Merry Christmas Eve! While most of the Christmas Markets are wrapping up right about now (though some are going strong into January!), I wanted to share our epic European Christmas Market Road Trip. Whether you’re fitting in a last minute trip this season, starting to plan for next year, or just want something festive to read, you’ll find it all below.
On December 13th, Colin, Ellie and I hopped into our little rental car and took off for a road trip through the Christmas Markets of the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. And it was absolutely magical! While planning our itinerary, it just so happened that the major Christmas Market hot spots within driving distance of Prague were all cities we had visited before. But this suited us fine! It meant we could focus just on the Christmas Markets and still have time to get some work done.
Overall, we all really loved the trip (Ellie too!). The markets were beautiful, the atmosphere was very festive, we stayed at some beautiful places and we ate some great meals. But there were some downsides and things I wished we had done differently. Stay tuned for my tips below to find out what we did right and where you can do better.
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But first, let’s check out the itinerary!
Our European Christmas Market Road Trip itinerary:
Stop 1: Prague
Drive time: None – we live here!
So technically this wasn’t a stop so much as just exploring the Christmas Markets in our area. Prague is said to be one of the most magical places to celebrate Christmas, so we had to tour some of our local markets.
We started the exploring close to home with a market at Namesti Miru, right behind our apartment. This market is super cute, nice and small, and beautifully decorated. I love that we walk Ellie here a couple of times a day and get to see it all the time.
Just a 5-10 minute walk from our house is Wenceslas Square, the Times Square of Prague, where another Christmas Market lives. This market is interesting in that it’s super linear, basically one long line of markets down the entire square. So it makes it super easy to navigate, and you can walk from A to B instead of just in a circle. This market has everything you want out of a European Christmas Market – lots of mulled wine, cute handmade products, beautiful trees and tons of people. It’s also really beautiful at night when the street is all lit up and the National Museum is glowing at the end of the square.
We headed to the Wenceslas Square market on St. Nicholas Day when St Nick, an angel and a devil visit to see how children have behaved. If they’re good, and perform a little song or poem, the angel gives them a little treat. But if they’re bad, the devil puts them in his sack and carries them down to hell!
We also checked out some Christmas Markets in the Old Town. There are a few small ones around Palladium Mall and on the way to Old Town Square, but the main attraction is in Old Town Square itself, by the Astronomical Clock. We visited this market on a weekday before noon, so we weren’t packed in like sardines, which was nice. This market is definitely food focused, with most of the stalls selling food and really not that many handmade products. There’s a beautiful big tree and other decor items. It’s a fun atmosphere and a good place to go if you’re looking to hang out and grab some food.
Where we stayed: At home. Again, we live here. But if you don’t, I’d still highly recommend staying in Vinohrady. Our neighbourhood is beautiful and an easy walk to the Old Town.
Food recommendations: Grab Czech food at Hajnovka or Lokal. Enjoy delicious Asian food at BON or Chilli & Lime. Skip Trdelnik.
Highlight: I have a soft spot for our local market at Namesti Miru. But despite my bias, it really is an awesome Christmas Market. It’s small, never too crowded, beautifully decorated and set against a gorgeous gothic church.
Lowlight: Compared to the markets in Austria and Germany, I didn’t find the one in Prague’s Old Town as enchanting. But maybe I’ve just been spoiled on the market front. However, the Namesti Miru market totally holds up!
Pit stop: Brno
Drive time: 2 hours from Prague
To break up the drive to Vienna, we started our European Christmas Market road trip with a stop in the Czech Republic’s second biggest city, Brno. We’ve never been to Brno before, but there seems to be a rivalry between Brno and Prague. In my opinion? Prague wins, hands down!
When we got out of the car at the Brno Christmas Market, we were a little bit disappointed. It was quite small and instead of seeing rows of adorable wooden stalls, all of the stalls were shoved into big, white tents. Sure, it helped beat the chill (why was it so much colder in Brno compared to Prague?), but it wasn’t very magical.
We didn’t stay too long in Brno. We got some roast chicken from the food tent, walked through the crafts tent, admired the ferris wheel and took a quick picture in front of the tree. If you’re following our European Christmas Market road trip itinerary, Brno makes for a great pit stop. But I wouldn’t go out of your way to visit this market.
Stop 2: Vienna
Drive time: 2 hours from Brno (or 4 hours from Prague)
The first official overnight stop on our road trip was Vienna. We headed out late Saturday afternoon to hit up Vienna’s Christmas Markets with Ellie in tow. Right away, we made some major mistakes (making mistakes in Vienna isn’t new for us): 1) We decided to put off visiting until Saturday afternoon, one of the busiest times; 2) We brought Ellie into a very crowded space; 3) We decided to Uber from our hotel since we were far from transit and didn’t want to deal with parking. Only, we arrived, and found free parking right by the markets!
But it wasn’t all horrible. The first Christmas Market we visited was the main one in Vienna at Rathaus. I really loved this market because there were different sections and a lot going on. We walked along a path with nativity scenes and a Christmas train before sitting underneath a heart tree drinking a mulled beverage. We took pictures in front of the giant Christmas tree, wandered around the very busy stalls, and thought about skating on the ice rink (the price turned us off).
I loved the decor at Rathaus, but we struggled to find good food options. In fact, this was a theme amongst all of the Vienna Christmas Markets – where was the good food? All we could find were sausages and pretzels; I was expecting a lot more variety.
An awesome thing about the Vienna markets is that most are within walking distance from one another. So from Rathaus, we were easily able to walk to four or five other markets, though we missed out on the Schonbrunn Palace Market (a bit too far to walk). It was cool to see so much Christmas in just a few blocks. But it was really tough to enjoy the markets with so many people.
The worst crowds would have to be at the market in Maria-Theresien-Platz, where we were literally in a sea of people that was not moving. It was suffocating, and poor Colin was carrying Ellie the whole time. But once we finally broke out of that, we made it to Museumsquartier where we didn’t find a traditional market but we did find some cool race car and shuffle board games.
Where we stayed: We stayed at the Austria Trend Hotel Bosei. Pros? Free parking and they forgot to charge us a pet fee for Ellie. The room was also quite spacious and clean. The cons? Location. This is not a place to stay if you don’t have a car. My advice would be to splurge a bit more and pay for a room closer to the city centre. Last time we were in Vienna, we stayed at another Austria Trend hotel, Austria Trend Hotel Savoyen, and it was great. Much better location and super fancy hotel!
Food recommendations: We found the most amazing Korean restaurant out by our hotel, Tozi. In fact, it was so good that we went back the next night to have dinner there again. Highly recommend it!
Highlight: Is it bad if my highlight of Vienna is Korean food? Because it is.
Lowlight: The crowds. Bringing Ellie was a huge mistake and the sheer number of people was overwhelming. I had pretty high expectations for Vienna, since it’s known as a Christmas city, and our experience didn’t live up to them.
Pit stop: Hallstatt
Drive time: 3 hours from Vienna
We decided to make a slight detour on our way to Salzburg and visit Hallstatt. When we travelled for 3 weeks in Europe with our moms this September, I was trying to figure out how we could squeeze Hallstatt into our itinerary. But it just wasn’t possible. So this time, since we had a car and had already been to Salzburg, we decided the one hour detour was worth it.
I’m really glad we decided to detour to Hallstatt. And I’m also very glad we waited to visit in winter! This town is super charming and it looks even cuter with all of the nearby mountains covered in snow. Plus, the crowds were much smaller than they would have been in the summer.
And, if I’m being honest, there’s not a ton to do in Hallstatt. We spent about an hour wandering around, appreciating the view, and poking our heads into little shops. We had planned to have lunch there, but the open restaurants were too over-priced and touristy. I think I would have been disappointed if we had visited in September with lots of crowds and having trekked all that way for not a lot to do.
Verdict? It’s worth a visit, but I wouldn’t go too far out of your way to make it to Hallstatt. You can also visit Hallstatt on a guided tour from Salzburg or Vienna!
Stop 3: Salzburg
Drive time: 1 hour from Hallstatt (or 3 hours from Vienna)
After our Hallstatt detour, we arrived in Salzburg. I think I’m officially ready to say that Salzburg is my favourite Austrian city (of the three that I’ve been to). It’s just so charming! I love the Salzburg views, the old town, the river and the history. This was my favourite stop on our European Christmas Market road trip!
We learned from our mistakes in Vienna and headed out to the Salzburg markets in the old town before noon on a weekday. And it was amazing! The crowds were so small and it really felt like we had some areas all to ourselves.
My favourite markets were the tiny ones tucked into the alleyways of Salzburg’s old town. They were like secret little Christmas fairytales! My absolute favourite one had everything a Christmas Market should have: gorgeous decor, a manageable number of stalls with handcrafted products, Christmas carols, nice smelling gluhwein, and an adorable shopkeeper telling us stories of how her husband carves the wooden ornaments back in their small town. Oh, and it also had a goat and bunnies!
After the little alley markets, we made it to the main market in front of the Salzburg Cathedral. And even this huge market (and ice rink!) were practically empty. We got to visit all of the stalls, grabbed lunch and even found a free table. It was such a nice change from crowded Vienna!
We also visited the market at Mirabell Palace at night, which was nice to see all lit up. It reminded me a lot of our local market in Prague at Namesti Miru – beautiful, small and not too crowded. We didn’t make it up to the market at the Hohensalzburg Fortress, but just those views alone would make it worth it!
Where we stayed: In Salzburg, we stayed at Hotel-Pension Adlerhof. Pros? Walking distance to Mirabell Palace and the old town, free breakfast, free parking and no pet fee. Honestly, with that many pros, we really couldn’t say no to this place. But the cons were that it felt a little shabby and run down, and the walls were quite thin so we worried about Ellie barking. When we visited Salzburg in September, we stayed at the MEININGER Hotel Salzburg City Center, and it was a good choice – a little far from the old town but very clean, affordable and comfortable. This time we almost splurged on the Imlauer Hotel, and I kind of wish we had!
Food recommendations: Just like in Vienna, we found a restaurant so nice we ate at it twice! This time, it was Braurestaurant Imlauer, just a five minute walk from our hotel. I ordered the pork roast both nights and it was so good – super tender! And Colin finally got the schnitzel he was craving.
Highlight: The Christmas Markets in the alley totally matched my vision of what a European Christmas Market is supposed to be. My inner elf was stoked!
Lowlight: Market-wise, nothing disappointed me in Salzburg. I’m only sorry we didn’t get to see more markets!
Pit stop: Berchtesgaden or Chiemsee Lake
This was one pit stop we didn’t do very well. The drive from Salzburg to Munich is quite short, so you don’t actually need to make a pit stop. But if you want to, Berchtesgaden or Chiemsee Lake are good options. Don’t do what we did and make a stop in Ruhpolding.
Ruhpolding is a tiny town right on the route between Salzburg and Munich. Google Images will tell you it has beautiful mountain views, but it will neglect to tell you is that in order to see those views you’ll need to take a cable car or do some more driving. If you just navigate to the town of Ruhpolding, it’s pretty dull. So we jumped out for about five minutes to let Ellie pee and then got back in the car.
But if you want a proper pit stop, Berchtesgaden seems like a great option. The town looks so charming (like a less crowded Hallstatt) with perfect views of the Alps. You can also visit Berchtesgaden National Park for some hiking or boating on the lake. And you can visit Eagle’s Nest, a hideaway built into the mountains for Hitler. With so much to do and such pretty views, I’m sad we didn’t make the slight detour to Berchtesgaden. Berchtesgaden is a 40 minute drive from Salzburg and a two hour drive to Munich, so it will add about an hour of driving time to your road trip.
Another easy option is Chiemsee Lake, which is directly on the route between Salzburg and Munich, so would only add 20-30 minutes of extra driving time. Chiemsee is the largest lake in Bavaria with scenic mountain views, a little island to visit and a rec centre. There’s not quite as much to do here as there is in Berchtesgaden, but it could still make a good pit stop. We did drive by it on the highway and it looked nice.
Stop 4: Munich
Drive time: 1 hour 30 minutes from Salzburg
From Salzburg, our European Christmas Market road trip moved into Germany with a stop in Munich. Since we’ve been to Munich a few times now (including once for Oktoberfest!), we decided to spend just one night here. After checking into our awesome hotel (more on that later), we headed right out to Marienplatz for Munich’s main market.
It was cool to see Marienplatz all lit up for Christmas with a giant tree and street after street of booths. It seems like the German Christmas Markets focus more on food than products. Every second booth was selling food or drink. The Marienplatz market also had many stalls selling figurines for the nativity, like tiny sheep, hay bales, wise men, etc. The tiny figurines were so cute and so plentiful that Colin and I wondered if we should take up a new hobby of creating our own manger scenes!
Sadly, since we were only in Munich for one night, we only had time for the one main Christmas Market. But I really liked the vibe here and I think it would be fun to have seen more. Unlike Vienna, Munich’s crowds were much more manageable with the market stalls were nicely spread out.
Where we stayed: In Munich, we stayed at the BOLD Hotel München Giesing and it was, hands down, my favourite hotel. Maybe ever! When it comes to hotels, Colin and I usually just go for whatever is clean, cheap and well-located. We don’t splurge on hotels that are cool or nicely designed. So it was such a treat to stay at BOLD because everything about it was super cool! Just walking through the lobby coloured me impressed. I loved the little touches, the modern minimalist design and the feeling that we were in a thoughtful and hip space.
Plus, it wasn’t outrageously expensive! We paid $85 CAD for a night (but did have to pay extra for parking, a pet fee and breakfast). But I’d still highly recommend this hotel! And it’s an easy walk to the S or U Bahn and a quick ride to downtown Munich. If you want to be even closer to town, and don’t mind spending a bit more, there’s also a BOLD hotel in the centre of Munich.
Food recommendations: We didn’t do a ton of eating in Munich, so I don’t think I have any recommendations for you here. The Italian place where we had dinner was just okay. Colin did pick us up burgers for lunch from HANS IM GLÜCK, a burger chain in Germany, and those are always tasty! And I still recommend the breakfast place we found in June in Munich, Hungriges Herz.
Highlight: The hotel! I loved staying at BOLD Hotel.
Lowlight: Not spending enough time in Munich. I would have loved one more night with enough time to explore other markets (and another night at that hotel).
Pit stop: Ingolstadt
Drive time: 1 hour from Munich
While the drive from Munich to Nuremberg isn’t really long enough to need a pit stop, we decided to make one anyway. One of the best parts of our European Christmas Market road trip was having the freedom to pull off the road whenever we wanted to discover something new.
And I’m really glad we decided to do that in Ingolstadt, a small town halfway between Munich and Nuremberg. This town is pretty cute, with a nice pedestrian area. And they have their own little Christmas Market, which we didn’t know about! If we were to do our road trip again, I would try to choose more small town stops. I love the small town Christmas Markets because they’re rarely crowded, super unique and charming, and a manageable size.
I actually wish we had spent more time in Ingolstadt to properly browse their Christmas Market, try out their ice rink, grab a warm drink, and do a quick shopping spree at Primark (how this tiny town has a Primark and Prague still doesn’t is beyond me).
Stop 5: Nuremberg
Drive time: 1 hour from Ingolstadt (or 2 hours from Munich)
The final official stop on our European Christmas Market road trip was Nuremberg – home to the largest Christmas Market in the world! What better place to end our road trip? As far as I know, Nuremberg has just the one huge Christmas Market, so it worked out fine for us to be there for only one night. After checking into our hotel, we headed out to enjoy the giant market at night.
Of course, being the biggest market and prime time (the markets are busier at night), it was understandably crowded. But it still didn’t feel as crowded as Vienna (we learned our lesson and left Ellie back at the hotel this time). It was fun to walk up and down the streets of stalls and wander along the periphery. There were tons of people out shopping but also lots of groups of people just standing around and sipping on mulled wine. I really liked this hang-out atmosphere – it made the market feel a lot more friendly and local!
We didn’t try to get to every stall, but we did our best and picked up a final gnome for our collection – we had bought a gnome in Vienna and, since they seem to be a thing here, had purchased a gnome at every market afterwards. Once we got our gnome, and Colin got his Nuremberg sausages, we headed to Le Bar, an awesome Indian restaurant, for dinner. Amazing butter chicken!
Where we stayed: In Nuremberg, we stayed at NH Collection Nürnberg City. I would also highly recommend this hotel! It’s right next to the train station, so perfect if you’re taking the train. And it’s only a 10-15 minute walk from the heart of the Christmas Market. It’s very modern, spacious, clean and nicely designed. Parking is a little steep, at 18 euro, but if you’re taking the train, that’s not a problem!
Food recommendations: Colin would tell you to get the Nuremberg Sausages. And we would both tell you to go to Le Bar for a super cool vibe and very delicious Indian food.
Highlight: I really liked the atmosphere at this market. It was huge and there were a ton of people but it still felt friendly, small town-y and festive!
Lowlight: I can’t think of any big lowlight for our time in Nuremberg. I guess the steep price for parking (18 euro) and breakfast (22 euro, so we decided against it) at our hotel kind of sucked.
Returning to Prague? It’s a 3 hour drive from Nuremberg or you can break it up and do a pit stop in Plzeň (2 hours from Nuremberg and 1 hour to Prague), home of the Pilsen brewery!
Tips for your European Christmas Market Road Trip
If you’re planning your own European Christmas Market road trip, here are my top tips:
Before you go:
- Check hotel fees. This goes for any kind of trip, but things like parking fees, pet fees and breakfast can add up quickly. Make sure your “great deal hotel” isn’t actually going to cost you double once all the extra fees are added in.
- You’ll also want to check the location of your hotel in relation to the Christmas Markets. Ideally, you want to be able to park your car at the hotel and then just walk to the markets or take an easy transit route.
- If you’re driving, it doesn’t hurt to check gas prices ahead of time. We learned that Austria and the Czech Republic have cheaper gas prices than Germany, so we strategically filled up before and after entering Germany.
- Download music or podcasts for the drive. We forgot to do this before leaving so the first two hours of our drive to Brno were spent furiously trying to find a station that played any English song we could stand, before inevitably losing the station to static as we drove farther from Prague. In Brno, we downloaded some music and podcasts, making the rest of the drive much more enjoyable. We actually found some cool new podcasts we could listen to together, which was really fun!
- As you’re planning your trip, figure out where the markets are exactly. We didn’t do much research on this ahead of time but were pleasantly surprised to find in places like Vienna, that many markets are within walking distance of each other.
- Stay a couple of nights. On this trip, we only stayed 1-2 nights in each stop. This was okay, as we had been to all of these places before. But it still felt a bit rushed – especially when we had to factor in work time, Ellie’s walks, etc. So I’d say you definitely want at least two nights in each spot to fully enjoy yourself – and even more time if you want to do other sightseeing outside of the markets.
- Plan to visit smaller Christmas Markets too. I really loved the market we stumbled upon in Ingolstadt and wish we had put more small towns on our itinerary. These markets are often smaller, more unique and less crowded. Give them a try!
While you’re there:
- Cash is king! You’ll definitely want to have cash with you when hitting up the Christmas Markets as not very many stalls will take card. But do be careful, as these crowded and large areas are perfect for pick-pocketing. Nothing zaps the Christmas spirit faster than losing your wallet!
- Don’t bring your dog! I’m a huge fan of travelling with a dog, but if you’re headed to a big Christmas Market at peak time, please leave your dog back at the hotel. It’s super stressful, for you and your pup, and takes away from the experience. I think I would’ve enjoyed Vienna a lot more if we hadn’t brought Ellie out to the markets.
- Warning: Grocery stores are not open on Sundays in Austria and Germany! You might be able to find one (pro tip: check the train station), but most will be closed. So if you’re planning to grab breakfast supplies or road trip snacks, plan ahead. And even if it’s not Sunday, check opening hours because you might find the stores near you close super early too.
- Another thing to think about on your European Christmas Market road trip is when you want to see the markets – day or night? During the day, the markets will be less crowded and you’ll be able to see more. But at night, they light up and the festive mood is in full swing. I like both, so would recommend mixing it up along your trip.
- With all the gluhwein they’re serving, Christmas Markets know better than to leave you stranded without a bathroom. Surprisingly, the bathrooms we went to at the markets were all very clean. Larger markets had proper bathroom stations, not just porta potties. Be sure to carry change with you (usually $0.50 euro) as most public bathrooms are pay-to-use.
- Food options at Christmas Markets along this route can be a little bit limited, especially if you don’t enjoy the local fare. Germany seemed to have more options than Austria, but it still wasn’t extensive. If you’re not into sausages, sandwiches, pretzels or other bread/meat combos, prepare to have your meals outside of the markets.
Sick of Christmas Markets?
Sorry, Santa! But yes, it happens to even the most festively-inclined of us. Believe me, I love Christmas. I start listening to Christmas music on November 1st and my playlist is 500+ songs strong. But even I was starting to get a little sick of the Christmas Markets by the end and they began to blend together a little in my mind. I was especially getting sick of big crowds, the same food, and a lot of the same or very similar products.
Essentially, Christmas Markets are just outdoor malls and food courts. If you can’t picture yourself shopping for hours, you won’t want to spend hours at a Christmas Market. Yes, some of them do have entertainment or you could spend your time sipping on gluhwein with friends. And if you have a ton of money to drop on beautiful, handmade products, I can see spending all day at a market. But it’s also okay if you just spend 20 minutes window shopping and then need to call it a night. Grab your photo for Instagram and move on, guilt-free!
In order to prevent Christmas Market burn out, I think it helps to spend more time in each place. If you’re in a city for 2-3 nights, there’s no pressure to do Christmas Markets the whole time. Schedule some non-festive activities and give yourself a break. You can also try visiting at different times of day: as soon as they open for crowd-free shopping or late at night to admire the lights.
It can also help to have a mission. Colin and I aren’t big shoppers – we don’t have the money or the patience. We also don’t really like gluhwein (sorry!) and I can’t stand a sausage or pretzel. So sometimes wandering the markets felt a little pointless. As much as I love admiring the decor, the handicrafts and the lights, it can get a little tiring. But it really helped when we gave ourselves a mission. After buying our first gnome ornament, we decided we’d buy a gnome at each stop. Wandering the stalls became a lot more fun and meaningful when we were on the look out for the perfect gnome!
More stops to add to your European Christmas Market Road Trip
Not suffering from Christmas Market burn out? Looking for MORE European Christmas Markets to discover? Fa la la la la straight on over to one of these other awesome Christmas Market cities, as suggested by my awesome #traveltribe on Twitter!
- For UK travel: Visit London at Christmas. Check out Manchester Christmas Markets and more Manchester Christmas Market tips. What about Bury St. Edmunds? Or the small town of Lincoln? And find out even more about UK Christmas Markets.
- Christmas in Krakow, anyone? What about Riga, Latvia? We loved our time in Budapest and would love to visit the Budapest Christmas Markets.
- For more travel in Germany: What about Berlin? Frankfurt would be a cool stop. I’m so sad we didn’t stop in Bamberg on this trip! Hamburg Christmas Markets look awesome – especially Hamburg’s R rated market! And, of course, visit the famous Cologne Christmas Markets – more tips in this Cologne Christmas Market guide. Don’t forget about Aachen!
- Headed to BeNeLux? Check out Luxembourg at Christmas, pop over to Brussels or see Christmas Markets in Antwerp.
- You could also head south for Christmas in Italy, or visit Colmar, one of France’s famous Christmas towns.
Phew! And that’s 5000+ words on our awesome European Christmas Market road trip through the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. Have you ever done a Christmas Market road trip? Which market is your favourite?
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