called Half Price, which offers discounted designer stuff; H&M and Zara are just around the corner.
Erzsebet Christmas market under the ferris wheel
I often find myself having a late lunch in this market on my way to the Danube because the choices of Hungarian specialties are just endless.
The second biggest market is in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, a few blocks from Vorosmarty Square. It has more products than food compared to the former. You’ll find soaps, hand-poured candles and handmade Christmas ornaments here. A few blocks away going toward Andrassy utca—the two-kilometer avenue of posh shops and embassies—is the Erzsebet Christmas market under the shadow of the ferris wheel, where you’ll be greeted by artisanal stalls that sell chocolate balls with flavors like paprika and cannabis-infused chocolate bars.
One thing you shouldn’t miss eating in Budapest, Christmas season or not, is the chimney cake which is made by rolling the dough around a wooden spit and cooked by rotating it over hot cinders. After it’s cooked, it’s rolled in the flavor of your choice—cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, walnut, coconut, etc.
You don’t even have to ask where chimney cake is available. Just follow your nose. You won’t miss it because it smells so heavenly.
The main Christmas market at Ban Jelačić Square
Like Budapest, Zagreb has a traditional pastry that’s available all over the city: fritule. They’re the size of large squid balls and served in plastic glasses or paper boxes straight from the fryer.
The first time I ordered one from a stall, I asked what was inside it. I was told “nothing.” I said, “There has to be something.” But, indeed, there is nothing. Fritules are Croatian donuts or fritters (like the French beignets) and are mostly eaten as is, while some stalls give you the option of drizzle them with Nutella or roll them in cinnamon or sugar.
Along with fritule are Croatian sausages flavored with different spices and štrukli or pastries with soft cheese.
Zagreb’s main Christmas market is located at Ban Jelačić Square, the city’s most famous and biggest public square. The square is named after Josip Jelačić, considered Croatia’s national hero. As a ban (viceroy or governor) of Croatia when it was under the Austrian Empire, he helped crush the Hungarian nationalist revolt in 1848.
At Christmastime, his statue is surrounded by children playing, adults getting warmed by their whiskey, cocktails and rakija (fruit brandy in Balkan countries).
Just off the main square are shopping streets with pubs and bistros that offer al fresco seating equipped with heating lamps, and cocktail tables. Zrinjevac Park is also transformed with lights and décor, and wooden huts selling more food and drinks.
Zagreb has the most stalls for drinks that I’ve seen—and I don’t mean just mulled wine. You can have your gin and tonic, whiskey or mojito—but warm in keeping with the season’s tradition. (Again, not a fan of hot gin.)
In front of Ljubljana Cathedral or St. Nicholas Church
Ljubljana gets its nickname the “City of Dragons” from the legend of its founding: by the Greek mythological hero Jason and his Argonauts (their ship was named Argo), who stole the golden fleece from King Aetes and fled across the Black Sea and up the Danube, Sava and Ljubljanica rivers.
Legend has it that they stopped near the source of Ljubljanica river, “where they disassembled their ship to be able to carry it to the Adriatic Sea, put it together again, and return to Greece. The lake where they made a stop was the dwelling place of a monster. Jason fought the monster, defeated it and killed it. The monster, now referred to as the Ljubljana Dragon, found its place atop the castle tower on the Ljubljana coat of arms.”
It’s a romantic story that’s still very much revered in Slovenia.
Ljubljana has two famous bridges: Dragon Bridge and Triple Bridge under which Ljubljanica flows—and somewhere in between is the city’s main Christmas market.
Just a few steps from the Christmas market is a whole row of bars and bistros by the Ljubljanica river.
Made of stone, Triple Bridge is a beautiful piece of design that replaced a wooden medieval bridge. It’s so unique with its massive stone balustrades and lamps, and yes, it is actually three pedestrian bridges that connect the historical part of the city to the northwestern bank.
Ljubljana’s Christmas market is in front of the cathedral or St. Nicholas Church on the right bank of Ljubljanica. The food stalls here offer winter shots of pelinkovac or bitter liqueur based on wormwood; zabji kraki ocvrti or fried frog legs; jota with sauerkraut or soup made of beans, sauerkraut or sour turnip, potatoes, bacon, spare ribs; and jabolcni zavitek or apple strudel.
Like in Zagreb, I ate most of the time during my stay in Ljubljana at the Christmas market, and the cozy bistros on the riverbank. The area around Triple Bridge is a lovely place to walk around and get a taste of how the Balkan countries are so different from Central Europe.
Basel’s Münsterplatz Christmas market is decidedly for families.
There are two large Christmas markets in Basel—considered the culture capital of Switzerland and home to Kuntsmuseum—and they have a totally different vibe.
The first is near the Rhine river at Münsterplatz or the square fronting the Basel Cathedral (Basler Münster). The atmosphere here is for families. Children are catching bubbles from Santa Claus; there is music, there are rides; there are wooden huts that sell Christmas ornaments carved by hand on wood and plaster.
The second, much larger and livelier market is at Barfüsserplatz. There are also rides for children, and like Colmar, there are more products than food in Barfüsserplatz with quite a few stalls selling winter wear. There is even one selling lanterns that it looks like your local Manila Christmas shop. Soaps, home accessories, Christmas ornaments, you name it.
My hotel is right smack in the middle of the Christmas market’s food section. Literally, every time I step out the door I can smell the raclette and glühwein (German for mulled wine). They serve raclette on real china and utensils (with a deposit of 3 Swiss francs) and you get to watch it being scraped from the raclonette. It’s a mesmerizing, mouthwatering sight to see the cheese falling slowly onto your plate.
There is also one stall selling hotdog fondue: Swiss sausage dipped in fondue and encased in a warm baguette, which is so delicious and practical to eat given the wall-to-wall crowd. The Swiss do think of everything to make it more efficient.
You must try läckerli or Swiss gingerbread, and flammkuchen or German pizza(I tried the cheese and potato, and cheese and onion—yes, potato on pizza dough!).
After Basel, I traveled by train to Grindelwald, which doesn’t have a Christmas market. That surprised me, until I realized the entire town surrounded by the Swiss alps is a Christmas postcard by itself. But that’s another story.