Everyone knows about the legendary German Christmas markets - glühwein and feuerzangenbowle, the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store, bratwurst and currywurst stalls. For my family, Christmas isn't the same without visiting Bonn, Cologne or one of the many German markets located within driving distance of the Amsterdam area.
However, over the years, we have started to travel further afield during the holiday season, and we have discovered some amazing locations outside of Germany which help us get into the holiday spirit. I hope you find inspiration for a future trip and enjoy the mini-tour of — drumroll, please— my top five places to visit during the Christmas season.
Step back in time in Matera, Italy
Many of you might be asking, "what and where is Matera"? While Matera in Basilicata (and I'll add Lecce, in Puglia) aren't the first cities that spring to mind for a Christmas location, I have included this UNESCO World Heritage Site as a must-visit due to the incredible Living Nativity Matera Edition presentation in the ancient Sasso district of Matera. Hosted by the city of Matera during December, over 400 volunteers re-enact the Nativity story in a setting which evokes ancient Bethlehem. It is an amazing and surreal experience to walk through the sassi (stone houses) of the ancient city. Christmas markets are located around town and also in towns across the region (ie. Lecce in Puglia). My husband and I stayed at the wonderful Locanda di San Martino in the Sasso Barisano. You need at least four days to visit and explore this hidden treasure of Italy. The easiest way to get there is to fly to either Bari or Brindisi and rent a car to drive an hour to Matera. This is a Christmas experience you will never forget.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - and he's in Helsinki
Helsinki is an off-the-beaten-path location for traveling at Christmas. With various markets - including a big Christmas market - located throughout the city, it is the only place where I have actually visited an outdoor fur market. Which - if you think about it - is logical in Finland. Add snow and cold, beautiful harbors and majestic buildings which mirror the architecture of classic St Petersburg, Russia and you have a perfect December holiday destination. The bonus when I visited in December: I actually did meet Santa Claus as he and Mrs. Claus arrived at the airport and were greeted by local television crews. My favorite place to stay is the Hilton Helsinki Strand.
Fun for Kids: Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
London is a great city to visit any time of year, but at Christmas, one highlight for children from two to 92 is Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. It has it all in one location: ice skating, an ice bar (adults only!), attractions, beer tents, a Christmas circus....the list goes on. Once you have tired of the Hyde Park crowds (yes, it is crowded!), there are 101 other Christmas markets and holiday activities to keep you busy in the City of Dickens.
It's better in Budapest
Budapest is one of the must-visit cities for millennials right now, and during the holiday season, you can see why it is top of the list. The Christmas Market on Vorosmarty Square (the main square) has its own unique Hungarian feel - fabulous handmade items and local crafts, great holiday delicacies, concerts, light shows, performances and more. The city is decked with holiday charm, dining is amazing (and often surprisingly affordable) and - if you are lucky - you might be able to soak in one of the famous outdoor spas under falling snow. It is an easy weekend destination: my favorite hotel is the Boscolo Budapest, but you can find a host of locations at any price range.
Seasonal serenity in Strasbourg
Strasbourg at Christmas is high on my "Christmas market x-factor" list for many reasons:
- the markets continue to Dec 30 (German Christmas markets usually end on the 23rd);
- It's an easy drive or train ride (via a connection in either Cologne or Paris); and
- with Strasbourg hosting its first Christmas market in the 12th century, it is one of the oldest, ongoing Christmas market towns in Europe
....and of course, the food and wine are just SO great!
Explore over 300 chalets and 20+ markets across the city. Every year, there is a "guest country" market which highlights its unique holiday traditions: this year, the host country is Iceland. Our family loved staying at the funky, half-timbered Hotel de L'Europe.