Europe’s Christmas Markets Destination Winter Wonderland
There’s nothing quite like ushering in the holiday season than going on a multi-stop European yuletide adventure.
Travel in Wintertime
In December 2019, my wife and I spent nine nights in Romania and Poland. We looked forward to enjoying seasonal festivities, munching on holiday specialties, and strolling in streets filled with happy holiday-goers, all in an old world setting steeped in traditions and history.
Ok, ok. I know some of you must be thinking my wife and I are out of our minds. Traveling from the sunny confines of South Florida to the sub-freezing landscape of Eastern Europe does seem ludicrous. Believe me; you would not be the first person to ask why on Earth did we decide to travel to Eastern Europe in the heart of the winter?
Well, I always wanted to visit the Christmas markets, and if you share this interest, that means you need to travel in December. And, in spite of the frigid weather, we had a great time visiting the fabulous cities of Bucharest, Warsaw, and Krakow. We had such a good time that we returned this past December to visit Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, and Berlin! And we are already thinking about this year’s trip.
‘Tis the Season for Travel
I know it’s freezing there, and we could get bogged down by snow, but there’s a lot of advantages to traveling during the winter.
First, the train system in Europe is second to none. You can typically find the main train station in the heart of each city, and the trains tend to run on time. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to travel and, if you properly plan your itinerary, it’s usually no more than a few hours between cities.
Second, it’s off-season, and hotels are incredibly reasonable as in five-star hotels for as little as $100 a night! While I tend to prefer the more traditional, classic hotels (of course, when they are available at a reasonable price), I must take this moment to mention the outstanding boutique hotel, the Residence Agnes, in Prague. If you plan on visiting Prague in the near or distant future, do yourself a favor and check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.
Third, I enjoy sightseeing, and the best tour guides tend to be available during the winter, often at reasonable prices. I prefer to rely on several credible sources to discover the best guides in town. I usually make my picks usingTripAdvisor, the Rick Steves videos, as well as the top-rated travel agents recommended by Conde Nast, Travel & Leisure, or Wendy Perrin’s WOW List.
Fourth, except for the Christmas markets where the locals tend to congregate, it’s not all that crowded. And the Christmas markets were the highlight we were hoping for in every city we visited. Each destination seems to have two or three or more markets. You will enjoy delicious local foods, traditional hot wines, great crafts, and all sorts of local entertainment. Moreover, we had no problems getting into any of the historical sites or the best restaurants in town.
Fifth, you can get tickets to amazing concerts, operas, ballets in the most incredible theaters in the world for a fraction of the price you would pay at home. Witnessing a phenomenal performance of the Bucharest Symphony with featured guest piano virtuoso Daniel Ciobanu (to be featured in our March edition) at the classic Athenaeum Theater for $19 was an inspirational treat for us. Seeing the Nutcracker ballet on stage at the stunning National Theater in Bratislava for only $22 was a time to cherish. We attended the opera at the Estate Theatre, where we watched The Marriage of Figaro for just $50. It’s the only operational theatre in the world at which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart personally conducted performances of his operas.
Wanderlust of City Hopping
Here’s my reaction to the cities we were fortunate to visit on our recent trip:
Bucharest– Interestingly, many of the guidebooks suggest skipping Bucharest and heading straight to Transylvania. We enjoyed our time in Bucharest, walking around the city, comparing the many places we visited with photos when occupied by the Germans during World War II. Our guide suggested we spend the next two nights in the quaint town of Brasov. We took the advice and enjoyed great food, local beer, and the Christmas market. We also visited nearby Neo-Renaissance Peleș Castle and fortress Bran Castle, also known as Bram Stoker’s imaginary Dracula’s Castle.
Warsaw– Although we enjoyed our time in Warsaw, three nights was more than enough. We stayed at a well-appointed hotel, Mamaison Le Regina, enjoyed regional food, and walked from one corner of the city to the other. One year later, however, nothing, in particular, stands out (other than the incredible pierogis), so a return visit is unlikely.
Krakow– Visiting Krakow, we found a vibrant city dominated by a Christmas market that we visited time and again from our centrally-located, upscale Copernicus Hotel. The rest of the time, however, we took in the sights, which included Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Schindler’s Factory, and it left a lasting impression. I always felt as if I needed to visit these stark reminders of horrible times but, one year later, I am not so sure I would recommend this visit to others.
Budapest– We stayed three nights in this beautiful city, experiencing the traditional thermal baths, enjoying the old town, taking in the sights, and visiting the Christmas markets.
Bratislava– We stopped in Bratislava for a couple of nights as an alternative to the much larger Vienna, which is only an hour to the west. Again, we had a grand time here, spending most of our time in the old town, including our visit to the ballet, stopping by the castle, and enjoying the local food and drink.
Prague– This gem of a city is one of our favorite cities in the world. We stayed at our new all-time favorite boutique hotel, the Residence Agnes. Accompanied by our excellent guide, Nina Oliberiusova, she showed us every corner of this town, teaching us so much about their history. And to spend an evening at the Estate Theatre, it felt as if we turned the clocks back over 200 years.
Berlin– We were fortunate to have another fantastic guide,Holger Zimmer, teaching us about the history of this city, from the rise of the Nazis to the fall of the wall. Again, we enjoyed the food, drink, Christmas markets, and the unforgettable Berlin Philharmonic. Still, the history of the city was so dominating that it made a return visit unlikely.
It may be cold; it is cold; in fact, it gets bone-chilling cold, but so does New York and Boston. Despite that, I think it’s more than worth your while to explore the warm traditions of Europe in the wintertime!