Although I’m still sad that we lost most of our pictures from our trip last December, I couldn’t skip sharing what we believe to be the best Christmas markets in Europe. When I think about how much time and research I put into planning our trip, it seems silly not to share the details with others who might be trying to plan a similar trip. This post will be VERY long and won’t have as many photos. However, I’m still excited to share our favorite things from the best Christmas markets in Europe we visited in 2016.
Update: We did a second iteration of this Christmas market trip in December 2018. Every time I looked at the images from our 2016 trip, I just knew we had to do it again. I have updated this post with those recommendations and you can search my blog for more detailed information. I tried to include links when I could, too.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
Christmas Market Travel Tips
We booked an open jaw ticket through American Airlines/British Airways. (Dallas to Munich on the outbound and from Prague to Dallas on the inbound.) I prefer doing this when we can so we aren’t backtracking at the end of our trip. It’s very similar to what a river cruise itinerary would do. I use Skyscanner to see what flights are cheapest and piece together an itinerary using that information.
Note: You will want to check the opening dates for each Christmas market carefully. Our 2016 trip was from November 30 – December 12 and our 2018 trip was from December 12 to January 3. Many central European markets ended on Christmas Eve and did not reopen. (The Montepulciano Christmas market, however, is open until the Epiphany on January 6.) Each city opens its markets at different times and none of them start as early as holiday festivities in the United States.
Remember: you are visiting Christmas markets in December. You need quality layers to be outside for long periods of time. I recommend buying a couple of pairs of Cuddleduds to wear underneath your clothes. You’ll want thick socks and waterproof boots. I purchased a Peuterey down coat with a hood specifically for this trip. It did a great job of keeping me warm. (I found a great deal on mine at Last Call, but you can find good sales online, too.)
Transportation Between Christmas Markets
On our first trip, we took trains everywhere. Trains are so convenient and easy within Europe. We didn’t book any of our trains in advance because we wanted to have the most flexibility with our time. The only time we ran into a problem was on a Saturday morning train between Bratislava to Prague. Tom and I ended up sitting on the floor for about half of the train ride. (We managed to snag a seat for my mom a little bit quicker.) If you don’t want to risk not having seat, you should make train seat reservations in advance.
When we returned in 2018, we rented a car through Hertz and it proved to be a more cost effective option for the three of us. The roads were smooth and mostly kept free of snow and ice. There was only one part of the drive where we encountered white-out conditions. Renting a car gave our trip a lot more flexibility, especially when we decided to deviate from the itinerary, spend Christmas in Venice, and add about 10 more days to our vacation.
Best Christmas Markets Europe – 2 Week Itinerary
This itinerary is intense. I was so excited to show my mom all the cities I love, but it’s worth slowing down a bit. (You can see more Christmas market itineraries on the blog!) I think you should spend more time in Munich, Salzburg, Budapest or Prague. Because of the distance between Budapest and Prague, we chose to break up the trip in Bratislava. You could also do Vienna instead. It’s a good midway point between Prague and Budapest. Truthfully, Budapest is a bit out of the way for this itinerary, and I would consider putting it on a complete different itinerary so that you can spend more time there. We ended up cutting it from our 2018 itinerary. All that being said, I LOVE Budapest and don’t want you to miss it either.
Flight from DFW to Munich (1 night)
Munich, Germany (1 night)
Salzburg, Austria (2 nights)
Vienna, Austria (2 nights)
Munich Christmas Markets
I had only been to Munich once before during my study abroad semester. I remembered liking it enough, but I was enamored with the old city during this trip. I’m so disappointed that we didn’t end up with many pictures from Munich because it felt truly magical and less like that big city I remembered in the evening.
Our hotel gave us a map of all the Christmas markets in Munich, which also detailed everything we needed to know to get around the city. The first thing I realized is that there was no way that we could get to all of them. When we got back, I’m definitely heading to Schwabinger and the English Garden markets.
DON’T MISS: Marienplatz Market – There’s something magical about stepping out of the U-Bahn at night and seeing the tree lit up against the city hall. I had serious flashbacks to feeling like a kid at Christmas. I think this is one of the best Christmas markets in Europe for festive ambiance. It’s just magical. Be aware that this market (and most German Christmas markets) is closed for the season by Christmas Day.
DON’T MISS: Weinaachtsdorf – They had the most beautiful ornaments at these stalls. We bought a few… and then my mom’s suitcase fell face forward while we were waiting on our train to Salzburg and we ended up with shattered Christmas ornaments. Womp, womp, womp. Learned that lesson early on!
Where to Stay in Munich:
I chose the Aloft because of its proximity to the train station. Further, there is a U-Bahn station right outside the hotel; we could get anywhere in 10 minutes. The Aloft has the absolute best staff. From the bartender (free welcome drinks!) to the front desk, we felt welcome by everyone we encountered. Each person was eager to make recommendations for us, helpful with directions, and even gave us a Christmas market map. (The closest one is around the corner from the Aloft!)
We were upgraded to a loft room and breakfast was included. Rooms are impeccably designed for efficiency with every single modern amenity you could want. In addition to a mini-fridge, tea kettle, and free bottled water, there is a charging panel for all your devices, including USB chargers to fit every phone next to the bed. There are also light switches next the bed, which is nice. The rooms are so well designed that you don’t even notice that they are on the smaller size.
The bathroom includes Bliss spa amenities which are refreshing after a long day. They even had the massaging soap bar; I was in heaven! Bathrooms are definitely on the smaller size, but the stand-up shower is large with good water pressure.
We enjoyed this hotel so much that we came back in 2018. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that there is an Aldi with delicious, fresh pretzel rolls within a few blocks of the hotel, too.)
Where to Eat in Munich:
I realize that Hofbrauhaus is touristy. Guess what?! We are tourists. We truly enjoyed the lively beer hall, sitting at communal tables, drinking beer, eating giant pretzels, and listening to music. (Maybe we also enjoyed commiserating with Italians about how much we were going to miss Obama.)
Overall, the dark beer was the crowd favorite. We were disappointed to miss the original sausages (“Sold out by 7:00pm,” our waiter remarked.) My husband really enjoyed the pork crackling and said it was perfectly cooked. He and my mom loved the homemade fried pork sausages. I liked the Vienna sausages, which looked like hot dogs but tasted very meaty. The wool white sausages were very mild in flavor, at least compared to the ones I remember eating while I was in college.
Judge if you want, but I think everyone needs to experience Hofbrauhaus at least once. With the oompa band. (We actually spent New Year’s Day here in 2019.)
There’s something for everyone at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich. Even in the winter, we enjoyed pursing the stalls and following our noses around this outdoor food market. I’m sure it’s particularly enjoyable in the spring and the fall, where you can sit outside and enjoy a pretzel and beer, but don’t miss checking it out in the winter either.
Things to Do in Munich in Winter:
Historical Munich Walking Tour
Regardless of when you go to Munich, I think it’s important to understand its role in World War II. This World War II walking tour of Munich needs to be at the top of your list. Keith is a fantastic guide; the depth of his knowledge is truly incredible. The tour leaves from Haupftbanhof and begins with a short subway ride to Marienplatz. The material is deep, it’s dark, and it’s an honest look at German history through both World Wars. We saw many of the main sites, but we also saw other parts of the city that I had not experienced. Again, I wish that we had some of our photos. Viscardigasse, in particular, gave me the most pause because it reminded me of how brave some people were in such dark times. (It’s a reminder that we all desperately need right now.)
We had a particularly interesting conversation with our guide after the tour about the current events surrounding the 2016 election. Once again I was reminded at how much attention the rest of the world was paying to something that the American people seem to be treating rather cavalierly.
See the Most Incredible Science Museum
The Deutsches Museum is one of the most extensive science museums I’ve ever visited. Even as a college student, I was enamored with their collection. If you need to warm up (or get your learn on), head to this museum. They even have a planetarium. I’m a nerd. #SorryNotSorry
See the Glockenspiel
Believe it or not, you have to plan this one out. Unlike the astronomical clock in Prague, the glockenspiel at the Rathaus does not perform every hour. You can catch it in the winter at 11:00am and 12:00pm. If you are visiting Munich during the warmer times of the year, there is also a 5:00pm showing. Gina has a great blog pots on the Marienplatz Glockenspiel on the glockenspiel, and since I have no pictures, I’m going to send you there.
Salzburg Christmas Markets
Trains leave regularly from Munich Haupfbahnhof (Hbf) and the journey takes a little over an hour, depending on the speed of the train. We grabbed a Bayern ticket that cost 33 euro for three of us. When we arrived in Salzburg, we took a cab to our hotel because it was dark and I couldn’t remember which buses would run to the aldstadt (Old Town).
I was really excited to go back to Salzburg because I remember roaming the cobblestoned pedestrian streets, being enchanted with the horse carriages, and ice skating at night. I think Salzburg markets are the best European Christmas markets when it comes to ambiance. The whole city oozes Christmas cheer. Unrelated: The Sound of Music is one of my favorite movies. I
might have definitely made my husband watch it before the trip. (Spoiler alert: It looks the same!)
Residenzplatz Christmas Market & Domplatz Christmas Market
The Domplatz and Residenzplatz markets are the Christmas markets surrounding the Salzburg Cathedral. We purchased several gifts here. From the hand-crafted potpourri Christmas trees, to the beautiful Christmas ornaments, to the fresh pretzels, this market reminds me why I fell in love with Salzburg the first time. My husband and I returned to these markets in the evenings (because our hotel was so close!), and it just felt magical. This might be one of the best Christmas markets in Europe for its evening ambiance. In 2018, we booked a Salzburg Christmas market tour that started from these markets and covered most of the aldstadt. We learned a lot about Austrian traditions and discovered new (and favorite) places to visit!
Other Salzburg Christmas Markets
The day that we planned to go up to Hohensalzburg Fortress, it started to rain so we skipped out on it and spent more time at Salzburg Cathedral instead. In 2018, we made it up there and it was magical. It is an absolute fairytale Christmas market. I enjoy tasting all the Schnapps at this market and taking in the beautiful views. We also took the bus to see the Helbrunn Palace Christmas market as well. Helbrunn, with all of its Christmas trees, felt like the ultimate winter wonderland.
Salzkammergut Christmas Markets
I wanted to get out of the city and experience some of the smaller villages around Salzburg, so this Salzburg lake district Christmas market tour seemed like a perfect way to see more of the countryside before heading to Vienna. (We stored our luggage at the train station. It was 4.50 euro for a large locker.)
- Strobl Christmas Market: We met our guide, Thomas, near the Mirabell Palace Christmas market, loaded up in a van, and headed to Strobl. It was about an hour a way and we stopped for photos along the way. It was mostly a food market, and we enjoyed cheeses, sausages, and spiral cut fries. (Is it a given that we also enjoyed gluwein?) There was a huge nativity scene at the end of the road along we some reindeer, so it would be a great market to visit with young kids. We had about 40 minutes in Strobl.
- St. Wolfgang Christmas Market: Ten minutes from the Strobl Christmas market was St. Wolfgang. Oh my stars, it was crowded. St. Wolfgang offers lots of hills and a church with beautiful views. The Christmas market was more traditional with lots of gift ideas, cold weather gear, and delicious gluwein. I really loved the views over the lake. We had an 1 hour and 15 minutes in St. Wolfgang and it was barely enough because of the crowds.
- St. Gligen Christmas Market: Our last stop was in St. Gligen, and it was magical. Absolutely, positively magical. Blue hour was ending, the crowds were thinning, and it was everything I expected a small village Christmas market to be. There was a live band playing in the square, fires to keep warm, and fantastic (alcoholic) punsch. We had about 35 minutes there, which was enough to explore the market, but I could have stayed longer for the ambiance.
Where to Stay in Salzburg:
When we did the second iteration of this trip in December 2018, the Goldener Hirsch was being renovated. By September, I was having difficulty finding a hotel in the old town with two rooms available. We ended up booking the Goldgasse and LOVED it. The rooms have so much personality and the staff is great. This hotel is located on a small street just steps from the Christkindlmarkt at Residenzplatz. You can read more about our stay at the Hotel Goldgasse. Highly, highly recommend.
Hotel Goldener Hirsch Salzburg
The Goldener Hirsch is situated at the end of Getreidegasse (the main pedestrian street) and it’s iconic. (Just watch your head when you’re coming down the stairs!) Like the Aloft, the staff was incredible. They were warm and friendly and always happy to make suggestions on restaurants. As Marriott titanium members, we were upgraded to a suite (room 6) with a sitting area. The furnishings aren’t typical “luxury,” but they are traditional Austrian and very comfortable. I love the fluffy comforters (and the AMAZING hazelnut chocolates that they left during turndown service). Our bathroom was large (by European standards) and included both a shower and a tub. The bath amenities were a combination of Elemis and Hermes products, and I enjoyed them, too.
I’m dying to see the changes since the hotel was renovated – the linens look beautiful.
Where to Eat in Salzburg:
Tucked into one of the many alley courtyards off Getreidegasse, Gasthaus Wilden Mann felt like an extension of the Goldener Hirsch. Traditionally Austrian, inside and out. We were fortunate to snag one of the only tables that wasn’t reserved and we ate our weight in schnitzel and strudel. (I loved the cranberry jelly served with the schnitzel.) The neighboring table was very interested to see my reaction to such a large schnitzel. The locals and the waitstaff eventually warmed up to us, and we all shared a few laughs.
EAT & DRINK: Pizzeria il Sole – It was raining and very cold one night, so we opted for a cheap Italian dinner near our hotel. It’s a favorite among my UoR friends and the 7 euro pizza didn’t disappoint. We were able to get in without too long of a wait, but it’s clearly very popular.
EAT & DRINK: Zum Zirkelwirt – Another traditional Austrian / German restaurant with delicious, hearty portions. Great for warming up on cold nights.
EAT & DRINK: Burgerista – Europe’s (delicious) answer to fast food. Fresh, made-to-order burgers using real ingredients. We preferred this location to the one in Nuremburg, but both are good if you want to sit down for a quick meal.
EAT & DRINK: Walter’s Balkan Grill – If you don’t mind taking your food to go, this wurstlstand is located off of Getreidgasse. You’ll be able to find it by the line. Figure out what you want in advance. The menu is posted on the stall. It’s quick and easy, and Tom and my mom really enjoyed it. (I prefer my Vienna wurstlstands, but I’ll be trying some of the other Salzburg options next time.
Things to Do in Salzburg in Winter:
Apple Strudel Cooking Class
Hands down, this apple strudel baking class is my favorite experience in Salzburg. Not only did we learn to make two delicious, authentic desserts in a little over an hour, but our incredible chef, Johann, made us a delicious goulash lunch. You can read more about our apple strudel cooking class experience but definitely don’t miss it! When we came back in 2018, I insisted that we take an Austrian Christmas cookie and apple strudel baking class. Delicious!! I’m ready to take the pretzel class now.
Cafe Tomaselli is one of the oldest coffee houses in Salzburg, and it’s right in the middle of the old town of Salzburg. It epitomizes everything I love about Austrian cafe culture. When you need to warm up (and you will), you can order coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries to recharge. Bonus points if you bring a book or magazine because the table is yours. It’s a delightful way to spend an early morning.
Vienna Christmas Markets
Update 2018 – We returned to the Vienna Christmas markets. It was just as beautiful (and cold) as I remember.
After we returned from the Salzburg lake district tour, we grabbed some supplies at Billa and bought a ticket to Vienna. I’ve been to Vienna four times now, and I’m still not sure about it. Certainly, there are things that I like about it, but it’s not one of my favorite places I’ve been. I was hoping it would grow on me, but it still feels like a fairly generic big city and I haven’t connected with any our tour guides in a way that has helped me appreciate Vienna yet. Mostly, I just wish my dad was here to be my guide.
We did an evening tour of the Vienna Christmas markets, and it was a solid introduction to the major sites of Vienna. Dace was our guide. She was better than most other guides that we’ve had in Vienna. If this is your first time in Vienna, this tour is a great way to cover a lot of ground in the city. At times, it was difficult to hear her (no radios or headphones). I didn’t feel like we got a lot of history, but she did provide some commentary about the various Christmas markets in Vienna. That being said, there was no discussion about tradition or significance of them.
All that being said, the Christmas lights make the entirety of Vienna one of the best Christmas markets of Europe!
These are my favorite Vienna Christmas markets markets we visited:
- Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market – You can take the subway to Schonbrunn in less than 10 minutes from the Naschtmarkt. Come for the guided tour of Schonbrunn Palace (loved it!) and stay for one of the best Christmas markets in Europe! These market stalls offer more gift options than most markets I visited, everything from journals to wooden toys to Christmas ornaments. Let us not forget the “party pretze.” either. It’s always a party when the pretzel is bigger than my head!
- Rathaus Christmas World – This HUGE Christmas market takes place in front of the Vienna city hall. It offers the coolest ice skating experience I’ve ever seen! I think the Vienna Rathaus market had the most unique Christmas ornaments in Vienna. I still regret not buying more of them. This would be a fun market for kids to visit during the day. (The Karlsplatz market would be another great market for kids to visit as there is a gigantic play are for them.) Word to the wise: the rathaus market gets VERY busy at night.
- Freyung / Am Hof markets – We stopped for punch and snacks at the Freyung market and continued around the corner to Am Hof market. They are very close to each other and its easy to visit both. It feels like these markets are filled with locals in the evenings, and it’s a great place for snacks (or a meal).
Where to Stay in Vienna:
Hotel am Stephansplatz
Location, location, location. There is no better location in all of Vienna at this price point. Book any room you can find and enjoy the heart of of Vienna in the middle of the holiday season. Rooms are comfortable, bathrooms are large by European standards, and the staff is helpful. Rooms include a delicious buffet breakfast. The Ringstrasse is a great location (especially in the spring and summer), but nothing compares to staying in the middle of Vienna in winter. You can read more about our stay at the Hotel am Stephansplatz. It closed for renovation just after we stayed, so I’m curious to see the new rooms!
Marriott Vienna / Ritz Carlton Vienna
Vienna hotels are insanely expensive. If you have points to burn, Vienna is the place to burn them. Winter or spring, it doesn’t seem to matter. (It’s what makes the Hotel am Stephansplatz such a good buy.) We stayed at the Ritz Carlton Vienna on our first trip to Vienna and the Marriott Vienna on our second trip. The Ritz Carlton is a better value as far as points go and we were even upgraded to a spacious junior suite. (You can read more about our stay the Ritz Carlton Vienna.)
The Marriot is right across from the park, and it’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the major sites. The service at the Marriott was friendly enough, and they put us on the executive floor, but we had a standard room with no view (room 777). It could have been any Marriott anywhere in the world. The toiletries were a new-to-me brand, Acca Kappa and included green mandarin hand wash that I loved. The lounge was too small for the number of people that had access, and every time we went up there, there was nowhere to sit. On the up side, however, our platinum arrival gift was delivered immediately (mixed nuts and water) and mints and pez candy a part of nightly turndown service. We tried to use the pool, but it was really too cold for me to swim. I gave up after 10 minutes.
There’s nothing about the Vienna Marriott hotel that makes it particularly bad, but there’s nothing that makes it particularly memorable, especially given how high the rates usually are during the holiday season. Just know it’s a place to sleep and make peace with the loss of points (or cash). The location is better than most.
Where to Eat in Vienna:
Will you judge me if I tell you that I loved the Vienna wurstlstands the most? We went on a taste-testing adventure and it remains my favorite meal in Vienna. (Come to think of it, we did a lot of taste-testing in Vienna with Apple strudel and Sachertorte.) My two favorite stands are Bitzinger (near Albertina) and Wiener Wurstl. In 2018, we found out that you need reservations for almost anywhere in the city in December and we stumbled into the delightful (and warm) Trattoria da Angelo. I highly recommend the ravioli mamma rosa.
If I had to give a touristy honorable mention, we enjoyed Figlmuller because of the schnitzel that was bigger than the plate (and my head) and because they are the nicest Viennese we’ve ever come across.
EAT & DRINK: Trattoria da Angelo, I love the rose ravioli.
EAT & DRINK: Figlmuller, for schnitzel that is bigger than your head and the friendliest waitstaff you’ve ever encountered in Vienna.
EAT & DRINK: Demel, Make sure to try Mohr im hemd, a delicious Austrian specialty – warm chocolate cake
EAT & DRINK: Cafe Central, I love their amaretto hot chocolate
EAT & DRINK: Cafe Sacher, for Sachertorte, obviously.
What to Do in Vienna in Winter:
- BOOK THIS: Take a Viennese waltz class in 2018 – It’s a great way to warm up! It is so much harder than it looks though.
- See the Christmas lights in Vienna – They do Christmas lights better than anywhere in the world, including NYC. I’m just saying.
- Coffeehouse Culture – Grab an early morning Amaretto hot chocolate from Cafe Central and just read people-watch.
- Comparing cafes for the best apple strudel at Cafe Central, Cafe Sacher, and Demel. Demel wins strudel.
- Comparing cafes for the sachertort at Cafe Central and Cafe Sacher. Cafe Sacher edges out almost all chocolate cake. (I need to search for more mohr im hemd.)
- Take in a musical performance. Churches, opera houses, open air concerts. There is not shortage of cultural gems in Vienna. See something. At the very least, take a tour of the Vienna Opera House.
Budapest Christmas Markets
Budapest is amazing. The first time we visited, I wondered what on earth I had done. The truth is, Budapest is a fantastic city. Maybe it’s because we really connected with the best tour guides in Budapest, but I fell in love with the city and couldn’t wait to spend my birthday there. I love Budapest and I am constantly trying to sneak it into any itinerary I can.
One of my favorite tour guides in Budapest is Tamas, so go ahead and book this Christmas market tour of Budapest. This tour begins with visiting St. Stephen’s Basilica (inside and out) and heading to the Christmas market right outside of it. (Try the wild board sausage.) It continues through some of the markets in the main shopping areas, visits the high end Christmas Market at Four Seasons Budapest, and ends with tasty mulled wine in a lively market in Vorosmarty Square. Tamas provides some of the culture and history that he shares on his other (amazing) tours and lots of conversation. There’s also a mid-tour stop at the delicious First Strudel House of Pest, complete with wine tasting. We were able to test to 2 Hungarian white wines and 1 red wine. I recommend the sour cherry strudel.
I think Budapest has the best Christmas markets in Europe for adults. From the glamorous market at the Four Seasons Budapest to the tasty (alcoholic) drinks to get warm, Budapest has everything that an adult could want.
Where to Stay in Budapest
We’ve stayed at the Hilton twice, pre and post renovation. The newly renovated rooms are fantastic, and the redesigned bathrooms have a separate tub and stand up shower. There are US plugs in the room, USB plugs next to the bed, and the view cannot be beat. I remember when we checked in the first time, and we realized we were basically staying inside Fisherman’s Bastion. There is simply no better view of Budapest to be had.
The lounge was temporarily relocated and difficult to find, so I don’t think this last trip is an accurate representation of it. Our previous experience was a lot better. Despite being right next to Matthais Church, it’s a very quiet area away from the crowds and the nightlife. While I think I want to experience staying on the Pest side of the city (the Four Seasons Budapest is the dream), I really do love the location of the Hilton. Dollar for dollar, you’ll never find a better view for the money.
Where to Eat in Budapest
I love Pest-Buda Bistro more than you can imagine. We’ve been there multiple times on each trip. My birthday dinner was here. And, I might have almost cried when we got back to Buda too late to eat there one night. Pest-Buda is delicious. Goulash and the rib-eye steak with crispy onions are where it’s at, but the paprika chicken is great, too. The waitstaff is delightful. I like their strudel, but the Strudel House is still my absolute favorite.
What to Do in Budapest in Winter
Budapest Walking Tour and Danube River Cruise
Find a way to stomach the cold and do a night Budapest walking tour. There is no better way to enjoy Budapest. It’s just beautiful. This tour is a great introduction to the city and includes a river cruise. If you only have time to do a river cruise, book this Danube cruise, however, I found the walking tour and cruise to be the better value. The combination tour and river cruise departs from a more central location. NOTE: river cruises in the winter can be especially cold. Bundle up so you can sit outside and not have to watch the city through the window.
Learn about the History of Budapest
Understanding Budapest from the perspective of a local is crucial to truly appreciating this beautiful city. As an American, I cannot fathom what it would be like to live under a communist government, so I found this history of Communist Budapest tour especially interesting. Our guide was happy to answer any and the questions we had and truly helped us understand what everyday Hungarian life was like in Budapest through a collection of historical mementos and walking through the city. As I’ve said before, we had the absolute best tour guides in Budapest. I cannot recommend Georg and Tamas enough.
Bratislava Christmas Markets
I actually loved Bratislava and the Bratislava Christmas markets so much more than I expected to. If I was looking to break up the trip between Budapest and Prague, I would choose Bratislava over Vienna. Yes, Bratislava is not as “grand” as Vienna, but it is beautiful, too. We were able to walk the city pretty easily once we found our bearings. (There are also trams that run around the center.)
Like Budapest and Vienna, we opted for a tour of the Bratislava Christmas markets. This one was a food tour though, which I knew my mom would particularly enjoy! Nichole was our guide, and she has lived in Bratislava for 10 years. She’s from a small town, so we were able to learn more about the history of the area from her different perspectives. Building on the foundation we gained from Kristina the night before, Nichole gave us an in depth look at the old town, taking us to see the old city gates and everything in between. This tour included all the Slovak regional specialties and we tried potato pancakes, poppy seed rolls (sweet), and a chicken-onion sandwich, along with mulled wine.
I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for an introduction to Christmas markets, Slovak history and culture, and food! Overall, I think the Bratislava offers the best Christmas markets in Europe for families. Between the huge ice rink and the myriad of food options, there is something for everyone in Bratislava. The compact size of the old town also makes it easy for walking.
Where to Stay in Bratislava:
The Sheraton Bratislava seems completely new and modern, and we were upgraded to a junior suite. The room was HUGE with beautiful hardwood floors and large windows. The bathroom had a separate tub and shower. As a Marriot titanium member, there was a fruit basket in our room when we arrived and we had lounge access and free breakfast. My mom was able to get a spa appointment easily (and enjoyed her massage), and she bought new luggage at the adjacent mall.We had a little trouble getting an early cab, and the hotel wasn’t a lot of help in that regard.
The Sheraton is a 10-15 minute walk to the old town, which wasn’t too bad, but I might check out Roset Boutique Hotel on our next trip because its closer to the old town square. I felt like we spent a lot more time planning our days to be deliberate about maximizing our time in the old town center and we were reluctant to get out as much as we did when we stayed in more central locations.
Where to Eat in Bratislava:
Surprisingly, despite not having many travel guides for Bratislava, we stumbled upon some great meals.
EAT & DRINK: Rio Grande Restaurant – When we couldn’t get into our first restaurant choice, we stumbled into Rio Grande. I’m so glad we did because I had my first lava stone steak. Have you ever had a lava stone steak?? It’s delightful and I still dream about the sauces. (The garlic sauce and the brandy sauce are my favorites!) This restaurant is why I constantly think about going to Bratislava.
EAT & DRINK: 17’s Bar – Consider yourself warned, this place is popular. It’s cheap and delicious. We grabbed a bench overlooking the main square and the ice rink but would have loved a table outside. It’s right next door to Luculus gelato next door? 1.20 euro and delicious (even in winter).
What to Do in Bratislava in Winter:
I know it’s cold, but I strongly recommend taking a night walking tour of Bratislava. We ended up being the only people on this tour and Kristina was AWESOME! She was born in Bratislava and gave us a great overview of the city and its history. We were able to explore the old town, the castle, and ended the night with a traditional Bratislava drink at the UFO tower. The view was pretty limited because of the fog, but the house drink was tasty, the service was good, and it was a nice place to warm up after the hike up to the castle! Again, bundle up! The breeze off the river can be chilly!
Prague Christmas Markets
Prague was the last leg of our best Christmas markets in Europe tour, and by that time, both Tom and my mom were sick. That didn’t stop us, but it did slow us down. Prague is currently my vote for the ultimate and best Christmas markets in Europe. Everything about Prague at Christmas lends itself to holiday magic.
Word to the wise: Weekend travel to the Christmas markets is frantic. The train to Prague was VERY crowded. Make sure you book in advance and get a seat reservation. We sat on the floor for over an hour before we were able to find a seat, which was a bit exhausting.
The Old Town Square Christmas market is my favorite Christmas market. Every time we walked into the square, I was taken aback by its beauty. The Christmas tree is huge. The stalls have the most beautiful ornaments I’ve ever seen. (I wish I had brought more home.) There are performances and music all the time. It’s just magical, particularly as the light begins to change at blue hour. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I find Old Town Square to be so much more beautiful than Wencelas Square. Grab some mulled wine and enjoy the view.
In 2018, we took a tour of the Christmas markets in the more residential areas of Prague, and Astrid did an amazing job. This gave us more insight into Czech Christmas traditions, allowed us to see different parts of the city outside of Old Town Square, and try several traditional treats. We even visited a Christmas museum right near the Charles bridge. I highly recommend this tour if you can fit it in.
Where to Stay In Prague:
Four Seasons Prague
You can read all about our cozy, romantic stay at the Four Seasons, but the location of the Four Seasons Prague can’t be beat, especially when it’s cold. (In 2016, we got snow in Prague!) We all really enjoyed the rooms (can I decorate my bedroom to look like this?) a lot. My mom swears its the best bed she’s ever slept in. The spa was wonderful. My mom got a leg massage on the first day, and we both got massages on the second day. It is a true luxury experience. (Christina’s review convinced me to book it and it was cheaper than the Mandarin!)
Mandarin Oriental Prague
The Mandarin Oriental was truly the best place to end our trip in 2016. When we arrived early, our room wasn’t ready, but they offered us complimentary welcome drinks at Spices. My mom decided to take advantage of that, and Tom and I decided to walk to Tesco and explore Mala Strana. (We’ve stayed at the Carlo IV twice. New Town is very different from Mala Strana.)
We stayed in Room 127 on the ground floor, which included a courtyard terrace. Our room was absolutely gorgeous, and I kept thinking that I wanted my room at home to look like it. It was sleek, understated luxury and incredibly comfortable. The bathroom was huge with a walk-in shower and separate tub. I loved the bath amenities. The service was exceptional. They even delivered the most delicious (and beautiful) Christmas cookies to our room. My mom swears by the spa and enjoyed her leg massage after Tom and I made her walk all over Prague.
We’ve stayed at the Carlo IV a few times, and it’s fine if the price is right. I wrote more about it on my Prague travel guide. It worth noting that it’s also considered a luxury hotel, but the Four Seasons Prague and the Mandarin are in a different luxury class altogether.
As I’ve mentioned previously, we have had a lot of misses with regards to restaurants in Prague. Since I know you can’t just eat tredlnik, I can recommend Meat and Greet for a tasty burger. Grab a crispy burger and a cheap Urquel, and you have one of our favorite (cheap) meals in Prague.
Where to Eat in Prague
Other delicious cheap eats: grabbing a sausage and potato on a stick from the Old Town Christmas market. (Prague might win for the best Christmas markets in Europe for food. I loved it all.) Wash it down with a Pilsner Urquel and grab a tredlnik for dessert!
In 2018, we succumbed to Pasta Fresca. It is incredible. I lost count of how many times we went back. It did tend to get busy so you will want reservations or you will want to go early. The daily specials are just as tasty as the regular menu. I did not have a bad dish here. If it’s raining, snowing, or you just can’t walk anymore, Pizzeria Donna isn’t far from the Old Town Square.
What to Do in Prague in Winter
- BOOK THIS: Extended Night Walking Tour of Prague – I remember being cold to be sure, but I remember the winding streets of Mala Strana leading up to the castle complex more. We started at the opera house, wandered across the river, saw the Lennon wall, and ended the official tour at the castle complex. The views of Prague are spectacular from any angle.
- DO THIS: See the Christmas market from the top of the Old Town Hall Square. It’s not for those with a fear of heights or claustrophobia (I suffer from both), but set your fears aside and see the magic from the air. It’s really cool.
- VISIT HERE: St. Vitus Cathedral from the inside – You’ve truly never seen anything more beautiful than the stained glass of St. Vitus. If you have the opportunity to explore more of the castle district, it’s just a bonus.
- DON’T MISS: See the Spanish Synagogue – Like St. Vitus, this is an absolutely breathtaking place of worship. My photos are beautiful, but there is nothing like seeing in person. I highly recommend visiting all the Synagogues in Prague, including the poignant and haunting Pinkas Synagogue.
- LEARN MORE: World War II and Communist Prague is a great walking tour that covers both sides of the Valtava River and will lead you through Prague’s ancient and modern history.
- BOOK THIS: Prague Chocolate-Making Class if you want a mid-afternoon sweet treat. This easy class is good for families with children and offers you a reprieve from the cold weather in December.