Christmastime in Europe is unlike anywhere else, with the cobblestone streets and decorated city centers.
The sheer spectacle of Christmas cheer on display captures this celebrated holiday's warm, giving spirit. Steeped in centuries of tradition, Christmastime events in many European countries possess a rich authenticity that make Europe a must-see destination for travelers during the holiday season.
Here are three things tourists should know about this time of year in Europe: Europe’s most popular Christmas traditions, the best destinations during Christmas Time, and the most Christmassy place of all.
What Are Some Popular European Christmas Traditions?
Christmas traditions in Europe extend far back through history; some traditions originated before European people even celebrated Christmas.
After more than a millennium of European Christmas celebrations, these are some of the most popular Christmas traditions embraced across Europe to this day to look for on your trip.
See the Local Christmas Trees
From sprawling, modern metropolises to quaint Medieval towns, wherever you go for your Christmas trip to Europe, you’re guaranteed to see a decorated Christmas tree on display. The decoration of trees with twinkling lights is one of the oldest Christmas traditions and a staple of the holiday season.
Germany is credited as the first country to decorate Christmas trees as we know them today: 16th-century reformer Martin Luther is considered the originator of the tradition after he purportedly affixed candles to a tree for the first time.
The decorating of evergreen trees during the winter is a tradition far older: the Druids of ancient Europe, the Romans, and even the ancient Egyptians had tree decorating traditions.
Stroll through the center of any European city or town at Christmastime and see their Christmas tree, the season's hallmark. You can’t miss the Christmas carols, as well.
Attend the Local Christmas Market
The Christmas Market has a long history in Europe. The first Christmas Market is believed to have started in late Middle Ages Germany.
They tend to run the whole month leading up to Christmas. The best Christmas markets coincide with the Advent Calendar, usually starting in the last week of November until Christmas.
Christmas Markets are signature attractions for European cities during Christmastime, and they will truly get you in the Christmas spirit. They are centers of holiday extravaganza, filled with vendors selling winter wares, seasonal delicacies and drinks, one-of-a-kind ornaments and handicrafts, and more.
Christmas markets have everything to make the holiday season special, including amusement rides for children, carousels, ice skating rinks, and opportunities to meet traditional holiday figures.
Treat Yourself to Traditional Christmas Food and Drink
The Christmas holidays are well-known for their myriad food and drinks enjoyed exclusively during the holidays. These distinctive flavors of the season are Christmas fixtures that go hand-in-hand with the celebration of the holiday:
A favorite among Germans, lebkuchen are sweet, slightly spicy biscuits commonly found in Christmas Markets across Germany. The gingerbread flavor of these treats never fails to satisfy during the holiday season.
These S-shaped sweet buns are a classic Christmas food in Sweden. They have a complex blend, a flavor owed to their saffron-infused dough mixed with a sweet tang from the baked-in raisins.
Nothing warms the body and spirit like a piping hot cup of gluhwein; a German mulled wine and staple item across Europe’s Christmas markets. Gluhwein’s blend of cinnamon, cloves, honey, and orange makes it a popular drink that brightens the winter days.
Madeleines are festive sponge cakes that hail from France. Traditionally flavored with vanilla and orange zest, they go great with a hot cup of cocoa.
Perhaps the most beloved holiday drink of all, hot chocolate is a must-have beverage at Christmastime. European-style hot chocolate has a rich chocolatey flavor that brings people all over the world to the continent.
What Are the Best European Christmas Destinations?
Christmas is a cherished, season-long event that a wealth of European countries celebrate in their own signature way. Travellers headed to Europe for the Christmas season can be overwhelmed by the many different locales and their myriad attractions.
To help you decide your choices for the ideal Christmas Time destination, here are some of the best places you should consider:
- Dresden, Germany
- Nuremberg, Germany
- Strasbourg, France
- Gothenburg, Sweden
To abide by travel protocols for these countries, learn about who needs ETIAS before booking your trip.
Visit Dresden, Germany at Christmas Time
Dresden’s relatively small size lends it a distinguished charm that appeals to travellers who want a more intimate holiday experience. As the city begins its Christmas festivities in late November, Dresden transforms into one of Germany’s most alluring locations for an authentic holiday experience.
Christmas Attractions To See in Dresden
- Attend Striezelmarkt, Europe’s Oldest Christmas Market
- Visit Nearby Altenberg for Winter Sports
- See the City’s Christmas Lights From Atop the Frauenkirche
Attend Striezelmarkt, Europe’s Oldest Christmas Market
Striezelmarkt’s storied history began in 1434 when the market opened on the Monday preceding Christmas. For one day only, the market was opened primarily to sell meat to local Dresdeners to break their Advent fasting period.
Centuries later, Stiezelmarkt’s legacy endures; the longest continuously operated Christmas market hosts 240 stands and sees millions of visitors yearly.
Visit Nearby Altenberg for Outdoor Winter Activities
Altenberg is a small German town just an hour and a half drive from Dresden. Located in Saxony’s Ore Mountains, Altenberg hosts several winter sports options for visitors who want to play in the snow. Altenberg is the perfect place to experience Saxony’s winter wonders with skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and spas.
See the City’s Christmas Lights from Atop the Frauenkirche
Dresden’s Frauenkirche is a remarkable Lutheran church in the city's center. From this marvel of Baroque-inspired architecture, visitors can take in arresting views of the city. The lights and decorations across Dresden are all the more captivating from this spectacular vantage.
Visit Nuremberg, Germany at Christmas Time
Tucked away in the southern German state of Bavaria, Nuremberg is Germany’s 14th largest city. By the end of November, it becomes one of the country’s most visited cities due to its world-famous Christmas festivities, solidifying Nuremberg’s reputation as one of Europe’s best holiday destinations.
Christmas Attractions in Nuremberg
- Tour Nuremberg’s Many Christmas Markets
- Look for the City’s Gold Angels
- Explore the International Sister Cities Market
Tour Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt
Nuremberg boasts one of Europe’s most historic Christmas Markets: Christkindlmarkt. Christkind became the gift-bearing spirit of the season in Lutheran tradition and switched the gift-giving on December 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day, to December 24th on Christmas Eve.
The Christkindlmarkt harkens back to Nuremberg’s historic role in our modern Christmas tradition — try the favorite local food at the market’s stalls: Nuremberg’s lebkuchen.
Look for The City’s Iconic Christmas Item: Raushchgoldengels
Nuremberg is defined by its signature Christmas features like the Raushgoldengels. Their history stems from a 17th woodcarver; grieving for the loss of his daughter, he created a marvelous gold-foil angel to remember her.
This metallurgical marvel became a symbol of Nuremberg. The Rauschgoldengel endures to this day: paper models are a best-seller at the Christkindlmarkt every year.
Explore the Sister Cities Market
Nuremberg hosts a unique Christmas market that sets this city apart from any other in Europe. The Sister Cities Market was first opened following World War II as an act of international friendship and openness.
The market has stalls from Nuremberg's sister cities, creating an international community of vendors worldwide celebrating the season of giving in harmony.
Visit Strasbourg, France at Christmastime
The French city of Strasbourg is the home of the European Parliament. When the holiday season approaches, its reputation as the Capital of Christmas defines this historic city, making it a must-see destination on Christmas day.
Christmas Attractions in Strasbourg
- See the Place Kléber Christmas Tree
- Explore Strasbourg’s Christmas Markets
- Enjoy the View from Strasbourg Cathedral
See the Place Kléber Christmas Tree
The Capital of Christmas boasts one of Europe’s most impressive Christmas trees. Place Kléber, Strasbourg’s largest main square hosts a massive Christmas tree decorated with a changing theme every year.
Symbolizing the season’s spirit of giving, Strasbourg locals leave gifts for the poor under the tree, lending credence to Strasbourg’s claim as the Capital of Christmas.
Explore Strasbourgs’ Christmas Markets
Strasbourg is home to the oldest Christmas Markets in France — dating back to 1570. Strasbourg's Christkindlmarkt hails back to the city’s conversion to Protestantism centuries ago.
Once a part of the German Rhineland, Strasbourg’s history is a rich blend of German and French culture; visitors can enjoy the best German Gluhwein and French madeleines in one place.
Enjoy the View from Strasbourg Cathedral
From 1647 to 1874, Strasbourg Cathedral was the tallest building in the world. This marvelous structure warrants a visit on its historical accolades alone.
During Christmas time, the cathedral is festooned with captivating decorations. From its towering vantage point, visitors can see the Capital of Christmas in all its splendor.
Visit Gothenburg, Sweden at Christmas Time
The second largest city in Sweden, Gothenburg is considered one of the best Christmas destinations in Scandinavia. Come December, Gothenburg epitomizes everything travellers love about a winter wonderland experience.
Christmas Attractions In Gothenburg
- Visit Festive Liseberg Amusement Park
- Explore Gothenburg’s Christmas Markets
- Celebrate Luciatåg, St. Lucia’s Day
Visit Festive Liseberg Amusement Park
Most outdoor amusement parks are closed by December; Liseberg Amusement Park in Gothenburg embraces the season and transforms into a bona fide winter wonderland. The park hosts a range of attractions like ice skating, ornate ice sculptures, and even roller coaster rides.
For a hearty meal to endure the winter chill, eat Swedish specialties like lussekatter at a traditional Swedish smorgasbord.
Explore Gothenburg’s Many Christmas Markets
Gothenburg is filled with Christmas Markets for visitors to explore. Liseberg Amusement Park hosts one of the city’s largest. The archipelago of Brännö becomes one massive Christmas Market replete with food and drinks to enjoy.
Take in the Christmas lights of the city wherever they lead — all powered by the renewable energy that makes Gothenburg the world’s most sustainable city.
Celebrate Luciatåg, St. Lucia’s Day
Luciatåg, or St. Lucia’s Day, falls on December 13th and is one of Gothenburg’s signature holiday events. A young woman dressed in white robes with a red sash is dubbed St. Lucia with a crown of Lingonberry branches and candles. This age-old tradition is a one-of-a-kind spectacle that defines Christmastime in Sweden.
Where Is the Most “Christmassy” Place in Europe? Rovaniemi, Finland
The award of “Most Christmassy Place in Europe '' faces stiff competition, but the ultimate winner of this seasonal accolade is Rovaniemi, Finland. Claimed as the official home of Santa Claus, Rovaniemi is one of the leading centers for Christmas tourism in the entire world due to its wealth of holiday attractions.
Christmas Attractions in Rovaniemi, Finland
- Visit the Santa Claus Village
- Enjoy Winter Activities in The Arctic Circle
- See the Northern Lights
Visit the Santa Claus Village
Just 8 km north of Rovaniemi is a one-of-a-kind amusement park: the Santa Claus Village. Located within the same municipality as the canonical home of Father Christmas, Rovaniemi put itself on the map by building an immersive Christmas-themed amusement park. Visitors can meet Santa himself at his office in the village.
Enjoy Winter Activities in The Arctic Circle
Rovaniemi has plenty of winter activities to enjoy in a unique locale: the Arctic Circle. The line demarcating the beginning of the Arctic Circle runs through the Santa Claus Village. Visitors can go snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and ice skating in a true winter wonderland unlike anywhere else in the world.
See the Northern Lights at Their Peak
Christmastime is the season of lights. For all the spectacular light shows that define the holiday season, nothing compares to the Northern Lights as seen up close and personal in Rovaniemi.
Between the white snows, the Christmas decorations of the Santa Claus Village, and the Northern Lights overhead, Rovaniemi is a compelling candidate for the world’s most Christmassy place — it is a real-life fairytale.
Are There Other European Places To Visit for Christmas?
While this list will surely bring you the holiday spirit, a few honorable mentions include:
- Vienna, Austria
- Rome, Italy
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Paris, France
- Bern, Switzerland
- Bruges, Belgium
- London, England
- Budapest, Hungary
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Dublin, Ireland
- Madrid, Spain
ETIAS Helps You Enjoy the Season’s Best
With increased travel security guidelines on the horizon, you may require ETIAS approval to enter many European countries. ETIAS is a visa waiver that grants access to Schengen Area countries like France, Germany, and Sweden.
Ensure that you can see all that Europe has to offer this holiday season, you can apply for ETIAS here when it's launched in 2025.