There’s nothing quite like a white Christmas, or at least a wintery Christmas, with all the things that go along with that - mulled wine, cozy fires, charming marketplaces, mulled wine by the cozy fire and charming marketplaces serving mulled wine.
Europe, with its snowy northern Decembers, regional seasonal specialties, quaint towns and cities, long-held traditions and mulled wine, makes an ideal setting to experience the perfect Christmas season getaway. Whether it’s a pre-Christmas trip to allow for a family celebration at home, or a holiday including the day itself in order to avoid one, any Christmas holiday could have no better location than one of these six European destinations. Grinches, be gone - these are only for the real Christmas lovers.
1 . Western Germany’s Christmas wonderland: Dusseldorf, Cologne, Dortmund, Aachen, Bonn and more
The western section of Germany which borders the Netherlands is a hotspot for Christmas lovers, boasting some incredible Christmas markets in a range of lovely cities. Pick up a car rental at Cologne Airport
, Dortmund Airport
or Dusseldorf Airport
and you’ll be well on your way to the most wonderful road trip of the year. Note: mulled wine in Germany is called “gluhwein”.
Dortmund kicks it off with Germany’s biggest tree - worth visiting for that sight alone. It’s 45 metres high and made up of 1,700 smaller fir trees. Drive south a little to Dusseldorf which boasts a free ice-skating rink and six themed markets with cute “gingerbread stalls,” and then on to Cologne. The city’s main markets are in the square beside the famous gothic cathedral, and when all lit up they are a spectacular and heartwarming sight.
The southernmost city in the cluster is Bonn, former capital of West Germany, which transforms its town hall into a giant advent calendar at Christmas time, lighting up one window each day. Then, head west towards the border where you will find Aachen, a pretty city which hosts a market in front of their own stunning town hall. The specialty here is Aachen Printen, a regional gingerbread.
2 . Paris and the Champs-Elysées
If you’re heading to Europe chances are you’ll want to go to Paris
anyway, and the Christmas trimmings will just be the icing on the cake. The “city of lights” they call it, and this title becomes more apt than ever when festive decorations are added to the mix.
The markets at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées are the centre of much of the action, with more than 150 lit-up stands between the Rond-point and the Place de la Concorde selling gifts, decorations, food, mulled wine and more. There are also smaller markets scattered throughout the city at Montmartre, Gare Saint Lazare, Place de la Nation and one particularly picturesque one in Trocadero with an outlook over the Eiffel Tower.
There are ice-skating rinks in various parts of Paris, such as the popular one in front of the Town Hall (Hôtel de Ville), and plenty of spots where you can go to see pretty lights: Avenue Montaigne, Place Vendôme and Bercy Village are just a few. If you have little ones with you, you can’t pass up a Christmastime trip to EuroDisney, a 35-minute journey on the RER A train. The enormous Christmas tree in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle will make their yuletide magical.
3 . Lapland, Finland
What better place to get into the Christmas spirit than the homeland of Santa Claus? Northern Finland, especially the region called Lapland, is the place to go to be guaranteed a white Christmas, with snowfall often starting in October. Pick up a car rental from Ivalo airport
and enjoy the freedom to explore the country's most magical, snow-dusted forests and mountains. The time between sunrise and sunset can be as short as an hour in December, meaning there is an atmospheric twilight feel all day long.
The Santa Claus village itself is found in Rovaniemi
, inside the Arctic Circle. The kids will love it, and so will the young-at-heart! From an extensive Christmas Exhibition to meetings with Santa at Christmas House and a Post Office where you can send specially-postmarked letters, it’s a wonderfully cheesy but enjoyable experience.
There are more things to do in Lapland beyond the Christmas Village: sleigh rides pulled by huskies, snowmobile excursions and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. Don’t forget to plan some time by the fire to listen to carols and enjoy the winter wonderland vistas through the window.
4 . Amsterdam and the Netherlands
Orderly and charming, the Netherlands is a great place for a quiet Christmas getaway - and it gets plenty of snow too, a bonus for anyone wanting the whole package. Amsterdam is of course the centre of the action. There you’ll find a majestic Christmas tree on Dam Square, markets in various places around the city, ice rinks set up at the Leidseplein and Museumplein and more. Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa, parades through the city on his white horse sometime in November, so keep an eye out for him.
For more Christmas markets in the Netherlands, the south is a good direction to head. Pick up a car rental in Amsterdam
and it’s a short drive to Maastricht
, where Vrijthof Square is home to a market, ice rink, carousel and all kinds of Christmas magic. Nearby is Valkenburg, a small and pretty city overlooked by the ruins of a castle, underneath which are once-secret passages and man-made caves excavated thousands of years ago. This underground labyrinth is the scene for Valkenburg’s cosy Christmas markets - a visit there combines history lesson and holiday shopping in one unforgettable package.
5 . Salzburg and Austria
Pretty Austria is a great place to experience that picture-postcard Christmas. Start in Salzburg
where the Cathedral forms the backdrop for an extensive and lovely yuletide market area which dates back as far as the 15th century. Other centres of Christmas spirit include Innsbruck
- but most towns will have their own marketplaces with unique treats and sights to discover. A road trip is a great way to find those hidden gems
Skiing is also a popular activity of choice, and keen snowbunnies might consider Austria as a destination where they can combine time on the slopes with a whole lot of festive cheer. A Christmas tree and mulled wine by the fire will really add to that apres-ski atmosphere! Make sure you try some Austrian Christmas traditions, such as gingerbread, fried carp, goose and Christmas cookies.
6 . Strasbourg, France
If you’re looking for a wintry urban getaway, there’s no place more qualified to provide it than Strasbourg
in northeastern France. Right on the border with Germany, this Alsatian city borrows some of that “Deutsch” Christmas magic from its neighbouring nation. The whole city gets into the spirit, and there is a long tradition of festivity - the “Christkindelsmärik” market is considered to be the oldest of its kind in France. Some even call Strasbourg the Capital of Christmas!
The vast markets are spread all over the Old Town, with the highest concentrations of festive goings-on found in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral and in the Place Broglie. On the Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg’s European village market celebrates a different European country each year for some international flavour. Foodies might enjoy the Foie Gras market in the Ancienne Douanne or the wine growers market in the Place d’Austerlitz.
Find your Christmas happy place!