Advent Markets in Europe: Are they worth it?

It’s never too late (or early) to plan for Christmas

Before the holiday season gets away from us completely, I’d like to share some perspective on the Christmas and Advent markets in the countries near where we live in Europe as well as the ones in Croatia themselves. As I’m sure many of you have seen, these little winter markets provide picture-perfect holiday cheer, but are they worth a trip to Europe from the USA just to visit one?

This carousel was in the center of a winter market in Graz, Austria in 2019. A beautiful town with a very joyful and friendly vibe, I will devote a whole blog to it in the coming weeks.

I say absolutely and definitely, “Yes” and for many reasons, with the absolute least one being the adorable pictures you can take from all of the Christmas decorations gracing the centuries old buildings of the towns and cities in Europe.

The main reason is something more, something hard to explain to Americans caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. That’s why I waited to post until after Christmas about these special markets.

There is a wonderful sense of calm holiday cheer difficult to achieve as you are running from store to store worrying about all the gifts you need to purchase for friends, families, neighbors and coworkers. And just the thought of coordinating all of those matching pajama sets is stressful enough for me (As someone who has trouble purchasing three sets of the same underwear, how is that even possible?)

The reason I wanted to put the bug in people’s ears now about traveling to a market is if you are interested in a trip like this, you should start thinking about it early in the year before you blow your travel budgets on trips to Disney and other popular US destinations. It may even be the perfect gift for your family or to yourself in 2020.

Fun Idea: set aside all the money you would be using for your Christmas gifts and birthday gifts throughout the year and put it in a fund for Christmas markets. If you have adult children, tell them to do the same. This is one vacation that is probably more fun to do with your family or close friends. You will thank me after you’ve had the most genuine and magical Christmas holiday of your life.

Because these winter markets start at the end of November when advent begins and end sometime after Christmas (some as late as Kings Day, January 6) they give you a chance to experience Christmas for an entire month with a completely different flavor of celebration than in the USA.

The beautiful Sternadvent market in Salzburg is tucked away down an alley in a little square in the city center.

Depending on the country and city you visit, you’ll get to enjoy a glimpse of people relaxing and celebrating without the stress of the holiday frantic-ness that seems to supercharge Christmas back in the USA. Also, if you time your European Christmas Trip well, you could be back in the states for Christmas Day sipping hot cocoa by your tree reminiscing over the wonderful holiday adventure you’ve just experienced.

The thing I like the most about the Christmas markets are that they are huge parties or festivals, similar to our Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana, that you basically just show up for. No entrance fees, no special dress code, no reservations to attend. Elaborate decorations, festive music, amazing street food, warm tasty drinks are all there for the asking with a few euros, kunas, marks, korunas, etc. You don’t have to pay an entrance fee to get in to any of them, but you do pay for all of your food and drinks (which are usually quite reasonable depending on how much you eat and drink.)

This charming market in Hallstatt is quite small and only happens one weekend in December so plan accordingly.

The signature drink at most markets is glühwein, which translates to “glow” wine as the drink makes the imbiber glow after being in the cold winter weather, then sipping this warm cocktail. It does seem to warm up your insides rather brightly as most Christmas markets are in locations that are pretty nippy in the winter season.

The most common glühwein is made with red wine and mulled spices, although I have seen it offered with white wine as well. You can usually get a shot of rum thrown in. Just ask my husband, Captain Mike. Arrh. Some of the more recent variations in the Croatian and Slovenian markets are hot gin and hot rum drinks, which are extremely nice as well, but still even there, the most traditional drink is glühwein or “kuhano vino” as it’s known in Croatian.

While your first drink at a winter market may seem a little more expensive at 7€, it includes a deposit for the sweet little ceramic mug your drink is served in.

I love this aspect of the markets as it makes you feel you are in a home or a restaurant, rather than outside and to me it is so much better sipping a hot drink out of a glass than a paper or plastic cup. Croatian markets haven’t adopted this tradition of the advent markets yet, but I hope in the course of time they do. At the end of the evening you can either keep the ceramic mug as a souvenir or return it for the 3€ deposit.

Although this looks like a bar, it’s actually one of the booths in the market in Köln or Cologne. The booths are normally sturdy wooden buildings, although some markets have a more tent- like appearance. I think Captain Mike is about ready for some grog.

The people here in Köln were truly having a wonderful time when we visited in 2018, and I don’t think I’ve every experienced singing Christmas carols in the rain (some in German, but many in English) shoulder to shoulder with German people swaying back and forth with such mirth and genuine joy as I did that night. That really was one the highlights of our trip in 2018, I believe, even though we did have a great time at all of the markets.

Most markets usually include some crafts, clothing, ornament and souvenir booths which could deplete your purse quickly, but since there is only so much room in a suitcase, you are forced to limit your purchases in that category. Quite a few cities have an ice skating rink at one of the markets or ornate merry-go-rounds for little ones as seen in the photo at the top of this blog.

This sturdy wooden booth selling birdhouses and other wooden items was at one of the Christmas markets in Salzburg.

And the food at the markets is quite delicious. I’ve had everything from gigantic cheese sausages called käsekrainer in Vienna to tasty mushrooms and wood-fire cooked salmon called flammlachs in Heidelberg and this delicious apple strudel in Cologne. My mouth is watering just thinking of the food.

The markets usually start the last week in November to correspond with the first week of advent. So while us Americans are downing our leftover turkey and cranberry sauce, the Europeans are dressing up cities and towns with their holiday decorations and setting up sturdy wooden booths for their advent markets.

Don’t forget the gingerbread!

I’ve been to many different types of these markets including those in Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Slovenia. The cities I’ve seen them in include:

Germany: Dresden, Frankfurt, Cologne, and Heidelberg.

Austria: Salzberg, Vienna, Graz, and Hallstatt

Czech Republic: Prague

Croatia: Zagreb, Pula, and Rovinj

Slovenia: Ljubljana

Each city holds different charms and different experiences and they vary so much in terms of what they have to offer that I recommend you go to any or all of them if you can. Considering that would take several years or more, for your first visit and with only a week you need to limit yourself to one or two big cities and go from there.

Bigger cities like Vienna and Cologne will have markets set up every so many blocks around the city where smaller towns like Hallstatt and even the city of Pula may only have one. My recommendation is travel to one larger city and then spend a few nights at a smaller town nearby to get the flavor of both types of markets. If you are in Europe for at least ten days, you could probably make it to two or three larger cities.The markets in Zagreb, Croatia get the award for the most picture points for those looking for Christmas card photos.

My all-time favorite markets are the ones in Vienna, Cologne and Dresden. For people heading to Christmas markets for the first time, I definitely would choose one of these or perhaps Munich, Nuremberg or Strasbourg in France, which have been around for many years and are world renown as well. The dramatic backdrops of these historic cities dressed in holiday finery makes even the biggest Scrooge go gaga. And it’s easy to travel by railway to get to a smaller city and experience the markets in a more intimate setting in a smaller town from these destinations.

Some more delicious food offerings at a booth at the Cologne market.

But each place I’ve been has its charms, so I wouldn’t hesitate to travel to those or others in Europe. Budapest, Hungary and Tallin, Estonia are two I’ve heard about recently and hope to visit one day. There are many others, so I’d find the one that suits you or has a good flight from your city. I’ll follow up with a post in six months about the details of some of the markets I’ve been to and my ratings for each and as a reminder to those interested to start looking for flights.

And while everyone is taking down their Christmas tree and putting away decorations for this season, I hope you’ll think about making next year’s Christmas season or one in the future a little bit different for yourself or your family. Until then, enjoy your first month of this new year and this incredible new decade. Hope it is a happy one for you all!