Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets rival those in Western Europe—and they’ve been getting better each year, with Vilnius’s Christmas tree having ranked in Europe’s most beautiful trees for many years and other Christmas markets in the region being rated among the best for travelers to visit. If you are planning a trip to Eastern Europe in December, you may be anticipating the Christmas markets the most! These tips for Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets will help you enjoy them to the fullest.
What to Expect from Eastern Europe’s Christmas Markets
As you probably know, Christmas markets in Eastern Europe are great places to shop for gifts. You’ll find handmade items, winter clothing and accessories such as knitted mittens, jewelry, ceramics, wooden toys, Christmas ornaments, and all manner of traditional crafts.
At Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets, you’ll also be able to sample local food and drink. Hot items may include sausages and sauerkraut, hot spirits, mulled wine, potato dishes, dumplings, and soups. You’ll also be able to enjoy pastries, gingerbread, and other snacks. Plenty of vendors will sell locally produced honey, tea, or perishable items such as cheese and meat.
In addition, Christmas markets are typically hubs of culture and activities. Whether it’s a visit from Santa Claus, a Christmas choir singing hymns, games or demonstrations, or a Ferris Wheel or skating rink, you’ll never be bored at Christmas markets in Eastern Europe. Holiday traditions in Eastern Europe are on full display at Christmas markets!
Where to Find the Best Christmas Markets in Eastern Europe
You can typically count on capital cities in Eastern Europe to host at least one Christmas market, often in a central square, though smaller Christmas markets may take place for a shorter duration in other parts of the city. Other cities throughout these countries will also have their own versions of Christmas markets.
Christmas Markets in Hungary
Think Budapest and beyond when you consider Hungarian Christmas markets. Show-stopping decorations, delicious holiday scents, and festive music are characteristic of the main Christmas markets, while a design market caters to those looking for fashion and accessories made by local designers. Head to other historic Hungarian cities, such as Eger, Pecs, and Szeged for equally remarkable markets.
Christmas Markets in Poland
Poland and Christmas markets just seem to go together. From Warsaw’s beautifully lit examples in Old Town and other parts of the city to Krakow’s festive nativity scenes, you’ll be dazzled by the holiday spirit found in Poland’s Christmas markets. But do check out other cities in Poland for Christmas markets that will impress. For example, Poznan, Gdansk, Torun, and Katowice are also known for putting on Christmassy displays, attracting shoppers and tourists alike.
Christmas Markets in Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius wouldn’t be Vilnius without its sweet, well-thought-out Christmas markets. Cathedral Square makes space for the main one, but just a short walk away, you’ll also find one on Town Hall Square—both boast Christmas trees reflecting imaginative themes. Indoor markets take place at shopping centers, and the Design Square focuses on Lithuanian design. Christmas markets in Vilnius make for a memorable trip to Lithuania.
Christmas Markets in Riga, Latvia
If you’ve ever visited Riga, you know its European charm makes it the perfect setting for Christmas markets. Several Riga Christmas markets appear throughout the city, and the Christmas tree, a centuries-long tradition in Latvia, takes center stage. You’ll feel warmed by the sights and sounds of Christmas in the Latvian capital.
Christmas Markets in Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city is where most people head for Christmas festivities—Estonian culture is on full display here during the month of December. However, though they are less known by visitors, Tartu, Parnu, and Paide all have Christmas markets, as well. You can enjoy exploring the country using Estonian Christmas markets as destination points.
Christmas Markets in the Czech Republic
What could be more beautiful than a Christmas market in the center of Prague? (By the way, Prague’s Christmas markets are often considered the best Christmas markets in Eastern Europe.) Or what about Cesky Krumlov or Karlovy Vary? Czech Christmas markets are full of magic, sparkle, and good things to eat and drink. You’ll come away with lovely photographs, interesting souvenirs, and warm memories.
Tips for Visiting Eastern Europe’s Christmas Markets
Tip #1: Dress for the Weather
One of the most important aspects to consider for Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets is how cold it will be. Of course, it pays to check the extended weather forecast for your destination city during the packing stages of your trip preparation, but also generally consider average temperatures and precipitation for that time of year for wherever you’re headed.
It only makes sense that the most northern cities—Tallinn, St. Petersburg—may see the coldest temperatures and most unforgiving winters, but climate change is making the seasons ever more unpredictable, and so what was consistently true in the past weather-wise may no longer hold.
However, it is also worth considering how you, in particular, react to certain weather phenomena. For example, maybe you’re fine if your core is well-insulated. On the flip side, maybe it’s your extremities that feel the freeze first.
Also consider that Christmas markets are not the most active of events. You’ll stroll, you’ll look, and you may be slowed by crowds. You won’t do a lot of moving in order to stay warm. And if you’re in a city square waiting for the lighting of the Christmas tree standing on concrete, you may feel colder even faster.
Tip #2: Take Cash in Addition to a Credit Card
It won’t be a given that vendors at Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets will accept credit cards. Keep the local currency on hand if you plan to buy gifts or souvenirs, and keep an eye out for the nearest ATM in the event you need more.
The fact of the matter is that some craftspeople or other vendors are from out of town, coming to large markets only seasonally, or run very tight ships, so the extra cost or hassle of a card reader doesn’t make sense for them. Older vendors—those who have honed their craft and are keeping alive a family or national tradition—also may not want to bother with card readers.
Using smaller bills and coins for less expensive purchases is always appreciated because the seller may not have exact or enough change for larger bills.
Tip #3: Bring Your Own Bag
While some staff at booths at Christmas markets will have bags on hand for their customers, others will fail to provide such convenience. Be sure to bring your own reusable bag to carry your purchases in.
Furthermore, if you think you may make a fragile purchase, it helps to think ahead about what kind of packing materials you will need. While shops in city centers selling souvenir porcelain or ceramics may provide bubble wrap if you say you need to take your purchase on a plane, it is less likely you will get such assistance at an open-air market.
Tip #4: Watch Your Belongings
Especially at the most crowded Christmas markets, you should watch your wallet, phone, and purse to protect against pickpockets. Avoid flashing money around and try to keep your cash in a couple of separate pockets to minimize your risk of losing it all should you encounter a thief. Keep your passport and other valuables locked in the hotel room safe.
Tip #5: Sample Local Cuisine
Christmas markets in Eastern Europe provide a fun opportunity to sample local cuisine. Each country has its own version of mulled wine, preferred winter spirit, piping hot pastries, and favorite finger foods. You may also be able to try local sausages or smoked meat or fish, cheeses, potato dishes, or stews. Christmas cakes and cookies—especially the ubiquitous and fancifully decorated gingerbread—will also be readily available.
Furthermore, you’ll be able to take home with you jars of honey and jam, boxes of local teas, and bags of dried mushrooms or herbs.
Tip #6: Talk to the Vendors
While not all vendors will speak English, some will be happy to answer all your questions about whatever it is they are selling. They may provide a demonstration for how their craft is produced, invite you to visit their workshop or studio, direct you to their website or social media account, or be able to take special orders.
They can also fill you in on the history of the craft, talk to you about their own relationship with it, and offer tips for care and cleaning or general use about the product or piece of art.
Tip #7: Make a List, Check it Twice
If you plan to purchase gifts for friends and family, it helps to make a list of the people you are buying for and check them off once you’ve found the perfect gift (maybe even making a note about what gift you have found for them). Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets can be overwhelming, and you may be so excited about the choices there that you will forget someone essential or buy for them twice.
The best way is to be organized, make a note of gifts and people, and review it before your trip is over so that if anyone is left you know to keep an eye out for other gifts.
Tip #8: Take Your Time
You may have a tight plan for your time in your destination city, but Christmas markets are unique opportunities to experience seasonal traditions, get into the local Christmas spirit, and enjoy yourself in a way that wouldn’t be possible at any other time of year. Therefore, take your time to enjoy this once-a-year event! You’ll come away with unique memories and souvenirs.
Furthermore, you may have planned your trip especially around your Christmas market visits, and so you should take full advantage of them. You may even want to split your visit into a couple of days so that you don’t feel rushed and overwhelmed by activities and opportunities to shop for gifts.
Tip #9: Take Note of Events Calendars
Most Christmas markets in Eastern Europe are organized around a calendar of events. These types of events could include a visit from Santa, concerts, Christmas carol singing, or demonstrations. Such events can add a special element to your travel memories. Best of all, they’re often free! Cities hosting Christmas markets often post their calendar of events online, so you can check ahead to time your visit with a particular concert, performance, or other event.
Tip #10: Visit Smaller Christmas Markets
Most capital cities in Eastern Europe have multiple Christmas markets. Some are outdoors on historic squares and others are set up in malls and shopping centers. It’s worth checking out these less-visited Christmas markets: they may offer a different variety of things to purchase. Those that are held indoors will be welcome in rough weather.
Another benefit of visiting less-known Christmas markets is that you will see other parts of the city and not be confined to the center, typically where most of the Christmas action happens. You can enjoy the beauty of smaller Christmas trees and the decorations of cozy neighborhoods.
You may also consider visiting Christmas markets in nearby cities or towns. These markets may have a more neighborhood feel. And while they will most certainly be smaller, they will still exude the charm and warmth of Christmas markets all over Europe. You may combine this visit with sightseeing in that city or town or dinner away from the capital.