Every winter, throughout Europe, the onyx skies become bejeweled with warm specs of light and the air is laced with spice and the earthy scents of wood burning on a fire.
As Christmas gets closer, destinations across the continent celebrate by filling their squares with markets, decking the streets with decorations and performing enchanting plays and shows.
Christmas is a joyous time, when people from all walks of life flock to cities to partake in these heartwarming rituals. While the festive season is all about goodwill, the teeming masses during the holidays can mean that Europe’s biggest cities—think London, Paris and Berlin—gets a little full-on.
For plenty of cheer but with fewer crowds, we’ve uncovered some smaller destinations that will get you into the festive spirit.
During Christmas, tourists head to Italy in droves and the city of Naples is particularly popular due to its live reenactments of the nativity. While Southern Italy has its charm, it can get really crowded. We prefer the festive haven of Bolzano in the north.
The capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano has had a turbulent history under Austrian, German and Italian rule, which becomes apparent as you explore this hillside town at the base of the Dolomites. One half of the city consists of stark buildings that stand like morbid monuments to Benito Mussolini. The other is filled with picturesque Gothic buildings that wouldn’t seem out of place in Bavaria.
During the last month of the year, it’s the Gothic quarter that comes alive with Italy’s biggest Christmas market. The city’s Piazza Walther boasts 80 wooden booths offering artisanal delicacies, homemade gifts and warming drinks—the hot apple juice is a great alternative to the ubiquitous glühwein. Surrounded by views of the snow-capped mountains, you’ll feel like you’re in your own personal snow dome.
If you’ve ever wanted to step into a scenic Christmas card, Colmar is your best bet. Situated in Alsace, the French city is famous for its chocolate-box buildings that date back to medieval times. These sugary-sweet abodes, with their rustic shutters and wooden beams, become even quainter in the months leading up to Christmas, as every inch is covered in twee decorations. The narrow streets are draped in strings of twinkling lights, and glowing stars dangle in mid-air above wooden chalets that serve a multitude of treats.
In Colmar, there’s not one but six Christmas markets. For the true French experience, head to the Gourmet Market in Place de la Cathédrale. Expect nine stalls all dedicated to Alsatian cuisine. Find the stand offering Bouchée à la Reine, a buttery pastry vol-en-vent, filled with a creamy mushroom sauce and topped with thin slices of beef.
Western Ireland’s main port, Galway, is a great place to get into the Christmas spirit. Why? The city’s patron saint is St. Nicholas of Myra—the infamous Saint Nick that inspired modern-day Santa Claus.
Galway’s Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas is dedicated to its namesake. During Advent, the church hosts several carol concerts. Lit by candlelight, the choir’s sweet harmonies drift throughout the medieval church. Calming and poignant, it’s a place for reflection during the busy Christmas period.
For a more secular tradition, take in a pantomime. Dating back to Victorian times, the yearly panto has brought joy to locals ever since. Based on fairy tales, they are a riotous affair, where actors—some of whom dress in drag—willingly lead the audience astray with silly songs and wicked plans. To catch this spectacle for yourself, get tickets for the annual show at the Town Hall Theatre, where the Renmore Pantomime Society has entertained Galwegians for more than 40 years.
For a slightly different spin on the usual Christmas tropes, spend the festive period in southern Spain. To make up for the absence of snow and icy chill, Malaga gets into the festive mood with an abundance of Christmas lights. It’s said that nearly 2 million LEDs twinkle throughout the city.
In the city center, Calle Larios boasts 22 illuminated archways. Forests will inspire this year’s display, so expect a jolly take on woodlands with leaf motifs and plenty of stars to brighten up the dark sky.
As you explore the city, you’ll find almost every inch is covered in dazzling arrangements. Wander through the almond trees at Alameda Principal or admire the towering Christmas trees in Malaga’s biggest plazas. The lights stay until King’s Day on January 6—the most significant day in Spain’s holiday celebrations—so you can enjoy them in the new year, too.
The southern Swedish region of Skåne fully embraces the spirit of Christmas, and nowhere more so than its capital, Malmö. Sweden has a range of unique traditions that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re visiting in early December, partake in the annual St. Lucia celebrations on December 13. To see the procession, head to Stortorget, Malmö’s main square. Once the sun has set, a group of boys and girls dressed in white and holding candles, parade through the streets, singing songs.
After being spellbound by St. Lucia, warm up with a traditional Julbord in the cellar vaults at Rådhuskällarens. Here you’ll find a Christmas table heaving under the weight of a Scandinavian smorgasbord. Served buffet style, help yourself to pickled herring, cold meats, warm dishes and desserts—for the true Swedish experience, make sure to try some gingerbread.