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- European Christmas markets with kids
- What works for kids at European Christmas markets?
- Eat, drink and be merry
- Amusement parks and Christmas decorations
- It's cold outside
- What doesn't work for kids at European Christmas markets?
- How do you keep kids from asking to buy everything?
- The best Christmas markets in Europe
- A magical Christmas stay in Geneva
From Prague to Edinburgh, Alsace to Manchester, Sweden to Spain, the Christmas market is a hallmark of the holiday season in Europe. The old cities take on a festive glow, with wooden market stalls selling handmade gifts, fairy lights strung in trees, the scents of gingerbread and glühwein (hot, spiced wine), and the overall feel of an Old World Christmas. Here’s how to enjoy a European Christmas market with kids.
European Christmas markets with kids
Christmas markets are most often set up in the old town squares of major cities or on lake or river fronts. They open up around the end of November-beginning of December, and usually run until just after the New Year, though some close right before Christmas.
Some US cities mimic the feel of European Christmas markets. In Chicago, it’s the Christkindlmarket.
What works for kids at European Christmas markets?
I recently took my family on a tour of Christmas markets in Switzerland. We visited the Christmas markets in Geneva and Montreux, several in Bern and Zurich, plus two markets in Milan, Italy.
After experiencing them firsthand with my family, I can say that for kids and adults alike, Europe’s Christmas markets are great places to experience a winter wonderland ambiance and revel in the fairy tale setting and the magic and joy of Christmas.
I also learned a few things about how to visit these markets the right way. Here are my takes:
Eat, drink and be merry
Christmas markets are dominated by stalls devoted mostly to eating, drinking, and shopping.
In Switzerland, there are fondue chalets, bars selling glühwein (or vin chaud, if you’re in French-speaking Switzerland), crepes, waffles, and hot chocolate. Plus, depending on the city and market, a wide range of international foods.
This works well for families because each member can pick something different to eat, then sit together at picnic tables. In Geneva, I had South American arepas, my husband had Swiss rösti with sausage, and our daughter had fish and chips. Everyone was happy.
Amusement parks and Christmas decorations
During the day, the focus, apart from shopping for Christmas presents and handicrafts, is on amusement park-like activities that kids will appreciate.
In Montreux, there was a Ferris wheel. In Zurich, we found carousels, and a temporary ice skating rink. There’s even a “workshop” for Santa’s elves—a dedicated play area for little kids.
In Montreux, the market is set right on Lake Geneva. Once night falls, Santa flies over the lake in his sleigh several times each evening. Even though my daughter knew it wasn’t the “real” Santa, she still delighted in watching his sleigh and fake reindeer soar overhead.
It’s cold outside
Remember that European Christmas markets are outdoors—and they’re cold! While there are often firepits or heaters set up around sitting areas, you and your kids will still need to bundle up.
On the coldest days, we were all up with long underwear under our jeans, wool socks, good walking boots, base-layer long sleeve t-shirts, and a layer or two of fleece or heavy sweaters. Switzerland’s lakefront and riverside markets can get quite windy, so hats, gloves, and neckwarmers were in order! Get tips for German Christmas markets.
What doesn’t work for kids at European Christmas markets?
Christmas markets are at their most beautiful after dark, when Christmas trees and fairy lights switch on and the holiday glow really sets in. But if you have young kids, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t take them to the markets too late. Since there are so many market stalls for food and drinks, they get very crowded with adults who are out socializing for the evening. While the crowds are friendly and not at all rowdy, our daughter felt overwhelmed when we walked through the sea of people. All she could see were the backs of their coats. We learned to plan our visits for around 5 p.m. Since it’s dark by then in December, we could see the Christmas lights, shop, snack a little, have some hot chocolate (and a cup of that lovely glühwein), then spend the rest of the evening at a restaurant or walking around these gorgeous Swiss cities and enjoying the festive season.
- Visit markets during the week, if possible. Weekdays see far fewer crowds, as weekends are naturally more crowded with local families. In Milan on a Sunday, we waited in line about 20 minutes for the ice rink, and were really relieved that our daughter did not want to wait in the very long line to meet Santa.
How do you keep kids from asking to buy everything?
I was expecting my daughter to constantly ask us to buy her toys and other souvenirs. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of retail temptations for her. In Switzerland, the market stalls sell mainly artisan-quality handmade gifts, like candles, soaps, knitted goods, and jewelry. We walked away from most markets with a little keepsake—including a candle she hand-dipped herself in Bern.
And I’m happy to say that I saw absolutely no junk—no cheap plastic toys or stupid little gadgets. As family gifts, we each picked out a unique Christmas ornament from a beautiful store set up at one of the Zurich Christmas markets. They’ll be nice reminders of our trip for years to come.
The best Christmas markets in Europe
Christmas markets are a relatively new tradition in Switzerland. But in most of the rest of Europe, they’ve been running for centuries. Here are some of the best Christmas markets in Europe:
- Vienna Christmas Market in Vienna, Austria. The Old Viennese Christmas Market is one of nearly a dozen markets in the city. It started in the 1700s. Salzburg is another Austrian city famous for its Christmas markets.
- Strasbourg Christmas Market in France has been running since 1570 and typically features a 100-foot tall Christmas tree.
- Budapest Christmas Market in Hungary runs for nearly two months in central Vorosmarty Square and features daily concerts, as well as chalets selling Hungarian and world cuisines.
- Sibiu Christmas Market in Romania features a giant Ferris wheel and ice rink, plus a miniature train and a full-size nativity scene.
- Copenhagen Christmas Market in Denmark in the historic Tivoli Gardens glows with more than 1,000 Christmas trees and 70,000 ornaments, set amid snow-covered wooden chalets.
Other popular and historic Christmas markets are held in Berlin, Nuremberg and Dresden, Germany; Zagreb, Croatia; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Brussels, Belgium; Prague in the Czech Republic, and Tallinn, Estonia.
If you’re planning a wintertime trip to Europe, I strongly recommend you schedule it in late November or anytime in December, so that you and your family can experience the European Christmas market—a tradition that’s been around for centuries yet never gets old!
A magical Christmas stay in Geneva
If you want to treat your family (and yourself!) to a bit of over-the-top luxury and Christmas magic, book a Family Christmas Package at Geneva’s Beau-Rivage Hotel, a storied 5-star lodging overlooking Lake Geneva.
You’ll find a live Christmas tree in your deluxe room or suite. It comes complete with a box of lights and ornaments for you to decorate it together. Other package perks include:
- a chocolate buffet at the hotel bar
- complimentary (and super-fancy!) breakfast
- a gift voucher for a Geneva toy store.
In the hotel lobby, there’s a 30-foot Christmas tree decorated with 4,000 Swarovski ornaments.
At Beau-Rivage’s seasonal pop-up restaurant, you can eat fondue in a vintage ski gondola overlooking the lake and the famous Jet d’Eau fountain. We were treated to a two-story Lakeview Loft Suite and I have to say, it was a true pinch-me-I’m-dreaming experience.