It’s a dark winter night in Vienna, but Schönbrunn Palace is a sea of twinkling lights. Nestled in the courtyard at the 1,441-room Hapsburg palace is one of my favorite Christmas markets.
Visiting a Christmas market is a magical experience, and in Europe, they’re a beloved tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages. Today, going to a Christmas market with friends and family is a cornerstone of the holiday season.
Christkindl markets are enchanting to visitors, too. As I wander through tidy rows of wooden stalls cradling a cup of hot cocoa in my mittened hands, I catch the scent of warm gingerbread in the air. I pass vendors selling handcrafted ornaments, textiles and pottery, while a children’s choir sings carols in the distance.
Vienna has 20 Christmas markets, but they can be found all over Europe. Many are in towns along the Danube. One of the best ways to visit Christmas markets is by river cruise. AmaWaterways, Viking, and others offer holiday river cruises.
Since visiting my first Christmas market as an exchange student to Austria, I’ve gone back again and again. Here are a few of my favorite Christmas markets along the Danube.
Light tram in Budapest. Szirtesi/iStock.com
The Hungarian capital is beautiful any time of year, but at Christmastime, it really shines. At the Vörösmarty Square Christmas market, all products are traditionally handmade. You’ll find exquisite leather, woodworking, pottery, textile and fabric art, ceramics, and jewelry. Local bands play Hungarian folk music, and vendors sell Hungarian goulash and other dishes that are perfect for a winter night.
THE WACHAU VALLEY IN AUSTRIA
One popular stop on a holiday river cruise is Austria’s beautiful Wachau Valley. This 24-mile stretch of river is home to the small towns of Melk, Dürnstein, and Krems. In the spring, the region is best known as wine country, with terraced vineyards covering the hillsides.
During the holidays, each town dons its seasonal finery. One must-visit location is Göttweig Abbey, a stunning baroque Benedictine monastery that overlooks the Wachau Valley. Visiting the small Christmas market at the abbey is a perfect way to kick off the season.
Linz at Christmas. By Flavo Vallenari/iStock.com
When you visit a Christmas market in Linz, you’ll catch the sweet smell of Linzer Torte, a traditional Austrian pastry named for the city.
Follow your nose through the rows at the Christmas market on the Baroque Main Square, and you’ll find delicious foods like brats, pretzels, and candied almonds, as well as hot drinks to warm your soul. Glühwein is a popular favorite. Hot mulled wine is made with red or white wine using cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and other spices.
Passau in Bavaria, Germany. By Eurotravel/iStock.com
This 2,000-year-old city on the confluence of three rivers is home to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which has the largest pipe organ in Europe with 17,000 pipes. If you time your visit just right, you’ll catch one of their bi-weekly holiday concerts.
You’ll also hear traditional folk music at the German Christmas market with instruments like the zither and dulcimer. Be sure to try Sengzelten, a local favorite specialty with fresh fruit dipped in chocolate.
Regensburg´s Christmas Market. By Juergen Sack/iStock.com
The ancient town of Regensburg is home to one of the most romantic Christmas Markets. The holiday market at the Thurn and Taxis Palace seems like it came straight from a fairy tale. Twinkling white and purple lights add a magical glow to the rows of stalls in the courtyard. Families and friends gather around firepits, drinking glühwein and enjoying time together.
Neuburg on the Danube. By Benjamin Rader
NEUBURG AN DER DONAU, GERMANY
Home to 30,000 residents, Neuburg an der Donau has a picturesque location overlooking the Danube. The town’s winding cobblestone streets are narrow, with tidy homes painted in muted pastels. The Neuburger Christkindlmarkt in the town square offers quiet, smalltown charm.
Nativity museum oberstadion by Benjamin Rader
Nativity scenes are a treasured symbol of a German Christmas, and the tiny town of Oberstadion, population 1,500, has an entire museum devoted to nativity scenes.
The museum is housed in a barn from 1612 and has more than 160 nativity scenes. The oldest crèche at the Nativity Museum is from 1850. Oberstadion has a small Christmas market.
Christmas Market in Ulm. By Bim/iStock.com
The twin cities of Ulm and New Ulm are across the Danube from each other. Each has their own Christmas market with its own style. The Ulm Christmas market is large, with row after row of narrow cobblestone lanes lined with lit stalls selling everything from ornately shaped chocolates to wool sweaters. In normal times, the market receives more than 1 million visitors a season.
Christmas Market in Nuremberg. By Juergen Sack/iStock.com
The Nuremberg Christmas market is perhaps the best known of all. Located in the town square, it has a bustling, medieval atmosphere. Nuremberg was once an important stop on the historic spice route where merchants transported spices like ginger and cinnamon from afar. Perhaps that’s why the town is well-known for its gingerbread.
Buy some delicious Nuremberg bratwurst, a hot cup of glühwein, and some Nuremberg Lebkuchen and you’ll have the perfect Christmas market dinner. Christmas is something special in Germany and visiting a Christmas market is the perfect way to celebrate the season.