Thousands of twinkling lights, a giant ice rink, 300 beautifully crafted stalls selling traditional dishes and a backdrop of flood-lit baroque buildings add up to a magical atmosphere at Zagreb’s Christmas markets.
The Croatian capital’s markets, which take over the city from December 1 until Epiphany on January 6, have been named “the best in Europe” for the third consecutive year in a poll organised by European Best Destinations. The Brussels-based organisation, which promotes tourism in Europe, collected more than 200,000 votes from people in 131 countries.
One reason why Zagreb’s Christmas market has become so popular is because of its event program. Every night revellers dance to live music and entertainment at Strossmayer Square, an area dedicated to “fuliranje” (fooling around).
First-timers can get their bearings by making a beeline for Jelacic Square, where food marquees sell baked strukle (a warm pastry dish with soft cheese), peppery gingerbread cookies and sugar-sprinkled fritule (squishy mini-doughnuts).
Children adore the nativity scene (with real animals and actors), the enormous model train display complete with ice rink, and Gric tunnel, one of the city’s pedestrian tunnels that undergoes a yuletide transformation.
This year’s event is already underway. Stalls open at 10am and festivities carry on until late in the night. Watch a live feed from Zagreb’s Jelacic Square here.
Here are six other great Christmas markets in Europe to get your yuletide celebrations started.
Prague, Czech Republic
Best for glass ornaments
The Czech capital’s two main Christmas markets are in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, about five minutes’ walk from each other.
The markets sell some of the best Christmas souvenirs in Europe. Visitors can buy puppets, embroidered lace and hand-painted glass baubles. Edible treats include klobasa (Czech sausage), medovina (honey wine) and trdelnik (warm cylindrical-shaped sugar-coated pastries).
December 1-January 6
Best for stunning backdrops
The Viennese have been holding Christmas markets since 1298 so they’ve had plenty of time to perfect their offering.
Nowadays, the city has more than 20 Christmas markets. The Viennese Christmas Market in front of City Hall has more than40 stalls selling handcrafted goods. Inside City Hall, a line-up of international choirs sings carols and there’s an area for children to learn how to make cookies and candles.
At the Christmas and New Year’s Market at Schonbrunn Palace, about 60 exhibitors sell original gifts, such as nativity sets, and freshly baked vanillekipferl cookies and hot punch.
Those who like their Christmas market hip should head to the Christmas Market at Spittelberg, a revitalised heritage district, where you can find stalls selling ceramics, warm jumpers and jewellery.
November 17-January 6
Best for children
Colmar’s five Christmas markets are in a labyrinth of small streets lined with historic half-timbered houses. One of the markets, La Petite Venise (little Venice), is especially for children and features a mechanical nativity scene, horse rides, rabbits, sheep. There’s even mulled apple juice for the kids.
Adults will enjoy Colmar’s Christmas wine-tastings, tours and the many shows and concerts, as well as treats like foie gras, schnapps and bredalas (Christmas cookies).
November 23-December 30
Tivoli Gardens, Denmark
Best for amusement park lovers
Tivoli Gardens, a Copenhagen amusement park with 27 rides, carnival games and an open-air stage, gets a makeover at Christmas time. The historic fun park is decorated with cute timber houses, snow-covered trees, Santa’s reindeers and Christmas lights.
Highlights for lovers of Nordic snacks include roast pork sandwiches and Danish aebleskiver (puffy doughnuts made from pancake batter with a chunk of apple inside).
To visit Tivoli’s Christmas market, you need to pay the entrance fee to the garden.
November 17-December 31
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Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens amusement park is beautiful year round, but its christmas market opening today brings some extra magic! 📸: thanks @butnomatter.theroadislife ! #tivoli #tivolichristmas #copenhagen #denmark #christmas #christmasmarket #christmaslights #fiestatraveler
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Best for a white Christmas market
For anyone dreaming of a white Christmas, Helsinki usually delivers snow. The city’s Christmas market – held on Senate Square – exudes friendliness and warmth despite the mercury plunging to below -10 degrees.
A wide variety of local delicacies are on offer, including glogi, made from spiced wine and sprinkled with almonds and raisins, reindeer kebabs, jams and jellies and joulutorttu (windmill-shaped pastries filled with prune jam).
Best for gluhwein
Bamberg is known as the nativity town. During the Christmas period, a large nativity scene that changes weekly dominates the main square.
Lovers of nativity scenes can also follow the “nativity trail” to see almost 40 scenes spread throughout the cathedral, small chapels, museums and public buildings. To warm up on the walk there’s a wide variety of gluhwein, served in commemorative take-home mugs.
November 22-December 23
Other fantastic Christmas markets in Europe include: Budapest (Hungary), Strasbourg (France), Florence (Italy), Krakow (Poland), Berlin (Germany), Brussels (Belgium), Barcelona (Spain), Budapest (Hungary), Tallinn (Estonia), Basel (Switzerland) and Stockholm (Sweden).