Advertisement

The European towns and cities that are magical at Christmas

Nowhere does festive charm quite like mainland Europe.

With its chilly weather and gothic sensibilities, the continent, particularly its northern region, is ideal for those searching for a perfect winter wonderland during this time of year.

From Austria’s Vienna, to Sweden’s Gothenburg, here are the European towns and cities that revel in Christmas like no other place.

Vienna, Austria

The Austrian capital is packed full of festive charm at Christmas time. - Lisi Niesner/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The Austrian capital is packed full of festive charm at Christmas time. - Lisi Niesner/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The beautiful Austrian capital oozes festive charm come the end of the year.

And while the towering Christmas tree and iconic Christmas market based outside the spectacular Rathaus, Vienna’s City Hall, are essential stop offs, Spittelberg market definitely ups the ante.

Gorgeous handicrafts and handmade sweaters are just some of the treats on offer at the festive stalls set among the streets of the Biedermeier Quarter.

Visitors can grab a gluhwein and take a slow stroll, while marveling at how the architecture seems tailor-made for the holidays.

Hallstatt, Austria

On the banks of Hallstätter See and surrounded by soaring Alpine peaks, the town of Hallstatt and its stunning landscape enjoy UNESCO protection.

The 16th-century townhouses, tiny lanes and virtual guarantee of snow come Christmas make this the ultimate destination for getting into the festive mood.

Hallstatt’s Christmas market, centered around the Market Square, is the stuff of legend.

Picture a brightly lit tree, a nativity scene crafted by local woodworking experts and stalls selling decorations, handicrafts and mulled wine and you’re halfway to imagining just how special this spot is.

Tromsø, Norway

This fairytale Austrian town provides much winter magic come this time of year. - Diana Robinson Photography/Moment RF/Getty Images
This fairytale Austrian town provides much winter magic come this time of year. - Diana Robinson Photography/Moment RF/Getty Images

Tromso’s status as a cultural hub has long been assured, with its stunning Arctic Cathedral the home of regular concerts and events.

But it’s over the festive season, when there is no daylight, that the city, located high above the Arctic Circle, becomes a must-see.

The streets are bedecked with lights, while Christmas market stalls are dotted everywhere, including next to the Mack Brewery, the most northerly brewery in the world.

Visitors can sip on a beer or a hot chocolate from Rakettkiosken on the main square, where there’s a fire pit for warmth, before taking the cable car above the city to catch a glimpse of aurora borealis, or the northern lights.

Colmar, France

There are plenty of wonderful Christmas markets to be found all over Europe. But few capture the imagination or revel in a fairytale setting quite like that of Colmar, in the Alsace region of France.

No less than six themed markets can be found in the center, linked by illuminated streets, where cozy wooden chalets are packed tightly together. The result is truly remarkable.

At around 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a children’s choir takes to the local canal, known as Petite Venise, or Little Venice, singing carols and providing even more holiday cheer.

Rudesheim, Germany

This riverside town in Germany's Rhine Valley is a great destination to visit at Christmas time. - Elizabeth Beard/Moment Unreleased RF/Getty Images
This riverside town in Germany's Rhine Valley is a great destination to visit at Christmas time. - Elizabeth Beard/Moment Unreleased RF/Getty Images

Situated in the heart of the Rhine Valley’s wine-making country, Rudesheim am Rhine is a top destination throughout the year.

However, once the night draws in and Christmas comes into view, the town, a short boat or train ride from Frankfurt, takes on a special atmosphere.

Those arriving by riverboat can hop on the free shuttle that runs from the water’s edge to the Christmas Market of Nations, which is filled with stalls selling gifts and traditional festive dishes from across the globe.

The town’s medieval buildings and alleyways ensure everything retains a classic festive feel.

Sipping on a Rudesheimer coffee, made with whipped cream, shaved chocolate and brandy is a surefire way to keep out the chill.

Bruges, Belgium

Filled with medieval architecture, cobblestone streets and canals, Bruges is at its most beautiful during the festive season. - Garden Photo World / Alamy Stock/https://www.alamy.com/Alamy Stock Photo
Filled with medieval architecture, cobblestone streets and canals, Bruges is at its most beautiful during the festive season. - Garden Photo World / Alamy Stock/https://www.alamy.com/Alamy Stock Photo

Once a vital trading metropolis, Bruges’ UNESCO-protected medieval center is filled with buildings that resemble gingerbread houses once the festive lights are strung up.

Each year, the annual Winter Glow festival transforms the entire city into one big festive celebration.

There are two Christmas markets, a light trail and, best of all, a floating ice rink on Minnewater, the Lake of Love.

All visitors should indulge in a delicious Belgian hot chocolate paired with a waffle. There’s no finer way to get into the spirit of the season.

Gothenburg, Sweden

The Liseberg Christmas Market, set in a historic amusement park, is among Gothenburg's stand-out festive attractions. - klug-photo/iStock Editorial/Getty Images
The Liseberg Christmas Market, set in a historic amusement park, is among Gothenburg's stand-out festive attractions. - klug-photo/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

Sweden’s ultimate Christmas city, Gothenburg is chock-full of festive surprises for those willing to venture north and brave the Scandinavian chill. And chief among them is the Liseberg Christmas Market.

Set in an amusement park celebrating its centenary in 2023, visitors can enjoy rides here and taste delicacies from across the country, including pickled herring, reindeer prepared by indigenous reindeer herders and glögg spiced wine.

The city’s three-kilometer Lane of Lights, which stretches from Liseberg to the harbor, is also well worth exploring.

Visit on December 13 for Luciatåg and witness traditional St. Lucia concerts, when locals dress in white robes and celebrate the day of the Catholic saint, who is considered a symbol of light in the darkness.

The long-running annual tradition is said to be inspired by celebrations of the winter solstice.

Tbilisi, Georgia

For those who just can’t let go of Christmas, Georgia, and its capital Tbilisi in particular, should be their number one festive destination.

The country is majority Orthodox Christian and follows the Georgian rather than Julian calendar, meaning Christmas falls on January 7 rather than December 25.

While festivities continue well into the New Year, the main day of celebration here is December 31, when locals exchange gifts and a wild, impromptu fireworks display lights up the city.

The vast New Year tree outside the old Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue and the nearby Christmas villages and markets are among Tbilisi’s other festive highlights.

The icy weather adds to the occasion somewhat, as do the light displays all over town.

Valkenburg, Netherlands

This Dutch village is known for its popular Christmas Caves. - Jasper Kroese/Eleven Media/Visit Zuid-Limburg
This Dutch village is known for its popular Christmas Caves. - Jasper Kroese/Eleven Media/Visit Zuid-Limburg

Valkenburg, in the southern Netherlands, has much of the usual European Christmas charms to entice visitors: lights, trees, stalls and gluhwein galore.

However, what makes it special is the fact they can all be found underground.

The town’s Christmas Caves have become internationally renowned, with a wide range of stalls selling festive gifts and decorations.

The larger Municipality Cave is home to one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe, while the Velvet Cave, which dates back to around the 11th or 12th century, was used as a mine for the stone used to build Valkenburg’s castle. The site also acted as a shelter during World War II.

Rovaniemi, Finland

While open year-round, the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, is particularly magical during winter. - Petr Svancara/AP
While open year-round, the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, is particularly magical during winter. - Petr Svancara/AP

Located up in Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi is magnificent for all sorts of reasons.

Bright and wondrous displays of the northern lights, the traditions of the indigenous Sámi people and easy access to Finland’s amazing sauna culture are just a few.

However, as the year ends, the town revels in the fact that it is the home of Santa Claus.

While visitors can go to Rovaniemi’s Santa Claus village all year round, the combination of both the snow and the good cheer across town as Christmas Day looms, makes things seem all the more magical.

Wrocław, Poland

Wrocław is regarded as one of Poland’s most beautiful cities, but it takes things to another level at Christmas.

The city’s Christmas market, spread across Plac Solny and Market Square, is home to over 250 stalls, as well as a superb fair and twinkling light installations.

The architecture here captures that Christmas feeling too, with gothic structures meaning everyone can tap into that special feeling that only comes round at this time of year.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is home to the annual Reiterlesmarkt, a Christmas market named after the mythical "Reiterle" figure. - Joerg Koch/DDP/AFP/Getty Images
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is home to the annual Reiterlesmarkt, a Christmas market named after the mythical "Reiterle" figure. - Joerg Koch/DDP/AFP/Getty Images

The striking architecture of this quintessentially German town in the heart of Bavaria is enough to give it a Christmas feel whatever time of year you visit. But the annual Reiterlesmarkt is really what makes it stand out.

The “Reiterle,” also known as the little horseback rider, is a mythical figure said to have visited the town during winter for thousands of years.

His arrival is part of Christmas tradition here, hence the market being named in his honor.

The result is a fantastical space that revels in its history and the simple pleasures of hearty food and warm alcohol.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com